MLB season preview: Breaking down each division and the biggest storylines

Big League Stew

The Yahoo Sports MLB crew has been busy previewing the 2018 baseball season for the past few weeks — and hey, wouldn’t you know, opening day is just about here.

If you’re one of the last-minute crammers, we decided to make things easy for you. Here’s a collection of every preview post we’ve published looking ahead at the 2018 season. We’ve got division previews, storyline breakdowns and plenty of other fun stuff.

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So while you wait for what ought to be a fun opening day on Thursday, here’s everything you need to know to get ready.

DIVISION PREVIEWS

AL West: Shohei Ohtani and the Angels are looking to dethrone the Astros

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AL WEST

Could the Astros improve on 101 wins?
The Astros are as set as any team could be heading into the season. The only legitimate question surrounding them might be if they can actually be more dominant than they were when winning 101 games and a World Series last season. The scary thing is that it’s entirely possible. Not only will they have a full season with Justin Verlander in 2018, they’ve added another ace in Gerrit Cole. The offense will again revolve around Jose Altuve, and it’s reasonable to think guys like George Springer and Carlos Correa will be even better going forward. The Astros are scary good.

Can the Mariners rotation stay healthy?
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is confident he has the pieces to put together a winning rotation. It’s keeping those pieces in one piece that’s been the issue. Last season, the Mariners called on 17 different pitchers to start games. It’s difficult to build any consistency or hope when that’s the case. That’s especially true when the guys you’re counting on most, Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, are in and out. If those two stay healthy this season, Seattle should be able to build around them. If not, it could be another long and disappointing season.

Will the Rangers have enough pitching?
For three straight seasons, the Rangers have had a top ten scoring offense. There appears to be nothing standing in the way of the streak continuing in 2018. Unfortunately, they’ve had a bottom ten pitching staff in four straight seasons, and that streak seems just as likely to continue. The Rangers figure to be reliant on veterans like Matt Moore, Mike Minor and Bartolo Colon after ace Cole Hamels, which isn’t very inspiring. In the bullpen, the closer’s job might be Tim Lincecum’s to lose. He hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2016. Unless they find some better answers quickly, it could be a long season in Texas.

AL Central: Cleveland looks strong again, but the Twins are rising quickly

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AL CENTRAL

What are realistic expectations for the White Sox?
The White Sox have rebuilt their minor league system in a hurry and are poised to be contenders two or three years down the road. In the meantime, they probably won’t finish 2018 with a winning record, but could still prove dangerous as they start incorporating some of those prospects into the big league mix. In other words, they could still have an impact on the postseason picture, and should give fans plenty of reason for hope in 2019 and beyond.

Will pitching additions help the Twins take the next step?
The Twins were a great story in 2017, unexpectedly earning a trip to the AL wild card game. Now they’re looking to gain ground on the Cleveland Indians. While the Twins didn’t spend big money to land a top-tier free agent this winter, they did spread it around pretty wisely and could end up better off for it. The additions of starters Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn, in addition to reliever Addison Reed, helps fill out a pitching staff that desperately needed more firepower. If the offense manages to stay in the top ten, they could be very, very good.

Is this the Indians last chance to win it all?
The Indians are in the midst of a strong run, but could find themselves at a crossroads following the 2018 season. After losing Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, Boone Logan, Austin Jackson and Craig Breslow in free agency this winter, the Indians still have enough talent to remain atop the division. Do they have enough though to keep pace with the Astros and Yankees, and how do they handle the pending free agency of Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Josh Tomlin, McAllister and Lonnie Chisenhall after 2018. The bulk of their core will be around awhile, but there should be urgency surrounding this season.

AL East: The Yankees and Red Sox will be baseball’s best heavyweight fight

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AL EAST

Can anyone stop the Yankees offense?
The Yankees were on the rise even before adding Giancarlo Stanton’s bat to the lineup. Now they’re threatening to be unstoppable with a core that centers around Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Navigating this lineup will be a difficult challenge for any opponent, but especially for those in the AL East, who must face them 18-19 times. Surviving those series without gassing the bullpen may prove more important than completely stopping them.

Did the Red Sox do enough to repeat as division champs?
Beyond Martinez, they don’t look much different from 2017. Typically, that wouldn’t be a huge concern for a 93-win team that’s won back-to-back division titles, but with the Yankees arrow pointing way up they’ll have a lot of work to do. Getting a healthy and productive season from David Price would be like adding another All-Star starter to the mix. Still, it feels like the Red Sox won’t have much margin for error.

Will the Orioles have enough starting pitching?
Manager Buck Showalter thinks the Orioles are poised to surprise in the AL East. For that to become a reality, they will need their shaky rotation to find more solid footing. Signing Alex Cobb — as was reported Tuesday — will help a lot, but he’s not quite an ace and can only fill one spot. Beyond him, it’s tough to find reason for optimism with Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Andrew Cashner. None of the three have been the picture of consistency. With the options behind them being veteran Chris Tillman, who’s coming off an injury-plagued season, and a handful of unproven prospects, it’s possible Showalter will be more disappointed than we are surprised by Baltimore.

NL West: Did anybody do enough to challenge the Dodgers?

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NL WEST

Can the Dodgers avoid a hangover after that long offseason?
If any team is equipped to do so, it’s the Dodgers. Granted, they lost more than they gained in the offseason, but they still have Clayton Kershaw, they still have Kenley Jansen holding down the ninth inning and they still have all the important pieces of their offense. That gives them a strong base of leadership and production. They should be due for some better luck healthwise too after two years with plenty of injuries. The division might present more of a challenge than anything, and that should force the Dodgers to stay sharp.

