By Casey Berkovitz
The beginning of baseball season is a wonderful time, when people tune into every game, nobody’s injured, and every team’s fans think they’ll win the division (well, except the Padres). Soon, though, the games will start to blend together and players will start slumping. Fortunately, there are compelling reasons to stay up to speed with every division in the league even after the new-season smell wears off. Happy Opening Day!
AL East: The New Faces of the Old Rivalry
The past few years have witnessed a changing of the guard in the AL East, with Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and others of their generation of players – the faces of baseball for a decade – retiring. Dustin Pedroia is still around, but this is the year that many fans will get to know the future stars of Sunday Night Baseball. In Boston, the quartet of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi (a good bet for AL Rookie of the Year), and Jackie Bradley, Jr. are good for a highlight play every few days. In New York, the Yankees are hoping they can expect the same from Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez. While these players are all still developing, the potential is obvious, and we should appreciate them before the seemingly league-mandated 43 national broadcasts of a Yankees-Red Sox series make us sick of these stars in the making.
AL Central: The Runner-Up Got Better
After coming one win away from winning the World Series last year, the Cleveland baseball team went out and acquired Edwin Encarnacion (and his parrot) during the offseason, adding another weapon to complement their exciting young middle-infield pair, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. They’ll also have a full season of their versatile shutdown reliever, Andrew Miller, and will hope for better health from starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. They’ll try to emulate their division rivals in Kansas City, who went from World Series losers in 2014 to winners in 2015, and it’ll be worth watching to see if they can match their pennant-winning performance and take the next step to win it all.
AL West: The Most Fun in Baseball
The Rangers outperformed expectations by basically every metric last year, and fans shouldn’t expect them to do as well this year. But regardless of their record, the Texas infield – specifically Rougned Odor, Elvis Andrus, and Adrian Beltre – will be a source of joy during the season. On the left side of the infield, Beltre and Andrus can’t seem to get along when they catch fly balls, and Odor brings the kind of joy and attitude to second base that baseball could use more of – though Jose Bautista might disagree. Though Beltre will start the season on the DL, his replacement is a large man named Joey Gallo who can hit baseballs like this one a very, very long way. These are the kind of players who remind us how fun baseball can be. Just don’t touch Adrian’s head.
NL East: The Electric Rotation
Fans of even the most compelling teams in baseball can fall into the doldrums during the long, slow 162-game season. It’s easy to let baseball blend into the hum of summer, and tune in for the games when an ace takes the mound once or twice a week. Fans of the Mets don’t need to worry about that, since they have an ace taking the mound nearly every game. Noah Syndergaard, nicknamed after the Norse god of thunder, brings his 100-MPH fastball and 95-MPH slider every fifth game, followed by Jacob deGrom, a rehabbed and (hopefully) healthy Matt Harvey, rookie Robert Gsellman, and Zack Wheeler. He’s starting the season on the DL, but when he returns, Seth Lugo and his spin rate will have to compete for a rotation spot despite dominating some of the best players in the league during the World Baseball Classic in March. We’re blessed with the opportunity to watch one of these standout pitchers almost any time the Mets play.
NL Central: Javy Baez, the Human Highlight Reel
Picking the most exciting player on the Cubs is nearly impossible. Kris Bryant is the reigning National League MVP and is, quite literally, a model; Anthony Rizzo looks like a thumb, but has quietly been one of the best sluggers in the league for awhile; Addison Russell has gotten lost in the young-shortstop hype wave around the league but has lived up to his top-prospect billing; Kyle Schwarber has even less neck than Rizzo does, but showed his knack for big moments by hitting .412 with a stolen base in the World Series after returning from a season-long injury. And while he may not ultimately be as productive as those players, Javier Baez will certainly be more exciting to watch this year. He swings out of his socks, but the real excitement is in the field, where everything from his defense to his tagging to his slides is replay-worthy.
NL West: The Christian Bethancourt Experiment
Most of the attention in this division will go to the Dodgers and Giants, and rightly so, but Antland has already covered them and the true test for both teams will come in September and October anyway. But at the other end of the division, the San Diego Padres are trying something that hasn’t been done – ever – in the modern MLB: Christian Bethancourt, the Panamanian 25 year old, will be on the roster as a catcher, outfielder, and relief pitcher. The last player who pitched more than 10 innings and played catcher in more than 10 games in the same season was named Sport McAllister, and did it in 1899. The Padres will not be good this year, but Bethancourt’s appearances – no matter what position they’re at – will at least be interesting.