There’s no gentle way of saying this — if you’re a baseball fan, this past winter was absolutely brutal. Even though quite a few notable free agents are still unsigned, we at least have the joy of Spring Training games to satisfy us until the regular season rolls around.
We do get a bit of a reward for struggling through the last few months without a whole lot of meaningful baseball news, and it comes in the form of the earliest Opening Day ever. It’s also become common to have (at most) a handful of games to kick things off, with the rest of the league playing the day after. Not this year, though — all teams will be playing their first of 162 contests on March 29th, which is the first time that’ll happen since 1968.
In the spirit of Opening Day, we figured it was a good idea to rank all 15 matchups (it’s probably not a good idea, but we did it anyway). Is the following list subjective? You bet it is, and the reasoning is based on either storylines (from the offseason or last year), potential matchups, or a combination of the two.
Let’s be clear about one thing before getting into it — every single one of these games is worth watching. Especially after a slow winter, I’d be perfectly content with any meaningful game that’s put in front of me. It’s just that some are more appealing than others for any number of reasons.
With all that in mind, here are the 15 Opening Day games ranked from worst to best, with players and/or situations I’ll be watching.
15. Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
While quite a few of his advanced stats took a steady dive before bouncing back in 2017, first baseman Jose Abreu has been one of baseball’s most consistent power hitters. He’s registered at least 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 30 doubles, and 176 total hits in each of his four big league seasons.
The one thing he hasn’t done consistently is steal bases — he’s swiped six bags in just nine tries overall. But that’s an area of his game he’d like to improve in 2018 instead of just being known as a standard power hitter. Can he get it going right off the bat against Salvador Perez? Who knows, but I want him to try.
14. Pittsburgh Pirates at Detroit Tigers
The Pirates are still reportedly trying to contend despite shipping Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole out of town this winter. However, this appears to be a matchup between two clubs looking past 2018. The Tigers are in more of a full rebuild and Pittsburgh is in more of a reloading phase, but that’s pretty much what we’re looking at here.
Nicholas Castellanos‘ 111 wRC+ came up short compared to the year prior, but his 26 homers, 101 RBI, and 43.4% hard-hit rate were new single-season personal highs. How will he adjust to being a full-time outfielder, though? He registered -64 Defensive Runs Scored (DRS) in 4,401 career innings at third base, so moving out to the grass will be his next challenge, where he’s posted -8 DRS in 211.2 innings.
13. Washington Nationals at Cincinnati Reds
A starting pitcher has registered at least 150 innings while striking out more than 30.0% of batters faced on 19 different occasions since 2002. The only hurler to have a higher strikeout rate than Scherzer’s 34.4% from last year was… Chris Sale, who posted a 36.2% rate last year.
Votto had his own memorable season in 2017 — there have only been nine instances since 2002 where a hitter has slugged 35-plus homers with a walk rate above 15.0% and a strikeout rate below 15.0%. Votto is one of just four players not named Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols to accomplish such a feat.
To this point, these two have faced each other for 10 total at-bats. Scherzer owns four strikeouts, but Votto has a 1.300 OPS off the strength of four hits (one double and one homer).
12. Chicago Cubs at Miami Marlins
Jon Lester will be starting on Opening Day for the seventh time in his career. The southpaw has done quite a bit during his big league career, including four trips to the All-Star Game and three World Series titles.
All I want to see from him in this game, though, is that Michael Jordan bounce pass he’s been practicing during his Spring Training appearances.
11. Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
In two or three years, this particular National League East matchup will be awfully intriguing. But for now, it’s between two clubs that are getting closer to finishing their respective rebuilds.
The potential probable starters is worth getting excited about, though. The Phillies could be sending Aaron Nola to the hill, who has the potential to be a dark horse Cy Young candidate if he can just stay healthy. Atlanta could give Julio Teheran the nod, meaning he’ll have to face his demons at SunTrust Park immediately — he posted a 5.86 ERA and .351 wOBA allowed at home last year, but just a 3.14 ERA and .308 wOBA on the road.
10. Milwaukee Brewers at San Diego Padres
You want to know how slow this past winter was on the Hot Stove front? The Brewers and the Padres were two of the league’s more active teams. Milwaukee revamped its outfield by acquiring both Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, along with adding Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo to the back of the rotation (although they could use some more help).
San Diego made a couple of trades that netted them Chase Headley, Bryan Mitchell, and Freddy Galvis, but the big splash was signing Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal. The fit still seems weird since they’re not going to contend for at least a couple years, but it’ll be cool to see these guys debut for their new squads all on the same field.
9. Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles
The Twins will undoubtedly miss Ervin Santana at the front of their rotation while he’s on the disabled list, but that could set up another juicy pitching matchup between a pair of young hurlers in 23-year-old Jose Berrios and 25-year-old Dylan Bundy.
