As we rely down the hours to the brand new yr, baseball continues to be on the thoughts. It is at all times on the thoughts. I am considering of a few of 2018’s still-unanswered questions as we glance forward to 2019. …

The place will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signal?

That is the massive one, the granddaddy of all of them. The Los Angeles Dodgers cleared area within the outfield and a little bit respiratory room on the payroll once they traded Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the Cincinnati Reds. And Harper additional fueled hypothesis that he is L.A.-bound — or would really like to be — when on Christmas Eve he preferred an MLB put up on Instagram asking if the Dodgers have been the favorites to land Harper.

Nonetheless, the Dodgers will have to pony up the money. That might go away a gap for one more workforce — the Philadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals — to get Harper. Then there are the Chicago Cubs, maybe looming as a darkish horse. The Chicago Solar-Instances reported that the Cubs’ brass met with Scott Boras on the winter conferences and Theo Epstein requested Boras to test again in with the Cubs earlier than Harper agrees to a take care of one other workforce. The Cubs would doubtless want to dump some payroll first (or, somewhat, need to dump payroll).

In the meantime, Machado mentioned he’ll wait till the brand new yr to make his determination. The biggest contract in MLB historical past is Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million take care of the Miami Marlins and the overall perception is that Boras and Dan Lozano are like Amundsen and Scott racing for the South Pole to break that file. One of the best likelihood for that to occur might be if the Phillies miss out on Harper and provides the record-setting deal to hold Machado away from the New York Yankees.

Is the Opener right here to keep?

One of many scorching subjects on the winter conferences was the long run viability of the “opener” technique that the Tampa Bay Rays deployed so efficiently all through the season and different groups finally emulated to a lesser extent. The consensus opinion from managers: The opener is not a fad. “I believe we’re going to see it occur,” Rays supervisor Kevin Money mentioned. “I do know we’re going to do it.”

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The Oakland Athletics have been one of many groups that tried it down the stretch, even beginning reliever Liam Hendriks within the American League wild-card recreation. “You are seeing different groups do it, too,” A’s supervisor Bob Melvin mentioned. “And I believe you may see extra of it subsequent yr. … Yeah, I believe that is right here to keep.”

You can also make an argument that use of the opener frequently was essentially the most vital improvement of the 2018 season. Give it some thought: It was a wholly new technique to taking part in the sport, a fairly exceptional improvement given the game’s lengthy historical past.

This does not imply the dying of the beginning pitcher. As Money identified, it was simpler for the Rays to strive the technique given the youth of their pitching workers. “Each membership form of values their rotation or their pitching workers in a different way,” he mentioned. “I believe it is honest to say should you have a look at the Astros, Purple Sox, that had a really veteran group of pitchers one by means of 5, that may be a little bit difficult to [try the opener].”

Milwaukee Brewers supervisor Craig Counsell made one other level that suggests the opener could not change into as widespread as some will predict. “I believe the technique is completely different within the Nationwide League with the pitcher hitting,” he mentioned. “I do suppose that adjustments the calculus that you have to take into consideration and the way you need to construction that. As a result of when you undergo an opener, and you set a starter in a recreation, if that starter comes up within the fourth or fifth inning and you have got an at-bat that you want in that recreation … you are going to undergo pitchers rapidly then. And that will meet up with you.”

Even the Rays signed free-agent starter Charlie Morton to associate with AL Cy Younger winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow to give them three common starters. Their technique additionally labored as a result of that they had “beginning” pitchers prepared in lengthy reduction to again up the openers — rookies Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks, who stuffed the position of lengthy reliever, have been all developed as starters within the minors. Yarbrough, in reality, whereas he began solely six video games, nonetheless pitched 147⅓ innings. The opener technique works provided that you have serviceable “beginning” pitchers who can present size out of the bullpen.

Is there one other evolution in bullpen utilization?

The league-wide emphasis on reduction pitching — and de-emphasis on beginning pitchers going deeper into video games — means extra innings are required from bullpens. Relievers threw 2,238 extra innings in 2018 than 2015 and three,178 greater than 2010. Guess what one result of this modification has been, nonetheless: The hole in high quality between starters and relievers has shrunk.

Yr SP ERA RP ERA Diff SP OPS RP OPS Diff RP Pct. IP
2018 four.19 four.08 zero.11 .731 .722 .009 40.zero
2017 four.49 four.18 zero.31 .766 .724 .zero42 38.1
2016 four.34 three.93 zero.41 .752 .716 .036 36.7
2015 four.10 three.71 zero.39 .732 .702 .030 35.zero
2014 three.82 three.58 zero.24 .709 .682 .027 33.5
2013 four.01 three.59 zero.42 .726 .690 .036 34.three

Starters and relievers had almost the identical ERA and OPS allowed in 2018, after notable spreads the earlier 5 seasons. Possibly that will show to be only a one-year blip. Or possibly there simply aren’t sufficient high quality reduction innings to go round — relievers threw almost 1,00zero extra innings in 2018 than 2017 (the Rays have been accountable for 279 of these innings, though that they had nearly the identical bullpen ERA as in 2017, three.80 in contrast with three.83).