How important was J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks?
We know the numbers. After Martinez arrived to Arizona in July, he launched 29 home runs in 62 games. It was crazy production that elevated the Diamondbacks to another level. With him gone now though, will they be able to stay at that level or even advance? Bringing in Steven Souza Jr. and Jarrod Dyson as a replacement combo actually makes them more versatile, but Souza’s already dealing with an injury. It’s reasonable to expect A.J. Pollock, Jake Lamb, Yasmany Tomas, and David Peralta to have better seasons at the plate. And we know what Paul Goldschmidt will be. If Zack Greinke is healthy and Robbie Ray is really for real, there’s a great foundation in place.

Will the Rockies have enough offense?
It’s a surprising question to have about a Rockies team, but the truth is they have more questions than answers beyond Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. You would think re-signing Carlos Gonzalez would help ease those questions, but there’s a reason he was still available in March. He struggled last season. Ian Desmond was a bust. Trevor Story is inconsistent. They still don’t have a set first baseman. They should pitch well and hit some homers, but they might end up needing production from young players like David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and even Brendan Rogers to be a factor.

NL Central: The Brewers made a big splash, but is it enough to catch the Cubs?

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NL CENTRAL

Can Cubs new hitting coach Chili Davis fix Jason Heyward?
The Cubs don’t have a lot of questions surrounding them. One that’s lingered though for two years is whether Jason Heyward will ever get on track. After signing a $184 million contract before the 2016 season, Heyward has put up back-to-back disappointing seasons at the plate. Getting him turned around might be the biggest task for newly hired hitting coach Chili Davis, and based on the extensive time they’ve reportedly put in together this offseason, it’s a challenge he’s accepted. The onus is more on Heyward to figure it out, but if Davis can provide a perspective that clicks with him, the Cubs could theoretically gain another huge weapon.

How will the Brewers fill out their rotation?
Chase Anderson is the ace. Zach Davies is the next best thing for Milwaukee. Then it’s a bunch of question marks after the team failed to add another top notch starter. Jimmy Nelson is expected back before the All-Star break, but it will be difficult to rely on him coming off shoulder surgery. Jhoulys Chacin is a solid, if not inconsistent back-end starter. Junior Guerra, who started for Craig Counsell last opening day, will start in the minors. The Brewers have some intriguing young arms, but none that seem ready to contribute. The Brewers will still be good, but they’ll need some pitchers to really step up in order to be relevant.

Will the Cardinals pitching hold them back?
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are searching for answers in the rotation and bullpen. Carlos Martinez is a solid anchor, but with Lance Lynn and Mike Leake gone, Adam Wainwright aging, Alex Reyes coming off Tommy John surgery and Michael Wacha struggling to stay healthy, Mike Matheny might have to patch his rotation together all season long. The bullpen is in flux too with Sueng-hwan Oh, Juan Nicasio and Trevor Rosenthal all out. Luke Gregorson was added, but he’s already hurt, leaving Bud Norris as the biggest addition. Unless St. Louis finds some magic, pitching could be its downfall.

NL East: Is this finally the year for the Washington Nationals?

THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NL EAST

How do the Nationals avoid another disappointment?
For one more year at least, the NL East should belong to the Nationals. That should put them in a prime spot to finally achieve the ultimate goal, and that’s winning a World Series. A lot of shoulds, but for a team that’s been in this position for six years and still never even won a playoff series, shoulds aren‘t enough. They have to achieve something. There‘s no magic formula that exists to help them. Good health would obviously be a plus, but some soul-searching needs to take place too. The Dodgers and Cubs aren’t going away. It’s up to Washington to figure out how to make them go away.

Will the Mets get the most from their starting rotation?
The Mets revamped their medical staff over the offseason, in addition to hiring a pitching-minded manager in Mickey Callaway and respected pitching coach in Dave Eiland. The obvious hope is to finally put together a healthy season where the starting rotation performs at the highest possible level. The last time that happened was 2015, when they reached the World Series. Since then, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler have all faced setbacks. Just having three or four of them healthy and pitching well would be a game-changer for New York.

Is a winning record realistic for Phillies or Braves?
There’s enough excitement and optimism surrounding the Phillies that it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they emerged as a wild card contender. With many of their top prospects poised to make a mark this season, and with Jake Arrieta added to the rotation, they could definitely flirt with a winning record. The Braves are a little more tricky to figure out because they still don’t have a real identity. They have youth, they have experience, perhaps most importantly, they’ll eventually have Ronald Acuña Jr., and he’s a real difference maker. How realistic is it that one or both teams could contend is a question we’re all looking forward to having answered.

THE STORYLINES OF 2018
The breakout teams of 2018
The teams that could disappoint in 2018
Which teams didn’t do enough this offseason?
Will baseball’s new pace-of-play rules actually work?
The impact rookies of 2018

OTHER FUN STUFF TO READ OR WATCH BEFORE OPENING DAY
• The Dodgers will win the World Series, according to ‘MLB: The Show 18’
• Ranking every starting pitcher scheduled for MLB’s historic opening day
• The five best bets of the 2018 MLB season
One former GM tries to make sense of a puzzling MLB offseason
Which top MLB prospects will make their team’s opening day roster?
Video: We quizzed the people: Is this an MLB relief pitcher or a dude in a band?
Video: Take our test: Is this a real or fake Minor League Baseball team?

Giancarlo Stanton and the Yankees are suddenly MLB’s most interesting team. (AP)
Giancarlo Stanton and the Yankees are suddenly MLB’s most interesting team. (AP)

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Mike Oz is a writer at Yahoo Sports. Contact him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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