Who’s ready for baseball that actually counts?

Yes, it’s finally here. Sunday is the day the 2016 Major League Baseball season begins, and not just with one game to whet everyone’s appetite for Opening Day proper.

There are three games on tap. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates will kick things off, followed by the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays. The nightcap is a World Series rematch between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals.

Let’s take a look at the matchups and predict how they’ll pan out.


St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates

When: 1:05 p.m. ET

Where: PNC Park


Pitching Matchup: Adam Wainwright vs. Francisco Liriano

Adam Wainwright, whose 2.61 ERA since 2013 puts him among the very best, is back after being limited to seven appearances by a torn Achilles in 2015. And though the 34-year-old’s 2016 debut comes with a fair warning that he wasn’t great in spring training, you’ll know he’s on if he’s pounding the strike zone with an array of fastballs before finishing hitters off with his oh-so-beautiful curveball.

Though Gerrit Cole is the Pirates’ ace, the rib injury he battled this spring opened the door for Francisco Liriano to pitch a straight opener. The 32-year-old was a reclamation project when Pittsburgh brought him aboard in 2013, and now he’s a pitcher with a 3.26 ERA since then.

Liriano spends less time in the strike zone than any other pitcher, which is a habit that may lead to trouble against a Cardinals lineup known for working at-bats. But due to the sharp action on his sinker, slider and changeup, he can rack up strikeouts and soft contact as well as anyone when he’s on.


State of the Cardinals

The Cardinals led MLB with 100 wins in 2015, but they’ve since taken a few hits. Jason Heyward and John Lackey were lost to free agency. Lance Lynn is out for the year with an injury. Jhonny Peralta will be out for a while with an injury. Yadier Molina is still recovering from an injury.

However, they don’t mind the underdog label.

“If anything, it just puts a chip on your shoulder,” third baseman Matt Carpenter told Jayson Stark of ESPN.com. “You’re excited. You want to go out and play, and prove your worth, and show teams that, ‘Hey man, don’t forget about us. We’re still pretty good.'”

What the Cardinals should do well in 2016 is pitch. Wainwright’s return and the addition of Mike Leake could offset the losses of Lackey and Lynn, perhaps allowing the Cardinals to repeat last year’s MLB-leading 2.94 ERA.

But after finishing 11th in the National League in runs in 2015 and continuing to struggle this spring, the Cardinals offense is a question mark. They’ll need ol‘ standbys like Carpenter, Molina and Matt Holliday to be their best selves, and support from breakout candidates Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong certainly wouldn‘t hurt.


State of the Pirates

After winning 98 games in 2015, the Pirates also have a different look. A.J. Burnett retired. J.A. Happ and Pedro Alvarez both went elsewhere in free agency. Neil Walker was traded.

But the Pirates still have Andrew McCutchen, whose monstrous spring has him in line for another MVP-caliber season. And with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco alongside him, the Pirates have the makings of perhaps the best outfield in the majors.

And overall, the Pirates lineup has some nice depth. Though they’ll miss Jung Ho Kang as he recovers from a knee injury, David Freese is a good fill-in at third base. Josh Harrison is a good fill-in for Walker at second base. And in place of Alvarez, the Pirates now have John Jaso and his OBP talents at first base.

The mound is where things get iffy for these Pirates. With their rotation looking thin after Liriano and Cole, Albert Chen of SI.com isn’t wrong to wonder that it “may take a miracle” from Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage for the club to repeat last year’s rock-solid 3.21 ERA.

For now, though, the vibes are good. Searage has seemingly made an ace out of Juan Nicasio, and he has also facilitated Cory Luebke’s unlikely comeback. If this is a sign of things to come, Searage‘s legend as a pitching whisperer will continue to grow in 2016.


Prediction: Cardinals 3, Pirates 2

Though Wainwright hasn’t had the best spring, he’ll come out in vintage form to make it easy on the Cardinals lineup. It won’t get much off Liriano, but just enough will do for a season-opening win.


Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

When: 4:05 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field


Pitching Matchup: Marcus Stroman vs. Chris Archer

Marcus Stroman finally being ready for a full season has the baseball world atwitter. Though the 5’8″, 180-pound 24-year-old is lacking in ace size, he’s not lacking in ace stuff. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs highlighted a year ago that Stroman‘s six pitches (six!) are comparable to some of the best pitches in the game. To boot, he’s able to control all of them.

Archer, meanwhile, just had his ace breakout in 2015. In posting a 3.23 ERA, the 27-year-old struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings with relatively few walks on the side. He works off a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, and he finishes hitters with a wipeout slider that David Price thinks is baseball’s best pitch:

One word of warning, though: Archer’s heat makes him tough for many teams to hit, but maybe not so much for a Blue Jays team that, per Baseball Savant, had the league’s highest slugging percentage against 95-plus fastballs in 2015.


