By Cliff Corcoran
The New Year is upon us, and, along with resolutions and promises, that brings big expectations of the year ahead. So here are the 10 baseball things I am most looking forward to in 2018.
1. Top free agents finding teams
My first piece of 2017 was a look at the top 2016-17 free agents remaining on the market last Jan. 3. That list was topped by Jose Bautista, Luis Valbuena, Matt Wieters, Colby Rasmus and Jason Hammel, five players who combined to be just 0.2 wins above replacement level last year, per Baseball-Reference's figures. That group was representative of the type of free agents who are typically left come January. This year, however, 16 of my top 20 free agents entering this offseason remain unsigned, including Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Todd Frazier, Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and Jay Bruce, who were all in my top 10. Add in the notable trades that could result from teams failing to land one of those top free agents, and this could be one of the busiest Januaries in Major League history.
2. Opening Day (March 29)
Pitchers and catchers is a tease, but Opening Day is a nondenominational Christmas, and this year it will arrive earlier than ever before. Yes, there have been season openers earlier than March 29, but never before have all 30 teams opened the season this early. This year, as a result of the extra off-days added to the schedule by the latest CBA and a desire to have the regular season end on Sunday, Sept. 30, every fan will get to watch their team begin their season on Thursday, March 29.
The first pitch will take place in Miami at 12:40 p.m. ET, as the Cubs open a four-game set against the Marlins. The late games will find the Indians in Seattle and the Rockies in Arizona, both starting at 10:10 p.m. The latter of those late games is a rematch of last year's National League Wild Card Game, the only playoff rematch of Opening Weekend. The defending champion Astros open against their cross-state rivals in Arlington at 3:35 p.m., while the 7:08 p.m. Giants-Dodgers matchup promises a Madison Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw duel. If Shohei Ohtani draws the Angels' Opening Day assignment, he'll face the A's in Oakland at 4:05 p.m. Speaking of which ...
3. Shohei Ohtani, Major Leaguer
A year ago, Ohtani was something between a rumor and a legend. A 23-year-old kid who dominates on the mound with triple-digit heat and blasts dingers at the plate, talented enough to be a star as a pitcher or a hitter yet somehow continuing to do both at the highest level in his native Japan? He couldn't be real, could he? Those highlights on YouTube are fake, right? We hoped to catch a glimpse of him in the World Baseball Classic, but an ankle injury only deepened the mystery.
Now, he's a member of the Angels and ready to take the same mound on which Nolan Ryan made his name and hit in the same lineup as the Western Hemisphere's greatest active player, Mike Trout. Will Ohtani live up to the hype? Will he be able to be the first full-time two-way player to succeed on both sides of the ball since Babe Ruth was a 24-year-old with the Red Sox? He'll start to answer those questions in late March.
4. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the same lineup
The Yankees' seemingly imminent return to glory may be a hard sell to non-Yankees fans. Still, baseball fans of all stripes must admit that the idea of seeing the two most powerful hitters in the game batting in the same lineup, possibly back-to-back, playing their home games in a homer-friendly ballpark in a suddenly homer-friendly era, is mouth-watering stuff that brings to mind the home run heroics of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Yankees open their season with a four-game series in Toronto, then return to the Bronx for their home opener against the Rays on Monday, April 2. The Bronx Bombers also welcome the Marlins to Yankee Stadium for a two-game set on April 16 and 17. What do you think the chances are that Derek Jeter will be in attendance?
5. A full year of peak Byron Buxton
After a prolonged period of adjustment, the Byron Buxton we were all promised fully flowered after being recalled by the Twins on Aug. 1. Over the final two months of the season, he hit .298/.342/.541 with 11 home runs, 13 steals in as many attempts and his already-established all-world play in center field. Statcast™ tells us he is the fastest player in the game, and his birth certificate tells us he only just turned 24. His strikeout and walk rates still need work, but if he can do what he did in those two months over the entire 2018 season, he will be a legitimate American League MVP Award candidate.
6. Hall of Fame inductions (July 29)
The Hall of Fame inductions are a highlight of every season, but this year has the potential to be extra special due to the number of living players likely to be inducted. We already know Tigers greats Alan Trammell and Jack Morris have been selected by the Modern Baseball Era Committee. Chipper Jones and Jim Thome look like slam-dunks on the writers' ballot and Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman and, surprisingly, Edgar Martinez, are all currently above the required 75 percent on Ryan Thibodaux's public ballot tracker. Most likely, either Hoffman or Martinez will fall short once all the votes are in. Still, that would be six living inductees, all honored for their playing careers. There were six living inductees in 2014, but three of them were inducted as managers. The last time the Hall inducted six living men for their MLB playing careers was 1955, when Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Frank "Home Run" Baker and Ray Schalk were inducted.
7. A wild Trade Deadline period
One of the biggest baseball stories of 2018 will be, and already is, the next free-agent class, which might be the best and deepest in the 42-year history of free agency. That free-agent class, in turn, could power a fun Trade Deadline as teams look to cash in their impending free agents (see No. 10) for prospects as the July 31 non-waiver Deadline approaches.
8. Trout or Stanton in the playoffs
Trout and Stanton have been two of the most exciting young players in the Major Leagues for the bulk of the current decade, combining for three MVP Awards and four second-place finishes. Yet, between them, they have played in a total of just three playoff games and won none. That seems likely to change this year. Stanton has elevated a powerhouse Yankees team that reached the seventh game of the AL Championship Series last year. Trout's Angels, meanwhile, have finally taken an aggressive approach to building a team around the game's greatest player, extending late-2017 addition Justin Upton to prevent him from opting out of his contract, adding Ohtani to their rotation and lineup, bolstering their infield with veterans Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler and improving their bullpen with former closer Jim Johnson. They may not be done, either. The Angels are far from a lock for the postseason, but coming off an 80-82 season, they have taken a clear step forward.
9. The Nationals' possible last title chase with Bryce Harper
Four times the Nationals have reached the postseason with Bryce Harper in their lineup. Four times they have failed to advance past the National League Division Series. In 2017, their elimination came when Harper, representing the tying run in the bottom of the ninth of the winner-take-all fifth game, with two outs and a full count, struck out. Harper will headline this year's free-agent class in November, but he won't be among those on the trading block in late July. Heading into the season, the Nationals look like a lock to win their third straight NL East title. The Nationals have the talent to go all the way, as they have more often than not in Harper's six years with the team, and they may yet add to their already impressive roster (see item No. 1). Could Harper and the Nationals give one another the ultimate parting gift? That dénouement will come in October.
10. The 2018 free-agent class
Free agency will dominate baseball in 2018. Not only is the bulk of the current class still available at the start of the year, but the 2018-19 class could be the best ever. The impending freedom of those players will drive the decisions made by their teams all year long (indeed, that may already be the case, and one reason the current free-agent market has been so slow to develop). Come early November, the market will be flooded with premium free agents. Just look at this top 15 I threw together before Christmas, and don't miss the 17 honorable mentions at the bottom, including stars such as Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. By the time all of those free agents find homes for 2019, the balance of power in Major League Baseball could be very different. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens, not just next offseason, but every day in baseball between now and then.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.