PHOENIX – Major League Baseball is back to normalcy.
No more COVID-19 restrictions, and no lockout to start the season.
Opening Day is almost here, with all 30 teams scheduled to play Thursday.
“I think this could go down as one of the most unbelievable opening days in history when you think about it,’’ MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We’re back to normal, let’s start with the basics. We got the most exciting set of rule changes I think ever in the game, really, certainly the biggest set. And the lead-up has been, you know, one of the great international baseball tournaments of all-time in the WBC.
“So, I think we enter the ’23 season (with) tremendous momentum.’’
Sure, there still are glitches.
The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are still stuck with no new stadium in sight.
The payroll disparity between the small- and large-market teams is the greatest in history.
And it’s quite possible that the same dozen teams who earn a postseason berth are the exact same as a year ago.
Well, the beauty of baseball is there’s always a surprise team (the Baltimore Orioles a year ago) and a grossly underachieving team (Chicago White Sox).
There are celebrated prospects who burst onto the scene (Michael Harris, Atlanta), and others who are busts (Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers).
There are veterans who dazzle (Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees) and others who fizzle (Kris Bryant, Colorado Rockies).
Now, with bags being packed, and trucks heading north, here are nine questions entering the 2023 season:
1. Can Shohei Ohtani be better than last year?
The Los Angeles Angels are planning to pitch Ohtani more often this year, giving the ball to Ohtani every fifth day, and providing he stays healthy, who can possibly put a limit on him?
Forget the question of whether Ohtani can earn $500 million as a free agent.
Why not $600 million?
Remember, this international star generates about $20 million a year for the Los Angeles Angels by his presence alone.
If the Angels are out of the race at the trade deadline, would they have the guts to trade Ohtani?
Absolutely. They may have no choice. Certainly, they’ll need to have a conversation with Ohtani to determine whether he has any interest in returning, and if not, the phone lines are open with operators standing nearby.
Ohtani’s likely destination, if traded?
The San Diego Padres. They have the desire, the prospects, and don’t think Angels owner Arte Moreno wouldn’t love helping the Padres’ chief rival in the NL West overtake the crosstown and rival Dodgers.
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2. Can Aaron Judge duplicate his AL-record 62 home run season?
There has never been a hitter not linked to performance-enhancing drugs with back-to-back 60-homer seasons.
The last clean player to hit 50 or more homers in consecutive seasons was Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997-98.
If Judge stays healthy, there’s no reason he can’t hit 50 homers again, but only this time, expect him to get intentionally walked more than 19 times like a year ago.
3. Biggest surprise team to win their division?
The Toronto Blue Jays are talented enough to win only their second AL East title since 1993, and look out, there just could be a World Series played north of the border.
4. Biggest disappointment?
Same division, but just to the south, the New York Yankees.
Yes, the Yankees have spoiled everyone by coasting to the playoffs for six consecutive years, advancing to the ALCS in three of those years, but has anyone paid attention to those pitching injuries? There are only two starters remaining from their original projected rotation: Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes.
The Yankees still are good, but intimidating? Uh-uh.
Could they possibly miss the playoffs? Don’t be shocked.
5. What team has the most pressure?
Say hello to your lovable San Diego Padres, your small-market team who spends money like they’re in New York or Los Angeles
You don’t sign the biggest stars in the game, flirt with every big-name free agent, have the third-largest payroll, and take satisfaction in anything less than a World Series appearance?
6. What team is the most overlooked?
Yep, those 111-win Dodgers.
Sure, they no longer have Trea Turner, Justin Turner or Cody Bellinger, and were eerily quiet in the offseason while saving money for the Ohtani sweepstakes, but this is still the mighty Dodgers with a powerful farm system that can compensate for any deficiencies.
They’ll be back in the playoffs, and perhaps even win the division once again.
7. Who wins the divisions and wild-card berths?
AL East: Toronto
AL Central: Cleveland
AL West: Houston
AL Wild Card teams: Seattle, Tampa, N.Y Yankees
NL East: Atlanta
NL Central: St. Louis
NL West: San Diego
NL Wild Card teams: Philadelphia, N.Y. Mets, L.A. Dodgers
8. Who wins the postseason awards?
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels
NL MVP: Trea Turner, Phillies
AL Cy Young: Emmanuel Clase, Guardians
NL Cy Young: Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks
AL Rookie: Gunnar Henderson, Orioles
NL Rookie: Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks
9. Who wins the World Series?
I’ve picked three of the last four winners correctly with the Washington Nationals in 2019, the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, Atlanta in 2021, but missed last year with the Houston Astros in 2022.