State of the Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t look too different from the team that won 93 games a year ago.

That’s especially good news where their offense is concerned, as last year’s team led baseball in runs, home runs, OPS and numerous other categories. Their lethal trio of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion is back, and now they can look forward to a full year of Troy Tulowitzki.

“I wouldnt want to pitch against us,” Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, told Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca. “And there were a lot of guys we faced last year who were defeated before they even threw the first pitch. And those guys made their exit pretty quick.”

Though it’s easiest to focus on their run-scoring capabilities, the lineup the Blue Jays are returning in 2016 was also fantastic on defense last season. According to Baseball Prospectus, Toronto’s was the most efficient defense in baseball.

The Blue Jays’ offensive and defensive strengths should allow them to get away with merely good enough pitching in 2016. Despite the loss of Price to free agency, that’s doable. Stroman and Aaron Sanchez give Toronto’s starting rotation two pitchers with ace potential, and the back-end duo of Roberto Osuna and Drew Storen headlines a strong bullpen.


State of the Rays

The Rays were perfectly mediocre in winning 80 games last season. Looking ahead to 2016, though, it’s hard to know what to expect.

From one angle, the Rays can be seen as a team that probably doesn’t have quite enough pitching depth to support an offense that finished 14th in the American League in runs in 2015. From another angle, the Rays can be seen as a dangerous team. Baseball Prospectus actually favors them to win the AL East.

Though depth isn’t a strength, Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore lead a pitching staff that isn’t lacking in talent. Rays pitchers can also look forward to support from a defense that was among the best in 2015. And this year, runs may not be so hard to come by.

“We’ve got more thump at the top, and then we’ve got some speed looking more toward the back end of the lineup,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said last week, per the Associated Press (via the Boston Herald).

Cash may be right. Tampa Bay’s offense was drastically better in the second half of 2015. And with Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce coming aboard, it’s now noticeably deeper.


Prediction: Blue Jays 6, Rays 1

Archer is going to have an excellent year, but he’ll stumble out of the gate against baseball’s most explosive lineup. For his part, Stroman will give a taste of what’s sure to be a breakout season.


New York Mets at Kansas City Royals

When: 8:37 p.m. ET

Where: Kauffman Stadium


Pitching Matchup: Matt Harvey vs. Edinson Volquez

Between Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets couldn’t have gone wrong with their pick for Sunday’s game. But with a 2.53 career ERA, Harvey certainly has the creds of an Opening Day starter. He has the stuff, too. The 27-year-old sits in the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball and mixes in an above-average curveball, slider and changeup. 

The Royals will present a challenge for Harvey, though. He’s a strikeout pitcher all the way, and they’re a team that doesn’t strike out.

On the other side, Volquez has turned his career around with a 3.30 ERA over the last two years. That shows what a pitcher can do when he finally learns to throw strikes.

But as a pitcher who specializes in neither strikeouts nor contact management, the 32-year-old’s margin for error is always thin. A Mets lineup with good bats from top to bottom poses a real threat.


State of the Mets

After winning the NL East and the National League pennant last season, the Mets had everyone worried for a while during the winter. They lost Daniel Murphy to free agency and seemed doomed to also lose Yoenis Cespedes.

That didn’t happen, as New York re-signed Cespedes on a $75 million deal. With him and Walker, the former Pirate, in the lineup alongside names like Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud, Michael Conforto and Asdrubal Cabrera, the Mets should have one of the NL’s best offenses.

The downside is that said offense won’t play great defense. As Dave Cameron wrote at FanGraphs, the Mets are making a big bet against fielding. 

Fortunately, the Mets offense isn’t the only thing the team has to mitigate its defense. With Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, Steven Matz and, eventually, Zack Wheeler, they have more than enough power arms to ensure gloves aren’t needed that often.


State of the Royals

The Royals won 95 games last year. They won the AL Central, the American League pennant and the World Series. So yeah, they were pretty good.

And going into 2016, they look largely the same. Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto are the big missing pieces. But the Royals retained Alex Gordon, and their $70 million payout to Ian Kennedy may not be as nuts as many think. A fly-ball pitcher like him is a great fit for Kauffman Stadium.

Elsewhere, key pieces like Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Kendrys Morales, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are all back. This puts the Royals in a position to keep winning games the same way they’re used to: plenty of offense, excellent defense, shutdown relief pitching and just enough starting pitching.

Of course, the computers say this isn’t going to work. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Royals project as a last-place team.

But then again, the projections said the same thing last year. They’ll have to pardon us if we don’t feel like taking their word for it where the Royals are concerned.


Prediction: Royals 5, Mets 4

The Mets will have a better starting pitcher on the mound Sunday night, but the Royals are a good match for him. They’ll even out a rough start by Volquez, and their bullpen will be the difference in the later innings.


Regular-season stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com.

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