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MLB Opening Day primer: 10 hot topics entering the season

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The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres opened the MLB season March 20-21 in South Korea, but the 28 other teams will take the field for the first time in 2024 on Thursday. In preparation for Opening Day, here are 10 of the hottest topics entering the season for the teams yet to play. 

Who are the top prospects to crack Opening Day rosters?

Jackson Holliday, MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 prospect, didn’t make Baltimore’s Opening Day roster, but future stars Jackson Chourio of the Brewers and Wyatt Langford of the Rangers will make their major league debuts Thursday. 

Chourio, who signed an eight-year, $82M extension with Milwaukee this offseason, has the tools to be an elite center fielder sooner than later. The 20-year-old slashed .280/.336/.467 with 22 home runs, 89 RBI and 43 steals in 122 games for Double-A Biloxi last season before a call-up for a six-game stint in Triple-A.

Meanwhile, 1B/DH Langford, the fourth overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, advanced rapidly through Texas’ minor league ranks last season, slashing .360/.480/.677 with 10 home runs and 30 RBI across four levels. Expect the Florida product to be another impact bat for one of baseball’s top offenses. 

Left-hander Jordan Montgomery is still looking for a job 

Agent Scott Boras overplayed his hand in multiple failed attempts to get several high-profile clients massive contracts this offseason, and Montgomery is entering the season unsigned as a result. Montgomery enjoyed a career year in 2023, posting a 3.20 ERA between the Cardinals and Rangers. The 31-year-old was also instrumental in helping Texas clinch its first World Series title in franchise history, posting a 2.90 ERA across five postseason starts.

Per CBS Sports’ Jim Bowden, Montgomery has two long-term contract offers on the table and interest from several other teams, including the Red Sox and Yankees. Considering the number of injuries to pitchers, perhaps Montgomery can raise his price by waiting to see how interested teams’ rotations fare in their first turn of the season.

Injured aces, impending contract negotiations loom large in New York

Both New York teams aim to rebound from disappointing seasons in 2023, but they must overcome adversity in the early going.

Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, is dealing with nerve inflammation and edema in his pitching elbow. Meanwhile, Mets RHP Kodai Senga has a right shoulder strain. Each All-Star should be back in May. 

Injuries aren’t the only major storyline to follow in New York. The impending free agencies of outfielder Juan Soto, the Yankees’ prized offseason acquisition, and Mets first baseman Pete Alonso will cast a shadow over both teams’ seasons. 

The Yankees must prove to Soto that they should be the team he spends the remainder of his potential Hall of Fame career with. Alonso, meanwhile, must convince the Mets he’s worth a massive long-term contract.

The defending champions’ rotation faces injury woes, too

The Rangers should be grateful they can score so much because their rotation is a concern. RHPs Max Scherzer (back), Tyler Mahle (elbow) and Jacob deGrom (elbow) will miss a large portion of the season. Scherzer is expected to return the soonest among the three, perhaps as early as June or July. 

The front four of Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Dane Dunning and Andrew Heaney will shoulder the majority of the load during the injured starters’ absence. Texas signed right-hander Michael Lorenzen to a one-year deal last week, potentially paving the way for lefty Cody Bradford to return to bullpen.

Royals hoping offseason spending spree can propel them to the playoffs

Contrary to popular belief, small-market teams are allowed to spend heavily in the offseason, which Kansas City proved this past winter. To upgrade a roster that finished 56-106 in 2023, the Royals spent $110.5M in free-agent contracts, the sixth most among teams, per Spotrac.

Kansas City’s most notable additions include right-handers Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, all of whom should significantly raise the team’s floor. 

As long as third baseman Maikel Garcia and star shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. continue their current trajectory, the Royals have a legitimate shot to earn a wild-card berth in 2024. 

Braves right-hander Spencer Strider looks the part of the NL Cy Young front-runner

Despite leading the majors in wins (20) and strikeouts (281) last season, Strider posted a modest 3.86 ERA, preventing him from being named an NL Cy Young finalist. 

Strider’s dominant spring gives reason to believe he will take home the award in 2024. With the help of his new curve, Strider posted a 0.79 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with 35 strikeouts across 22.2 innings during spring training. 

The race for second in the National League West should be thrilling 

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the star-studded Dodgers should run away with their 11th division title in 12 seasons, but the NL West could ultimately produce three playoff teams. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of the division’s standings shake out — FanDuel Sportsbook predicts the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants each to win 83.5 games in 2024. 

Even though Arizona made a magical run to the World Series last season and San Diego still has plenty of talent, the Giants merit the edge because of the late signings of third baseman Matt Chapman and LHP Blake Snell.

Astros bullpen is in a class of its own

During the 2023 regular season, Houston’s bullpen had the sixth-best ERA among teams (3.56) and ranked 10th in WHIP (1.27), but that didn’t stop GM Dana Brown from signing MLB’s top left-handed reliever in the offseason. 

In January, the Astros signed five-time All-Star Josh Hader to a five-year, $95M deal, creating the fiercest bullpen trio in baseball alongside Ryan Pressly (3.58 ERA in 2023) and Bryan Abreu (1.75 ERA in 2023). 

Houston’s starting rotation has questions, particularly since Justin Verlander (shoulder) will open the season on the injured list. Still, with the back end of the bullpen the team boasts, don’t discount Houston’s chances of making an eighth consecutive American League Championship Series appearance this season. 

Cubs primed for the postseason?

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer became a buyer at last season’s trade deadline to help his scrappy team reach the postseason. Chicago, however, collapsed in epic fashion, posting a 7-14 stretch in September, and it was eliminated from playoff contention on the second-to-last day of the regular season.  

Even so, there are several reasons to be optimistic the Cubs can return to the postseason in 2024. Most of last season’s roster returns, and the club made intriguing additions with the signings of LHP Shota Imanaga and reliever Hector Neris. 

Of course, no arrival is more impactful than manager Craig Counsell, whose track record of regular-season success should help Chicago take another step forward.

White Sox starting rotation has the potential to be MLB’s worst

FanGraphs projects White Sox starters to post the third-worst combined ERA in the majors this season (4.73), but this might end up being the worst rotation in baseball. While that may seem overly pessimistic, it is easy to see why it could be just by looking at Chicago’s top three starters.

After all, converted reliever Garrett Crochet’s first career outing as a starter will be on Opening Day, and Chicago’s No. 2 pitcher, Mike Soroka, has made just nine starts over the past four seasons due to injuries.

Additionally, No. 3 starter Erick Fedde, the 2023 KBO MVP, boasts a career 5.41 ERA over 454.1 MLB innings. The depth behind these starters isn’t particularly impressive, though Chicago will have to hope RHPs Nick Nastrini and Drew Thorpe show signs of promise.

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