Of the many decisions a manager must make throughout a season, picking an Opening Day starter hardly is the most consequential. After all, every team needs at least five starters — and almost always more — to get through a grueling 162-game schedule.
Still, there is no denying that the assignment is a coveted one. Not only is Opening Day special, but being first to take the ball is considered a high honor.
“It’s exciting,” Rockies right-hander Jon Gray said last year, heading into his first career Game 1 start. “It’s the best place to compete. We’re all competitive people. That’s exactly where we want to be right there, right in the middle of that storm. I’m just waiting for that day.”
• 2018 Spring workout dates
With pitchers and catchers beginning to report to Spring Training, here is a team-by-team breakdown of who is most likely to get the nod in 2018. And keep in mind, a few free agents who remain available — most notably Jake Arrieta — still could shake things up, depending where and when they sign.
Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw
Only health can impede the left-hander, who currently has the second-longest active streak of Opening Day starts, behind the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez. This would be Kershaw’s eighth in a row and in his career, which would push him past Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Don Sutton for the Dodgers’ all-time record.
No doubt about it
Braves: Julio Teheran
Now the unquestioned leader of a young rotation, Teheran already has made four straight Opening Day starts, tied for the third-longest active streak. His fifth would push him past Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and into a tie for third in Atlanta Braves history.
Cardinals: Carlos Martinez
The torch was passed to Martinez last year from Adam Wainwright. Martinez then made his second All-Star team on his way to crossing the 200-inning mark for the first time.
Video: Langosch on Martinez’s potential for 2018
D-backs: Zack Greinke
His second season in Arizona went much better than his first, with a 3.20 ERA and a fourth-place National League Cy Young Award finish. This would be Greinke’s third straight Opening Day assignment.
Giants: Madison Bumgarner
Like Teheran, Bumgarner has made four straight Opening Day starts, and he should make it five this year. That would break a tie with Tim Lincecum for the most in total by a Giants pitcher since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal did it 10 times between 1962-73.
Indians: Corey Kluber
Kluber is the clear ace of a talented rotation as he looks to defend his second American League Cy Young Award. This would extend his streak of Game 1 starts to four, the longest for a Cleveland pitcher since Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry from 1972-75.
Video: Outlook: Kluber remains an elite pitcher in the AL
Nationals: Max Scherzer
Stephen Strasburg has four career Opening Day starts, including in 2017, when Scherzer was coming back from a stress fracture in his right ring finger. Assuming good health, Scherzer should get the nod for the third time with Washington as he looks to begin his journey to a third straight NL Cy Young Award.
Rays: Chris Archer
In each of the past three seasons, the right-hander has taken the mound for Tampa Bay’s first game, and then gone on to throw more than 200 innings. Archer could be the first Rays pitcher to start four years in a row.
Red Sox: Chris Sale
The left-hander deferred last year to Rick Porcello, who was then the defending AL Cy Young Award winner. However, Porcello struggled in 2017, while Sale posted a 2.90 ERA and became the first AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999 to reach 300 strikeouts.
Video: Sale discusses preparing for the 2018 season
While a foot injury limited him to 20 starts, Gray backed up his first Opening Day assignment by posting a 3.67 ERA, which made him the only Rockies starter to get under the 4.00 mark in 2017. This would be just the second time since 2002 that Colorado used the same Opening Day starter in back-to-back seasons.
Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman
Going back to 2010, Toronto has used six Opening starters in eight years, including Stroman in ’16. Marco Estrada got the nod last year, and J.A. Happ enjoyed a stellar season, but the 26-year-old Stroman led the club in innings and ERA.
Brewers: Chase Anderson
This would be more complicated if Jimmy Nelson weren’t recovering from shoulder surgery, but Anderson’s 2.74 ERA last year ranked sixth in the Majors (minimum 100 innings).
Cubs: Jon Lester
Lester is one of three 2017 Opening Day starters in the rotation, along with Jose Quintana (White Sox) and Yu Darvish (Rangers). But even with those challengers — plus Kyle Hendricks — Lester is the highly respected elder statesman of the group, with six career Opening Day starts to his name.
Video: Outlook: Lester a strong candidate to rebound in ’18
Padres: Clayton Richard
San Diego has some intriguing young talent in its rotation, including Dinelson Lamet and Luis Perdomo — both of whom will pitch this season at age 25. But the 34-year-old Richard is by far the team’s most experienced starter and was dependable in 2017 before re-signing for two more years.
Phillies: Aaron Nola
Of the eight pitchers to make at least 10 starts for the Phillies last season, Nola’s 3.54 ERA was the lowest by nearly three-quarters of a run. The righty will be 24 on Opening Day, which would make him to youngest Philly hurler to get such an assignment since Floyd Youmans (also 24) in 1989.
