It only took 99 days, but baseball is officially BACK. The lockout is over. Spring Training is already here. The nasty tension between the billionaire owners negotiating with the Players’ Association is officially done for as they finally came to a resolution. “Peace” isn’t exactly what one would call the ending of the compromise as the emotions are still definitely running high, but they bargained enough to where they each could look each other eye-to-eye and get a season on the road.

We’ll get a 162-game season with Opening Day on April 7th. We’ll get expanded playoffs with 12 teams now instead of 10 and the top seed in each league getting a bye. The National League will now have a Designated Hitter. 

The next few weeks are going to be absolute anarchy as we rush towards the first series of the season, and so many questions remain. Let’s address the biggest unknowns because it’s finally nice to actually talk baseball as opposed to labor negotiations for the first time in what feels like forever.

So, the Braves are the defending champions. Are they going to be able to defend their crown?

The Braves are bringing back a loaded roster. Think about this: they went on their magical run to the postseason WITHOUT Ronald Acuna Jr., their young phenom that will in all likelihood win an MVP or two throughout his career. However, the biggest question is that their franchise player and heart and soul of the team, Freddie Freeman, is yet to be paid by the team and is being courted by some big players. The Rays, who NEVER spend money, reportedly offered him a contract before the lockout. The Dodgers are reportedly head-over-heels in love with him. The Yankees also were in on the veteran first baseman as well.

The Braves will have Acuna back in 2022, but it would be a bad look to lose the man of the team simply because they weren’t willing to give him one last big deal and be a Brave forever. If you’re Freeman, and you’ve invested so much into that team, winning an MVP and spending 11 years on the team, it’s time to get paid. The Braves should man up and give him the contract he deserves, but they will still be a threat in the NL with or without Freddie.

What does the Universal DH mean for the game?

It means… no more miracle pitcher home runs, but no more ABYSMAL pitcher at-bats where they don’t want to be there swinging a bat and don’t want to risk injury. It means for the NL, teams will be more motivated to spend on veteran bats that might be lacking in the field, like a Nelson Cruz, an Albert Pujols, or a JD Martinez down the line, because now you’re just asking them to come in and be an assassin at the plate. The free agency market for these types of players that will have more longevity now that they’re not asked to also field the ball late in their career will be paramount.

What do the expanded playoffs mean for the future of the sport?

The death of the one game win-or-go-home Wild Card matchup is one that is bittersweet- it was an incredible event-viewing experience that had suspense and tension at an all-time high, but it was highly unfair to play a 162-game season and be in a position like the Dodgers last year, where you win 106 games but potentially have to go home one night because the Giants happened to win 107 in the same division.

Hopefully, it means that more teams that are on the brink of making it as a wild card will see this as an opportunity if they’re close to making more trades and acquisitions to compete. It also makes the top seed incredibly interesting; if you’re the #1 seed and have to play the winner of a team at the bottom, the bottom-feeders made the postseason for a reason and many times have the momentum from fighting for their spot. The postseason will remain just as competitive and must-watch.

Will my team be motivated to spend money now?

The answer to that last question is… in all likelihood, still no. A cap floor was never established, so if you’re a team far away from contending, having a draft lottery now for the top 3 picks still won’t be enough to prevent tanking. So, that leads teams either middling towards the bottom or hidden amongst the garbage as they always were: ready to wheel and deal to invest in the future with prospects.

The teams at the bottom of that trash heap, the Orioles, Pirates, and D-Backs, will still be using this season to show off a flashy veteran to deal them for young potential. 

Who’s going to be trading away players?

There are some big fish that could be looking to change their entire future as the season kicks off. Oakland’s chances of competing in the AL West are dwindling, and they’ve realized it. They didn’t re-sign Starling Marte or Mark Canha, and they simply don’t have the depth outside of their few stars to compete for a World Series. The two corner infield Matt’s, Matt Olsen and Matt Chapman, have already been in trade rumors; Olsen has been linked as a backup plan for major contenders who don’t get Freddie Freeman, and Chapman is a Gold Glove-winning third baseman who hasn’t gotten to experience winning on a young and cheap contract. The A’s will also likely tear down their entire pitching staff, with Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt as candidates as well.

