Big questions left over from 2018 that 2019 will have to answer

As we count down the hours to the new year, baseball is still on the mind. It’s always on the mind. I’m thinking of some of 2018’s still-unanswered questions as we look ahead to 2019. …

Where will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign?

This is the big one, the granddaddy of them all. The Los Angeles Dodgers cleared space in the outfield and a little breathing room on the payroll when they traded Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the Cincinnati Reds. And Harper further fueled speculation that he’s L.A.-bound — or would like to be — when on Christmas Eve he liked an MLB post on Instagram asking if the Dodgers were the favorites to land Harper.

Still, the Dodgers will have to pony up the cash. That could leave an opening for another team — the Philadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals — to get Harper. Then there are the Chicago Cubs, perhaps looming as a dark horse. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Cubs’ brass met with Scott Boras at the winter meetings and Theo Epstein asked Boras to check back in with the Cubs before Harper agrees to a deal with another team. The Cubs would likely need to dump some payroll first (or, rather, desire to dump payroll).

Meanwhile, Machado said he’ll wait until the new year to make his decision. The largest contract in MLB history is Giancarlo Stanton‘s $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins and the general belief is that Boras and Dan Lozano are like Amundsen and Scott racing for the South Pole to break that record. The best chance for that to happen could be if the Phillies miss out on Harper and give the record-setting deal to keep Machado away from the New York Yankees.

Is the Opener here to stay?

One of the hot topics at the winter meetings was the future viability of the “opener” strategy that the Tampa Bay Rays deployed so successfully throughout the season and other teams eventually emulated to a lesser extent. The consensus opinion from managers: The opener isn’t a fad. “I think we’re going to see it happen,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I know we’re going to do it.”

The Oakland Athletics were one of the teams that tried it down the stretch, even starting reliever Liam Hendriks in the American League wild-card game. “You’re seeing other teams do it, too,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “And I think you’ll see more of it next year. … Yeah, I think that is here to stay.”

You can make an argument that use of the opener on a regular basis was the most significant development of the 2018 season. Think about it: It was an entirely new strategy to playing the game, a pretty remarkable development given the sport’s long history.

This doesn’t mean the death of the starting pitcher. As Cash pointed out, it was easier for the Rays to try the strategy given the youth of their pitching staff. “Every club kind of values their rotation or their pitching staff differently,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say if you look at the Astros, Red Sox, that had a very veteran group of pitchers one through five, that might be a little challenging to [try the opener].”

Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell made another point that suggests the opener may not become as widespread as some will predict. “I think the strategy is different in the National League with the pitcher hitting,” he said. “I do think that changes the calculus that you have to think about and how you want to structure that. Because once you go through an opener, and you put a starter in a game, if that starter comes up in the fourth or fifth inning and you’ve got an at-bat that you need in that game … you’re going to go through pitchers quickly then. And that will catch up with you.”

Even the Rays signed free-agent starter Charlie Morton to go along with AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow to give them three regular starters. Their strategy also worked because they had “starting” pitchers ready in long relief to back up the openers — rookies Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks, who filled the role of long reliever, were all developed as starters in the minors. Yarbrough, in fact, while he started only six games, still pitched 147 1/3 innings. The opener strategy works only if you have serviceable “starting” pitchers who can provide length out of the bullpen.

Is there another evolution in bullpen usage?

The league-wide emphasis on relief pitching — and de-emphasis on starting pitchers going deeper into games — means more innings are required from bullpens. Relievers threw 2,238 more innings in 2018 than 2015 and 3,178 more than 2010. Guess what one result of this change has been, however: The gap in quality between starters and relievers has shrunk.

Starters and relievers had nearly the same ERA and OPS allowed in 2018, after notable spreads the previous five seasons. Maybe that will prove to be just a one-year blip. Or maybe there just aren’t enough quality relief innings to go around — relievers threw nearly 1,000 more innings in 2018 than 2017 (the Rays were responsible for 279 of those innings, although they had almost the same bullpen ERA as in 2017, 3.80 compared with 3.83).

So, yes, the general idea of limiting your lesser starters to two trips through the batting order makes sense, but 2018 showed us that some teams are having issues filling out the back ends of their bullpens. Here’s one way to look at it: 281 pitchers threw at least 25 innings in relief and 52 of them had an ERA over 5.00 — nearly 20 percent. That doesn’t include all the bad relievers who don’t even get to 25 innings.

One idea that some teams have employed in the minors is tandem starters — two pitchers who pitch the same day and go three innings apiece. I could see some teams trying this in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotations, but that means you would need three regular starters plus four other pitchers who are more than your conventional one-inning relievers. That means, beyond your three full-time starters throwing 175-plus innings, you need four guys capable of pitching about 100 innings each. Then hope none of them gets injured.

It’s an intriguing concept; there are undoubtedly starters who struggle with a regular starters’ workload who would be more effective at 100 innings. It’s also a good way to preserve the workload for a young pitcher without moving him back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, this means you need a deep bullpen, because you’re using two (or four) relievers in this role. Still, this feels like the next trend in relief pitching. One thing seems obvious: There is nothing that suggests starters will go back to pitching more innings.

Will the shift be banned?

Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to view the shift as more than a minor irritant and The Athletic’s Jayson Stark recently reported that the commissioner has received “strong” backing from the competition committee to create some set of rules to limit shifts — possibly by Opening Day of 2019.

We’ll save the analysis and ramifications of a potential rule change for another day, but at the winter meetings I didn’t hear one manager say he was in favor of a ban. Almost all were vehemently against a ban.

“You can say I was wrong, I just can’t see it happening,” Counsell strongly suggested. “I’ll just say: I don’t see the sense in banning the shift at all. I don’t see how it improves the game. I think it’s a strategic part of the game that is one of the things that makes our game fun — let’s find strategies to win baseball games. That’s why we love the game. … That’s why you guys (in the media) have jobs, because we talk about strategy all the time. So if you want to eliminate all the strategies, I don’t know, you guys better think about that.”

Indians manager Terry Francona was also strongly against a ban: “I don’t think you can dictate to teams competitive things. You know what I mean? You hear me say it sometimes, the unintended consequences.”

Joe Maddon: “My answer is no, I would not legislate against the shift. The shift should be organically maneuvered.”

And so on. The issue: Does the commissioner care what the managers think about the game they manage?

Is it super teams or bust in 2019?

That certainly seems the case again in the American League, which saw three teams win 100 games in 2018. The Yankees already look stronger with the additions of James Paxton and a full season of J.A. Happ and they could still add Machado or even Harper. The Astros have some holes in the rotation to fill, but did sign Michael Brantley. The Red Sox will have postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi in the rotation for a full season.

Meanwhile, the 89-win Mariners decided to rebuild and the A’s are basically trying to build a rotation from scratch (they just re-signed Mike Fiers). The Rays look strong, but have to contend with the Red Sox and Yankees. The Indians have reshuffled things, but lost Brantley and may yet trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. The Orioles, Royals and White Sox — last year’s 100-loss teams — are still deep in the rebuilding process. So, yes, it seems possible that the Red Sox, Astros and Yankees could all win 100 again.

The National League is a different story with more teams going for it. Heck, even the Reds, coming off 95 losses, have traded for Puig, Kemp, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. They’re still a long-shot playoff contender, but as they — and the Mets and Phillies and maybe even the Padres or Giants — make more moves, they should take some wins away from the best teams.

If one team has a chance to be a super team, it’s the Dodgers. The NL West looks weaker with the Diamondbacks trending downward, they’ll get Corey Seager back, they have a deep rotation … and they may have Bryce Harper batting cleanup on Opening Day.

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