6:30am PT by Lesley Goldberg
MLB Experts Break Down the Races to Watch as Opening Day Arrives
The wait is over. After a historic 2016 World Series that saw the Chicago Cubs take home their first trophy after a 108-year drought, Major League Baseball is officially back as Opening Day has finally arrived.
To kick off the action, MLB Network is planning a whopping 15 straight hours of live Opening Day coverage, with in-game coverage from multiple ballparks as well as programming including daily morning show MLB Central.
Below, MLB Central co-hosts Lauren Shehadi, Matt Vasgersian and Mark DeRosa talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the hottest teams to watch, storylines that can't be missed and who is set to surprise as the 162-game season gets underway.
Which National League and American League teams will be the most exciting to watch this season?
Shehadi: The Cubs are the obvious answer [in the National League]. So young, dynamic and still hungry to create a dynasty, which started last year. In the American League, the Astros. They are the perfect mix of youth and experience. They added Brian McCann and Carlos Beltrán to bring a little veteran experience, and their infield is as good as it gets.
Vasgersian: The low-hanging fruit in the NL is the Cubs and Dodgers, so I'm going to hit you with the "under new management" Colorado Rockies. I love the Buddy Black hire and can't wait to see what he'll be able to accomplish with a more talented roster than he ever had to work with in San Diego. Yes, they took a big blow when they lost big-ticket free agent signee Ian Desmond for a month when he broke his hand, but Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado might be the best 3-4 combination in all of baseball. In the AL, I think the Astros will be a blast to watch this year. The additions of Brian McCann and Carlos Beltrán, two veteran studs with pop, will add to an already dynamic lineup. Jose Altuve is in for another league-leading hit total, Alex Bregman is on the verge of stardom, and I don't think any of us understand what an offensive force Yulieski Gurriel will be. And I haven't even mentioned one of the top young talents in all the land, 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa.
DeRosa: The New York Mets in the NL. If their pitching can stay healthy, they have an opportunity to do really unbelievable things, and Yoenis Cespedes is a lightning rod. He has the superstar swag and everyone gravitate toward him. Not everyone can play in New York, but he can. In the AL, the Houston Astros. Their lineup is so stacked with some of the game’s great young players, and now they’ve sprinkled in a Hall of Famer in Beltrán.
Which individual narrative are you most looking forward to covering this season?
Shehadi: We spoke with Bryce Harper in Spring Training and he is ready to prove to everyone that the teenager on the Sports Illustrated cover is good enough to lead his team to a World Series title. The Nationals are fun to watch, they have pitching and a new catcher, plus a manager that by every player account is as good of a player’s manager as you can get.
Vasgersian: Adrian Beltre will get to 3,000 hits sometime between late May and mid-June. Only 30 players have ever done it. Think about how hard it is to earn a 200-hit season. Now think about doing that for 15 seasons. It's impossible to wrap your head around that big a number.
DeRosa: The Cubs are so dynamic and young, but now they’re World Champs. Will they be able to keep their foot on the throttle? It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.
Which two teams will face-off in the World Series?
Vasgersian: I've got the A's and Brewers. I’ve never gotten a World Series prediction right and I don't plan on ending that anytime soon.
DeRosa: Dodgers-Blue Jays.
Who will win it all?
Shehadi: Cubs. I think they have a few in them over the next 10 years.
Vasgersian: The TV networks will be so hacked off, they may not even let 'em play.
DeRosa: Dodgers. They are so deep and they have one of the game’s great minor league systems, so whatever they need, they can get. They have the best pitcher on the planet [Clayton Kershaw], a top-five player in [Rookie of the Year shortstop] Corey Seager, and the best closer in the game [Kenley Jansen]. They’re tough to beat.
Which team will be the biggest surprise this season?
Shehadi: Colorado. Their offense is prolific and they have a few guys like Charlie Blackmon, who have had monster springs. Ian Desmond’s injury is a shame, but if they can piece together their pitching, Colorado will be good and certainly a fun watch.
Vasgersian: Toronto. The "experts" see them regressing after they lost Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland as a free agent. But I'd never bet against Josh Donaldson, José Bautista and Marcus Stroman. Three dudes with massive chips on their shoulders who will keep the Jays in it all year.
