Ohtani, 'openers' and Moneyball 2.0: My 10 favorite MLB stories of 2018

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It feels like we're trudging a bit to the end of the regular season. The American League playoff teams are essentially set, with the only real question whether the Yankees or A's will host the wild-card game. The National League is a little more up in the air but also a lot less crowded in the division and wild-card races than a couple weeks ago. So let's take a quick timeout from the playoff races. These are my 10 favorite stories of the 2018 season.

Shohei Ohtani performs on the mound and at the plate

His starts and his at-bats the first two months of the season were must-watch viewing. He showcased ace potential on the mound, including a memorable 12-strikeout, one-hit outing over seven innings in his second start. He homered in three of his first four games. It was electric. It was incredible. It was something we had never seen before.

Then he got hurt, missed a month and we kind of forgot about him -- until he returned and starting raking even more, displaying huge power to center and left-center. His average exit velocity is ninth-highest in the majors (minimum 100 balls in play). He's hitting .286/.369/.571.

OK, he might have to go undergo Tommy John surgery after the season, which means he won't pitch in 2019 (he could still hit). Maybe that proves the doubters right, that it is too much to ask a player to do both. In the end, the logistics of doing both might not maximize the value of doing one. But I wouldn't bet against this kid.

Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto

Speaking of kids -- wow. Before Michael Lewis wrote "Moneyball," he wrote another best-seller called "The New New Thing." Baseball keeps giving us the new new thing and this pair of NL East outfielders gave us two of the best 20-and-under performances in MLB history. Acuna's .568 slugging percentage is the fourth-highest ever for a 20-year-old (behind only Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez and Ted Williams). Based on his performance the past two months, with an OPS over 1.000, it's not silly to claim he's already the best player in the NL.

Soto, meanwhile, has set all kinds of marks for a 19-year-old: Most walks, highest OBP (.409!), third-most home runs (20, only Tony Coniglario with 24 and Bryce Harper with 22 have more). He already has the plate discipline of a seasoned veteran and he's only going to grow into more power. He's been compared to a left-handed version of Albert Pujols and he could be that kind of player who dominates the league for the next decade.

The American League MVP race

The individual performances among the AL's top position players give us one of the best MVP races ever, with five players already over 7.0 WAR (Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Matt Chapman, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor), Alex Bregman almost there, and J.D. Martinez chasing a Triple Crown. Betts' two-way value is off the charts and probably makes him the MVP favorite, and we almost take Trout's greatness for granted (don't!). Chapman is the new guy here, but he's been the best defensive player in the majors and he's hit .282/.359/.518 (and ranks fourth in the majors in road OPS).

Billy Beane's best work yet

Beane became the most famous GM in the game after the publication of Lewis' book that focused on Beane's ability to exploit market inefficiencies (particularly in the value of on-base percentage). But the heart and soul of those early 2000s teams was the farm system: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez.

This team is different. The A's are going to win close to 100 games in a season nobody expected them to make the playoffs, mainly due to Beane's work in trades. The farm system did produce Chapman, plus Matt Olson, Chad Pinder and Lou Trivino, but check out some of the other key performers that Beane and top lieutenant David Forst acquired through the years:

-- Khris Davis: Acquired from the Brewers for Jacob Nottingham.
-- Jed Lowrie: Acquired from the Astros for Brendan McCurry.
-- Marcus Semien: Acquired from White Sox as part of the Jeff Samardzija trade.
-- Stephen Piscotty: Acquired this past offseason from the Cardinals for Yairo Munoz.
-- Ramon Laureano: Acquired from the Astros in the offseason for Brandon Bailey.
-- Mark Canha: Acquired from the Rockies for Austin House.
-- Blake Treinen: Acquired last year (with top prospect Jesus Luzardo) for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.
-- Sean Manaea: Acquired from the Royals for Ben Zobrist.

According to thebaseballgauge.com, only the Indians and Rays acquired more 2018 WAR via trades. Beane hasn't been perfect -- the Josh Donaldson trade a few years ago didn't really pan out (Franklin Barreto is still around) and he let Max Muncy go last year -- but this team was built around acquiring some good talent without giving up much in return.

Rays develop new "Opener" strategy

As surprising as the A's have been, Kevin Cash would get my vote for manager of the year. The Rays had all the injuries in the rotation, and they later traded Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi, but their unique strategy of using relievers to start some games and pitch an inning or two has helped turn makeshift pitching into the second-best run prevention team in the AL (Blake Snell has helped in that area as well).

It's remarkable that a sport as old as baseball can still find ways to innovate. No, the blurring of the lines between starter and reliever isn't for everyone, but we're only going to see more of this in the future. The Rays have the second-best second-half record in the majors (one win behind the A's), they're going to win 90 games, and they've quietly developed an interesting array of talent with a farm system that now rates as one of the best in the majors. They have one player signed for 2019 (Kevin Kiermaier), meaning they could actually supplement the roster with some free agents. They're going to be fun to watch in 2019.

Max Muncy

A year ago, he was a 26-year-old in Triple-A. Didn't get one at-bat in the majors. Now he's in the middle of the Dodgers lineup, leading the team with 33 home runs while starting at three different positions along the way. Last year, the Dodgers came up with Chris Taylor. This year, Muncy. Sometimes baseball doesn't seem fair.

The NL West race

The Dodgers have won five straight NL West titles and very well may win their sixth after sweeping the Rockies this week, but at least they've been pushed to the end, unlike the five previous seasons. The Dodgers were 16-26 and 8.5 games out in mid-May, took the lead in July, fell to 4.5 games back on Aug. 22 after a string of late-game losses, and now have bounced back again. But here's how close the division has been, especially in the second half, where the Dodgers' current 1.5-game lead is the typical of how the race has been run:

-- Dodgers: In first place or tied for first 28 days, biggest lead 2.5 games.

-- Rockies: In first place or tied for first 25 days, biggest lead 1.5 games.

-- Diamondbacks: Led by as many as 6 games on May 1, but never by more than 3.5 games since May 4 (and less than that in the second half).

-- Giants: They're going to finish under .500 for the second straight year, but they were just 2.5 games out on July 2.

-- Padres: Eric Hosmer has not been one of my favorite stories of the season.

The Braves are back

After three rebuilding years, the Braves look like they're going to jump from 72 wins to 90 and the NL East division title -- a division the Nationals were supposed to win in easy fashion. Maybe they arrived a season early, but this is an interesting and exciting team beyond Acuna. Freddie Freeman has done his usual thing, spraying line drives everywhere; Ozzie Albies made the first of what will be many All-Star appearances; Ender Inciarte makes all the plays in center; Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb developed into rotation anchors; then GM Alex Anthopoulos stole Kevin Gausman from the Orioles. The best part: There is more youth on the way, especially on the pitching side. The talent is here for a potential long ride atop the division -- longtime Braves fans know all about that.

Alex Bregman's breakout

Few players can match his production, his intensity, his clutch hitting -- and yet have so much fun at the same time (see some of the home run celebrations, like the Jamaican bobsled routine in the dugout). He's ultra-confident and will tell you how good he is. He's hit 30 home runs and 50 doubles, has more walks than strikeouts and is still getting better.

July 3

The Mariners were 55-31, a half-game out of first place and eight games ahead of the A's for the second wild card. The team with the longest playoff drought -- that's 2001 for you non-Mariners fans -- was playing over its head, but certainly appeared headed for a postseason trip. Alas, there was more season to play. To my fellow Mariners fans: Next year, my friends.