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Opening day arrives Thursday, and with it comes the reminder of the gifts 2018 will bear. The game’s most fascinating person hasn’t played a single major league inning and hasn’t exactly looked like he deserves to yet, either. Another star won’t dare to talk about what makes him particularly engrossing this year. On the storylines go, with men who showcase power and others who wield it, with question marks and exclamation points. A sport rich in profits but at the moment destitute in competitive balance, baseball does not lack for intrigue in 2018.
Which is why the forthcoming paragraph serves as an apology to the Houston Astros, who look every bit as good, if not better, than they did last season when they won the World Series. And to the Chicago Cubs, whom I’m picking to win this season’s championship because they’re really good, too. Sorry to Albert Pujols, who is set to join the 3,000-hit club, and Derek Jeter, who has weathered about that many in half a year as Marlins owner. Regrets to Tim Tebow, whose ascent to the major leagues is paramount to our democracy, because it will break Twitter and thus rid us of our Russian-bot overlords. And finally to Tanking, whose prevalence has grown so great it earned capitalization and anthropomorphizing.
None cracked the triumphant return of 10 Degrees, back for its 10th season, here every week, filled with news, notes, nuggets and typically some other words that start with N. Such as no. As in, no, Mike Scioscia …
1. Shohei Ohtani did not have a “great outing” in his final start of the preseason, unless the definition of great outing has changed since the calendar turned. One official who saw it summed it up as: “He looked pretty much like he’s looked all spring.” The struggles of Ohtani since he arrived stateside have been glaring. There are plenty of ways to describe his lack of fastball velocity and difficulty commanding the pitch Saturday against a coterie of minor leaguers. Great does not crack the top, oh, 5,000?
It came as no surprise, of course, to see Scioscia, the Angels’ longtime manager, playacting as the this-is-fine dog. In the grand scheme, actually, it is. Lost amid the fact that Ohtani looks helpless at the plate (3 for 28 in games) and talented but raw on the mound (more runs allowed than outs registered) is that he remains an incredible talent who is under team control for the next six years at enormously depressed prices. All it cost the Angels to secure Ohtani was about $22 million. Every single team would take him for that today. Every one.
Whether the positivity is simply reflexive defensiveness or something orchestrated for a reason is a fair question – and perhaps important. If the Angels know Ohtani well enough and believe that he responds better to a sunny perspective than an honest one that may sound sour, that balance may be worth striking publicly at the risk of sounding blinkered. If it is just the Angels not speaking the truth in hopes that no one is noticing – well, people are noticing.
Gone, for now, are the Babe Ruth comparisons, which weren’t altogether fair in the first place – guilty as charged – because the prospect of Ohtani hitting immediately wasn’t good, either. For a better Ruth comp, look at …
2. Bryce Harper and his delightfully similar swing, as The Washington Post so cannily pointed out five years back. It is this swing that’s worth at least $300 million, maybe $400 million, even beyond that. And as much as viewing Harper through that lens feels icky – he’s a person, not a commodity – his forthcoming free agency packs the potential to change sports.
Harper has less than zero desire to talk about free agency, his next contract or anything that he’s savvy enough to understand will create distraction. It’s a canny play with another benefit: nothing stokes speculation and hoopla quite like secrecy. Baseball doesn’t need its regular season to be a teaser trailer to its offseason. Not knowing Harper’s priorities or desires means waiting to see them – getting sucked into the vortex of conjecture. Free agency like this – a 26-year-old superstar who’s the single most recognizable player in his sport – comes around once a generation. Which is no slight to …
3. Manny Machado, who himself is in that next tier: the 26-year-old star who isn’t quite the brand even if he is a similar player. Some, of course, contend that he’s every bit as valuable as Harper because he was an all-world third baseman, is expected to play an elite shortstop and packs supreme power and punch in his swing.
Unlike Harper, Machado’s season could be a chaotic jumble. While the Orioles are trying to take advantage of an American League field with four favorites and a big emoji shrug in the fifth spot, the possibility they stumble and want to recoup value for Machado’s expected departure is very real. And as mediocre as the return for pending free agents was at the deadline last year, there isn’t a team in baseball that couldn’t find a place for Machado.
