SportsPulse: Baseball is finally here. For real. It’s MLB’s opening week, and USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon breaks down the top story lines that will define this unprecedented season.


On Thursday, the first pitch of the condensed Major League Baseball season will be thrown. And my, how different things look from the first pitch of spring training in late February.  

Despite whatever issues MLB has with testing problemsgames being played in empty stadiums or one team being temporarily homeless, the players are still the center of attention. 

Here’s a look at my top 25 players in fantasy baseball as we get ready to start the 60-game season – and see how they compare to the rankings from spring training. 

1. OF Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers (previously 2)

2. OF Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves (1)

Over a full season, Acuña offers a higher upside in steals and runs scored, but as a two-time defending NL batting champ, Yelich’s consistency over the past two seasons is paramount in a short season. 

3. OF/1B Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers (4)

4. SP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees (6)

5. OF Mookie Betts, Dodgers (5)

Bellinger and Betts give the Dodgers two MVPs at the top of the lineup. Will they make each other better? You bet. Cole moves up ever so slightly because proven aces are even more valuable when most starters won’t be pitching as deep into games.

6. SS Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians (7)

7. SP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets (8)

8. SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals (15)

The delayed start to the season reduces the odds of Cleveland trading Lindor during the season. The winners of the last four NL Cy Young awards come next. Scherzer moves into the top 10 after showing no signs of the issues with his right side that cropped up during the spring.

9. SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies (9)

10. SS Trea Turner, Nationals (10)

11. SP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros (11)

12. OF Juan Soto, Nationals (13)

13. OF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (3)

Multitalented shortstops always rate highly.Do you prefer Story’s power or Turner’s speed? Verlander is still in the top tier of starting pitchers, even though Scherzer moves past him in a slight reshuffling. It’s still hard to believe Soto is just 21 years old. And at last we find Trout, who is still the game’s best overall player but will most certainly miss time during the season when his wife is ready to give birth.  

14. SS/3B Alex Bregman, Astros (14)

15. 3B Anthony Rendon, Angels (12)

16. 3B Jose Ramirez, Indians (16)

17. 3B Nolan Arenado, Rockies (18)

We call this the hot corner collection. 

18. OF J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox (19)

19. OF Starling Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks (24)

20. OF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies (25)

Marte may look slightly out of place when grouped with these sluggers, but his ability to steal bases is a rarity these days.

21. SS Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres (20)

22. 3B Rafael Devers, Red Sox (26)

23. SP Walker Buehler, Dodgers (21)

24. SP Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (22)

25. 2B Jose Altuve, Astros (28)

Tatis hit .317/.379/.590 a year ago, at age 20. Devers may not have Betts in the lineup with him anymore, but he still has Martinez. Buehler and Strasburg begin the second tier of starting pitchers. And Altuve leads the second base contingent with Gleyber Torres and Ketel Marte right behind.

Dropping in the rankings: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, after his nasty battle with COVID-19. However, he’s still hanging around the top 30.

Among the biggest risers since March: Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger, who was going to miss the first part of the season recovering from knee surgery, but is now fully healthy.

Sports video of the day

One of the great things about baseball is that you never know when you might see history happen. Of course, you may not be in attendance if someone throws a no-hitter or hits four homers in a game this season…

Here’s a memorable moment from last season, when Verlander joined a very exclusive group of pitchers with at least three career no-nos: Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4) and Bob Feller (3).  

Story time

TESTING, TESTING:NFL players blitz social media calling for stronger health, safety protocols

GABE LACQUES:Exhibition game offers first look at MLB’s new reality in COVID world

HEART CHECK:NBA places greater emphasis on cardiac screening for players testing positive

READY TO BE HEARD: WNBA star preparing to make history with ESPN Radio

COVID-19:College football coaches face own risks as they balance needs of their teams 

DWIGHT HOWARD:Laker keeps detracting from his good deeds with bubble actions

Sports on TV

MLS (live): MLS is Back Tournament, Inter Miami vs. New York City FC, 9 a.m. ET; Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN.

Soccer (live): English Premier League, Sheffield United vs. Everton, 1 p.m. ET; Wolverhampton vs. Crystal Palace, 3:10 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

MLB (live): Exhibition baseball: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees, 6 p.m. ET; Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres, 9 p.m. ET, MLB Network.

NFL (classic): 2017 AFC Divisional Playoff, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8 p.m. ET; Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders from Dec. 16, 2017, 11 p.m. ET, NFL Network.

NBA (classic): Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers from Feb. 1, 2020, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV.

NHL (classic): 2002 Western Conference Finals Game 5: Colorado Avalanche at Detroit Red Wings, 7 p.m. ET; 1975 Stanley Cup Final Game 6: Philadelphia Flyers at Buffalo Sabres, NHL Network.

Boxing (classic): Mike Tyson extravaganza! Tyson vs. Larry Holmes, 9 p.m. ET, vs. Frank Bruno, 9:30 p.m. ET and vs. Buster Douglas, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN.

Follow Steve Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner.

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