What to watch for on Opening Day
For the next six months, there won’t be a day without real, meaningful baseball, save a short stretch in mid-July. Between now and the first week of October, there will be 2,430 baseball games spread over 183 days. However, it all starts with
one day two days and 15 games. Happy Opening Day, everyone. Let’s all celebrate together.
Sunday, April 5
Cardinals at Cubs, 8 p.m. ET
The 2015 season kicks off with one of the game’s best rivalries in one of its iconic stadiums. And who cares if Wrigley Field is still in the “yeah it isn’t quite done, but check out the huge video board!” stage? The Cubs’ slow and steady climb back into relevance, which accelerated this year with the additions of Jon Lester in the rotation and Joe Maddon in the dugout, has breathed life into this rivalry.
Lester will make his Cubs debut on Sunday night, going up against Adam Wainwright will be making his 28th career start against the Cubs—the most times he has taken the mound against a single team. The Cubs’ offense has a ceiling that is as breathtaking as the Sistene Chapel, but for now Theo Epstein’s own Michelangelo is still in its earliest phases. That may change when Kris Bryant joins the team, which should be in just a few weeks. Both these clubs have legitimate division title aspirations, but the Cardinals are still kings of the mountain until someone knocks them off.
GIF for this game: Soler with the most frozen of ropes.
Cardinals fun fact: Jason Heyward loves hitting at Wrigley Field. The new Cardinal is slashing .340/.419/.660 with four homers in 62 career plate appearances on Chicago’s North Side.
Cubs fun fact: Dexter Fowler was a huge addition for this team. Cubs leadoff hitters at a .303 OBP last year, which ranked 27th in the league, and they haven’t had a real one since enjoying a half season of Kenny Lofton in 2003, or maybe Juan Pierre in 2004. Fowler’s career OBP is .366.
Monday, April 6
Blue Jays at Yankees, 1 p.m. ET
The first game of the real Opening Day pits a couple of teams that have traded identities in the AL East over the last few years. Now it’s the Blue Jays that just might be the mashers of the division, while the Yankees appear set for another season right around the .500 mark.
Toronto took a huge hit when Marcus Stroman suffered a season-ending ACL tear during spring training. In his stead, Drew Hutchison will take the ball on Opening Day. Hutchison is a popular breakout candidate this year, as well, but he’ll have to do a better job attacking the zone and avoiding walks. He’s facing Masahiro Tanaka, who’s comeback from Tommy John surgery didn’t hit any speed bumps during spring training. If the Yankees are going to surprise this season, he’s going to have to at least approach his pre-injury performance level.
GIF for this game: I think Tanaka’s slider looks good, but let’s ask Travis d’Arnaud.
Blue Jays fun fact: Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson combined for 98 homers last year, and Donaldson did half his work in the O.co Coliseum, a notoriously bad park for hitters. This may be the best heart of any order in 2015.
Yankees fun fact: When Didi Gregorius takes the field Monday, he will be the first Opening Day shortstop for the Yankees not named Derek Jeter (and not due to injury) for the first time in 20 years. The last person to do it was Tony Fernandez in 1995.
Twins at Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET
These are two teams expected to be at opposite ends of the AL Central in 2015. While the Twins’ window could swing open in the next few seasons, the Tigers’ one is closing fast. The Indians and White Sox both gained ground this year, and the Tigers face their biggest threat to their reign atop the division in some time.
With Max Scherzer in Washington and Justin Verlander on the DL, David Price becomes the Tigers’ Opening Day starter. Their run of dominance in the division was built on pitching, but the rotation looks a whole lot different with Scherzer and Rick Porcello gone, and Verlander a shell of his former self, Price needs to be every bit the ace he was last year for this team to hold off the competition. He opposes Phil Hughes, who finally realized his potential last year, on Monday. Hughes is nearly as deft a strikeout artist as is Price. Combine that with early April weather in Detroit, and this one could be a pitcher’s duel.
GIF for this game: Byron Buxton is coming soon, Twins fans.
Twins fun fact: Brian Dozier was the only second baseman to lead his team in homers last season. Unless Oswaldo Arcia can keep up, he’ll likely do it again this year.
Tigers fun fact: The last time someone other than Verlander started for the Tigers on Opening Day was 2007. The pitcher for the Tigers that opener? Jeremy Bonderman.
Rockies at Brewers, 2:10 p.m. ET
If Kyle Kendrick vs. Kyle Lohse doesn’t exactly get you revved up for Opening Day, don’t fret. You’re not alone. Luckily, there’s a lot off the mound to get excited about in this game. Nolan Arenado could take another step toward stardom this year, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun are both healthy and Carlos Gomez is one of the most exciting players in the majors. In reality, however, these are two teams in the National League that will need a whole lot to break their way to be in contention for a playoff spot this season.
Lohse has managed to remain an effective pitcher into his mid-30s, but no one has ever planned ahead to make sure they get tickets to see him start. Both of these guys have struggled with the long ball in the past, and there is some big-time pop in each dugout. You should expect to see some fireworks in this one.
GIF for this game: I hope Bernie’s in midseason form.
Rockies fun fact: If they stay healthy, there won’t be a better left side of the infield than Tulowitzki and Arenado. Tulo is one of the best players in baseball when he’s on the field, and Arenado looks like he’s part of the crop of the game’s next superstars.
Brewers fun fact: This is a make or break year for Braun. He’s had two injury-riddled down seasons in a row, and turns 32 in November. The Brewers may already be regretting his huge contract, and if he doesn’t regain a good chunk of his pre-2013 form, it will be an albatross around their neck through 2020.
Red Sox at Phillies, 3:05 p.m. ET
Two original American cities, two proud baseball franchises, two recent World Series champions, one team that may actually be good this year. The Red Sox could once again climb all the way back up the AL East standings, thanks to an already strong offense that added Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and will get a full year from Mookie Betts. The Phillies, on the other hand, could very well be the worst team in baseball. By late July, Eagles training camp may be better attended than Phillies games.
Clay Buchholz, who may actually be Boston's best starter this season, gets the ball for the visitors in this game. The Red Sox have assembled a rotation from spare parts, collecting a bunch of 3s and 4s, conducting an experiment in player anonymity that would make Bill Belichick proud. Cole Hamels could be the best player dealt at some point this year, and Boston could be a very willing trade partner.
GIF for this game: Mookie motorin’.
Red Sox fun fact: David Ortiz needs 34 homers to reach the magical 500 mark for his career. He’ll be nearly 40 years old when the season ends, and that would make him the fifth oldest player to hit his 500th homer if he gets there this year. The four to do it later in life were Ted Williams (41 years, 291 days), Eddie Murray (40 years, 191 days), Willie McCovey (40 years, 171 days) and Gary Sheffield (40 years, 143 days).
Phillies phun phact: Chase Utley has the exact same .285 career batting average as his manager, Ryne Sandberg. With Utley entering the twilight of his career, one more strong season could put him ahead of one of the best second basemen to ever play the game.
Orioles at Rays, 3:10 p.m. ET
The Orioles got little to nothing out of Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Matt Wieters last year, and somehow won 96 games and advanced to the ALCS. While the Orioles strive to repeat last year’s success, the Rays appear to be a team in transition. They went just 77-85 last season, traded David Price, have a new manager for the first time in 10 seasons, and a different regime in the front office.
This is the second game of the day to feature a pair of starting pitchers with the same first name. Chris Tillman had another steady year for Baltimore in 2014, going 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA, 4.01 FIP and 1.23 WHIP. But Tillman didn’t even really have any competition to be the team’s Opening Day starter, which should illustrate how hard it will be for the Orioles to repeat as AL East champs. Chris Archer, the talented young righty for the Rays, will oppose him. Archer has still yet to make the leap, but he took another step last year, compiling a 3.33 ERA, 3.39 FIP and 21.1-percent strikeout rate in 194 2/3 innings.
GIF for this game: Brad Boxberger throws hard.
Orioles fun fact: While the parts around Adam Jones have ebbed and flowed, he has been one of the most consistent players in the majors. He has hit at least .280 for five straight seasons, and belted at least 25 homers for four straight.
Rays fun fact: The trade of Ben Zobrist to the A’s, coupled with Joe Maddon’s departure for the Cubs, means that Evan Longoria the only member of the 2008 AL pennant-winning Rays still in Tampa. He was 22 years old that season. Now he’s the veteran, charged with bringing along the next wave of players, like Archer, Steven Souza and Alex Cobb.
Mets at Nationals, 4 p.m. ET
These are two teams with high hopes for 2015, but completely different hopes. The Mets haven’t been above .500 since 2008, but they were respectable last year, and now have a pitching staff that makes them a potential playoff team. The Nationals are the favorites to win the World Series, and have assembled a starting rotation that could be one of the best ever. In a way, the Mets now are where the Nationals were about five or six years ago. They may get a glimpse at their future selves right away in 2015.
