One hundred and forty-five days since Kyle Tucker closed his mitt on a fly ball off the bat of Nick Castellanos to seal the Houston Astros’ second world championship, baseball is back.
It’s been an off-season of astronomical free agent spending, major rule changes, a player that signed $800million worth of contracts but only got to keep a quarter of it, and a breakout World Baseball Classic that might have provided the most anticipated at-bat in the sport’s history. And now it’s time for the 2023 season.
For the first time since 1968, all 30 teams will play today on Opening Day, with the lines freshly painted, hot dog stands stocked and millions of fans ready for six months straight of non-stop action.
A lot has changed in those 145 days since last season’s World Series ended, and here DailyMail.com dives into the 10 biggest talking points ahead of tomorrow’s grand opening…
The Houston Astros are looking to go back-to-back and might be very difficult to stop
1. Out with the old rulebook
Restaurants close to MLB ballparks rejoice, for now there is finally time to make your dinner reservation after a game. Thanks to the pitch clock, the most drastic of the changes brought in for this season, game times have plummeted in Spring Training to around two hours, 38 minutes – 23 minutes faster than last year.
The new rules mandate 30 seconds between batters and 15 between pitches, which has not gone down well with pitchers – Mets ace Max Scherzer is already calling for it to be scrapped – but has been a revelation for the gameday experience.
MLB hopes it will arrest the decline in overall attendance figures and keep the game popular among the younger generation. Also introduced this year is a balanced schedule, where each team will play at least one series against every other team across both leagues.
That means every fanbase can witness Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts in the flesh every year and be wowed by their other-worldly ability.
Then there’s more in-game tweaks, such as banning the shift in the hope of more hits, plus larger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts in the hope of more stolen bases.
Will all of the changes be welcomed? Almost certainly not. Will they improve the sport? The early signs are very encouraging.
The addition of the pitch clock will be a huge change to the sport, starting on Opening Day
2. Will Ohtani get $500m?
It’s hard to know how the Angels pitcher/designated hitter/unicorn could be any bigger of a star, but at the World Baseball Classic he went to another level.
For the final out in the championship game against the US to secure Japan’s third title and WBC MVP honors, he struck out his Angels team-mate Mike Trout – perhaps the only other player with a legitimate claim to being the best in the world – on a filthy slider.
Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto said the at-bat was ‘like Manga’, and now the big question, with Ohtani a free agent after this season, is how to pay him like a superhero.
All of Ohtani’s public statements point to him giving up on the Angels as they step on every rake left in the yard year after year to somehow deprive the world of Trout and Ohtani in the postseason.
And with this two-players-in-one global megastar – Ohtani gained a million Instagram followers in just 10 days at the WBC – on the market soon, the sport’s behemoths are circling.
Trout’s 12-year, $426.5m deal in 2019 is the current MLB record but Ohtani is almost sure to blow past $500m. Only a few teams – the Mets, Yankees and Dodgers – can realistically afford him, but when there’s a Manga character available, which teams are going to want to stay realistic?
All eyes are on Shohei Ohtani as he enters the final year of his contract with the LA Angels
3. Can anyone stop an Astros repeat?
The Astros have been the American League’s dominant force since completing their controversial rebuild midway through the 2010s, reaching the last six AL Championship Series, winning four pennants and two World Series.
This year it’s more of the same, despite losing No. 1 starter Justin Verlander in free agency to the Mets.
Their never-ending pipeline of starting pitching means Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier can fill the void as two homegrown talents establishing themselves among the game’s elite, and they have upgraded at first base too, with 2020 AL MVP Jose Abreu replacing the departed Yuli Gurriel.
Alongside Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, reigning World Series MVP Jeremy Pena and Tucker, Abreu will provide enough thump to get the Astros another 100-win season.
The outfield might be a little light on depth, but it’s hard to look past Houston becoming the first champions to retain their title since the Yankees’ three-peat in 1998-2000. But if they slip up…
The Astros lost starter Justin Verlander but have a wealth of talent coming through the ranks
4. …is Aaron Judge’s return enough to get the Yankees over the hump?
No team needed a player more this off-season than the Yankees needed to bring back Judge, the new AL single-season home run record holder who also became the holder of a new $360m, nine-year deal and the captaincy of the only franchise he ever really wanted to play for.
The problem is, even in Judge’s historic 2022 season, the Yankees were swept by the Astros in the ALCS, making it four times in eight years that New York’s season has been ended by Houston.
Signing Carlos Rodon as a No2 starter behind Gerrit Cole was a strong move, as was bringing back Anthony Rizzo.
But to get past their nemesis and end their 14-year World Series drought, the Yankees will be relying heavily on huge seasons from the often-injured Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge – or a storming rookie year from shortstop Anthony Volpe.
Aaron Judge’s contract extension was a huge boost for the Yankees ahead of the 2023 season
5. Will Carlos Correa’s leg hold up?
Correa travelled around a lot of places this winter for a man with – if you’re willing to believe certain medical reports – a supposedly debilitating leg injury.
The two-time All-Star was probably the best all-round player in this year’s stellar class of free-agent shortstops, but that all came crashing down shortly after signing a 13-year, $350m deal with the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants took a hard look at the metal plate that was put in one of his ankles after a 2014 injury, and got cold feet. A day later, Steve Cohen and the Mets swooped in with a reduced, but still eye-watering, $315m deal over 12 years… and then in the physical saw for themselves what had got the Giants so cautious.
