Pitchers and catchers have arrived in Florida and Arizona! Baseball is upon us!
This momentous occasion got me thinking ahead to the 2019 MLB season. Which players will be most fun to watch? Which teams will look different than the others? Which stories will be the goofiest to follow?
Here then are 10 baseball things I can't wait to watch this year:
10. Byron Buxton's breakout
I badly want this happen, and not just for the sake of alliteration. The first time I ever met Buxton, he was an ultra-babyfaced, ultra-skinny, ultra-toolsy, ultra-raw outfielder who also happened to be the number-one prospect in the game. Everyone knew he could fly, and everyone knew he could chase death any and every flying thing within a mile radius of him in center field.
The only question is when he might become a hitting star too. Buxton did rake at one point in 2017, posting identical OPS marks of .973 in July and August of that year. But two months weren't enough to mint Buxton as a successful big-league hitter; he remains too aggressive at the plate, with extra-base power that comes and goes. After an injury-plagued 2018 campaign that saw him play just 28 games in the big leagues, Buxton committed his offseason to putting on muscle, packing on 20 pounds in an effort to stay healthier.
No longer rail-thin or baby-faced and no longer a prospect, he's now 25 years old, the fastest player in the league, and a Gold Glover. If his bat ever truly arrives, watch out -- the balance of power in the AL Central could very well flip.
9. The Royals! Seriously!
On their way to 104 losses and a last-place finish in 2018, the Royals did at least do one thing well: They terrorized opposing pitchers on the basepaths. Whit Merrifield led the majors by swiping 45 bags, while young shortstop Adalberto Mondesi stole 32 in 75 games, a pace that would have netted 69 in a full 162-game season.
The Royals are going to be bad again this year...so why not get even faster? Joining KC this season is Billy Hamilton, the major-league leader in steals over the past five seasons with 262 of them. Add in recently acquired superutility man Chris Owings (double-digit steals in each of the past four seasons) and Terrance Gore (the most electrifying extreme specialist in baseball) and the Royals could trot out a track team that'll look a lot closer to the Whiteyball Cardinals than the exaggeratingly risk-averse, analytically-beholden teams of today.
To which we say: Hell yes.
8. The 20-second pitch clock
Sure, speeding up the pace of the game is a noble cause, and shaving five or more seconds off the dawdling between-pitch routines of the slowest pitchers in baseball should help along those lines.
But I'm in this for the comedy. The first pitcher to protest the new rule by constantly quick-pitching an inning's worth of hitters gets the grand prize of a Pascual Perez bobblehead.
7. A return to health for lots of injured guys
The following is merely a partial list of talented players who missed tons of time last season and/or played noticeably worse last season due to injuries who could be really good this year, health permitting.
- Miguel Cabrera
- Shohei Ohtani
- Yoenis Cespedes
- Josh Donaldson
- Jose Altuve
- Adam Wainwright
- Byron Buxton
- Miguel Sano
- Chris Sale
- Dustin Pedroia
- Carlos Martinez
- Carlos Rodon
- Yu Darvish
- Greg Bird
- Jharel Cotton
- Kevin Kiermaier
- Marcus Stroman
- Aaron Sanchez
- A.J. Pollock
- Jake Lamb
- Steven Souza
- Kris Bryant
- Justin Turner
- Daniel Murphy
- David Dahl
- Corey Seager
- Gregory Polanco
- Clayton Kershaw
- Noah Syndergaard
- Wil Myers
- Madison Bumgarner
..and if you're feeling really, really optimistic, Troy Tulowitzki. Hope springs eternal.
6. Oliver Drake
Set an all-time record by pitching for five major-league teams last season, a huge pain in the ass for the supernaturally good-natured right-hander. He's since been placed on waivers multiple times this offseason, and now sits on the roster of the Triple-A Durham Bulls, after no other team claimed him when the Rays made him available for a second time this winter. Here's hoping he gets another shot in the majors, and finally finds a place to hang his hat for a full season.
5. Mike Trout
We are watching Willie Mays in his prime.
Trout vs. Mays, annual wRC+, starting from first full season
Trout vs. Mays, annual WAR (Fangraphs), starting from first full season
OK, that's not quite fair. Through the first full seven seasons of each player's career, we can't really compare. Mike Trout has been considerably better than Willie Mays.
4. The Phillies actually want to win
At a time when even the most well-positioned contenders are making winning a secondary priority, let's appreciate the Phillies. While they haven't yet spent the kind of "stupid" money their owner promised, the Phils have been more aggressive than nearly every other team in upgrading their roster. Facing gaping holes at shortstop and right field (with the league's worst overall defense to boot) they traded for Jean Segura and tossed a three-year contract at Andrew McCutchen. Bullpen needs some upgrades? Bring on David Robertson, Juan Nicasio, and Jose Alvarez. Already in decent shape at catcher? Go one better, and nab the best all-around backstop in the game in J.T. Realmuto.
Heady stuff for a team coming a sub-.500 season. But to win what looks like a murderer's row of a division, they should make good on their first stated goal of this offseason: reel in either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. If that happens, the Phils could be set as pennant contenders for years to come.
3. Harper and Machado signing at 11:59 pm on Aug. 31
Whether it's Philly or anyone else, you know neither Scott Boras nor Dan Lozano wants to be the one to blink first. By the time these two sign for way, way less than anyone expected a year ago, they'll be scratch golfers, and MLB will be one step closer to a labor impasse.
2. The year-two guys
Speaking of that whiz-bang NL East...get ready for an even bigger dose of rising stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto. The supernaturally precocious outfielders both hit the ground running in their rookie seasons, with Acuna pushing the Braves to a shocking division title and Soto keeping the Nats afloat amid struggles elsewhere on the roster. Acuna could get even more shine this season with the Braves pondering moving him to the cleanup spot. Meanwhile, Soto's incredible plate discipline could translate not only into more walks, but into more favorable hitter's counts that lead to annihilated baseballs.
Yes, regression is a very real phenomenon in baseball, which is why we often see the so-called sophomore jinx. With these two, bet against that happening.
1. VLAD JR!!!!
The most talented hitting prospect on Earth...the Montreal-born son of one of the most electrifying players of all time...the wunderkind who generated the biggest highlight of the Blue Jays' 2018 season in an exhibition game at his dad's old stomping grounds…the breath of fresh air for a franchise that got old and dull in a hurry...the swaggering, heavens-pointing, number 27-donning star that the baseball world can't wait to see...is finally coming to the Show (though almost certainly not on Opening Day).
With every other team and player I cover for as long as I do this for a living, professional journalistic standards will apply. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr., get ready for 20 years of completely flouting any pretense of objectivity or decorum.
VLAAAAAA-DI-MIR! VLAAAAAA-DI-MIR! VLAAAAAAAAAAA-DI-MIIIIIIIIIR!!!!! BONSOIR, ELLE EST PARTIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!