The Miami Marlins made the postseason and even won a series in the odd 2020 COVID-shortened season, and they looked like they were developing a young core that was competently rebuilding their staff and developing talent. Then, during the lockout, reports were that the president, DEREK JETER (yes, that Derek Jeter) stepped down because he was unhappy that the ownership was unwilling to spend. If this is true, there is no way the Marlins will be spending money on a superstar, like Nick Castellanos, who is a Florida-native and was linked to them. Now, they could potentially move on from talented players like Miguel Rojas or Jesus Aguilar. It’s a shame given their coaching staff has developed their prospects so well these last several seasons.

The Cincinnati Reds are another team that could be shopping players, and… we’re not sure why they aren’t buying instead of selling. Castellanos is a free agent, yes, but they still have Joey Votto, Jesse Winker, and Eugenio Suarez, some of the best superstar bats in baseball, along with young talent in NL Rookie of the Year, Jonathan India. If they wanted to spend more money on their pitching staff and bullpen, their biggest weakness, they easily could contend in the NL Central, who doesn’t have a standout favorite. Instead, reports are that Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are on the market once again and Castellanos will probably grab the big bag of cash elsewhere.

The Nationals won the World Series in 2019, had seasons marred by injury in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 and sold the entire farm of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, and Jon Lester. Now, they’re just a whole lot of nothing, Stephen Strasburg and his massive contract tied to his brittle arm, and potentially the best hitter in baseball, 23 year-old Juan Soto. They reportedly offered Soto a contract over the offseason that he declined. They’re either going to give Soto the massive pay day that he deserves eventually, or could tear down the roster even more by getting what would be one of the largest hauls in MLB history given Soto’s value.

So, who’s ACTUALLY spending money and wants to compete?

The usual suspects. The big market teams. The Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Mets who have all the incentive to bring in more big names to compete for a championship. The Dodgers just re-signed Clayton Kershaw to a 1-year deal to bring him back at least for one last ride, but they’re also linked to all the big stars: the Freddie Freeman’s, Carlos Correa’s, and the Matt Olson’s of the world. LA is a star town, and even with losing

Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Corey Seager and Kenley Jansen as a free agent, they’ll still be going for it.

The Yankees and Red Sox seem to be in an arms race against one another in the AL East now that the Blue Jays and Rays are also developing talent and they want to keep their big market status as two World Series-competing teams. The Yankees are in love with Freeman and Correa and could also re-sign Anthony Rizzo if they so please, while the Red Sox are one of the teams high on touted international prospect Seiya Suzuki. The Cardinals, Mets, and Astros were all the other 3 remaining teams outside of the Yankees that voted against the new CBA, meaning that they’re all in on spending money and still wanting to be the top-dog (albeit, selfishly).

Okay, so those are the big teams that spend every year. Will anyone else spend? There’s a lot of free agents out there.

Yes! And that’s what makes this free agency in particular extra fun. The Mariners, Blue Jays, Giants, and Rangers have already made some big splashes that still need to complete their team. The Blue Jays got Kevin Gausman and could easily go and add another bat to win now since they were so close to the postseason last year. The Mariners took Cy Young-winner Robbie Ray from the Blue Jays and are looking to make the leap; look for either one of them trying to compete for a name like Suzuki or Kris Bryant. The Giants won the most games in baseball last year, and they just signed Cy Young candidate Carlos Rodon right out of the gates. The Rangers oddly spent half a million dollars on two infielders, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, despite being one of the worst teams in baseball the past several seasons. They’ll need to add more depth in their lineup and strengthen their pitching staff unless they just want to be a Taco Bell $5 grab bag of random menu items when it comes to roster construction.

Other candidates include the Phillies, who need to capitalize on Bryce Harper’s prime and have the second-longest playoff drought in baseball. Harper and Kris Bryant are best friends off the field, so there’s already a connection there. The Angels have the two best players in baseball, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, and have been incompetent enough to give Trout THREE total career postseason games because they’ve failed to spend money on pitching. They already signed Noah Syndergaard; be better and get us these stars in the postseason, Anaheim.

We are so glad to finally be able to actually talk about the sport of baseball and not a soap opera of heated off-the-field conflict. Baseball is back.

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