So for a few months, at least, he and Harper will engage in their little Beltway duel, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, while 3,000 miles away …
4. Clayton Kershaw will be pitching for his own nine figures. Far lower key than Harper or Machado – exactly how he likes it – Kershaw heads into this season having just turned 30, the inflection point for so many pitching careers.
How the second decade of Kershaw’s career goes will have bearing simply on how history views him: as a Hall of Famer or as possibly the best pitcher ever to have played Major League Baseball. That is a lofty thing to say, particularly for someone who has made 48 starts the last two years. At the same time, over the first 10 years of his career, Kershaw’s ERA+ – a measurement of his earned-run average against that of the league – is third best all-time behind Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
Kershaw has looked positively Kershavian this spring, throwing 21 innings and not allowing a run in any of them. Spring-training stats are bunk, yes, but 21 straight scoreless is 21 straight scoreless no matter the level of competition. There’s work to do, whether it’s giving up fewer home runs or dominating in the postseason like he has during the regular season or getting through a full season without his balky back acting up. That, more than anything, is a threat to Kershaw’s legacy as well him opting out of the final three years of his deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
His title as baseball’s best pitcher is perpetually under fire, whether from Max Scherzer or Corey Kluber or Madison Bumgarner or Chris Sale or …
5. Noah Syndergaard, this year’s chic pick to grow into something supernaturally good. Considering that never in the history of baseball has there been a pitcher with the pure, raw, unfiltered stuff of Syndergaard, it’s not out of the question. Syndergaard is like baseball moonshine. He just needs some high-quality distillation.
Part of that is not missing with his fastball, which he throws as hard as any starter in history, about 98 mph on average. It’s straight enough that even at that velocity, hitters can hammer it. His slider – the 93-mph marvel that is literally unlike anything that’s ever been seen in the game – defies logic. Quite simply, it’s a breaking ball at fastball speed. His 90-mph changeup looks hittable until it peaces out. Syndergaard has a curveball, too, and though it’s not quite as nasty the other pitches, it’s not bad, either.
A torn lat torpedoed his 2017 season, and a redemptive element for Syndergaard joins that of his team, the New York Mets. Really, the Mets’ can’t exist without Syndergaard. Should he stay healthy, though, between him and Jacob deGrom, the Mets may have two of the 10 best pitchers in the game, and there are worse places to start contention. The notion of them playing first fiddle in New York, on the other hand, remains dubious, particularly when …
6. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are occupying the same lineup in the Bronx. The excitement surrounding the New York Yankees is real and legitimate, and even if they are co-favorites with the Boston Red Sox in the American League East, New York – below the luxury tax, with a deep farm system, plus young hitting and pitching – looks positively horrifying for the rest of the AL.
Judge and Stanton personify this because they are a 547-pound, dream-crushing tag team – Demolition for the modern day, if you will. In this era of home run hitting, they are the preeminence. Of course, everyone hitting the ball out of the park leaves …
7. Rob Manfred answering questions about the sanctity of the game after 2017 saw more home runs than even during the Steroid Era. Then there is the Tanking issue. And pace of play, which is his pet peeve. Plus the whole potential labor war that was exacerbated with this offseason’s flaccid free agent market. Oh, and just this week, MLB’s lobbying efforts in Washington to inure themselves from having to pay minor league players a living wage somehow wound up in the spending bill. Never mind the collateral damage that low-level independent leagues now must pay minimum wage to players, which essentially murders their business, which means MLB’s effort to make sure minor leaguers live near the poverty line indirectly means fewer people get to see and play baseball. Awesome.
These are all issues under Manfred’s purview, and as he heads into his fourth year as commissioner, they will illustrate where he plans to shepherd the game. Surely, for example, he can’t see the logic in a system that encourages the Atlanta Braves to send down …
8. Ronald Acuña to begin the season. One scout who saw Acuña multiple times this spring, “He will be in the MVP conversation.” That’s a center fielder who started last season in High-A and just turned 20, and it’s not in the conversation, like, three or four years from now. Today, he meant.