DeRosa: I’m excited to watch the Yankees. Will Gary Sánchez be a 40-home-run catcher? Will Greg Bird smash? There is a lot there that makes you want to watch.
Which player (as in not a rookie) will have a breakout season?
Shehadi: The Texas Rangers’ Rougned Odor is exciting on the field. He just signed an extension and is still 23 years old. He is destined for star status.
Vasgersian: Yankees first baseman Bird. He was on the verge of becoming an impact player before shoulder surgery cost him all of 2016. This year, he's good for 25 home runs and 90-100 RBI. Write it down, so when I call you at the end of the season to tell you, "I told you so," you won't be as upset.
DeRosa: Bird is a star for the Yankees. I think he makes the game from the offensive standpoint look so easy, and that’s hard to do.
Who will we be talking about in October for AL/NL Cy Young?
Shehadi: AL: Chris Archer (Tampa Bay Rays); NL: Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals).
Vasgersian: NL: Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers), Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants) or Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals); AL: Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays), Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians) or Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers).
DeRosa: AL: Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox); NL: Jacob deGrom (New York Mets).
What about MVP?
Shehadi: NL: Kris Bryant (Chicago Cubs); AL: Manny Machado (Baltimore Orioles).
Vasgersian: NL: Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies); AL: Manny Machado (Baltimore Orioles).
DeRosa: NL: Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals); AL: Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians).
And Rookie of the Year?
Shehadi: NL: Dansby Swanson (Atlanta Braves); AL: Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox).
Vasgersian: NL: Dansby Swanson (Atlanta Braves); AL: Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox).
DeRosa: NL: Hunter Renfroe (San Diego Padres); AL: Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox).
What can MLB do to court younger viewers?
Shehadi: It's all about social now. José Bautista’s epic bat flip in the 2015 postseason was made into a GIF and retweeted millions of times. You see it, it pumps you up and you want to watch Bautista. I'm all for making the game even more interactive on social media, and I think that will cater to the younger fans.
Vasgersian: Stop the game every 20 minutes for fans to take selfies with the players. Make games available only on Snapchat, shorten games to three innings, or first run wins followed by a live American Idol-style vote where fans can decide to change the logo of the losing team.
DeRosa: Continue to showcase the players’ personalities. The young players are all over social media, and fans — me included — love getting to know these guys on a personal level away from the field.
How important is it to shorten games? Is MLB taking the right measures to change the game for the modern era?
Shehadi: I'm old-fashioned and don't think the game should be changed to shave off five minutes. I understand MLB’s focus on pace of play, but if I'm paying good money to see my favorite team, I don't want the game to be over in two hours. It takes away from the experience.
Vasgersian: All kidding aside, it's not the length of games but the lack of "action" moments that baseball needs to address. Too many mound visits by managers, pitchers taking forever between pitches, batters constantly stepping out of the box — these are the moments that need to be cleaned up. Most of us are fine with a three- to three-and-a-half-hour event as long as there is action.
DeRosa: As a player, how long the games go are irrelevant to us. We’re grinding away and will stay all night for a win. But I understand commissioner Rob Manfred’s initiative to improve the pace of play. At times, I feel the replay system bogs us down, so I hope the continued tweaks that are being made to the system will help speed up the game even more.
What are you looking forward to on MLB Central this season?
Shehadi: We have the opportunity to digest the games played the night before and deliver them in a creative and captivating way through fun videos, game shows and breakdowns. I love everything about games 1 through 162, and we get three hours every morning to bring you the fun of the game through our eyes.
Vasgersian: I'm most looking forward to seeing if Lauren Shehadi finally punches DeRo or I, as a result of the sophomoric tomfoolery that’s made her think twice about her career choice. I think it may come by the All-Star break, and for the record, she could kick both of our asses. We all live together, you know, in a small flat on the Lower East Side with lots of West Elm throw pillows and a rescue pug (laughs).
DeRosa: Matt, Lauren and I have really become like a little family, and I’ve come to hold onto that. I hope to continue to let the world know that there are a lot of fun personalities in the game.
Did you watch Fox’s Pitch? If so, what did you think about it?
Shehadi: I unfortunately did not get to see it.
Vasgersian: Loved it because I was in it and gave a brilliant performance.
DeRosa: After having Mark Consuelos on MLB Central, I started to tune in and really enjoyed it.