MLB season preview: What’s new, who’s good, who’s not, who went where ahead of 2019

Major League Baseball just couldn’t wait to celebrate its 150th year.

With a pair of regular season games already in the books, held last week in Tokyo between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, the official league-wide Opening Day arrives Thursday. It’s the earliest date ever for each team to hit the diamond to play games that count.

In New York, most eyes are squarely on the Yankees’ (hosting the Baltimore Orioles) and Mets’ (visiting the Washington Nationals) respective openers. Both teams enter the 2019 season with clear-eyed aspirations of a World Series crown, and amNewYork has taken a look at both the Bombers’ and Amazins’ upcoming campaigns. But there’s more to this year in baseball than what the local teams are up to.

Read on for what fans of America’s Pastime ought to know entering this historic season.

What’s new?

After much ballyhoo over proposed changes, big and small, the sport won’t look drastically different this year.

MLB and the players union opted to table most modifications for at least another season. That means the National League ballparks won’t feature the designated hitter, keeping that role exclusive to the American League for the 47th season. Hurlers won’t be saddled with pitch clocks, and skippers needn’t manage their bullpens with a three-batter minimum in mind. Tweaks to roster size, both before and after Sept. 1, aren’t here yet.

A few modifications were made, though. Most critically, baseball’s Byzantine trade deadlines have been simplified. July 31 will now be the one and only end to deals between teams, eliminating the option to complete August trades through the waiver system. 

The All-Star voting process will have a new wrinkle, with two rounds that whittle down who starts in the July 9 exhibition in Cleveland. The first round will proceed as usual, with fans casting votes for who they’d most like to see on display at Progressive Field. Within a few weeks of the game, MLB will hold a so-called Election Day that tasks fans with voting again, but only from a list of the top-three vote-getters at each position (nine outfielders being the exception). The move seems to be about drumming up more fan excitement for the All-Star Game.

Oh, and the winner of the Home Run Derby now will pocket a cool $1 million. Don’t expect many pre-arbitration players to pass up that opportunity, if offered.

In minor changes intended to speed up games incrementally, teams will now be limited to five mound visits (previously six) and the league office hopes to decrease all inning breaks to 2 minutes, if it can get broadcast partners’ approval.

Also, the term "disabled list" is on the shelf. It’s the injured list now. Get used to it. For that matter, the Cleveland Indians have officially phased out the outdated, divisive Chief Wahoo logo. 

In other major uniform news, Derek Jeter’s Miami Marlins have further moved on from previous owner Jeffrey Loria with a sweeping change to team colors, logos and attire — "Miami Blue" and "Caliente Red" dominate the new scheme, with a remodeled sport fish logo. Most of the league’s remaining caps, jerseys and pants were limited to lesser modifications, if any.

For ballpark aficionados, 2019 is the final chance to visit the former Ballpark in Arlington before the Texas Rangers move into nearby Globe Life Field. Technically, this qualifies as "what’s old" rather than "what’s new," but just go with it.

Hot stove concoctions

For the second winter in a row, baseball’s free agent market frustrated ballplayers seeking long-awaited paydays. It took until after players reported for spring training before crown jewels Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed deals with the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres, respectively. Each will be paid at least $300 million over the life of the long-term deals.

Both deals were dwarfed by the record-shattering contract extension the Los Angeles Angels lavished on Mike Trout. The two-time MVP, just entering his athletic prime, will be paid $426.5 million over the life of a 12-year deal. Trout’s deal was just the biggest in what was an active period of teams and players agreeing to contract extensions. Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies) will receive $260 million over eight years in the next-biggest extension after Trout. Also re-upping for at least five years and $100 million are the Boston Red Sox’s Chris Sale, Mets ace Jacob deGrom, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt. 

Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million deal with Harper’s former Washington Nationals was the richest for a pitcher in free agency. Nathan Eovaldi (Red Sox) was the only other pitcher to garner a free-agent contract of at least four years in length. A.J. Pollock (Los Angeles Dodgers) was the only position player beyond Harper and Machado whose contract will pay him through at least 2022.

The rest of the market was tepid, at best, with a virtual elimination of the middle tier of free agents. One- or two-year deals were the vast majority handed out by ballclubs. Former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned, as does one of the game’s top closers in Craig Kimbrel, their agents yet to find a deal to their clients’ liking.

Big names were still on the move in offseason trades, of course. The Mets acquired Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners, while Seattle sent the Yanks James Paxton in a separate move. Ever busy, Seattle did acquire a big bat in Edwin Encarnacion.

The biggest deal not involving the Big Apple ballclubs saw the Arizona Diamondbacks ship Goldschmidt to St. Louis, giving the team one of the top hitters of the decade. After drawing reported interest from both the Yankees and Mets, the Marlins wound up shipping top catcher J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia in another high-profile trade.

On the managerial side, six teams will be guided by new skippers: the Cincinnati Reds (David Bell), Rangers (Chris Woodward), Toronto Blue Jays (Charlie Montoyo), Los Angeles Angels (Brad Ausmus), Minnesota Twins (Rocco Baldelli) and Baltimore Orioles (Brandon Hyde).

