6:35am PT by Lesley Goldberg
Opening Day Arrives: MLB Experts on the Teams and Players to Watch in 2018
Baseball fans, rejoice: Following a long offseason, Opening Day 2018 has (finally) arrived.
And with the start of the season come several new narratives to watch. Among them: How many home runs will Giancarlo Stanton hit as part of the Yankees' latest "Murderers' Row" lineup? How will high-profile free-agents-to-be like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado fare as they await a financial windfall after the season? How will Japanese two-way player (and press magnet) Shohei Ohtani perform for the Los Angeles Angels? And who will be the standout players?
MLB Network will be all over Opening Day, with 17 consecutive hours of coverage starting Thursday at 6 a.m. PT, with highlights from all 30 teams and analysis from top experts (and former players). The coverage will come together every day on MLB Tonight, as hosts Greg Amsinger, Dan Plesac and Harold Reynolds run through the all the big moves and more.
To celebrate Opening Day, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Amsinger, Plesac and Reynolds to get their predictions for the stories to watch this season.
What are the biggest narratives to watch this season?
Amsinger: Let's begin with the New York Yankees. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez? Crazy. We haven't had this much hype surrounding the Yanks before the season starts since 2004 when they traded for A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez]. The other narrative is "walk-year superstars." What kind of seasons will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado put up in the final year of their contracts? Talk about incentive.
Plesac: Judge and Stanton. Everyone is expecting a Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris kind of year. You’re talking about two guys who are not only gigantic men, but prolific home-run hitters. Could they possibly hit 120 home runs between the two of them?
Reynolds: The game continues to evolve. We have philosophies colliding in launch angles, batting average and strikeouts. We have a Japanese pitcher [the Angels' Shohei Ohtani] who is going to hit and pitch on a more regular basis. Can the Astros repeat [as World Series champions]? There are so many great stories.
Which National League and American League team will be the most exciting to watch this season?
Amsinger: In the National League, I'm very interested in the Philadelphia Phillies. The signing of Jake Arrieta means Philly's front office thinks they're ready to win now. Is Rhys Hoskins a 50-homer guy? Are Nick Williams and JP Crawford budding stars? Will Carlos Santana switch leagues and be as productive? Is this the second-best team in the NL East behind the Nationals? Maybe.
In the American League, I can't wait to watch the Chicago White Sox and their high-end pitching and position player prospects. On the mound, I need to see this 106-mph fastball from right-hander Michael Kopech. At the plate, Eloy Jimenez is one of the game's top prospects, and when I was at the White Sox spring training camp, I could see why. Guy is a stud.
Plesac: In the NL, the New York Mets, because there are a lot of intriguing pitchers on the staff. I think they can be really good or really bad depending on how Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey bounce back. I want to see the Mets’ starters just for one month take every turn in the rotation to see how good they can be.
In the AL, the Chicago White Sox. A young up-and-coming team with a lot of power arms in the rotation. They are probably a couple years away from being a legit contender in the AL Central, but this is a team that is going to be fun to watch.
Reynolds: In the NL,Chicago Cubs. You can’t take your eyes off Javier Báez. Kris Bryant can do anything on the diamond. Kyle Schwarber is going to hit the scoreboard on some dingers. You have a Japanese superstar in Yu Darvish and, not to mention, Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in baseball. What makes a team exciting are the characters on a team, and the Cubs have the most characters.
In the AL, the Yankees. Batting practice is going to be more exciting than the games.
Which individual narrative are you most looking forward to covering this season?
Amsinger: Whether Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani can be a good pitcher and hitter in the big leagues. He's going to get the opportunity to do both ... for at least the first half of the season. What's important to remember here is the Angels need to win now. They only have a few more seasons of Mike Trout under contract, so the time to strike is now. They cannot afford a struggling Ohtani hitting in the middle of their batting order. That said, if his hitting distracts from his dominance on the mound, the Angels will need to make a decision. If Ohtani pulls this off and does both well, he will change the way we view two-way players going forward.
Plesac: Otani. Is he going to be a better pitcher or hitter? He’s coming to MLB so highly touted that it’s going to be interested to see what type of player he is.
Reynolds: Bryce Harper is going to be a free agent and I think he’s going to have a really focused year, and that’s going to be a lot of fun for baseball fans.
Which two teams will face off in the World Series?
Amsinger: The Yankees will face the Washington Nationals in the World Series. The Nats have the most dominant starting rotation in the National League with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark.
Plesac: Cubs against the Astros.
Reynolds: Cubs vs. Astros.
Who will win it all?
Amsinger: The Washington Nationals will win the World Series. This is Bryce Harper's year ... we're all just living in it. Harper will prove to the world that he's ready to break the bank in the upcoming offseason as a free agent by leading the Nats pats the offensive juggernaut of the Yanks. It's a New York lineup that will finally meet its match when Strasburg and Mad Max dominate on the mound in the Fall Classic.
Plesac: The Cubs, who might have the best rotation in all of baseball. The Big Blue train is going to keep on rolling and there won’t be any hangover from 2016. They have the most complete roster in baseball right now. There’s a little concern about the back-end of their bullpen, but this is a rock-solid team.
Reynolds: The Astros are going to repeat. The addition of Gerrit Cole puts the best team in baseball over the top.
Which team will be the biggest surprise this season?
Amsinger:The Oakland Athletics will be the biggest surprise this season. I was at A's camp this spring and came away so impressed with their young core of players who will be in Oakland for years to come. Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are the cornerstones, throw in Stephen Piscotty, Kris Davis and Sean Manaea (who's going to have a breakout season on the mound) — and this team will have a .500 record this year. Book it!
Plesac: The Phillies.I don’t think they’ll contend for the division, but bringing in Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta will definitely help. This is a team that won 66 games last year and I think they’re going to win well above 66 this year. They’re not going to be a pushover this year.
Reynolds: The Baltimore Orioles. Their pitching staff is really good. This team is going to be the biggest surprise and the most compelling because of Manny Machado. What are you going to do? Are you going to hold on to him and make a run down the stretch or are you going to trade him and break everyone’s hearts?
Which player (as in not a rookie) will have a breakout season?
Amsinger: White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada. He's one of the most naturally talented players in the sport. He had a great spring training and most of his offensive damage was done batting leadoff. Expect him to hit there this season and put up these numbers: .292, 24 homers, 78 RBI and 45 stolen bases.
Plesac: Ian Happ from the Cubs. He gets overshadowed by Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He’s a really good player who has pop. He’s going to flourish in that lineup.
Reynolds: San Diego’s Manuel Margot. This kid can fly. Not many people know about him because he plays in San Diego at 1 a.m. on the East Coast, but this kid can be the real deal.
Who will win Cy Young Awards?
Amsinger Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals) will be the unanimous NL Cy Young after putting up these numbers: 23-4, 2.10 ERA, 302 K's. Luis Severino (Yankees) will be the unanimous AL Cy Young after putting up these numbers: 19-6, 2.36 ERA, 265 K's.
Plesac: Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) in the NL and Luis Severinoin the AL.
Reynolds: Max Scherzer (Nationals) in the NL and Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians)in the AL.
Amsinger: Bryce Harper after going .352, 41 HR, 112 RBI and Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees), with a line of .277, 64 HR, 139 RBI.
Plesac: Kris Bryant (Cubs) and Aaron Judge (Yankees).
Reynolds Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds) in the NL and Jose Altuve (Astros) in the AL.
What about Rookie of the Year?
Amsinger: Lewis Brinson, center fielder of the Miami Marlins, will be your NL Rookie of the Year. This is a big deal for Marlins fans; they'll need something to get excited about after the Derek Jeter-led rebuild. Brinson will show the sport why he's been so hyped for the past three years. Austin Hays, outfielder from the Baltimore Orioles will be your AL Rookie of the Year. This was tough, because Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox and AJ Puk of the A's will give Hays a run for his money — but Hays will play right away and he's such a Buck Showalter-type of player. He'll never come out of the lineup.
Plesac: Scott Kingery (Philadelphia Phillies) in the NL and Shohei Ohtani (Angels) in the AL.
Reynolds: Brinson in the NL and Gleyber Torres (Yankees) in the AL.
What major records will be broken this year?
Amsinger: Michael Kopech will break Aroldis Chapman's fastball record of 106 mph. The kid is focused on throwing 107 mph and breaking the record, and I think he'll do it when he gets called up this year.
Plesac: Greg Amsinger will set the record for the amount of times he asks for a close-up on MLB Tonight. We may cross the 250 mark this season. He sets the record every year.
Reynolds: I don’t know about records, but milestones from Albert Pujols should be mentioned. He’s going to cross the 3,000-hit mark and he’s got over 600 home runs. Only three players in baseball history have done that.
Will Stanton and Judge have more homers than Maris and Mantle hit combined in 1961?
Amsinger: Mantle and Maris combined for a measly 115 home runs in 1961. Stanton will hit 64 and Judge will hit 57 bombs. This will be a walk in the park — if they both stay healthy.
Plesac: No. They’re going to hit a ton of eye-opening home runs, but Maris and Mantle will be safe.
Reynolds: No. It’s more difficult because the pitching matchups late in the game are so different.
Who will land Bryce Harper?
Amsinger: Harper will eventually sign a whopping 10-year, $385 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Reynolds: That story is still to be written. I’m really not sure.
Will Clayton Kershaw stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Amsinger: Kershaw will opt-out and sign a seven-year, $259 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
Plesac: Yes. I don’t think the Dodgers will ever let him wear another uniform.
Reynolds: No, I think he opts out.
What can MLB do to court younger viewers?
Amsinger: Continue to actively promote MLB Tonight! We constantly go live to all the games and for short snippets, so it’s perfect for the young person with a short-attention span. It's an addictive watch as we constantly show the exciting moments from that night’s games.
Plesac: Continue to strengthen and expand our youth programs. You fall in love with baseball when you play it as a young kid, so MLB’s “Play Ball” initiative and programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) will only help get more kids enjoying the game.
Reynolds: What excites kids is when they see the baseball in play. There are hitting philosophies out there that have cut down on putting the ball in play. We have to get back to putting the ball in play and not relying solely on the home run.
Regarding changes for pace of play, is MLB taking the right measures to change the game for the modern era?
Amsinger: Commissioner Rob Manfred understands that the game needs to reach new fans and viewers. While "old school" fans may complain, they're not going anywhere. We need to reach the casual fan, who is most likely to complain when a game reaches the three-hour mark.
Plesac: I go to a game and I’m not worried about how long it takes to complete the game. The beauty of the game is that there’s no clock to it. With that said, I don’t like all the mound visits, either, so I’m glad they’re cutting down the mound visits this year.
Reynolds: Yes. You can’t watch strikeouts, walks and home runs and think you have an exciting brand. Our philosophies to hitting have to change, and that’s what pace of play is all about.
What are you looking forward to on MLB Tonight this year?
Amsinger: It’s a party every night on the desk. What makes the show fun is that the former players, who are now analysts, are such great guys and we have such a good time on television together. I can’t wait to get started.
Plesac: I’m looking forward to the return of “DJ Dan” on the late-night hardball editions of MLB Tonight.
Reynolds: The creativity we can use on this show makes every night different and exciting. You never know what’s going to happen when you walk into the studio every night, and that excites me.