Clayton Kershaw wrapped up spring training with a 0.00 ERA, while Madison Bumgarner left camp with three pins in the broken pinkie of his pitching hand. Ronald Acuna begins the season in the minors, while Scott Kingery has a spot on the Philadelphia Phillies' roster and a guaranteed $24 million in his future. And while Jake Arrieta prepares for his first start in Philly, fellow Scott Boras client Greg Holland is still looking for work in the aftermath of a 41-save season.
A lot of things changed on the Major League Baseball landscape in recent weeks, but everyone is back at square one starting Thursday. The 2018 season begins with 15 openers, and even the alleged tankers and teams in noncompetitive mode have varying degrees of reason to be hopeful.
How will MLB's big on- and off-field questions play out over the coming months? ESPN.com surveyed 43 general managers, assistant GMs, personnel directors and scouts in an attempt to gauge the industry pulse on eight topics that will drive the season narrative. The poll took place via email, and respondents received assurances of anonymity to best allow them to speak candidly. In cases where a half-point is given, the respondent split his vote between two clubs.
1. Six teams -- the Yankees, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers -- are prohibitive favorites in their divisions. Which one is most likely to be upset and not finish first?
Responses: Yankees 17½; Cubs 9½; Dodgers 8; Nationals 3½; Indians 3½; Astros 1.
Even former commissioner Bud Selig, the king of "hope and faith,'' might have a hard time selling parity this season. Bad or mediocre teams abound, and baseball could wind up in a similar position as last season, when the AL East competition between the Yankees and Red Sox was the only division race with a shred of drama in the waning days.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system forecasts a similar scenario this year, with Houston, Cleveland and the Dodgers rolling to double-digit victory margins, the Yankees and Nationals flirting with that, and the Cubs leading the way in the NL Central with 91 wins to the Cardinals' 85.
Which team might not be a lock? Survey respondents think New York's rotation could be vulnerable because of Masahiro Tanaka's elbow, CC Sabathia's age, Sonny Gray's general health history and Jordan Montgomery's youth. But the Yankees-related skepticism is more a nod to the Red Sox, who are coming off back-to-back 93-wins seasons and two straight division titles (although that didn't do former manager John Farrell's job security much good).
"Boston is a good second team, and it's hard to imagine them not making a big deadline push if they are within shouting distance,'' a scout said.
Similarly, the Cubs could be pushed by Milwaukee and St. Louis in the NL Central, and the Dodgers have all kinds of competition in an NL West that includes 2017 postseason participants Arizona and Colorado, a motivated San Francisco club and a San Diego team on the rise.
"The Dodgers have some potential cracks there with the starting pitching and the bullpen depth, and they have some pretty good teams breathing down their neck,'' an AL personnel man said.
2. Which star free-agent infielder will be traded before the deadline in July? Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, neither or both?
Responses: Machado 13; Donaldson 13; both 8; neither 5. Four respondents had no opinion.
The answer to this question might hinge less on the performances of Machado and Donaldson than their teams in general. The Orioles were lumped in with MLB's do-nothings until spring training arrived and executive vice president Dan Duquette added Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and Alex Cobb to the rotation. Buck Showalter and Adam Jones have injected a lot of pride in the Orioles' clubhouse during their extended run together, and the Orioles' history suggests they're always reluctant sellers and not the easiest trade partner under Peter Angelos' ownership regime.
Toronto's rotation of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada has the potential to keep the Jays afloat for a while in the AL East, but almost a third of respondents expect president of baseball operations Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins to shop Donaldson once reality sets in around midseason.
Can Donaldson stay healthy after missing 49 games with a calf injury last season? There were whispers of a recurrence in spring training, but Donaldson quickly dismissed it as an issue.
Machado has settled in nicely at shortstop this spring, and it will be interesting to see whether he's willing to entertain a move back to third base to help facilitate a deadline deal if it comes to that.
"Both are incredible players that would help any lineup,'' one survey respondent said. "But barring injury, it is hard to project a big market for a third baseman or a shortstop. As it stands today, every major contender is set at both positions and won't be motivated to give up good prospects for a rental.''
Donaldson and Machado might not be the only power-hitting infield bats on the market in July. One survey participant predicts that the Kansas City Royals will also shop Mike Moustakas hard at the trade deadline.
3. Which team do you think Bryce Harper will be playing for in 2019? Will he become baseball's first $400 million player?
Responses: Nationals 15½; Phillies 10½; Cubs 3½; Dodgers 3; Yankees 2½; Angels 2; Padres 1. Five participants had no response.
Six respondents predicted that Harper will surpass $400 million, and multiple insiders think he will at the very least surpass Giancarlo Stanton's MLB-record $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins.
It's worth noting that Machado, with a big walk year, could outearn Harper on the open market. Machado turns 26 this summer, has three All-Star Games on his résumé, plays a premium defensive position and has appeared in 475 of a possible 486 games since 2015. Machado's agent, Dan Lozano of the MVP Sports Group, negotiated Albert Pujols' $240 million contract with the Angels and Joey Votto's $225 million agreement with the Reds, so he has a track record for landing mega-deals.