So, sure, the overall thought of limiting your lesser starters to two journeys by means of the batting order is smart, however 2018 confirmed us that some groups are having points filling out the again ends of their bullpens. This is a technique to have a look at it: 281 pitchers threw not less than 25 innings in reduction and 52 of them had an ERA over 5.00 — almost 20 %. That does not embrace all of the dangerous relievers who do not even get to 25 innings.

One thought that some groups have employed within the minors is tandem starters — two pitchers who pitch the identical day and go three innings apiece. I may see some groups making an attempt this within the fourth and fifth spots within the rotations, however that means you would wish three common starters plus 4 different pitchers who’re greater than your standard one-inning relievers. Meaning, past your three full-time starters throwing 175-plus innings, you want 4 guys able to pitching about 100 innings every. Then hope none of them will get injured.

It is an intriguing idea; there are undoubtedly starters who battle with an everyday starters’ workload who can be more practical at 100 innings. It is also a great way to protect the workload for a younger pitcher with out transferring him backwards and forwards between the rotation and the bullpen. In fact, this implies you want a deep bullpen, since you’re utilizing two (or 4) relievers on this position. Nonetheless, this looks like the following pattern in reduction pitching. One factor appears apparent: There may be nothing that suggests starters will return to pitching extra innings.

Will the shift be banned?

Commissioner Rob Manfred appears to view the shift as greater than a minor irritant and The Athletic’s Jayson Stark lately reported that the commissioner has obtained “sturdy” backing from the competitors committee to create some algorithm to restrict shifts — probably by Opening Day of 2019.

We’ll save the evaluation and ramifications of a possible rule change for one more day, however on the winter conferences I did not hear one supervisor say he was in favor of a ban. Nearly all have been vehemently towards a ban.

“You’ll be able to say I used to be mistaken, I simply cannot see it occurring,” Counsell strongly steered. “I will simply say: I do not see the sense in banning the shift in any respect. I do not see the way it improves the sport. I believe it is a strategic a part of the sport that is likely one of the issues that makes our recreation enjoyable — let’s discover methods to win baseball video games. That is why we love the sport. … That is why you guys (within the media) have jobs, as a result of we speak about technique on a regular basis. So in order for you to get rid of all of the methods, I do not know, you guys higher take into consideration that.”

Indians supervisor Terry Francona was additionally strongly towards a ban: “I do not suppose you possibly can dictate to groups aggressive issues. You understand what I imply? You hear me say it generally, the unintended penalties.”

Joe Maddon: “My answer isn’t any, I might not legislate towards the shift. The shift ought to be organically maneuvered.”

And so forth. The difficulty: Does the commissioner care what the managers take into consideration the sport they handle?

Is it tremendous groups or bust in 2019?

That actually appears the case once more within the American League, which noticed three groups win 100 video games in 2018. The Yankees already look stronger with the additions of James Paxton and a full season of J.A. Happ they usually may nonetheless add Machado and even Harper. The Astros have some holes within the rotation to fill, however did signal Michael Brantley. The Purple Sox will have postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi within the rotation for a full season.

In the meantime, the 89-win Mariners determined to rebuild and the A’s are principally making an attempt to construct a rotation from scratch (they only re-signed Mike Fiers). The Rays look sturdy, however have to cope with the Purple Sox and Yankees. The Indians have reshuffled issues, however misplaced Brantley and should but commerce Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. The Orioles, Royals and White Sox — final yr’s 100-loss groups — are nonetheless deep within the rebuilding course of. So, sure, it appears doable that the Purple Sox, Astros and Yankees may all win 100 once more.

The Nationwide League is a unique story with extra groups going for it. Heck, even the Reds, coming off 95 losses, have traded for Puig, Kemp, Alex Wooden and Tanner Roark. They’re nonetheless a long-shot playoff contender, however as they — and the Mets and Phillies and possibly even the Padres or Giants — make extra strikes, they need to take some wins away from the most effective groups.

If one workforce has an opportunity to be an excellent workforce, it is the Dodgers. The NL West seems to be weaker with the Diamondbacks trending downward, they will get Corey Seager again, they have a deep rotation … they usually could have Bryce Harper batting cleanup on Opening Day.

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