Play Ball! 10 Things to Watch in 2015 Major League Baseball

Can the Giants and Royals get back to the World Series? Can anyone stop the Nationals? Can Mike Trout get better?

The Cardinals beat the Cubs 3-0 to open the 2015 Major League season in a nationally televised game Sunday, to be followed by 14 games Monday. A quick look at 10 things to watch over the 162-game schedule:

1. San Francisco Giants

Can the Giants break their odd-year streak? The defending World Series champs have won three championships in the even years of 2014, 2012 and 2010 but have flopped in 2011 and 2013. What will 2015 bring? Third baseman Pablo Sandoval is gone and outfielder Hunter Pence will miss the start of the season with a broken bone in his left forearm. Will all those postseason innings last season hurt Madison Bumgarner in 2015?

2. Kansas City Royals

K.C. caught everyone by surprise in 2014, winning a wild card and storming through the American League playoffs with a mix of terrific pitching, great defense and timely hitting. But can they do it again? The American League Central is tough – Detroit, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox appear loaded – and the Royals may have trouble replicating the magic they produced a year ago.

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3. Washington Nationals

Does any team in the National League stand a chance against the Nats, who now have the league’s best rotation? Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister give manager Matt Williams' team an ace-quality starter every game – and the Nats have Tanner Roark (who won 15 games with a 2.79 ERA last season) in the wings if they need him. Plus, the lineup is talented and deep.

 4. Mike Trout

He’s just 23, but Trout is at a key point in his career. The Angels center fielder won the American League MVP award in 2014 – with the worst season he’s had statistically since coming to the big leagues. He hit 36 homers in 2014 with a league-leading 111 RBI, but his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted (.323 to .287 and .432 to .377) and his strikeouts increased (136 to 184). Now Trout has vowed to be more aggressive earlier in counts and to stay away from the high fastballs that ate him up in the second half of last season.

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5. Alex Rodriguez

After being suspended all of last season, the nearly 40-year-old A-Rod is back in the Yankees lineup, now as the designated hitter. Will he be capable of adding power and stability to a lineup that needs it in 2015? Or will age and the missed season turn him into just an overpriced, over-the-hill out machine? There are signs he may be OK. Over 40 at-bats this spring Rodriguez hit close to .300. With 654 home runs, A-Rod needs seven to pass Willie Mays into fourth place all time.

6. Kris Bryant

At some point early this season, the Chicago Cubs will promote Bryant from the minors and we’ll all get to see how good this young slugger can be. Bryant, the former No. 2 overall pick in the draft, hit .425 this spring with nine home runs, but will start the season in the minors. The Cubs gain an extra season of control over his contract if Bryant stays at least 12 days at Triple-A Iowa to start the season. Cubs fans and Bryant are disappointed now, but Chicago made the smart move for the long term based on current rules.

7. Loooooong Games

Major League Baseball is determined to shorten games to better keep the interest of fans, so new rules will be in effect in 2015, including a game clock to quicken the pace between innings and pitching changes and restrictions on hitters stepping out of the batter’s box. If spring training is an indication, the rules may work. Games this spring were about 20 minutes quicker. Games last season took an average of 3 hours, 2 minutes – 30 minutes longer than the average time of games in 1981.

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8. Giancarlo Stanton

Home run numbers have gone down in the post-steroid era, but one young slugger continues to put up big-time home run totals: the Marlins’ Stanton, who hit 37 in 2014 despite missing over half of the last month of the season after being hit in the head with a pitch. He has hit 154 homers in five seasons. The question is, will he be the same slugger he was before being hit? Florida certainly is betting he will be. The team gave him a 13-year, $325 million extension over the offseason. 

9. The Shift

In 2014, more teams than ever before shifted their infields to better defend against hitters. Using sophisticated computer charts, teams now know best how to position fielders to turn line drives into outs. It’s frustrating for some of the game’s best hitters and their fans, but the shift won’t be going away any time soon, unless hitters adapt and stop trying to pull every pitch. So in 2015 it should be interesting to see how batters evolve.

10. The Cubans

Over the past few seasons, young Cubans have made a huge impact. Sluggers such as Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu and pitcher Aroldis Chapman escaped the island, made their way to America and have developed into stars. Now the crop of Cubans on big-league rosters is quickly multiplying. Among the rookies to watch in 2015 are outfielder Rusney Castillo of the Red Sox, pitcher Yoan Moncada and third baseman Yasmany Tomas of the Diamondbacks and recently signed infielder Hector Olivera of the Dodgers (who will start the season in the minors, but is 29 years old).

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