"I can see this becoming a situation where both parties realize they are familiar with and need each other. Why terminate a good relationship when both can find a way to make it work?" An AL talent evaluator on Bryce Harper and the Nationals
The pro-Nationals sentiment is a sign that industry observers don't expect the Lerner family to let Harper leave Washington without making every conceivable effort to keep him.
"I can see this becoming a situation where both parties realize they are familiar with and need each other,'' an AL evaluator said. "Why terminate a good relationship when both can find a way to make it work?''
Phillies fans are semi-obsessed with the idea that Millville, New Jersey, native Mike Trout might return home one day to wear the red and white and continue to cultivate his bromance with Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, so it's interesting that so many poll respondents see the Phillies as a legitimate threat for Harper.
"Even after their big offseason, they have a ton of financial flexibility,'' an assistant GM said. "This would be a double-whammy to add Harper from a division rival's roster.''
Scott Boras is adept at cultivating relationships with owners, and attentive observers took note that he and Phillies owner John Middleton looked like besties hanging out together at Arrieta's media day in Florida two weeks ago. It's just something to file away if the Harper-to-Philadelphia rumors start swirling in December.
4. Of these upcoming free-agent outfielders, who is most likely to sign an extension with his current team: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones or Andrew McCutchen?
Responses: Blackmon 25; Jones 9; McCutchen 3; none 3; no opinion 2. "I think all three probably stay where they are. Is that an option?'' a scout said.
Blackmon is a self-made player who has blossomed in his early 30s and fits with the program in Denver. He's popular in the clubhouse and the community, and the Rockies are ostensibly motivated to try to keep him with an extension. If David Dahl and Raimel Tapia can graduate to the big leagues and the Rockies can replace free-agent-in-waiting DJ LeMahieu with former first-round pick Brendan Rodgers, that will give them plenty of cost savings they can apply elsewhere.
"The Rockies are trying to open a competitive window that Blackmon can fit into. Blackmon-Dahl-Tapia could be a solid outfield for several years,'' a survey respondent said.
One caveat: Third baseman Nolan Arenado is eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, and the Rockies might have to conserve some of their spending power to make a big run at the franchise's best player.
Blackmon's appeal to potential suitors is also complicated by his home-road splits. In 2016, he recorded a .939 OPS at home compared to .926 on the road. Last year, he logged a 1.239 OPS at Coors Field and a .784 mark in away games, so there's some intrigue among potential suitors over precisely what they're going to get. Jones has had a major impact on and off the field since the Orioles acquired him from Seattle by trade in 2008. He'll be 33 when he hits the open market, and at some point, he and the Angelos family might be motivated to find common ground to keep him in Baltimore.
"He's the face of the franchise, and I think he'll take a reasonable offer to stay there,'' a National League scout said. "He's seen what the market looks like. Free agency has changed.''
5. Will Clayton Kershaw stay with the Dodgers on his current deal or opt out of his contract after the season? If he opts out, what is his most likely destination?
Responses: Thirteen said Kershaw will stay with the Dodgers on his current contract; 22 said he will opt out, restructure his deal and remain with the Dodgers.
Of the six respondents who said Kershaw will leave L.A., four picked the Texas Rangers, one the Houston Astros and one the New York Yankees as landing spots. Two respondents had no opinion.
Kershaw isn't the only former Cy Young Award winner with a decision to make next offseason. Boston's David Price will have four years and a guaranteed $127 million still owed him after this season. Price turns 33 in August and threw only 74 innings in 2017 because of elbow issues. Unless Price enjoys a Cy Young Award-caliber comeback this season, it's hard to envision him exercising his opt-out and walking away from the four years and guaranteed $127 million left on his deal.
"I'm sure the Dodgers will jump through lots of hoops that they wouldn't want to in order to keep their Hall of Famer, but I'll say he opts out and signs with Texas." An NL talent evaluator on Clayton Kershaw's future.
The planets align more favorably for Kershaw to take the plunge. He'll be 30 in November, and the two years and $65 million left on his contract seem like a pittance compared to what he can get starting from scratch.
More than half the survey respondents think Kershaw's agent, Casey Close, will use the opt-out as leverage to negotiate a longer, more lucrative deal. The question is, will it keep him in Los Angeles for his inevitable push toward Cooperstown? Or will he return home to Texas -- specifically, his native Dallas -- and play for the Rangers? Along with the comforts of home, the Rangers can try to sell Kershaw on no state income tax and a new $1.2 billion retractable-roof ballpark scheduled to open in 2020. "Clayton is a one-team guy in my opinion,'' a senior adviser for a club said. "He is chasing Koufax as a best of all time. He knows the best way to do that is with one team.''
Precisely what Kershaw knows, only he can say. Some observers suspect the lure of home will be awfully hard for him to resist.
"I'm sure the Dodgers will jump through lots of hoops that they wouldn't want to in order to keep their Hall of Famer, but I'll say he opts out and signs with Texas,'' an NL talent evaluator said.
6. Next year at this time, will Shohei Ohtani still be a two-way player, or exclusively a pitcher?
Responses: Twenty-three said Ohtani will be strictly a pitcher; 20 think he'll remain a two-way player.