I even got the WBC champion right, including the exact score of the Japan-USA championship game.
I’ve got the Cleveland Guardians over the Philadelphia Phillies, capturing their first World Series title since 1948.
Several major leaguers, like Aledmys Diaz of the Oakland A’s and Corey Dickerson of the Washington Nationals, have joined Bruce Bolt, a leader of baseball and softball gear, to bring attention to Autism. April is Autism Awareness Month.
They are helping support Autism Speaks and Canopy Children’s Solutions, with part of the proceeds from batting gloves (www.brucebolt.us) going to the non-profits groups. Diaz and Dickerson will wear mismatched batting gloves during April to “reinforce the importance of embracing differences.’’
Certainly, it hits home with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Brett Phillips.
He met 9-year-old Adam when his family hosted him in 2015 Lancaster, Calif., as a minor leaguer, and remains good friends with him and the family today.
“He’s brilliant, a brilliant mind,’’ Phillips says. “It’s just that his social skills aren’t very good because of his disorder. I have great conversations with him. The people I’ve met with autism, their minds, their brains, are firing on such a higher level than ours. From an intellectual standpoint, they’re brilliant. I think society has always pointed the finger at them like they’re the black sheep.
“Honestly, I would like to bring awareness to this. If you ever have an opportunity to talk to somebody with autism, you might learn something about yourself, or just something in general.’’
Who's making profits and who's not
The value of MLB teams increased by 12% despite the bankruptcy filing of the Diamond Sports Group, according to Forbes, raising the average value of franchises to $2.32 billion, led again by the New York Yankees at $7.1 billion.
Teams earned an average profit of $17.7 million, which is down 20% from a year ago.
The most eye-opening stats are that several of the small-market owners who are crying poor, and have sub-$100 million payrolls, are actually making the most money, angering the union and large-market teams.
There’s something dreadfully wrong when the Oakland A’s ($62.2 million) ranked fifth among teams who made the most money while the Pittsburgh Pirates ($51.5 million) ranked eighth and the Kansas City Royals earned $27.8 million. Those three teams all benefit quite nicely with revenue sharing.
Meanwhile, the New York Mets, with their current $355 million payroll,, lost an MLB-leading $138.5 million last year while the San Diego Padres ($55.2 million) and Chicago White Sox ($53.4 million) lost the second- and third-most money.
The Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, the two largest-makret teams in baseball, earned $16.3 million and $14.3 million, by comparison.
The Boston Red Sox, who significantly lowered their payroll, earned $71.6 million, third behind the Seattle Mariners ($83.8 million) and the San Francisco Giants ($74.9 million).
Around the bases
► The New York Mets asked about Cincinnati Reds closer Alexis Diaz last season, and again this month after the season-ending injury to his brother, Edwin Diaz, but the answer remains the same.
Unless the Mets are willing to trade their top prospects in return, the answer is NO.
The Reds have Diaz under team control for five more years so they aren’t even thinking about moving him unless completely blown away in an offer.
► Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola is expected to hit the free-agent market this winter after contract extension talks broke down this spring. The Phillies, however, still hope to sign him during the exclusivity window before he files for free agency.
“We think the world of him, quality pitcher, quality human being,’’ Phillies president Dave Dombrowski told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “but sometimes you get to this point where you're not able to consummate a deal that both sides feel comfortable. We’re very open-minded to trying to sign him at the end of the season. We’re hopeful he’ll remain a Phillie for a long time.’’
Nola, one of the most underpaid pitchers in the game, is earning $16 million this year in the final year of a five-year, $56.75 million extension.
Shohei Ohtani, Julio Urias and Nola are the top three pitchers on the thin free-agent market this winter, and could be joined by Max Scherzer if he opts out of his contract.
► Scouts have raved about the ease that Fernando Tatis Jr. has adapted to right field this spring, with several predicting he could win the Gold Glove with his athleticism.
Tatis, who will miss the Padres’ first 20 games this season after testing positive last season for performance-enhancing drugs, is eligible to return April 20 against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
► One American League GM predicts that the Yankees would miss out on the playoffs this spring, and this was before their rotation took hit after hit.