Max Scherzer never made an Opening Day start in Detroit, as that spot was resereved for Justin Verlander, even though Scherzer had clearly been a better pitcher than him for the last three years. He’ll get that opportunity in his first season with the Nationals. How many teams in the league would have the luxury of passing over Stephen Strasburg for the Opening Day start? How many teams would slot Jordan Zimmermann third in the rotation? How many teams wouldn’t be able to find a spot for Tanner Roark? We may be watching something special in the nation’s capital this season. It’s always special when Bartolo Colon takes to the bump, as he will on Monday. Colon won 15 games with the Mets last year, while bringing his wonderful, irreverent style of what some may call “hitting” to the NL. No offense to Colon, but you’re really going to want to tune into this series on Wednesday and Thursday, when Jacob deGrom faces Zimmermann, and Matt Harvey returns to the mound in a battle against Strasburg.
GIF for this game: Here’s what the Nationals bought for $210 million.
Mets fun fact: David Wright is entering his 12th year in the majors, all of which have been with the Mets. That makes him the second-longest tenured player (with one team) in the NL East, trailing only Chase Utley.
Nationals fun fact: Bryce Harper is younger than nine of MLB.com’s top-20 prospects, including Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Joc Pederson, the three favorites to win the NL Rookie of the Year this season.
White Sox at Royals, 4:10 p.m. ET
The White Sox underwent a dramatic overhaul this off-season, bringing in Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. The Royals biggest change was a subtraction, losing James Shields to the Padres. Their most significant addition, meanwhile, was Alex Rios. In other words, it’s easy to see why the Royals, one year after winning the pennant, are a popular selection to miss the playoffs altogether, while the White Sox are seen as challengers for the AL Central crown.
With Chris Sale’s first start of the season pushed back a week because of a broken foot suffered during the spring, Samardzija will get the nod on Opening Day, one year after starting the season opener for the Cubs. Samardzija features one of the game’s best splitters, and that’s going to be a key pitch for him this year. On the other side is Yordano Ventura, a guy who the Royals are really counting on this year. With Shields in San Diego, the Royals lost the rock of the pennant-winning rotation. Ventura has a ton of talent, and he’s going to have to harness more of it this year if the Royals are going to come anywhere near last year’s heights.
GIF for this game: One of the best splitters in the game.
White Sox fun fact: This offense is being overlooked. Everyone knows about Jose Abreu, but putting him in the middle of Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and Avisail Garcia could give the White Sox the best one through five hitters in the AL Central.
Royals fun fact: Last year, Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera combined to strike out 258 batters in 204 2/3 innings. The Royals need to find a way to create as many six-inning games as possible.
Angels at Mariners, 4:10 p.m. ET
The two favorites in the AL West meet on Opening Day, with last year’s division champions going up against this year’s darlings. The Angels are an offense-first team, driven by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, but the most important player may be Garrett Richards, as he works his way back from a knee injury. The Mariners are a pitching-and-defense team led, of course, by Felix Hernandez, and they added Robinson Cano last season and Nelson Cruz this year. If these two teams are who we think they are, this will be one of the most fun division races of the year.
King Felix had yet another dominant season in 2014, and remains one of the three best pitchers on the planet. He is has yet to participate in the playoffs, but that streak could be coming to an end this year. He fronts what should be a good rotation, but the pitchers behind him, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, are every bit as important to the Mariners’ hopes as he is. Opposing him on Monday is Jered Weaver, another guy who is a known commodity at this point. Weaver remains the figurehead of this rotation, but Richards and Matt Shoemaker are the guys who will make it go.
Gif for this game: Not sure what to do with this? Neither is J.J Hardy.
Angels fun fact: When Garrett Richards tore up his knee last year, he was 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, 2.60 FIP and 164 strikeouts in 168 2/3 innings. The Mariners may have the pitching edge in the division, but the Angels have an ace.
Mariners fun fact: Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison and Brad Miller all hit between 10 and 25 homers for the Mariners last year. They also all hit from the left side. The Mariners were 15th in the league in bombs in 2014, but they were hopelessly left-hand dominant. That’s why they went out and got Nelson Cruz this offseason. They need him to bring some balance to the lineup.