Everybody knew Ohtani would face a challenge in uprooting his life amid exhausting scrutiny and bringing his "Japan's Babe Ruth'' routine to America. Ohtani's .125 Cactus League batting average (4-for-32) and 27.00 ERA in 2 2/3 innings pitched has helped to remind people of the magnitude of the endeavor.
Even scouts who are rooting for Ohtani think he's a bit overwhelmed and might benefit from a stint with the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees to take a deep breath and get his bearings.
"It would be cool for all if he can hit and pitch,'' a veteran scout said. "Right now he's a marked man, and pitchers are abusing him at the plate. The big issue is endurance. He's coming off a 25-inning season. The stuff is lights out in the first inning and then a huge drop after that. He has to get in MLB pitching shape, which he has never done in his life. It's not a once-a-week showcase in MLB.''
Ohtani came to the U.S. with a goal of going both ways, and the Angels and other suitors all expressed a willingness to accommodate his wishes. Based on good faith alone, the Angels would prefer to give the experiment as much time as possible.
"I think it's pretty early for people to be betting against this kind of athlete,'' a National League official said. "I know there are swing flaws and that what he's trying to do is damn near impossible, but this dude is also a freak, and until he's had a chance to get comfortable seeing the stuff in Major League Baseball (which is dramatically different than Nippon Professional Baseball, Triple-A or anywhere else in the world) I don't think we can make a fair judgment.
"It's possible that over the second half of next season, when they try to push his innings total, that they encourage him to cut it out if it's not going well, but it would be pulling the plug really quickly for me to give up by this time next year.''
7. Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez were the two position players to sign $100 million-plus deals this winter. Which hitter will turn out to be the best investment over the life of his contract?
Responses: Hosmer 24; Martinez 15; 1 respondent said "both,'' while another replied "neither.'' Two participants had no opinion.
Martinez, who signed with the Boston Red Sox for five years and $110 million, is a right-handed basher who has emerged as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game since the Houston Astros released him in March 2014. Over the past four seasons, he ranks second between Mike Trout (.579) and Giancarlo Stanton (.573) among MLB hitters with a .574 slugging percentage. Hosmer is two years younger than Martinez at age 28. His five-year, $105 million contract with San Diego includes three player option years that could extend the deal to eight years and $144 million. He's a solid lefty bat, but his 111 career OPS+ and 14.2 career WAR prompted some observers to judge the Padres guilty of overpaying.
Hosmer is an excellent leader and teammate who has a better glove than the modern metrics give him credit for, but one survey respondent wondered why the Padres would splurge for Hosmer when a slow market allowed the Twins to sign Logan Morrison to a one-year, $6.5 million guaranteed deal fresh off a 38-homer season.
"Martinez is the more prolific offensive player, with a more consistent year-to-year track record, and there is less exposure on the length of the contract,'' a National League executive said. "There's no reason to think he won't continue to be a dominant hitter, whereas it would not be shocking if Hosmer has a handful of sub-.800 OPS seasons over the course of his deal.''
The Padres think Hosmer will have a beneficial effect on Wil Myers, who was never comfortable with the "face of the franchise'' talk after signing an $83 million extension. And as Boras observed at the introductory news conference, the Padres are betting that Hosmer will help shape the team's "volcano of hot talent lava'' into major league rock.
"I love the Hosmer deal for San Diego,'' an NL official said. "You've got to change culture at some point in a rebuild, and you need real leadership to do that. I believe that Hos is a unique leader from everything that I've heard and think that adding him to some of the absurd talent that they have in that system makes them a legitimate threat to the Dodgers in 2020-2021.''
8. The Minnesota Twins made the playoffs last year and the Milwaukee Brewers fell one game short of the wild card. Which team with relatively modest expectations is most likely to have an impact this season?
Responses: Angels 7; Mets 7; Phillies 4; Giants 3; Athletics 3; Rockies 3; Cardinals 2; White Sox 2; Braves 2; Blue Jays 2; Padres 2; Mariners 1; Twins 1; Orioles 1; Reds 1; Rays 1. No response 1.
While industry observers have questions about the health and performance of the Angels' starting rotation, the positive reviews of general manager Billy Eppler's offseason have continued this spring. Even if Shohei Ohtani fails to live up to the hype in his rookie year, a full season of Mike Trout and Justin Upton, and the additions of Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler will make a big difference to a lineup that ranked 11th in the AL with 710 runs last season.
The Mets added Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Anthony Swarzak through free agency, and they're hoping that better health and a new pitcher-friendly manager will upgrade a pitching staff that ranked 14th in the NL with a 5.01 ERA.
"They're immediately dangerous with a rebound of their pitching staff,'' a pro scouting director said, "and I think Mickey Callaway is going to give them a boost just from a positive-attitude standpoint.''
While the Giants' aspirations took a hit with recent injuries to Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, several observers think they'll be significantly better with the additions of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria to the lineup.
"They're a little long in the tooth,'' a scout said. "But they've got some good leadership and guys in their 30s who've been on winning teams. I still have a lot of faith in Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy.''