Previewing MLB's Opening Day slate: What to watch for on Monday
A postseason rematch, aces in new places and plenty of absent faces highlight the 2016 edition of Opening Day Part 2. Monday's 11-game slate represents the start of the season for 20 of the 22 teams involved, with the Tropicana Dome-covered Blue Jays-Rays matchup the only rematch from Sunday's three-pack, and one of just three games whose first pitch will take place in the evening of that particular time zone. Whether you're heading to a ballpark, sneaking a peek via MLB.tv at work or staying at home on the couch trying to shake that nasty … uh, cold (sniffle, cough), here's a quick rundown of what to watch.
UPDATE (4/4): Today's scheduled first game, Yankees-Astros in New York, has been postponed due to rain; the game will be played tomorrow at 1:05 p.m. ET with the same starters, Dallas Keuchel for the Astros and Masahiro Tanaka for the Yankees.
With the postponement of the Astros-Yankees tilt, the first game of the day is now the 2:10 p.m. ET/1:10 CT contest at Miller Park between Madison Bumgarner and the Giants and Wily Peralta and the Brewers. Though San Francisco missed the postseason—as it's prone to do in odd-numbered years—Bumgarner otherwise turned in a near-carbon copy of his 2014 performance, going 18–9 with a 2.93 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine en route to 4.8 WAR. He’s making his third straight Opening Day start; unlike last year, he’ll have Hunter Pence (who began the year on the disabled list due to a left forearm fracture), Matt Duffy (who supplanted Casey McGehee as the regular third baseman by mid-May) and Denard Span (who signed as a free agent, bumping Angel Pagan to leftfield) behind him. Bumgarner may not be in for a long stint, however, as he's recovering from a bout of flu—one that apparently felled Buster Posey last week.
Peralta is making his first Opening Day start despite a dismal 2015 showing: 5–10 with a 4.72 ERA and 5.0 strikeouts per nine in a season marred by an oblique strain. He’ll front a drastically reworked Brewers lineup that includes new faces Chris Carter, Aaron Hill, Jonathan Villar and Keon Broxton, with Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett and Ryan Braun the only starters from last year’s opener.
Tripleheaders are better
The Astros-Yankees postponement scuttled ESPN’s plans for a scheduled quadrupleheader, but all three of the remaining games on ESPN and ESPN 2 feature one team that went to the playoffs last season. At 4:05 p.m. ET/3:05 CT, the Mariners square off against the Rangers in Texas, with Felix Hernandez making his ninth Opening Day start, tops among active pitchers and just two short of the wild-card-era lead shared by Sabathia and Randy Johnson. Hernandez is coming off a comparatively subpar season featuring a 3.53 ERA (his highest since 2007) and 4.4 WAR (his lowest since '11), but he has typically been brilliant on Opening Day, pitching to a 1.49 ERA in 60 1/3 innings over his previous eight turns, all of which have been quality starts. Opposite him is Cole Hamels, last year's stretch drive acquisition. He is making his first Opening Day start for the Rangers and just the third of his career, primarily a consequence of sharing the spotlight with teammates like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
The 7:05 p.m. ET/4:05 PT timeslot features the Dodgers facing the Padres at Petco Park. Clayton Kershaw will be making his sixth consecutive Opening Day start, the second-longest active streak behind King Felix's eight (he skipped 2008). Kershaw owns a 1.14 ERA in his previous five such turns, two of which have come against the Padres, including last year's six-inning, three-run effort and a flu-shortened three-inning stint back in 2012. The lefty (and my pick for the NL Cy Young) notched a league-high 301 strikeouts and posted a 2.13 ERA last year, including a 1.39 mark from May 26 onward. On the opposite side, Tyson Ross will be taking his first Opening Day turn; marquee free agent James Shields got the call last year. Ross was the lone Padres starter to post an ERA+ better than 100 last year—a 112 mark via his 3.26 ERA—but he also led the league in both walks (84) and wild pitches (14).
As for the 10:05 p.m. ET/7:05 PT game (which will air on ESPN2), that will be Angels-Cubs, with Mike Trout gunning for his third straight season with an Opening Day homer. That would make him one of four active players riding such a streak; the other three are Jimmy Rollins, Alex Rios and Alejandro De Aza, in case you were wondering whether that factoid heralds greatness. Unlike in 2014 and '15, Trout will have to do it against somebody besides King Felix. He'll face reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who closed the regular season on a remarkable run by allowing four earned runs and striking out 121 over his final 91 1/3 innings dating back to July 30. Arrieta, who will snap Jon Lester's streak of Opening Day starts at five, is making his second such start; back in 2012, he delivered seven shutout innings for the Orioles against the Twins. Garrett Richards, who posted a 3.65 ERA in a career-high 207 1/3 innings last year, will be making his first such start.
Benched in Boston
The 4:10 p.m. ET matchup between the Red Sox and Indians is the day's only one pitting former Cy Young winners (2012 AL winner David Price and '14 AL winner Corey Kluber) head to head, but overshadowing Boston's unveiling of their $217 million dollar southpaw is the controversy regarding their lineup shakeup. Pablo Sandoval, who belly flopped in the first year of his five-year, $95 million contract, has lost the starting third base job to Travis Shaw, and Rusney Castillo, who struggled and battled injuries in the first full season of his seven-year, $72.5 million deal, has lost the leftfield battle to Brock Holt. If anyone needed to know whether manager John Farrell was approaching 2016 with a renewed sense of urgency on the heels of back-to-back last-place finishes and a regime change, they've got a clear answer. New director of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who took over last August after being ousted in Detroit, encouraged Farrell to pick his lineup based on performance rather than contract size.
Sandoval and Castillo both drastically underperformed last year. Sandoval set across-the-board career worsts with a .245/.292/.366 (76 OPS+) line, 10 homers and -0.9 WAR. His -11 Defensive Runs Saved was one shy of his career worst as well, and after a 2-for-41 start to his season against lefties, he stopped switch-hitting. Though both he and Red Sox officials claimed that he maintained a strenuous workout regimen this past offseason, the photographic evidence suggested otherwise, and his conditioning quickly generated concerns, particularly as he struggled on defense and then battled back stiffness. Shaw, who hit .270/.327/.487 with 13 homers in 248 plate appearances as a 25-year-old rookie, has played more first base (442 games) than third (113 games) in his five professional seasons, but he outplayed the 29-year-old Sandoval this spring when given the chance at the hot corner. Said Farrell, "The more we exposed Travis to third base, the defense became really a deciding factor. In this case, you have to compare one on one. There’s overall better range and Pablo is well aware of this.” Via research from the Boston Globe's Alex Speier and MLB Trade Rumors, of the 108 players who signed deals of at least four years and $40 million since January 2010, none has lost his job as quickly as Sandoval.
As for the 28-year-old Castillo, he hit just .253/.288/.359 in 289 PA for the Red Sox, missing time in April due to a left shoulder injury and finishing in a funk; only through stellar defense (+15 DRS) did he finish above replacement level (0.8 WAR). While he showed off a shorter swing in camp so as to adjust to high-velocity pitching, the Sox have backed off plans to make him their regular leftfielder, instead choosing to platoon the righty-swinging Cuban defector with the lefty-swinging Holt, who made the AL All-Star team last year and hit .280/.349/.379, playing every defensive position but pitcher and catcher.
It remains to be seen whether these benchings are short-term moves designed to spur the previous job holders to redouble their efforts to improve or preludes to changes of address, albeit with considerable cash absorbed by the Sox. In the meantime, Boston still has reason to be excited to show off Price, who led the league with a 2.45 ERA in 220 1/3 innings for Detroit and Toronto and struck out 225, and who stands as the AL East's resident ace.
On the other side of the ledger is Kluber, who struggled early last year and battled injuries late but showed flashes of his previous award-winning form. He heads a rave-worthy rotation that also includes Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar (but not Trevor Bauer, in a surprise move). Right now, Cleveland's big question mark is how soon Michael Brantley will be ready to return from off-season right shoulder surgery, a concern that's particularly acute given the absence of the team's other two projected starting outfielders. Centerfielder Abraham Almonte will miss the first 80 games due to a positive PED test, and rightfielder Lonnie Chisenhall will start the year on the DL due to right forearm tightness. Manager Terry Francona will apparently figure out some combination of Rajai Davis, Collin Cowgill, Marlon Byrd, Tyler Naquin and utility man Jose Ramrez to fill out his lineup. No word on whether Kenny Lofton is returning phone calls.
Of the other six games that have gone unmentioned thus far, the marquee matchup in terms of aces is at 10:05 p.m. ET/7:05 PT, featuring Chris Sale and the White Sox against Sonny Gray and the Athletics. No word yet whether Drake LaRoche will be in the lineup, but all signs point to Sale shaving a "25" (the number worn by both Drake and father Adam LaRoche) into his hair somehow. This will be the third Opening Day start for both; Gray hasn't allowed a run in 14 innings over his previous two such starts, making him the only active player with zeroes across on his Opening Day ledger. Rollins, who will be the White Sox' starting shortstop, struggled with the Dodgers last year but is riding an even more impressive streak than his three straight with homers, having collected hits on 11 consecutive Opening Days dating back to 2005; he’s hit .362/.415/.723 in such games over that span.
The bigger headline as far as the games go, however, is the 9:40 p.m. ET/6:40 MT debut of Zack Greinke in Arizona against Jorge De La Rosa and the Rockies. Greinke, who shocked the baseball world by signing a six-year, $206.5 million deal, is coming off a remarkable season in which he posted a 1.66 ERA—the majors' lowest since Greg Maddux in 1995—and whiffed 200 in 222 2/3 innings for the Dodgers. In just about any other season, that would have been good enough for his second Cy Young. He’s made only one Opening Day start in his career, that back in 2010, when he was coming off his first award.
The excitement of Greinke’s debut, however, has been tempered by the loss of A.J. Pollock, who suffered a fracture in his right elbow on a headfirst slide on Friday, an injury that will require surgery and likely shelve him for months (he lost all of 2010 to a similar injury). The 28-year-old Pollock is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .315/.367/.498 with 20 homers, 39 steals and 7.4 WAR, the last of which ranked fourth in the NL. Rookie Socrates Brito will be the primary centerfielder until further notice, with converted infielder Chris Owings—who had one token appearance in the outfield during his professional career prior to this past weekend—likely to get starts against lefties, including De La Rosa.
Of the three other matchups that have gone unmentioned, Ervin Santana and the Twins take on Chris Tillman and the Orioles at 3:05 p.m. ET. Max Scherzer and the Nationals square off against Julio Teheran and the Braves in Turner Field's final Opening Day at 4:10 ET. At the same time, in the Rebuild-o-Rama pairing du jour, Jeremy Hellickson makes his Phillies debut against Raisel Iglesias and the Reds.
Wild-card game rematch: Astros at Yankees, 1:05 p.m. ET (now on Tuesday)
The first game of the season could stir up uncomfortable memories for the Yankees, as they'll face AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, who spun six scoreless innings against them on three days' rest in the AL wild-card game. That gave Houston its first postseason victory since the 2005 NLCS and brought an abrupt end to New York's first postseason appearance since '12. Keuchel, who led the league in WAR (7.2), innings (232) and ERA+ (162) and went 20–6 with a 2.48 ERA last season, was an easy call to get his second straight Opening Day start. Opposite number Masahiro Tanaka, who served up a pair of solo homers in that wild-card game, was much less so, with Yankees manager Joe Girardi waiting until last Thursday to make it official.
Though Tanaka spun four innings of one-run ball against the Phillies in a rain-shortened March 29 game to close out his spring on a high note, he did not exactly wow Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild in his previous work, which had been tentative as he focused on mechanics and protecting his surgically-repaired elbow. He had a bone spur removed last October, a separate issue from the small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament that he has pitched through. In an injury-marked season that also included a five-week absence due to wrist tendinitis and forearm tightness, Tanaka went 12–7 with a 3.51 ERA (112 ERA+). He struck out 8.1 per nine and walked just 1.6 per nine, but he had trouble keeping the ball in the park: His 1.75 homers per nine in Yankee Stadium was the second-highest mark of any major league starter with at least 81 innings at home, and his overall 1.46 per nine mark ranked fourth among AL pitchers with at least 150 innings (teammate CC Sabathia was third at 1.51).
As with the wild-card game, the matchup against the southpaw Keuchel presents problems for the lefty-heavy Yankees. Where Girardi sat Jacoby Ellsbury in that one—a final insult in a dismal season in which he hit just .257/.318/.345—in favor of the since-departed Chris Young, this time he’ll use off-season acquisition Aaron Hicks (.272/.360/.447 career against lefties) in place of Brett Gardner (.260/.347/.371 against lefties) in leftfield. Roster-wise, the Yankees have an additional situation worth watching: In addition to the 30-game domestic violence-related suspension of Aroldis Chapman, his replacement as closer, Andrew Miller, is pitching through a chip fracture in his right (glove hand) wrist, suffered via a comebacker last Wednesday. That same day, the Yankees also lost reliever Bryan Mitchell to a fractured sesamoid bone in his left foot as well as Grade 3 turf toe, both suffered while running to cover first base in the same game. Thus, a rotation with no 200-inning certainty—Sabathia led the staff last year with 167 1/3 innings—opens with a depleted bullpen.
On the Astros' side, designated hitter Evan Gattis and backup catcher Max Stassi are both recovering from minor surgeries (hernia and left hamate, respectively) and will start the year on the disabled list. On a happier note, this marks the first Opening Day for reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, this scribe's pick for AL MVP.
The lineup will also feature a surprise at first base in utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who hit .279/.317/.442 last season in playing five different positions; he made 43 appearances at first base but only 20 starts. He’ll share the job with Tyler White, a 25-year-old former 33rd-round pick who hit a combined .325/.442/.496 at Double and Triple A last year. He who earned the roster spot by beating out former prospect Jonathan Singleton as well as 2014 second-round pick A.J. Reed.