A Major League Baseball season is a series of stages. Teams and players go through peaks and valleys, so as they perform, the storylines around them change.
Now that baseball is back with a full day of action, following two appetizers in Australia and a night game in San Diego on Sunday, we can dive deeper into the key stories worth following on this momentous day.
There are 13 games taking place on Monday with nine of last year's 10 playoff teams in action, including two games between playoff teams (St. Louis vs. Cincinnati, Cleveland vs. Oakland). Here are the things to follow closely when things get started.
Are the Royals ready to compete with the Tigers in the AL Central?
A trendy pick in the American League has the Kansas City Royals making the postseason this year. ESPN's Jim Bowden (Insider subscription required) took things a step further by predicting them to win a division title for the first time since 1985, citing the team's defense and bullpen as major reasons.
We are going to find out where the Royals stack up right out of the gate as they take on the Detroit Tigers, who haven't ended a season before the American League Championship Series since 2011.
James Shields is Kansas City's Opening Day starter, and we largely know what he will give the team every fifth day. He's a workhorse who throws 220-plus innings and regularly posts an ERA in the 3.00-3.25 range.
The rest of the rotation will depend on how successful the Royals are in 2014. Jason Vargas is a No. 4 starter, at best, whose numbers might look better because of the defense behind him. Star rookie Yordano Ventura is the wild card with a 101 mph fastball, but who knows how he'll react to being a starter every fifth day and how the league will adjust to him?
The Tigers are still the class of the division and should be overwhelming favorites to make the postseason. But if there is a team that's going to steal it out from under Detroit, Kansas City is the best bet.
Is this the year Stephen Strasburg's performance matches the hype?
What's the best division in baseball?
When you are hyped as the best pitching prospect in baseball history, there's immediate pressure to become the top starter in a pitching-dominated era.
Stephen Strasburg has never been a bad or mediocre pitcher, though there is a feeling of disappointment surrounding the right-hander because he hasn't performed like Clayton Kershaw or Yu Darvish. Yet.
David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote last August that Strasburg still had work to do before reaching "ace" status:
The goal for starters is to prevent runs and pitch deep into games. He ranks 22nd among MLB starters in ERA and lower if you look at runs per nine innings since he's allowed nine unearned runs. He's also just 41st in innings pitched -- 42 innings fewer than Kershaw, not that any pitcher compares favorably to Kershaw these days.
The Nationals are giving Strasburg the start on Opening Day against the New York Mets—despite having Jordan Zimmermann—so it's clear the team views him as their best pitcher.
And despite the lack of a Cy Young Award on his mantle, Strasburg averaged 9.39 strikeouts per nine innings with the highest ground-ball rate of his career (51.5 percent) in 2013. He's just 25 years old and nearly three years removed from Tommy John surgery, so this is his breakout year.
How will the new-look AL West fare in 2014?
There isn't a more volatile division in baseball at the start of the year than the American League West. Texas has sustained so many injuries that it's using Tanner Scheppers, a reliever last year, as a starter and could end up auditioning kids at the local sandlot just to fill out a 25-man roster.
Oakland has lost some pitching in the offseason (Bartolo Colon), including to injuries (Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin), though the A's still have depth to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season.
It's only fitting that the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels open the year against each other.
The Mariners made one huge splash in free agency by signing Robinson Cano, then made a number of puzzling moves. It's not that Corey Hart and Logan Morrison don't have value, but the team could end up putting one of them in the outfield.
Morrison has never played more than 123 games in a season, due to various injuries and knee problems, so putting him in the outfield isn't going to end well. Hart missed the entire 2013 season after undergoing surgery on his right knee.
On top of that, Seattle put starting pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list. At least Felix Hernandez hasn't fallen apart yet.
The Angels spent the offseason trying to rebuild their pitching staff, adding Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago through trades, and they have Mike Trout signed to a new six-year contract.
Albert Pujols made it through spring training unscathed and is going to try giving the Angels something for all that money they spent on him. Josh Hamilton ended the spring on a roll, slugging .606 in 11 games.
If the Rangers can tread water until Jurickson Profar, Derek Holland and Geovany Soto return, they are the best team in the division. But the Angels are the most intriguing team because of their new, young pitching and the potential that exists with Trout, Pujols and Hamilton if the latter two can stay healthy.
Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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