Pecking order

Boston is in position to vie for a second consecutive World Series crown — which would make five in 16 years — with the 2017 champion Houston Astros and the powerful Yankees the strongest contenders to the throne. Only one of them can claim the AL pennant, of course, so the door certainly is open to NL contenders like the Dodgers, Cubs and rebuilt Phillies. The Dodgers have reached the World Series two years running, while the Cubs have gotten at least as far as the NLCS in three of the last four years.

But anything can happen in a postseason series, so the door is open to plenty of teams with realistic postseason odds. Anyone but Miami could reasonably win the NL East, including the Phillies, Mets, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. The Cards and Milwaukee Brewers will give the Cubbies trouble in the NL Central. On the AL side, Central favorite Cleveland can’t be counted out; their division rivals don’t figure to put up much of a fight.

Despite concerns of teams tanking, a multitude of clubs could make surprising runs toward contention. The Reds, 150 years after their founding as the Red Stockings, made upgrades around Joey Votto that make them the sleepers in the NL Central. With Machado on board, San Diego could make a dark horse run at Los Angeles in the NL West. The other L.A. team, the Angels, can’t be counted out of a possible Wild Card run, not when they still have budding legend Trout punishing pitches at the plate. In the AL East, Tampa Bay has an outside shot at a playoff spot — claiming the division crown over Boston or the Bombers likely is out of the cards.

The three worst clubs — the Marlins, Orioles and Detroit Tigers — are as sure a thing as baseball has going for it right now. There’s no way any of these teams does anything but torture their fans with low-level baseball this year.

Milestone monitor

Baseball loves benchmark stats, and a few players figure to be in pursuit of notable numbers before October comes around.

Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who plans to call it a career after this season, is in line to join an exclusive club. As long as he notches 14 strikeouts and four more wins in 2019, he’ll become the 14th hurler to reach 250 victories and 3,000 punchouts. Of the other 13, only controversial great Roger Clemens is not a Hall of Famer.

Cano, perhaps the next most-likely candidate to reach 3,000 career hits in the future, is 30 away from 2,500. Barring catastrophe, he’ll get there with the Mets, probably before Memorial Day.

The Angels’ Albert Pujols, the game’s most accomplished active player, can move up the all-time list in several notable categories. Barring calamitous injury, he should tally the 18 RBIs needed to become the fifth man with 2,000. Currently sitting at 3.082 hits and 24th on the career list, he would surpass Cal Ripken Jr. for 15th with at least 103 this year. He’s unlikely to match Nap Lajoie (14th), or Willie Mays on the all-time home run list, unless he turns back the clock to his production of a decade ago. Pujols (633) sits 27 homers behind Mays for fifth all-time, a total he hasn’t reached since 2016.

Trout, Pujols teammate, is a virtual lock to become the 50th player with at least 200 homers and 200 stolen bases. He’s got a more than a year to steal 11 bags and become the youngest to join the 200/200 club. Barry Bonds hit the mark at 28 years, 349 days old; Trout might pull it off before he turns 28 on Aug. 7. Additionally, his assault on the WAR leader board could find him surpassing the likes of Derek Jeter, Gary Carter and Ernie Banks by year’s end.

Encarnacion (380) and Nelson Cruz (360) of the Twins both could join the 400-homer club. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez (Mariners), Max Scherzer (Nationals), Zack Greinke (Diamondbacks) and Cole Hamels (Cubs) all could hit 2,500 strikeouts this year. Among closers, the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen needs 32 saves to become the 30th player with 300, while free agent Kimbrel could join the top 10 all-time with 34 — as long as he finds a team soon.

Rays pitcher Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, could help Tampa Bay to a surprise playoff berth in 2019.
Rays pitcher Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, could help Tampa Bay to a surprise playoff berth in 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Standout stars

Several studs are among the preseason MVP candidates in each league. Two-time AL honoree Trout is a perpetual favorite, and reigning MVP Mookie Betts of the Red Sox deserves consideration. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees, as well as Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman of the Astros figure to be in the hunt, but it’s possible the teammates will hurt each other’s cases.

Christian Yelich, last year’s NL MVP, will face still competition if he hopes to repeat. Former MVPs Harper and Kris Bryant (Cubs) could be in the mix. Arenado, Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman (Braves), Anthony Rendon (Nationals) and Corey Seager (Dodgers) have been close before. Don’t be stunned if Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña, the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, surges to the league’s top honor in his second season.

As far as top pitchers go, reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell (Rays) will have plenty of competition ahead of the season. Past winners Corey Kluber (Indians) and Justin Verlander (Astros) will be in the mix. Sale has been on the cusp of the award for years, while Trevor Bauer (Indians) and Gerrit Cole (Astros) could outshine their standout teammates.

On the NL side, there’s no counting out deGrom from repeating as Cy Young winner. The same goes for Scherzer, who won the award in each of the two years before deGrom. Noah Syndergaard could push his Mets teammate. Aaron Nola (Phillies) was in the hunt for the award last year. Could Corbin outperform new teammate Scherzer? It’s possible.

Projecting the Rookie of the Year award in spring often is a fool’s errand; never know when a team will start the service time clock on their prized prospects. As far as top prospects go, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) ranks high in the AL. Same goes for Eloy Jimenez (White Sox), Yusei Kikuchi (Mariners), Kyle Tucker (Astros). NL contenders include Pete Alonso (Mets), Victor Robles (Nationals), Brendan Rodgers (Rockies) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres).