Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning during the regular season you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
There’s a moment in 2010’s The Other Guys when superstar detectives Danson and Highsmith—played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively—heroically and confoundingly leap off a 20-story building in pursuit of the bad guys (even though there wasn’t even an awning in their direction).
At the pair’s funeral, it’s the titular other guys—Mark Wahlberg’s Terry Hoitz and Will Ferrell’s Allen Gamble—who see their chance to step up and fill their voids, even if the timing for plotting such a career climb lacks the proper decorum. There’s a whole whisper fight that ensues at the reception that effectively illustrates the fervor that can grab hold of people who see sudden vacancies as golden opportunities.
While this is an exaggerated depiction of such a dynamic, it’s one that happens in sports all the time. Established players depart, and other replacements—usually younger and less-experienced ones—emerge to take their spots. This past offseason saw plenty of star players change uniforms, whether via trade or free agency, which opened the door for others to usher in a new era.
As anyone who’s ever started a new job or entered into a new relationship knows, first impressions aren’t everything, but they’re pretty important. Let’s see how some newcomers are fairing in their new roles—and keep our fingers crossed things don’t end with a zip line chase onto a busy sidewalk.
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Freddie Freeman may have been the homegrown face of the franchise who got the most shine in this winter’s free-agency class, but Carlos Correa had the franchise savior label thrust on him since he was a teenager. And in his seven seasons with the Astros, Correa exceeded those lofty expectations. The shortstop was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, just as Houston was in the midst of its second straight 100-plus loss season. He debuted in ’15, kicking off a run of six playoff berths in seven seasons and a World Series title in ’17.
Now, Correa is in Minnesota, leaving the rookie Jeremy Peña to take his place. Though not as lauded a prospect as his predecessor, Peña was by no means overlooked. A third-round pick in 2018, Baseball Prospectus ranked him among the top-100 prospects in each of the past three years. Peña hit .291/.371/.444 across three minor league seasons.
Peña has always drawn praise for his athleticism and defense, but he’s made strides in the batter’s box in each step of his development. The power has come on as of late, in particular. He never had an isolated power mark above .150 at any level through 2019, but after the canceled ’20 minor league season, he came back with added pop that has so far translated to the majors. Peña’s hard-hit rate of 51.9% is higher than Correa ever put up in an Astros uniform, and he’s shown impressive contact skills to this point. It’s early, but Houston might have another shooting star at shortstop on its hands for the foreseeable future.
For as incredible as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was in 2021, Marcus Semien was nearly just as good. That the latter was somewhat overshadowed by the former perhaps dimmed the public perception of just how significant a loss Semien would be for Toronto and how pressing Cavan Biggio’s regression last season would be for identifying Semien’s eventual replacement.
Enter Espinal. The Blue Jays added a lot this offseason but kept second-base options in-house. That’s because the converted third baseman was something of an unsung hero for Toronto in 2021, batting .311/.376/.405 across 246 plate appearances in his first crack at extended playing time. Espinal doesn’t figure to hit for much power as Semien did, but he consistently makes hard contact, rarely strikes out and plays solid defense. That’s a good recipe for a productive player, and in a lineup as deep and talented as the Blue Jays have, it’ll be more than enough over the course of a full season.
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Of everyone on this list, Olson is obviously the most accomplished. He certainly doesn’t fit the Hoitz and Gamble mold. But the two-time Gold Glove winner and 2021 All-Star had the unenviable task of replacing a franchise icon and fan favorite in Freeman and so far has come out of the gates white hot. Through his first 13 games, Olson leads the majors with 19 hits and has reached base at a .534 clip.
This pace is obviously unsustainable, and perhaps Braves fans will never get over the sting of watching their beloved Freeman play out the rest of his career in Los Angeles. But it’s well within the realm of possibility Olson will put up a season better than Freeman ever did with Atlanta. His improved command of the strike zone bore itself out with his 23.2% called strike-whiff rate in 2021, which measures what percentage of pitches result in a called or swinging strike. So far, Olson has repeated that exact rate in ’22, while posting a career-low 20.0% chase rate. At present, Olson has opposing pitchers under his thumb. Based on his track record, it’s going to take a lot for them to retake the upper hand.
In the game of first basemen musical chairs between the Dodgers, Braves and A’s, it was Oakland who was left without a seat when the music stopped playing. So far, the team has answered the proverbial “who’s on first” question with “I don’t know—everybody.” Five different players have started in 11 games as of this writing, with disastrous results: The group has hit a collective .138/.222/.300.
That group—Billy McKinney, Seth Brown, Christian Bethancourt, Jed Lowrie and Sheldon Neuse—doesn’t appear to have a name that could seize control of the job, so the rotation could continue for quite some time. The A’s parted ways with nearly all of their productive players from a season ago, so lean times were expected for 2022. Here’s hoping the current group can start singing a different tune soon enough.
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There are several names who fit this description, but for now, we’ll hone in on three: Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb and Andrew Heaney. Gausman had the most success in 2021 of the trio, but he signed with the Blue Jays as the replacement for reigning Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray. So far, he’s made himself right at home north of the border. He’s struck out 14 batters across two starts with no walks or home runs allowed, running into a bit of tough luck with a .452 BABIP.
Cobb, meanwhile, replaced Gausman in San Francisco after enjoying a productive yet injury-shortened season with the Angels. He’s been solid if not unspectacular through two starts, with 14 strikeouts and just two walks over 9 1/3 innings. Cobb has made his bones by being a ground ball specialist with his effective splitter, and he’s been able to maintain that reputation to begin this season. Proving he can stay on the field is perhaps the last remaining significant question mark surrounding the 34-year-old.
Heaney, though, had plenty of other lingering questions to address. The former first-round pick has battled injury and inconsistency for basically his entire big-league career and posted perhaps his worst results at the worst possible time last season in what was a contract year. Across 129 2/3 innings with the Angels and Yankees, he put up a 5.83 ERA while allowing 29 home runs.
That made it peculiar when he secured an $8.5 million deal with the Dodgers, who consistently thrive by finding value other teams can’t see. Heaney’s made just two starts with his new club, but they’ve each been a head-turner: Through 10 1/3 innings, he’s struck out 16 with just four hits allowed and no home runs. The key difference? The adoption of a new, sweeping slider popular among Dodgers pitchers that’s produced a whopping 51.1% whiff rate. It’s clearly too early to label Heaney a forever changed man, but if he can keep posting results approaching what he’s done so far, it will be the latest example of the talent-rich Dodgers getting somehow even richer.
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