The Braves optioned Acuña to Triple-A Gwinnett because it was right for business. Keep him there for a couple weeks and call him back up when he no longer can earn a full year of service. This sort of manipulation is rampant, and so long as it goes unpunished – and it typically does – teams are playing within the rules. If Acuña started the season with the Braves, he would be a free agent after the 2023 season. Save that extra year of service and it’s not until following 2024.
No other league does this – keeps its best players away from its top teams because of financial considerations. It is like tanking writ small: a system that encourages teams to prioritize inferior players over superior ones for the sake of the future. Both are optimal strategies. A system that cannot dissuade multiple teams from participating in such strategies, however, is at best flawed, at worst broken.
Nothing lays naked the Acuña case more than what happened Sunday. The Philadelphia Phillies were planning on sending second baseman Scott Kingery to Triple-A to start the season, even after it was clear he was their best player this spring. Then Kingery agreed to a six-year, $24 million deal with three club options – the largest guarantee ever to a player who hasn’t taken a major league at-bat but also an incredible undermarket bargain if Kingery is even half the player evaluators believe he’s going to be.
Guess who’s going to start the season in Philadelphia?
Consider the message this sends: For a team not to game the system, a player must take a haircut. The power imbalance is incredible – representative, in many ways, of how Manfred’s reign has been as much about consolidation of control in the sport as anything. If he has the game’s best interests in mind, he’ll seek a solution in the next collective-bargaining agreement that allows the Ronald Acuñas of the world never to rot in the minor leagues for a day longer than necessary. Because if Acuña really is …
9. Mike Trout Lite, the sooner he arrives, the better. Until then, suppose that the real Trout will have to suffice. He is actually quite similar to Kershaw, not just in their relative desire to avoid the trappings of celebrity and hoopla but how their greatness manifested itself early and never seems to show any sign of abating.
Now, there have been accusations leveled at 10 Degrees that this is a space in which Trout can do no wrong. These accusations are false and defamatory. For example, Trout last season got out 55.8 percent of the time. Outs are bad! The rest of the time, he posted a .442 on-base percentage, which led the AL, as did his .629 slugging percentage. Both were career bests. He also walked more than he struck out. Three years earlier, he struck out 101 times more than he walked. That was bad, too, even if it isn’t anymore.
Seriously, if someone were in the tank for Trout, would he really point out that through his age-25 season, Trout is second all-time in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement? Uh, don’t think so. Second place is first loser, even if the guy in first place, Ty Cobb, compiled his 1.8 more WAR when black players weren’t allowed in the big leagues.
If nothing else, 2018 will offer the world more opportunities to see Trout, because …
10. Shohei Ohtani is going to be in the spotlight so often. And as he is, let us not forget that the likelihood for him becoming an excellent major league player, and eventually a star, is still stronger than all but a handful of young players.
Yes, that’s probably going to mean an eventual shift out of the DH role and into pitching full-time, something that is going to be chirped more and more as the season goes on and the pitching overwhelms him. One scout this week did opine that he believes Ohtani is so talented, so athletic, that he’ll learn to hit major league-quality pitching on the fly. Nearly two dozen other scouts, officials and executives who have seen him this spring vehemently disagree, and they think the Angels’ sanguine proclamations are sugarcoating the eventuality.
That will come in time. For now, the spectacle of it is cool as hell. Someone is trying something that nobody thinks is possible, and to do that while adjusting to a new team, a new country, a new language – that means Shohei Ohtani believes in himself, because no man in need of constant public affirmation would take on an endeavor like that, one whose path is so laden with pitfalls it almost always will lead to failure.
If that’s the case, and the Angels are trying to put a happy face on an ugly spring, they don’t need to. The spin isn’t going to help Ohtani any. He will adjust. He will improve. He will find himself. And so long as his elbow cooperates, he will be a major league pitcher. He doesn’t need to play both ways to be great. He just needs time.
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