Pirates at Reds, 4:10 p.m. ET
After two decades of futility, the Pirates have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and are once again among the teams with a good shot to get there this year. What’s more, they have one of the best players in the game in Andrew McCutchen, and a young, talented outfield with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco joining him in left and right, respectively. They routinely get more than they should out of the sum of their parts, thanks to manager Clint Hurdle and a willingness to look for hidden value on the field. With Gerrit Cole maturing into a potential ace this year, the Pirates may still be getting better. The Reds have gone in the opposite direction, and things could get worse before they get better. This season has all the makings of a bottoming-out year for them, especially if things are looking grim at the trade deadline.
Francisco Liriano will start for the Pirates on Opening Day for the second straight year. Liriano didn’t have nearly as good a year as he did in 2013, but he still posted a 3.38 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 162 1/3 innings. The Reds counter with Johnny Cueto, who finished second in NL Cy Young voting in the best season of his career. Remember, injuries derailed Cueto’s 2013 season. In his last two full years, he has finished in the top four for the Cy Young.
GIF for this game: Cutch doing it all.
Pirates fun fact: McCutchen has posted a slash line in excess of .300/.400/.500 each of the last three seasons. No other player in baseball has done the same.
Reds fun fact: We all know Aroldis Chapman throws hard, but you may not realize the unprecedented frequency with which he does so, especially compared to the rest of the majors. According to Baseball Savant, Chapman threw 395 pitches last year that reached 100 mph. Everyone else in the majors combined to hit 100 mph on the radar gun 167 times.
Padres at Dodgers, 4:10 p.m. ET
The Dodgers are the unquestioned favorite in the NL West, returning most of last year’s team that won 94 games before losing to the Cardinals in the NLDS. The Padres, however, made significant upgrades to a historically bad offense, bringing in Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks. They hope that will buttress what could be a great pitching staff, fronted by James Shields and Tyson Ross.
The new Padre Shields will get the ball on Opening Day, fresh off leading the Royals to the World Series last year. Shields has been a hallmark of consistency over the last eight seasons, throwing at least 200 innings every year in that stretch. Moving to the NL should help his statistics, as should pitching about half his games in Petco Park. While it will be fun to see him go at Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez, all eyes will be on Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson, who had the best spring of anyone this side of Kris Bryant. Oh yeah, eyes will also be on Clayton Kershaw, who became the first pitcher to sweep the NL Cy Young and MVP awards since Bob Gibson in 1968.
GIF for this game: Don’t run on Puig.
Padres fun fact: Last year, the Padres hit 109 homers as a team, second worst in the league. Upton and Kemp combined for nearly half that total, belting 54 homers between the two of them.
Dodgers fun fact: New shortstop Jimmy Rollins has had at least 16 homers in three of the last four years, and at least 22 steals in all four. He’s a tweaked version of Hanley Ramirez at half the price.
Braves at Marlins, 4:10 p.m. ET
One of these teams in a rebuilding phase, and for once it isn’t the Marlins. In fact, the Marlins are a legitimate playoff contender after locking down Giancarlo Stanton, improving the top of the lineup with Dee Gordon, and adding Mat Latos and Dan Haren to the rotation. Of course, whether or not they get there could depend on when Jose Fernandez returns, and how effective he is when he comes back. The Braves, on the other hand, could have one of the most impotent offenses in the league, as right now they could be described as “Freddie Freeman and a lot of bemused shoulder shrugs.”
For as bad as the Braves are expected to be, they actually have a solid rotation, headed by Julio Teheran. Over the last two seasons, he has a 3.03 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 1.12 WHIP and 356 strikeouts in 406 2/3 innings. He’ll oppose Henderson Alvarez, who was an All-Star last year and the Marlins’ ace in the wake of Fernandez’ elbow injury. He’ll have to hold up the rotation, while Stanton, Gordon, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich lead the Marlins with the bats.
GIF for this game: Stanton is a human, just like you and me.
Braves fun fact: The last major league regular named Melvin was Melvin Mora, and he had a handful of really nice seasons for the Orioles, including back-to-back years with 27 homers, one of which he also had a .981 OPS. So perhaps there’s hope yet for Melvin Upton.
Marlins fun fact: Stanton hit 15,366 feet—nearly three miles—worth of homers last year. A ridiculous 10 of his 37 jacks traveled at least 430 feet.
Indians at Astros, 7 p.m. ET
Optimism abounds everywhere this time of year, and if it showed up on Doppler radar like rain, it would be deep red around Cleveland and Houston. So look out Cleveland, a storm, in the guise of a great baseball team, is coming through this year. And look out Houston, there’ll be thunder on Tal’s hill, usually when George Springer, Chris Carter or Evan Gattis is at the plate.