Berrios scuffled down the stretch in the second half, as did Bundy outside of a dominant August. However, the other thing they have in common is a nasty breaking pitch — Berrios’ curveball produced a 34.4% strikeout rate, 13.5% swinging-strike rate, and a 63 wRC+ allowed, while Bundy’s slider produced a 44.2% strikeout rate, 24.4% swinging-strike rate, and a 40 wRC+ allowed.
8. Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics
There are plenty of things to look forward to on an individual basis for the Angels, but overall, it’ll be most interesting to see how good their team defense is.
They seemed to prioritize defense two winters ago, and although Zack Cozart is fresh off a great offensive year and Ian Kinsler has the reputation of being a solid bat, they can also play some defense. The projections seem to think that this unit will be the league’s best in 2018.
7. New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman appeared to be the easy choice for an Opening Day start, but shoulder inflammation will likely delay his season slightly. Even though that doesn’t look like a possibility now, it’s still hard to not be intrigued by how the Yankees’ offense starts to mesh together.
According to Roster Resource, the second through fifth spot in New York’s every-day lineup could be: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez. That’s rather terrifying, especially if Bird is healthy and can keep last year’s strong finish going.
6. St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets
If health issues didn’t delay Jacob deGrom‘s start to Spring Training, he probably would’ve been the Mets’ Opening Day starter. Since everything is pointing toward that not happening, Noah Syndergaard will probably be the man for the job. Based off some of his early Grapefruit League work, he’s up for the task.
He added to that on Thursday by striking out seven Washington hitters in a row in 3.1 innings.
Carlos Martinez is no slouch either, as he ran his fastball up over 95 miles per hour on average last year and has been worth at least 3.3 fWAR in each of the last three seasons.
5. Houston Astros at Texas Rangers
Who wouldn’t want to watch the reigning champs officially begin the defense of their title? I know I do, especially with a dominant Justin Verlander getting the nod for Houston on the bump.
Having the Astros and Rangers go up against one another is interesting because of what’s transpired between these American League West foes each of the last two seasons. When Texas won the division in 2016, they beat Houston 15 times out of a possible 19 tries.
But when the Astros took first-place honors last season, they returned the favor by going 12-7 in this head-to-head matchup. This division is a little deeper than in recent years, but it’ll be fascinating to see if the defending champs can set the tone to prove they’re “not the Cubs.”
4. Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
A Chris Sale-Chris Archer pitching matchup is worth the price of admission, but it gets even more juicy when seeing how much Sale dominated Tampa Bay in 2017.
The veteran southpaw went 4-1 with a 2.66 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 40.2 innings off the strength of 66 strikeouts (!) and just 10 walks. He had at least 12 strikeouts in four of his six starts, and didn’t register fewer than eight punchouts in the other two.
It may not get any easier against Craig Kimbrel if he gets a chance to enter in the ninth inning, either — he didn’t allow a hit and walked just one while striking out 23 in nine innings against the club last year.
Some main contributors to the Rays’ 2017 offense are suiting up elsewhere (Steven Souza, Logan Morrison, and Corey Dickerson) and eyes will also be on how J.D. Martinez is fitting into Boston’s offense. However, I’m intrigued as to whether Sale and Kimbrel can keep this level of domination going.
3. Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks
The DBacks had a sneaky-good offseason despite not being able to retain Martinez, and the Rockies doubled down on their bullpen by investing a ton of money into it. Neither squad seemingly did enough to help them catch up to what appears to be a very deep and versatile Los Angeles Dodgers squad. So, they could very well be fighting over the limited number of wild-card spots available with a number of other perceived contenders.
Gray has been getting stronger and improving each year, while Greinke openly admitted that he’s a little worried about his lack of velocity (although he could be playing some mind games).
We typically think of offense when discussing both Colorado and Arizona, but they could easily only go as far as their respective pitching staffs can carry them.
2. Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners
This is the perfect kind of narrative — the team that currently owns baseball’s longest World Series drought (the Indians) gets to start what they’re hoping is a fruitful year against the team that owns baseball’s longest current postseason drought (the Mariners).
It’s also an interesting dynamic because while both teams have a talented core group of players, their respective window of opportunity is starting to close due to pending free agents, age, and/or financial flexibility.
1. San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers
The Giants are fresh off a horrific season but have also been one of the most successful teams this decade, evidenced by their three World Series titles. They reloaded for 2018 by acquiring two franchise icons from other teams in McCutchen and Evan Longoria, with hopes of keeping L.A.’s title drought intact for another year.
After all, the Giants have more World Series titles than the Dodgers have Fall Classic appearances since last winning in 1988.
This is already one of baseball’s oldest and fiercest rivalries, yet it gets even better with two of the game’s best southpaws going at it in Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. The main attraction will be them dueling one another from the rubber, but I can’t wait to see Kershaw face MadBum as a hitter — he’s struck out 12 times in 20 at-bats but has also launched two homers off L.A.’s unquestioned ace.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.