Rangers: Cole Hamels
There isn’t an obvious challenger standing in the way of Hamels making his fourth Opening Day start, despite his 4.20 ERA last season.
Royals: Danny Duffy
The left-hander got the nod last year, and he was Kansas City’s most effective pitcher when he was healthy. Returning veterans Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy both posted ERAs higher than 5.00, while Jason Vargas is now a free agent.
Video: Outlook: Duffy could be top starter if healthy
Tigers: Michael Fulmer
This will be only the second time since 2007 that Verlander won’t take the ball for Detroit on Opening Day. With Jordan Zimmermann having struggled in a Tigers uniform, Fulmer is the obvious successor as long as he makes a successful return from surgery on a nerve in his right elbow.
White Sox: James Shields
Shields is one of six active pitchers to make at least seven Opening Day starts, and he could join Edinson Volquez as the only ones to get the call for four different franchises. While Shields’ numbers have dropped off over the past two seasons, the rest of the rotation is extremely light on experience.
Astros: Justin Verlander
Verlander’s nine career Opening Day starts rank third among active pitchers, though all of those came with the Tigers. The veteran righty seemed to take over as Houston’s ace upon joining the World Series champions late last season, but Dallas Keuchel is obviously no slouch and has made the start for the Astros in three straight seasons.
Video: Astros hope having Verlander in camp helps hurlers
Mariners: James Paxton
This could be a fraught decision for manager Scott Servais, as Hernandez is a Seattle legend. Hernandez ranks first among active pitchers with nine straight Opening Day starts and second behind CC Sabathia with 10 total, but his performance has dipped of late. Based on recent track record, the ball would go to Paxton. The lefty has faced durability issues, but his 2.61 FIP last season was third lowest in the Majors (minimum 100 innings), behind only Sale and Kluber.
Marlins: Dan Straily
In Miami’s first season following the passing of Jose Fernandez, Straily and Jose Urena were the only reliable members of the rotation. Straily had the edge in starts (33), innings (181 2/3) and strikeouts (170), although Urena posted the lower ERA (3.82).
Mets: Jacob deGrom
Noah Syndergaard got the call in 2017, but then he missed almost the whole season due to injury. In contrast, deGrom threw a career-high 201 1/3 innings for a team with huge durability issues. If picked, he would be the Mets’ seventh Opening Day starter in as many seasons.
Video: deGrom hopes to win a World Series in 2018
Orioles: Kevin Gausman
Gausman was the choice last year and he is one of two pitchers on the Orioles’ roster to have started more than six games in 2017. The other is Dylan Bundy, who posted similar season-long numbers. Gausman, however, produced a 2.70 ERA over his final 14 outings.
Pirates: Jameson Taillon
With Gerrit Cole traded to the Astros, the door is open. Ivan Nova has the experience and has been solid for the Pirates since arriving in August 2016. But Taillon, the 26-year-old former top prospect, could be the team’s next ace and overcame testicular cancer to make 25 starts last year.
Yankees: Luis Severino
Masahiro Tanaka has gotten the assignment three straight times and is coming off a spectacular postseason performance. But while Severino will be only 24 on Opening Day, he was one of the top starters in the game last year, earning a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award race.
Video: Severino on what he worked on during the offseason
Angels: Garrett Richards
Richards figures to have the inside track if healthy, but he has managed to pitch just 12 times over the past two seasons. Shohei Ohtani would get the call on hype and pure talent, though it remains to be seen how he looks this spring and how aggressively the Angels push him. Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker all could be in the mix if Richards encounters more health problems.
Athletics: Kendall Graveman
The right-hander stepped in last year for the injured Sonny Gray, and with Gray now with the Yankees, the Oakland rotation is an inexperienced bunch. Lefty Sean Manaea led the staff in innings (158 2/3), with an ERA (4.37) just slightly above Graveman’s (4.19), and he may be the top challenger for the job.
Reds: Anthony DeSclafani
DeSclafani was not one of the 16 pitchers to start at least one game for Cincinnati in 2017, as he missed the season with a sprained elbow ligament after posting a 3.28 ERA in ’16. Therefore, this could be a wide-open race also involving two other pitchers who have dealt with significant recent injuries (Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan). The wild card is Luis Castillo, who debuted last June and was brilliant over 15 starts.
Video: Sheldon on the Reds’ rotation for the 2018 season
Twins: Jose Berrios
Ervin Santana could have been in line for his third straight Opening Day start for Minnesota, but that was before the recent surgery on his right middle finger. That leaves Berrios as the frontrunner following a breakout season. The 23-year-old could become the Twins’ youngest Opening Day starting pitcher since Brad Radke in 1996, although Kyle Gibson — or perhaps a late free-agent pickup — could get the call instead.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.
Source : MLB