MLB Opening Day: 18 burning questions for the 2018 season

Every new season brings new questions and new storylines. Some things will go as we expect, and some things won't. Other things will come out of nowhere to grab our attention and leave us wondering why we never saw them coming.

We're so, so close to real baseball. We endured a long, cold winter of non-action, then the usual long tease of spring training, and now here we are — right on the doorstep of Opening Day.

Every new season brings new questions and new storylines. Some things will go as we expect, and some things won't. Other things will come out of nowhere to grab our attention and leave us wondering why we never saw it coming. It's all part of the fun of an MLB season.

With a new season upon us, here are 18 burning questions for the 2018 campaign. These definitely aren't the only 18 questions, but we have to start somewhere.

MORE: Opening Day schedule for all 30 teams

1. How will new pace of play rules work out?

The complaining has mostly subsided, and now we get to see this stuff in action. Expect a few angry managers and/or ejections over “mound visit” mishaps.

2. How will Shohei Ohtani perform?

His spring training was bad, but spring training numbers really shouldn't be trusted. The Angels say they still have faith that he’ll be great. They’re supposed to say that, of course. It could just be that he needs a month or two to adjust to MLB. Also, he's just 23. He gets his first start on the mound Sunday against the A's in Oakland. We’ll see.

3. How many big free agents will be without a team after, say, the first month?

There are still some significant names without homes — Greg Holland, Jose Bautista, John Lackey and Mark Reynolds among them — and it's anyone's guess when/whether they'll find deals. One would think that anyone who could help a team is a candidate to get a job, but this offseason has tried its best to defy that logic.

4. How long will it take them to sign?

It would stand to reason that as injuries accumulate and players underperform, at least a couple of these guys could get signed before too long. But, again, we've been saying that all offseason. They could all get signed tomorrow or they could remain unemployed until July. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

5. Speaking of that stuff, will labor talk stay in the forefront?

The lack of free-agent movement that defined the 2017-18 offseason has generated a not insignificant amount of ill will among players, not to mention among some media types and a lot of fans. Even though everyone played by the collectively bargained rules, the players have realized that they didn't really think things through on their end during the last negotiations. Some say the next CBA talks in 2021 will be super ugly as players try to make sure nothing like this offseason ever happens again. The words "looming labor war" have been common in recent months, which is never a good sign.

6. Will Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton really be an all-time-great 1-2 punch?

On paper, this seems like a sure thing. Both of New York's Large Adult Sons can mash like nobody's business. Assuming both can stay relatively healthy and not suffer any extended slumps, there will be much fear among AL pitching staffs.

7. Will bullpen carts really become a thing again?

The Diamondbacks are the only ones so far to bring back this piece of nostalgia, but it's unclear how popular/fun it'll be in the modern game. It might save a few seconds on pitching changes, and the corporate sponsorship will bring in a few bucks, but all eyes (OK, maybe just my eyes) will be on Arizona to see how big a deal this thing becomes.

8. Should we expect big “walk years” from Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

Yes. Next question. But seriously, it's usually safe to expect a big year from Harper and Machado, no matter their contract situations. But both guys are almost certain to be on new teams in 2019 — with HUGE, possibly record-setting contracts — so both will probably be extra motivated this season go put up crazy numbers.

9. What will Rhys Hoskins do over a full season?

Hoskins was one of baseball's best stories last season, coming seemingly out of nowhere to hit dinger after dinger. After debuting in August, he hit 18 homers in just 170 at-bats, while also carrying a .396 on-base percentage. It'll be interesting to watch him develop over 162 games. Pitchers are certain to make adjustments, so Hoskins will need to adjust to those adjustments to build on last season's success.

MORE: SN's staff predictions for the 2018 season

10. How many games will the Marlins lose?

The Marlins are gonna be bad, y'all. After losing nearly every good player in their latest teardown, there's really no reason to expect anything good this season. It seems reasonable to expect 100-plus losses. The only question is how far past 100 the "L" column will climb.

11. Will another team lose more than the Marlins?

Baseball is weird, so you never know, but it'll be a surprise to see anyone other than the Marlins lay claim to MLB's worst record in 2018.

12. When will the Braves call up Ronald Acuña?

April 13 is the first day the Braves can call him up and maintain that extra year of contractual control, so I expect that'll be the day. Anytime later than that would likely be because of an injury, extreme poor play on his part (unlikely) or just the Braves wanting to make it seem like starting him in the minors was about baseball stuff rather than service-time manipulation.

13. Will the Astros be even better than in 2017?

Houston is bringing back nearly all of its roster from the World Series championship team, so I wouldn't expect the Astros to lose much, if anything, in the way of on-field success. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll match or exceed last season's regular-season win total (101), but it's certainly possible. Either way, they should be just as formidable. For what it's worth, I pick them to return to the World Series.

14. Will the Dodgers return to the World Series?

Like the Astros, the Dodgers return a large chunk of the team that took them to Game 7 of the World Series. Their starting rotation, led by the superhuman Clayton Kershaw, is a monster (assuming they all stay healthy) and their lineup is strong, despite having to be without Justin Turner for a while while he heals from a broken wrist. But once the Dodgers hit their stride, don't be surprised if they again have their way with the rest of the National League. But in the interest of full disclosure, I don't think they'll represent the senior circuit in the World Series.

15. Will this finally be the year the Nationals win a playoff series?

Yet again, the Nationals — this time with a new manager — have the talent to win the World Series. Barring a major rash of injuries, they should have no problem winning the NL East again. But they're past the point where just making the playoffs can be considered an accomplishment, as a slew of first-round exits — infused with a healthy amount of heartbreak — have reduced them to a postseason punchline. Of course, there's only one way to shake that reputation. For now, though, the franchise's only postseason glory belongs to the Expos.

16. Has Mike Trout even reached his peak?

You've heard it all before: Trout is the best player on the planet. Trout is already a Hall of Famer. Trout could end up as the best player of all time. To quote Han Solo: It's true. All of it. But the real question is whether he still has room to improve. This is his Age 26 season, which, according to conventional wisdom, says he's early in his prime — but maybe not quite at his peak. To think Trout could put up even better numbers than we've seen in his first six full seasons is a cool and scary thought.

17. Will Jake Arrieta really push the Phillies into the playoffs?

The Phillies were already a trendy sleeper pick for a wild-card berth this season even before they signed Jake Arrieta in spring training. That addition would seem to boost their chances of October baseball, but it's still far from a sure thing. They'll need Arrieta to approach his 2015-2016 self to make that postseason path realistic. But, of course, Arrieta can't do it all by himself, and a lot of other things will need to go right in Philly to reach the playoffs. But the Phillies will definitely be an intriguing team to watch.

18. Who will be the first manager fired?

Sorry to end this column on a downer, but chances are good that one or more managers will get the boot this season. Some Vegas odds say the leading candidates are Kevin Cash of the Rays and Don Mattingly of the Marlins. Either one would make sense, as both teams seem to be in a death spiral (not that either is the fault of Cash or Mattingly, but that's not the point with these things). Another name we could see get the heave-ho is Mike Matheny in St. Louis — if the Cardinals stumble out of the gate or hit the skids around midseason. Clint Hurdle could also find himself on the hot seat in Pittsburgh as the Pirates continue their new rebuild, as could Bryan Price in Cincinnati with the seemingly-always-rebuilding Reds.