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MLB preview: Bronx Bombers lead off 18 burning questions for 2018

Matt Youmans  
VSiN senior editor

March 28, 2018 05:37 PM

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Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 home runs last year, when Aaron Judge ripped 52. Will Stanton and Judge live up to the homer hype and drive the Yankees deep into October?
© USA Today Sports Images

Even those who hate the New York Yankees know this could be great. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, monster-sized sluggers, are lining up in baseball’s most intimidating offense. It’s the must-see spectacle of the spring, summer and fall.

A year ago, the Yankees developed into a surprisingly cool story, a team with several baby-faced stars arriving ahead of schedule. When it’s the Yankees, it’s not an underdog story, but it felt like it at times. That time has passed.

The Yankees are among the World Series favorites, with the past two Home Run Derby winners set to launch bombs in the Bronx and in ballparks all over the majors. It could turn into a modern-day version of Mantle and Maris. Or it could be a minor disappointment. When 111 home runs join forces, expectations could be unrealistic.

The 6-foot-6 Stanton hit 59 homers last year for the Miami Marlins, whose new owners cut costs and traded him to New York in December. The 6-7 Judge ripped 52 homers for the Yankees, who came up short in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

New York ranked No. 2 in the majors in runs scored with 858, 38 behind the World Series champion Houston Astros. Now, with Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez in the middle of the lineup, the Yankees are loaded with the top power hitters on the planet.

With quality starting pitching, an elite bullpen and more prospects on the way, the Yankees are not sneaking up on anyone anymore.

Will Stanton and Judge live up to the homer hype and drive the Yankees deep into October? That’s one of 18 burning questions to debate with the 2018 season opening on Thursday.

Is J.D. Martinez capable of being Boston’s answer to the Bronx Bombers?
Not willing to concede anything to the Yankees, the Red Sox in February signed the top power-hitting free agent on the market. Martinez has posted numbers worthy of his new five-year, $110 million deal. After being traded from Detroit to Arizona in mid-July, Martinez batted .302 with 29 home runs and 65 RBIs in 62 games with the Diamondbacks. He’s in the middle of a tremendous Red Sox lineup and taking aim at the Green Monster. Martinez was an acquisition Boston absolutely had to make to fill the void left by David Ortiz.

Are the new managers in Boston and New York — Alex Cora and Aaron Boone — in over their heads or up to the challenge?
It’s not easy to manage superstars in major media markets, where every little losing streak becomes a crisis. The pressure will be intense on Boone, who has no managerial experience. The Yankees gambled by ditching Joe Girardi after 10 years, and critics of that decision will be watching closely. The Red Sox dumped John Farrell, who won the division for the second straight year but also lost in the first round of the playoffs. Cora, who takes over after one year as the Astros’ bench coach, needs to clean up Boston’s clubhouse chaos.

Is this last call for Bryce Harper in Washington?
Harper, a Las Vegas teen phenom who was the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, has hit 150 home runs in six seasons with the Nationals. But his team is 0-for-4 in the postseason, never advancing past the first round. Washington has a new manager, Dave Martinez, and possibly its best team yet, even after winning 97 and 95 games the past two years. Harper will be a free agent after this season, so the Nationals need to win now. Harper wants to play for the Yankees, who already have two superstar right fielders. So next year at this time, don’t be surprised if Harper has signed for nearly $400 million and is wearing blue, either for the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers.

Will Manny Machado make it through the summer in Baltimore?
Check the standings on July 6, when Machado turns 26. If the Orioles are not contending in the AL East, Machado might be on the move. He can play third base and shortstop and has totaled 105 homers the past three seasons, all of which would put him in Harper’s income bracket on the open market. The Orioles could be forced to deal him for prospects before the deadline.

Are Mike Trout and the Angels ready to return to the playoffs?
Trout, 26, has been the best player in baseball for the past four years. But during that time, the Angels won zero playoff games. He hit 33 homers despite missing 48 games last year, when Los Angeles finished 80-82. The Angels appear to be improved in all aspects and, health permitting, should win close to 90 games. There is no catching the Astros in the AL West, but the Angels can grab a wild-card spot.

Will the the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani experiment be a bust?
A two-way star in Japan, Ohtani was a two-way bust in spring training. Los Angeles paid a $20 million posting fee to the Nippon Ham Fighters for the 23-year-old international prospect. So far, Ohtani is showing he’s prepared to neither pitch nor hit in the majors. In two Cactus League starts, he allowed nine runs in 2⅔ innings. As a hitter, he went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts. But it’s early, and Ohtani will need time to adjust. Ohtani will make his starting pitching debut Sunday in Oakland, following Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker in the rotation. The Angels can win without Ohtani, who might need a trip to Triple-A Salt Lake, but their playoff chances obviously improve if he can develop.

How bad are the Miami Marlins?
Derek Jeter, the team’s new CEO, is far more popular in New York than in Miami. He stripped the payroll, sending Stanton to the Yankees, Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis and Christian Yelich to Milwaukee. The Marlins have a little offensive talent (Justin Bour, Starlin Castro and J.T. Realmuto) and a lot of holes to fill. After a 77-win season, this first step in a long rebuilding process will be ugly for Jeter and manager Don Mattingly. The betting market has set Miami’s win total at 64, and a 100-loss season could be reality for what looks like the worst team in baseball.

Will the Cleveland Indians lead the AL in wins again?
Not long ago, the Indians lost a World Series Game 7 thriller. But things are strangely quiet around Cleveland, where LeBron James’ NBA future is the focus, while all of the AL hype seems to be about the Astros and Yankees. It’s certainly possible Terry Francona is managing the best team in baseball. Cleveland finished 102-60 last year, one game ahead of Houston, and posted the top run differential in the majors at plus-254. The offense still will be explosive, the Corey Kluber-led rotation is strong and the bullpen is solid. Remember the Indians.

Are the Twins going back-to-back to the playoffs?
Two years ago, Minnesota was the worst team in baseball. After a 26-win improvement — from 59-103 to 85-77 — the Twins reached the postseason for the first time in seven years. Paul Molitor is managing a team with a few veterans and lots of young talent, highlighted by Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. It will be interesting to see if the Twins regress or advance to October again. 

Will the New York Mets’ young guns reload?
In 2015, when the Mets were National League champions, their youthful starting rotation appeared to be the future. But the disabled list changed everything, and New York slipped to 70-92 last year. As of now, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are healthy and set to fire. Washington will run away with the NL East again, but the No. 2 spot is up for grabs, and the Mets have the arms to make a run.

Are the new-look Giants doomed without MadBum for two months?
A dirt bike accident that sidelined Madison Bumgarner also wrecked the Giants’ 2017 season. After posting the worst record in baseball (64-98) and finishing an astounding 40 games behind the Dodgers, San Francisco added veteran third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Andrew McCutchen. But another injury to MadBum — a fractured left pitching hand — will shelve the ace possibly until June. The pitching-thin Giants, who will start Ty Blach on Opening Day, hope they are not buried in the NL West standings by the time Bumgarner resurfaces.

Seriously, is James Shields still an Opening Day starter?
The White Sox are rebuilding after a 67-win year, but this is not their year, either. The pitching staff is so green that the 36-year-old Shields, who went 5-7 with a 5.23 ERA last season, is getting the ball for the season opener. Shields’ best days are way in the past — he was kicked to the curb by the San Diego Padres, after all — and he’s not part of Chicago’s future. On the bright side, the White Sox do have numerous prospects worth watching.

Will Jake Arrieta be a big asset to the rising Phillies?
Several sharp bettors and baseball analysts view Philadelphia as a potential surprise team. That is saying something, considering the Phillies’ win-total results for the past five seasons: 66, 71, 63, 73 and 73. Aaron Nola, a 24-year-old right-hander, is maturing into a No. 1 starter. Nola went 12-11 with 184 strikeouts in 168 innings last year. Now he will be supported by former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, whose fastball is no longer as fearsome as his beard. Arrieta has declined, but the Phillies are gambling he has something left and just gave him a three-year, $75 million deal. Arrieta could be a valuable veteran influence on a young team.

Are the Brewers and Cardinals ready to challenge the Cubs?
The Cubs took a step back last year, sliding from 103 wins to 92, but still won the NL Central by six games over Milwaukee. Chicago obviously deserves to be the division favorite. The middle of the lineup — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez — is about as good as it gets. The addition of Yu Darvish solidified the rotation. The Brewers should be tough to shake again, but St. Louis is the team to watch. The Cardinals boosted their offense by trading for Marcell Ozuna, who hit .312 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs for Miami last year. Ozuna joins Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham in an impressive outfield. Yadier Molina continues to anchor a good infield. Carlos Martinez is the ace of a strong rotation. Yes, the Cardinals could top 90 wins and make the Cubs sweat in September.

Which six teams will emerge as division winners?
The AL East is a two-horse race, with the Yankees likely beating the Red Sox to the wire. The Indians will run away with the Central and the Astros will do the same in the West. The NL East still belongs to the Nationals, without a doubt, and the Dodgers will make it six straight first-place finishes in the West. But here’s one surprise division champ: St. Louis over Chicago.

Will Clayton Kershaw carry the Dodgers back to the World Series?
There is some recent history on the Dodgers’ side. In 2014, Kansas City fell to San Francisco in seven games. Instead of experiencing a World Series hangover, the Royals rebounded in 2015 to beat the New York Mets in five games. Kershaw remains the top pitcher in the game, and the Dodgers remain the NL’s top team on paper. The Dodgers last won the World Series in 1988, and after falling in seven games last year, their sense of urgency is great.

Will the Astros regress or return to the World Series?
No team has repeated as champion since the Yankees won three years in a row from 1998 to 2000. With the majors’ best offense returning, and a pitching staff led by Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole, Houston has the talent to break the no-repeat streak. But the Astros might have to go through the Yankees again, and that’s a lot to ask.

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