It was left to the Minnesota Twins, who Correa had spent the 2022 season with, to pick up the All-Star pieces, and the 28-year-old ended up with $200m over six years, $150m left than his original guarantee.
If his ankle and his talent hold up, Correa still stands to get close to his original deal with the Giants across the rest of his career. But it’s a big if.
Carlos Correa was one of the stories of the summer as his leg injury hampered contract talks
6. Can the Padres finally put it all together?
The San Diego Padres took a huge leap in 2022, ‘slaying the dragon up the freeway’ in owner Peter Seidler’s words by taking down the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
Their model is clear – buy big and buy often – and they added to it this off-season with an 11-year, $280m deal for former Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and a $350m extension for third baseman Manny Machado.
That adds to a core of stars including Juan Soto, the returning Fernando Tatis Jnr, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Josh Hader that surpasses almost any other team in the league. But is there enough depth?
General manager AJ Preller is yet to quash the criticism of his roster-building ability, and a first NL West title since 2006 would be the perfect way to do it.
Xander Bogaerts (pictured playing in the WBC for the Netherlands) is a huge Padres addition
7. Which team is ready to break out?
Every year, a team figures it all out a year or two ahead of schedule. Last year, it was the Baltimore Orioles, who won 83 games a year after winning just 52, and they’re now on a list of candidates ready to become serious contenders, with uber-prospect Grayson Rodriguez on his way and a full season of Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman.
The Texas Rangers added a fleet of pitching – including two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob DeGrom – to supplant an improving lineup, while the Seattle Mariners want another taste of the postseason after ending their 20-year play-off drought last October, following a second straight 90-win season.
Then there’s the low-spending, high-IQ teams like the Cleveland Guardians and Arizona Diamondbacks, and two teams in the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs who spent big in the shortstop market to accelerate their road back to contention.
Jacob DeGrom’s arrival in Texas could give the Rangers a big boost to their improving lineup
8. Which rookies are ready for the Show?
The league is getting younger every year, and the latest raft of top prospects to reach the majors are ready to make their mark.
The top seven on MLB’s 100 Top Prospects list entering this season should play at least some of this season in the majors, with St Louis announcing that the easy power of outfielder Jordan Walker, 20, will be on their Opening Day roster on the same day that the Yankees did so with Volpe, 22.
Henderson, 21, and Rodriguez, 23, loom large in the Orioles’ plans, Francisco Alvarez, 21, should get plenty of time behind the plate for the Mets, and Arizona outfielder Corbin Carroll, 22, demonstrated in a brief call-up last September that he is the game’s fastest player.
Finally, watch out for Andrew Painter, the Phillies right-hander who at 19 already looks built for the big leagues, as the most hyped pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg.
Anthony Volpe is the breakout star from the Yankees’ farm and will start on Opening Day
9. Are the Dodgers done?
Well, not just yet. But for the first time in a decade the favorites to win the NL West are someone other than the team who have set the standard in the sport in a run of nine division titles in 10 years.
After playing at a staggering 99-win pace throughout that run, Trea Turner is gone, Justin Turner is gone, Cody Bellinger is gone, so are Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney, Craig Kimbrel and a host of others that add up to 14 wins lost in 2022 WAR.
Fortunately, the Dodgers have 111 victories to play with from last season, but about 111 questions over their lineup, too.
Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are annual MVP contenders, but Trayce Thompson and rookie James Outman are going to have to cover a lot of at-bats in the outfield, Miguel Vargas is no sure thing at second base, first-choice shortstop Gavin Lux is out for the season and Noah Syndergaard is listed as the fourth starter.
The Dodgers should still cruise to the play-offs, but for a club whose bare minimum expectation is winning it all, this is one of their weakest rosters in recent memory.
Mookie Betts is an annual MVP contender but the Dodgers find themselves in transition
10. How much was Tony La Russa holding back the White Sox?
La Russa did not need to accept White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s offer to end his seven-year retirement two years ago and take over on Chicago’s South Side.
The three-time World Series-winning coach was already in the Hall of Fame, and there was a general acceptance that the game had left him behind. But at 76 he was appointed skipper of a young, dynamic and not-very-La Russa clubhouse on the verge of going from a good team to a great one.
It ended badly. La Russa’s ‘highlights’ included admonishing his own player, Yermin Mercedes, for ‘breaking’ an unwritten rule, and then applauding the opposition for throwing at Mercedes in response (the player’s form then went off a cliff and he was soon released), not knowing the rules on ghost runners and, most importantly, taking a hugely talented roster to a mediocre 120-115 record since the 2021 All-Star break.
He stepped down last October, and while new manager Pedro Grifol has only been given Andrew Benintendi of note from the free-agent market, there is more than enough talent in this team to challenge.
With Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and more, the White Sox should be the AL Central favourites and could make a deep play-off run.
Pedro Grifol has a lot of work to do from the dugout of the Chicago White Sox this season
Division winners (AL): Astros, White Sox, Blue Jays
Wild cards (AL): Twins, Yankees, Rays
Division winners (NL): Dodgers, Cardinals, Braves
Wild cards (NL): Padres, Mets, Phillies
Championship Series: Astros over Blue Jays, Braves over Mets
World Series: Astros over Braves
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