Opening Day is finally here. The exhibition slate has mercifully come to a close, the ink is dry on a flurry of late-spring contract extensions and historic free agent contracts, hotly-contested position battles have been decided, nearly half of all closing situations are still in flux and starting rotations have been finalized. With all 30 teams in action on Thursday, there are plenty of intriguing fantasy storylines to follow including: Bryce Harper’s debut in Philadelphia, the youth movement led by top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego, burgeoning superstar Ronald Acuna kicking off his sophomore campaign, Eloy Jimenez’ first exposure to The Show, the defending World Series champion Red Sox sending Chris Sale to the mound in Seattle, and perhaps most importantly, how many bases will the Royals attempt to steal? As if there weren’t enough compelling narratives to monitor, the schedule makers have bestowed upon this slate a pair of absolute gems, featuring the AL and NL Cy Young award winners and their respective runners-up going head-to-head. Here’s the schedule:
It’s a doubleheader straight from baseball heaven. If you score a run, keep the baseball, because it doesn’t happen often against these aces. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric, which uses a variety of variables to estimate the rate at which a pitcher “deserved” to give up runs, deGrom (2.09 DRA), Scherzer (2.29), Verlander (2.33) and Snell (2.44) finished with the lowest marks of any starter with at least 150 innings of work in 2018.
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Let’s start on the senior circuit where deGrom and Scherzer square off in an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. After signing a five-year, $137.5 million extension with the Mets earlier this week, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner faces a tough test against a young, talented Nationals’ lineup anchored by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto with dynamic speedsters Trea Turner and Victor Robles as the bookends. The 30-year-old righty allowed three earned runs or fewer in 29 consecutive starts and finished last season with a microscopic 1.70 ERA and 269/46 K/BB ratio across 217 innings. If there is anyone equipped to go head-to-head with deGrom, it’s Scherzer. The 34-year-old righty is a monolith of consistency, and a throwback workhorse, in an era where they’re rapidly going extinct. He’s eclipsed the 200-inning plateau in six consecutive seasons and posted a major-league leading 300 strikeouts last year.
Meanwhile, the main event on the junior circuit features a classic showdown between a grizzled, battle-tested veteran and a young upstart coming off an electric breakout campaign in one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in baseball. At 36-years-old, Verlander remains elite in every sense of the word. He recorded a 2.52 ERA and a career-high 290 strikeouts over 214 innings of work last season. Yet, it was Snell who finally conquered his massive control issues and took home the AL Cy Young award in 2018. The 26-year-old southpaw recorded a minuscule 1.89 ERA across 180 2/3 frames. If you’re a fan of low-scoring pitchers duels, it doesn’t get better than this.
Lindor Sprains Ankle, Timetable Uncertain
The Indians nightmare spring training concluded with reports that shortstop Francisco Lindor sustained a moderate left ankle sprain while running the bases during a minor-league game on Tuesday. The 25-year-old superstar was on the precipice of returning from an early-February calf strain when this latest injury occurred. There is no timetable for his regular-season debut and he was officially placed on the 10-day injured list on Wednesday. It will most likely be sidelined for at least a few weeks before he can embark on a minor-league rehab stint. A tandem comprised of relative unknowns Eric Stamets and Max Moroff are expected to fill in at shortstop until Lindor is healthy enough to return. It’s an incredibly frustrating development for fantasy owners who invested a first-round selection in the uber-talented middle infielder. Even if he returns in early May, it will be nearly impossible for him to replicate last seasons’ 38-homer, 25-steal campaign. However, he’s been extremely durable in the past and should have no issues re-establishing himself as an elite five-category fantasy stud once he returns.
Why Kendrys Is Joining the Athletics
With first baseman Matt Olson sidelined until mid-May with a hamate bone fracture, the Athletics found themselves in desperate need of an infusion of left-handed power and elected to address it by acquiring veteran slugger Kendrys Morales from the Blue Jays in exchange for infielder Jesus Lopez and international signing bonus pool space on Wednesday. According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Blue Jays, who are in the midst of a full-scale rebuilding effort, will reportedly pay “more than $10 million” of the $12 million owed to Morales this season. It’s a low-risk investment for Oakland, who is looking to get back to the postseason after winning 97 games and losing to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game last October. The last-minute acquisition likely bumps super-utility specialist Franklin Barreto off the A’s Opening Day roster and opens up a spot at the big-league level for outfielder Anthony Alford in Toronto.
From a fantasy perspective, the 35-year-old switch-hitter has been one of the most underrated hitters in baseball over the last few years. On the surface, his raw numbers are completely underwhelming. He hit .249/.331/.438 with 21 homers, 47 runs scored and 57 RBI in 471 plate appearances last season. However, if you dig a bit deeper into the advanced metrics, they tell an entirely different narrative. According to Baseball Savant data, Morales recorded a .377 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) -- a metric formulated using Statcast exit velocity and launch angle data, in tandem with strikeout and walk rate, to determine expected outcomes based on quality of contact -- and a .526 expected slugging percentage (xSLG). To put those numbers in context, Morales ranked 20th and 18th, respectively, out of 313 big-league hitters with at least 250 plate appearances last year.
Here’s an oversimplification: Morales generated quality hard contact at an elite rate, but was extremely unlucky that it didn’t translate into traditional surface stat results in 2018. Perhaps a change of scenery is exactly what he needs. Jumping into the middle of a loaded Athletics’ lineup, and re-gaining first base eligibility, should boost his counting stats potential and offset any potential negative impact on his over-the-fence pop from leaving the hitter-friendly confines of the AL East. Given his advanced age and complete lack of speed, it’s difficult to forecast a scenario in which Morales joins the upper echelon at the cold corner, but based on Statcast’s expected statistics, he profiles as a realistic four-category fantasy contributor and an impact bat in deeper mixed leagues.
Injured List Quick Hits: Athletics placed 1B Matt Olson (hand) and RHP Chris Bassitt (leg) on the 10-day injured list. … Nationals placed OF Michael Taylor (hip/knee), INF Howie Kendrick (hamstring) and RHP Koda Glover (forearm) on the 10-day injured list. … Twins placed 3B Miguel Sano (heel), RHP Matt Magill (shoulder), RHP Addison Reed (thumb) and RHP Gabriel Moya (shoulder) on the 10-day injured list. … Mets placed C Travis d'Arnaud on the 10-day injured list with a right elbow injury. … Athletics transferred RHP Jharel Cotton (elbow) to the 60-day injured list … Padres placed OF Travis Jankowski (fractured wrist) on the 60-day injured list.
American League Quick Hits: Mallex Smith (elbow) will start in center fielder for the Mariners in Thursday’s regular season opener against the Red Sox. … Aaron Hicks (back) still hasn't been cleared to resume baseball activities … Angels claimed Brian Goodwin off waivers from the Royals. … Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (oblique) will stay in Florida to continue his rehabilitation. … Rafael Devers will bat third for the Red Sox opener against the Mariners. … Greg Bird will start at first base for the Yankees opener against the Orioles. … Jorge Polanco is expected to be ready for the Twins’ Opening Day matchup against the Indians. … Indians purchased the contract of Hanley Ramirez and Eric Stamets from Triple-A Columbus. … Aaron Brooks has been named the Athletics' fifth starter. … Angels purchased the contract of Peter Bourjos from Triple-A Salt Lake. … Twins purchased the contract of RHP Rhyne Harper from Triple-A Rochester. … Angels acquired 3B Adrian Rondon from the Rays for cash considerations … Rangers signed RHP Florencio Serrano.
National League Quick Hits: Clayton Kershaw (shoulder) is scheduled for a three-inning simulated game on Saturday. … MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo reports that his sources expect Pete Alonso to be in the Mets’ starting lineup for their Opening Day matchup against the Nationals on Thursday. … Padres claimed Socrates Brito off waivers from the Diamondbacks. … Robbie Erlin will open the year in the Padres' bullpen. … Alen Hanson he will not be on the Giants’ Opening Day roster. … Nationals selected the contract of INF Jake Noll from Triple-A Fresno. … Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen reiterated on Wednesday that Devin Mesoraco will open the season on the restricted list.