The first week of the 2024 MLB season is complete, and it couldn’t have been more different for Shohei Ohtani and Mookie Betts. The Dodgers, of course, are still winning. The Cubs have also gotten off to a strong start, despite losing ace Justin Steele. While the front office deliberates over a potential pitching addition, Chicago is squaring off with L.A. this weekend at Wrigley Field (Saturday on FS1 at 4:05 p.m. ET).

Baseball’s opening week has provided great theater across the league, with Juan Soto‘s Yankees debut perhaps topping the list. Naturally, that has the Bronx — if not the whole league — buzzing about his impending free agency and what his next contract might look like. 

FOX Sports MLB experts Rowan Kavner and Deesha Thosar tackle those topics and more in this week’s roundtable.

1. Shohei Ohtani just ended the longest home run drought of his career to begin a season. What do you suspect was the biggest factor behind his slow start: his UCL recovery, the gambling saga, or the randomness of an eight-game sample size?

Thosar: A little bit of everything. Familiarizing himself with a new organization, including all the hours of prep work and training we know he spends ample time doing, all without his right-hand man Ippei Mizuhara, has got to be difficult. Ohtani went from an established, repetitive routine with the Angels to having to start over with the Dodgers. He’s likely still finding his creature comforts while transitioning to a new interpreter who has significantly fewer responsibilities than Mizuhara did. In the public’s eye, Ohtani is just a hitter this year, but in the background, he’s rehabbing his elbow while swinging the bat as Los Angeles’ DH on a nightly basis. The small sample size of games doesn’t help his stats right now, but I would be surprised if his slugging numbers don’t balance out by the end of the year.

Kavner: Coming back from the surgery, and specifically issues with timing as he finds his way again. I doubt the gambling scandal is impacting his play. If anything, baseball is probably a welcome distraction. It gives him some sense of normalcy again. There was probably some pressing, too, wanting to start his record contract off with a bang.

One interesting thing he noted was he’s still trying to get the feel of the distance between himself and the ball. It’s been a long layoff from baseball and a major procedure he’s coming back from, so I’d expect it might just take a little time for him to figure out how his body moves again. The good news for him is he’s still making ridiculously hard contact when he connects. He has the six hardest-hit balls of the season for the Dodgers. I wouldn’t be surprised if his first home run Wednesday gets him going.

2. Do the Cubs need to be aggressive in adding a veteran starting pitcher in light of the Justin Steele injury? If so, which team would you target in a deal and who from Chicago’s 26-man roster would you make available?

Kavner: What’s Zack Greinke up to? Jed Hoyer’s recent comments about the circumstances keeping him up at night are interesting and would at least give credence to the idea that he might try to do something about it, but if Jameson Taillon can return in the next couple weeks. The Cubs probably don’t need to go full panic mode just yet.

I’d make some calls to the 305, with Miami off to an 0-8 start and Edward Cabrera and Braxton Garrett getting closer to a return. Really, though, I can’t imagine there are many players sitting in free agency that are physically ready to take on a full starter’s workload tomorrow or teams willing to deal a capable starter so quickly, even among the groups with little hope in 2024. The Marlins, despite their need to add offense and the likelihood of them becoming sellers, might be hesitant to deal so quickly from their plethora of arms considering the devastating news on Eury Pérez and the fact that none of their starters are rentals. If the idea is to find a veteran to keep things afloat for a month or two, the cost might be too great right now.

Maybe Matt Mervis‘ early success at Triple-A could make the Cubs slightly more willing to hear calls on their corner infielders, but if they did strike a deal, I’d expect them to tap into their strong farm system rather than deal from their active roster. They’ve still managed to get out to a 4-2 start, prospect Ben Brown was able to provide some length recently and could slot into Steele’s spot until Taillon is ready to return, and Cade Horton could be ready sometime this year. It’s not a sustainable method of success, but it could work for a few weeks. And if there’s a manager capable of piecing it together until then, it’s probably Craig Counsell.

Thosar: If Steele returns to the mound as early as the Cubs expect, then the sky is very much not falling in Wrigleyville. The club is expecting Steele to bounce back from his hamstring injury in about a month, so the pitching staff has the challenge of covering around six starts for its ace. The Cubs’ first turn through the rotation without Steele went well enough. They used an opener and a total of seven arms to beat the uninspiring Rockies. Bigger tests will come this month when Chicago plays the Padres and Diamondbacks. But the team’s biggest strength during times of crisis will continue to reside in the manager’s office. Craig Counsell received a big compliment from Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who told reporters the skipper has been calm and unemotional about facing time without Steele. If the Cubs can follow Counsell’s lead, there is no reason to panic, and certainly no need to be aggressive just yet. That can all change if Steele’s timeline is pushed back. But for now, the Cubs can grow from how they handle their first big test of the year.

3. If you were running the Dodgers, who would you start at shortstop and how would you generally plan to deploy Mookie Betts defensively?

Thosar: Since it’s only been just over a week of games, and the early numbers show the Dodgers’ infield defense hasn’t really hurt the club, I’m of the belief that Betts should continue working on his glove at shortstop. He hasn’t looked particularly natural at the position while he essentially learns it on the fly. But he has the right attitude about wanting to make it work for the team, and when a six-time Gold Glover in right field willingly and easily agrees to shift to shortstop, that’s no small thing. The Dodgers have the luxury of playing around with their middle infield for now, but they will want to make sure it’s sharp for the playoffs. If Betts defense improves with more reps, which could very well happen, that should ease some of the club’s concerns in the dirt. Plus, there might be some value to the theory that Betts is better at the plate when he plays in the infield. He’s off to a scorching hot start, so if Betts can keep up his production at the plate, his learning curve at shortstop will be a nothing burger.

Kavner: I would have never moved Betts permanently from the outfield — given the Dodgers’ weaknesses across the infield and offensive prowess throughout the lineup, I think Miguel Rojas‘ glove at shortstop outweighs his offensive limitations, and the best version of the team probably has Betts in right field, Rojas at shortstop and Gavin Lux at second base — but it’s clear Betts has more fun playing on the dirt and likes the challenge. So, if playing the infield is what’s going to get the best version out of him and keep him locked in for the next decade, I understand the reasoning. If it were me, I’d give Rojas the majority of time at shortstop and have Betts rotate between right field and the middle infield, similar to what he did last year. The good news for them is the lineup is so loaded and Betts is so talented, they can probably get him reps wherever they want without it impacting their standing atop the NL West.

4. Where do you place the Cubs among NL Central teams?

Thosar: Despite the Pirates‘ hot start and the Brewers sweeping a lifeless Mets team, I still think the NL Central is the Cubs’ division to lose. The injury to Steele does put a slight cramp on their optimism for the season, but it’s not all terrible news for the club as long as he’s expected to miss just a month. Plus, while Yoshinobu Yamamoto got all the attention, Cubs southpaw Shōta Imanaga might be the best pitcher to sign out of Japan this offseason. Imanaga’s dominant performance against Colorado certainly provided a sigh of relief for fans. Beyond the Cubs, many expect the Cardinals to be a close runner-up, but their pitching staff is concerning without Sonny Gray. By September, I’ll put the Cubs at the top with a few-game lead, with the Pirates possibly right behind them.

Kavner: I’d have them second right now. The Matt McLain and TJ Friedl injuries give me some pause, but I said before the year I’m a Reds believer, and I’m not moving off that just yet. I also believe more in the Pirates’ hot start this year than last year with their top pitching prospects starting to make their mark, but not enough that I’d have them above Chicago. I wouldn’t be surprised if all five teams in the division are still contending going into September.

5. Juan Soto is rumored to be eyeing a $500 million-plus deal this offseason. If you worked for a team that could take on a contract of that magnitude, how many years and how much money would you ultimately be willing to commit to him?

Kavner: While I wouldn’t anticipate him approaching the Ohtani range, I expect he’ll want to beat Aaron Judge‘s AAV and set a new market for position players. I think 14 years, $574 million would get the conversation started. It’s crazy after all he has accomplished that he’s younger than Adley Rutschman and Josh Jung and the same age as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. Even if his defense might be a concern, he should be a franchise-altering hitter for a loooong time.

Thosar: If Soto keeps playing the way he currently is, it would be absurd of Hal Steinbrenner not to have the highest and best offer. And since he’s only 25 years old — younger than Rutschman — he could earn upwards of $600 million, based on his performance at this early juncture of the season, anyway. If I’m the Yankees, 15 years at $650 million should be a starting point. If Soto wins the MVP this season, and helps take the Yankees to the World Series, then $700 million across 13 years doesn’t sound so crazy.

Bonus: What’s your favorite stadium to watch a game?

Kavner: As a visitor, I’m not sure there’s a better overall experience than Petco Park. You can enjoy the sunshine by the water on your stroll from your downtown hotel to the game, pick from the many quality food options at the ballpark and spend the rest of the night in the Gaslamp District, all without needing to drive anywhere. Good stuff.

Thosar: It’s a tie between Chavez Ravine and Camden Yards. Something about mountains in the backdrop of a beautiful ballpark is special. And Camden’s intimacy (and press box location) is unmatched.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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