Toeing the rubber for the Indians on Opening Day is 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. A large part of the case for the Indians being a World Series contender this year is based on Carlos Carrasco being in the rotation all year, Jason Kipnis bouncing back, and Brandon Moss providing much-needed left-handed power, but that ignores the fact that Kluber (as well as Michael Brantley) needs to be as good as he was last season to be the anchor in the rotation. The Astros will send Dallas Keuchel to the mound to oppose Kluber. He had a strong 2014, though he did taper off in the second half. The Astros’ time likely begins in 2016, however, and Keuchel is an important part of the future.
GIF for this game: George Springer: More than just a powerful bat.
Indians fun fact: Brantley did it all last year, hitting .327/.385/.506 with 20 homers and 23 steals in his age-27 season. You know how often a player progresses over the first few years of his career, breaks out at 27, and then falls back to earth? Almost never. Don’t bet on Brantley breaking that mold.
Astros fun fact: Springer is 25 years old. Jose Altuve is 24. Collin McHugh and Keuchel are 27. Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Domingo Santana are on the way. The future in Houston is bright.
Giants at Diamondbacks, 10 p.m. ET
The good news for the Giants is they’re coming off their third World Series championship in five years. The fake bad news is that this is an odd-numbered year, so they have no chance to repeat. The actual bad news is they face an AL West that is tougher this year than it was in 2014, thanks primarily to the improvements made by the Padres during the offseason. The Diamondbacks mirror the Rockies. They have a few really nice offensive pieces, but don’t have nearly enough pitching to be a real threat.
Case in point: Arizona will send Josh Collmenter to the mound on Monday to take on Madison Bumgarner. No offense to Collmenter, but he’s not exactly what people think of when they envision an Opening Day starter. Bumgarner, on the other hand, is exactly the visage of an ace for the first game of the season, especially coming off his October to remember. Pitching remains the strength of the Giants, and Bumgarner remains the strongest point therein. Clausewitz would respect the Diamondbacks attacking their adversary’s strength, but don’t expect them to get the desired result.
GIF for this game: We may not see Hunter Pence live for a month, but we’ll always have this.
Giants fun fact: Joe Panik hit .305 with a .343 OBP in about half a season with the Giants last year. This was after slashing .321/.382/.447 in the first half of the year at Triple-A Fresno. The Giants may have their best second baseman since Jeff Kent.
Diamondbacks fun fact: A.J Pollock was in the midst of a breakout season last year, slashing .302/.353/.498 with seven homers and 14 steals before injuries knocked him off course. If he’s healthy, he’ll pick up where he left off.
Rangers at A’s, 10:05 p.m. ET
The day of reckoning for the Rangers came last year. Injuries and poor performance pushed them to last place in the AL West, and with Yu Darvish out for the year, they could be right back in that spot this season. Might that day of reckoning also come in 2015 for the A’s? The team shipped out Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija in the offseason, and also lost Jon Lester and Jason Hammel to free agency. Every time the public counts them out, they somehow piece together a 90-win season, but has Billy Beane’s magic finally run out, at least for a year?
Sonny Gray will start on Opening Day for the second straight year. After a great 2013, Gray regressed a bit last year, with his breaking pitches becoming a bit more hittable, and a bit easier to lay off, than they were in his first go-round. His peripheral stats suggest that he may come down even further before settling in as a No. 3 starter with the ceiling of a No. 2. Yovani Gallardo will take the hill for the Rangers in his first year with the team. Gallardo is a fine starter, but the fact that he’s getting the Opening Day call says a lot about where this Rangers rotation stands without Darvish.
GIF for this game: Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus, America’s favorite buddy comedy.
Rangers fun fact: Adrian Beltre will turn 37 years old on Tuesday. When he made his debut with the Dodgers in 1998, he was sandwiched in the lineup between Charles Johnson and Darren Dreifort, and shared an infield with Eric Karros, Eric Young and Juan Castro. And by the way, he hit .324/.388/.492 last year, went to his fourth All-Star Game in the last five years and earned 7.0 bWAR.
A’s fun fact: The A’s have an entirely new infield, with Ike Davis at first, Ben Zobrist at second, Brett Lawrie at third and Marcus Semien at short. That may not be the most purely fun fact, but I found it pretty interesting.