The Yankees opened the spring with a starting rotation of Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Luis Severino, Nestor Cortes and Frankie Montas.
Well, only Cole and Cortes stayed healthy, with Severino the latest to go down with a lat strain.
Severino has struggled all spring with a 9.00 ERA, giving up six homers in 15 innings.
Now, he’s dealing with yet another injury derailing his career.
Why, since winning 19 games in 2018, he has since pitched in only 26 games, missing time with a right rotator cuff inflammation (2019), Tommy John surgery (2020), right lat strain (2022) and now another lat strain (2023).
Clarke Schmidt and Domingo German are the replacements and Jhony Brito could be he fifth starter, if needed.
► The Pittsburgh Pirates made incremental steps in hopes of signing All-Star center fielder Bryan Reynolds, but not enough to be optimistic about reaching a deal before opening day.
Reynolds is seeking an eight-year, $134 million deal. The Pirates have offered a six-year, $80 million contract.
► Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson is convinced that he was passed over as a potential buyer of the Los Angeles Dodgers before Rupert Murdoch purchased the club simply because he’s Black.
“I didn’t fit into the club,’’ Jackson said in his ‘Reggie’ documentary. “How else do I say that? I didn’t fit. Can I say it any plainer? Do you want me to say because I was colored I wasn’t a fit? It’s pretty easy to realize that.’’
► Heralded shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe will be 21 years, 336 days old on Opening Day. Only four Yankees have made their MLB debuts on Opening Day at a younger age:
1951 Mickey Mantle: 19 years, 179 days
1930 Ben Chapman: 21 years, 111 days
1962 Joe Pepitone: 21 years, 183 days
1932 Frankie Crosetti: 21 years 191 days
► MLB and WBC officials want to realign the pool brackets in the next WBC in 2026, making sure that the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are not in the same pool as they were in Miami. They also are seeking to strengthen pools like the one in Taichung in which Cuba and Italy advanced to the quarterfinals, and Cuba the semifinals. The USA-Cuba semifinal game was one of the most lopsided games of the tournament.
► How big of a cult hero has St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar become in Japan since the start of the World Baseball Classic?
He had 60,000 followers on his Instagram account before the opening of the WBC.
It has now exceeded 1 million.
Nootbaar even received a luxurious watch from Shohei Ohtani at the tournament, but he had to promise that he’d pitch for Japan in the 2026 WBC, or he’d have to give back the watch.
Nootbaar says he’s playing.
► Darren Baker, the son of Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, is one step closer to the big leagues. He is opening the year at Triple-A Buffalo in the Washington Nationals organization.
► Congratulations to Oz Sailors and Domonic Brown who were hired by EL1 Sports, the national youth baseball and softball training organizations for MLB.
Sailors, hired as the GM of Quickball at EL1, is the first woman to pitch in a Division 1 baseball game (University of Maine).
Brown, hired as a business development ambassador, is a former All-Star outfielder, playing with the Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays and Colorado Rockies.
► The way Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh figures it, the pitch clock will actually help him this year while batting.
“It eliminates all the extra thoughts,’’ Marsh told Philadelphia radio station 94 WIP. “Speaking for myself personally, that benefits me a little bit, just go up there and be just dumb enough. I know there are dudes out there that analyze every pitch, and I’m just not one of those guys.
“I do think that the pitch clock helps hitters that are similar to me that are not trying to think too much up there and just let the body and brain do whatever the heck it’s trained to do.”
► It’s only spring training, but the Cubs can only pray that the struggles of $177 million free-agent shortstop Dansby Swanson were just a blip, along with center fielder Cody Bellinger’s woes.
Swanson entered the final weekend hitting .059, the lowest by any player with at least 30 at-bats, while Bellinger was hitting .175.
► The San Francisco Giants were unable to land Aaron Judge or Carlos Correa, but as Giants president Larry Baer pointed out, they were one of only two teams to sign five players at $25 million or more this winter.
Mitch Haniger: 3 years, $43.5 million.
Michael Conforto: 2 years, $36 million
Taylor Rogers: 3 years, $33 million
Sean Manaea: 2 years, $25 million
Ross Stripling 2 years, $25 million.
► Congratulations to Massachusetts Hall of Fame reporter Jonny Miller of WBZ Radio in Boston, who will be attending his 65th Red Sox home opener this week.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2023 MLB Opening Day: 9 questions entering the season