Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears: The snow is melting, and our time huddling 'round the hot stove is finally at an end. The long, cold, lonely winter is over, spring is in the air, and on Thursday, March 30, baseball will return. This year features something new, as, for the first time ever, all 30 teams will compete on Opening Day. You are probably aware of some significant rule changes that were implemented this year, but here are the big ones: - A pitch clock is now in effect. There is a 30-second timer between batters, and a time limit between pitches. After receiving the ball from the catcher or umpire, pitchers are required to begin their motion within 15 seconds with the bases empty, or within 20 seconds with runners on base. If they don't, they're charged with an automatic ball. Hitters also share the responsibility to keep the game moving. They must be in the batter's box and ready for the pitch by the time the clock reaches 8 seconds. If not, they're charged with an automatic strike. A batter can call timeout only once per plate appearance. One caveat to the pitch clock: MLB has not committed to using the clock during the postseason and is taking feedback from the World Baseball Classic when it makes that decision. - The bases are larger. The bases are now 18 inches square (previously 15 inches). That decreases the distance between first, second and third base by 4.5 inches. (Home plate – which stays the same size – to first base is 3 inches shorter.) - Shifts have, effectively, been banned, at least in the infield. At the start of each pitch, teams must have at least two infielders on either side of second base, with all four positioned on the infield dirt. Infielders may not switch positions unless there is a substitution. There are currently no prohibitions on outfielders shifting, outside of teams having to have three players in the outfield at all times. But that doesn’t prohibit a team, for example, playing two guys in right field against a right-handed hitter with an extreme pull tendency. Not yet, anyway. - In a reversal from what was previously stated, the ghost runner in extra innings is here to stay. Fuck off with this shit, MLB. STORYLINES TO WATCH - The Astros. Will they repeat? The AL West seems pretty open right now. The Astros had a fair amount of turnover: Justin Verlander went to New York, they re-signed Michael Brantley but he’s going to open the season on the injured list, Trey Mancini signed with the Cubs, and Yuli Gurriel went to Miami, and they also signed Jose Abreu. They also had some weird-ass stuff going on in the front office; former GM James Click declined a one-year contract extension and after a nearly three-month interim (during which it was heavily rumored that owner Jim Crane was personally handling free-agent negotiations with Jeff Bagwell advising him) they hired the Braves’ former head of scouting, Dana Brown, as their new general manager. What will this new Astros club look like? - This is the final year of Shohei Ohtani's contract with the Angels. Per statements from his agent, Nez Balelo, Ohtani is committed to seeing his market value in free agency. Teams everywhere will be lining up to sign the two-way phenom. But does he want a paycheck, or does he want a World Series ring? Or both? We'll see, especially when teams start kicking the tires on the trade market to see if they can rent him for a few months this summer. Also of note with the Angels, rumors persist that owner Arte Moreno is pondering a sale of the team despite a public change of heart in January after hiring a financial advisement firm last year to explore a sale; none of his children have expressed interest in taking over after the 76-year-old Moreno steps down as chairman. - Aaron Judge bet on himself and won big, breaking Maris' long-standing single-season home run record in the American League with 62 home runs. (Even though it was later revealed that MLB was feeding him juiced balls.) In return, the Yankees are paying him $40 million a year for the next nine years. Will he ever manage to equal that same performance? Who knows? - Steve Cohen spent a fucking fortune in the free agent market this winter, handing out about $500 million in new contracts ($815 million if the Carlos Correa deal hadn’t fallen through). Even though the Mets eventually walked away from Correa because of concerns over his ankle, the Mets have, by far, the highest payroll in MLB, almost $40 million higher than their neighbors in the Bronx. Will it translate to on-field success? - Some teams are on the rise. The Seattle Mariners managed to sneak into the postseason for the first time since 2001, and the Baltimore Orioles went from 110 losses in 2021 to 83 wins in 2022. Can they keep up that momentum? - Fernando Tatis, Jr., will be making his return. He's got a lot to rebound from. Not only did he have three surgeries recently (two on his wrist, one on his shoulder), he has the cloud of his PED suspension hanging over him. However, he's still only 23, and he's an absolute beast at the plate. Can he help the Padres achieve success? Or will his career be derailed by some admittedly significant injuries? - The Cubs had a … weird, weird offseason. Cool Kyle Hendricks is starting the season in the minors after a capsular tear in his shoulder, and he only just recently began throwing from a mound. The rest of their rotation after Marcus Stroman is a bunch of untested young guys, same as their bullpen. Right fielder Seiya Suzuki is recovering from an oblique injury and will also begin the season on the injured list. Their $177 million man in Dansby Swanson–easily the worst-hitting shortstop in this offseason’s free-agent market–finished spring training with a .100 average and one home run. They’re lacking offense at most positions, particularly catcher (after letting Willson Contreras go to the FUCKING Cardinals), yet some media outlets both nationwide and local are projecting them to be a wild card contender. What is this hodge-podge, still-rebuilding team (even though owner Tom Ricketts won’t let anyone call it a rebuild) going to do? The wait is finally over, friends. The national pastime is back. Play ball.