Congratulations, baseball fans, you've made it through the doldrums of the harsh winter. It's finally time for Opening Night.
This might as well be a national holiday. Opening Night brings new beginnings, fresh challenges and an immediate glimpse at which teams have come out of spring training swinging. The fruits of a strong offseason are evident as soon as Day 1 of the regular season, with major acquisitions often playing crucial roles right out of the gate.
MLB power rankings tend not to take shape until the first quarter of the season is over, as that's often the best time to judge where a team stands among its peers. But another great time to go down the line is before everything starts, as every team begins on a level playing ground.
There's a clear hierarchy among baseball's 30 teams as things stand today. But there are three teams in particular who could quickly shoot up the rankings and shake things up in the overarching landscape of the league.
|2015 MLB Pre-Opening Night Power Rankings|
|2||Los Angeles Dodgers||98-64|
|4||St. Louis Cardinals||94-68|
|5||Los Angeles Angels||92-70|
|8||Kansas City Royals||89-73|
|11||Chicago White Sox||85-77|
|12||Boston Red Sox||86-76|
|13||San Francisco Giants||87-75|
|14||Toronto Blue Jays||84-78|
|15||San Diego Padres||83-79|
|18||New York Yankees||81-81|
|20||New York Mets||80-82|
|24||Tampa Bay Rays||74-88|
To be fair, the Chicago Cubs are probably still one year away from contention. There are plenty of young hitters on the roster with incredible potential, but it wouldn't be wise to expect so much from them in 2015.
Anything can happen to a team with young, potent bats, however. Couple that potential with a pitching staff that is much improved, and the Cubs are a dark horse in the National League—especially for that second wild-card spot.
Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are as strong of a one-two punch as nearly every other rotation in baseball, especially if Arrieta continues his development. As far as back-end starters go, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood are good enough to get the job done. It wouldn't be crazy to see the team go after another arm during the season, but let's not jump the gun.
For now, the offense is anchored by Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. That will soon change when Kris Bryant gets the inevitable call to the bigs. Bryant is a franchise-changing prospect with the type of power that could match Jose Abreu's rookie season in 2014.
After mashing nine home runs this spring and hitting .425, Bryant was demoted to Triple-A—likely to delay his service clock and prevent him from reaching free agency a year early. Naturally, the decision left him a bit confused, as he told the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales:
"I really wanted my performance this spring to matter. I just felt it didn't matter as much (to them) as it did to me."
A motivated Kris Bryant is a scary thought for opposing pitchers. He's motivated now and ready to take the league by storm when he gets the call.
Throw in Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, Arismendy Alcantara, Miguel Montero and eventually Javier Baez, and this lineup will produce some double-digit run-scoring performances.
The only thing really holding this team back right now is the bullpen. Headlined by Hector Rondon (the likely closer) and Pedro Strop, the pen has the potential to flop. Phil Coke is the lone veteran with significant success during his career, and he was only just signed in the beginning of March.
Chicago White Sox
On the other hand, Chicago's team on the South Side beefed up it's bullpen in hopes of competing in the American League Central.
David Robertson and Zach Duke were two of general manager Rick Hahn's many major acquisitions this winter. They'll solidify a bullpen that ranked 28th in baseball in terms of WAR in 2014 (negative-0.3), per FanGraphs.
That's just the tip of the iceberg for Robin Ventura's White Sox. Jeff Samardzija, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana comprise a formidable front three, and Carlos Rodon might quickly make that an unstoppable front four if he can equal last year's success in the minors.
While he'll start the year down in Triple-A Charlotte, Rodon is the type of impact pitcher that can influence a playoff race immediately. Bleacher Report's MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania agrees:
Add Rodon to a rotation that already features hard-throwing newcomer Samardzija sandwiched by two lefties in the often-unhittable Chris Sale and hugely underrated Jose Quintana, and the White Sox have the makings of a one-through-four that can match up with any other rotation in the Junior Circuit.
The pitching depth alone makes the White Sox contenders, and we've yet to even address the lineup. Adam Eaton was just locked up to an extension in March, giving the team a leadoff man for the foreseeable future. Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera are newcomers who figure to give this lineup some extra pop in the middle of the order.
Jose Abreu, the team's most potent bat, must show that he can repeat last year's incredible debut, but there's no reason to think he'll slump badly enough to call him a bust.
The only real question mark in the lineup is at second base, where either Micah Johnson or Carlos Sanchez will get the bulk of the playing time. Johnson has never set foot on a major league diamond in a game that counts, while Sanchez has just 28 career at-bats in the Show.
But if that's the biggest problem the White Sox have, then this team is destined to outperform its No. 11 ranking and make a playoff push.
New York Yankees
Admittedly, it's a stretch to call the New York Yankees underdogs. There's plenty to hate about this current roster, but there's also plenty to be excited for. For the first time in a long time, there's some youth on this team. And the youthful players are in opportunities to actually succeed.
Didi Gregorius is the name everyone will bring up because he's replacing a living legend in Derek Jeter, and while he's important to the success of the lineup, he's not even the most important person on the team born in February of 1990.
Nathan Eovaldi, born just five days prior to Gregorius on Feb. 13, 1990, is a right-handed flamethrower who has yet to put it all together in the bigs. A guy that throws in the upper-90s shouldn't allow 223 hits in a season, like he did in 2014, so it's evident that his other pitches need some work. He had a 0.66 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in spring training, showing that he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will make the necessary improvements in his game.
With Eovaldi going well, the Yankees have a strong trio atop the rotation. He joins 26-year-olds Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka as young arms with incredible upside. Of course, mentioning Tanaka is a great segue into the major issues this club must overcome.
Tanaka is a ticking time bomb, according to most, and avoiding Tommy John surgery last season would indicate that he's still a risk to go under the knife in the future. MLB Network analyst Pedro Martinez spoke to Adam Schein on the SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio show Schein on Sports that he doesn't think last year's phenom will be able to make it through the season (via Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News):
"Unless they come up with a magic trick to actually get him better during the season, I just don’t see him completely healthy all year," he said.
Other injury risks on the team like CC Sabathia (who, when healthy, is still a question mark), Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira make a lot of money to produce—or, in last year's case, sit on the disabled list and disappoint.
And how could we forget Alex Rodriguez? He's still A-Rod, so you know there'll be plenty of attention thrown his way.
All in all, if the Yankees can stay healthy and perform as expected (both old guys and new guys), then a shot at the second wild card isn't out of the question. After not making the playoffs in two straight seasons, the pressure is on in 2015.
Kenny DeJohn is a Breaking News Team Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter.