Ten Bold Predictions for 2014

March 31, 2014

 

 

A column like this is probably the most fun a baseball writer can have because a) itís a projection of an analysis rather than an analysis itselfÖ which basically means you can say anything you want, and b) if you actually get something right, people take notice, and if you get more than a few right people will think youíre a genius savant (as opposed to just being really lucky). And if you get it all wrong, you can always be like an economist and say ďthere were too many unforeseen variables to recognize that eventualityĒ. Either way, itís consequence-free amusement. So letís get to it.

 

 

1) Neither of the two teams that faced off in the World Series will make the playoffs.

Boston has undergone a few key defensive changes this offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew are all gone and theyíre depending on two rookies Ė Wil Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts - to hold down the left side of the infield. Grady Sizemore is a great story but how much range heíll have in center and how much heíll be able to play are big questions yet unanswered. AJ Pierzinski is a good hitter and pitch caller but is a defensive downgrade. On the mound, Buchholz is still a question mark when it comes to staying on the field and the rest of their starting staff, while good, are not exactly world beaters. Jon Lester and John Lackey are great big game pitchers but have yet to put up a single ace-quality season between them. Iíd have more confidence in their pitching depth if Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo or Brandon Workman had more impressive showings last year but frankly they are all works in progress. They have upside but at this point itís looking like thereíre still some growing pains ahead. But perhaps their biggest obstacle is the division they play in. Itís just very tough to be among the top two teams in AL East year after year, and with competition for the wild card coming from the American League West, which has three playoff-quality teams of its own, the Sawx can still be very good yet miss the postseason.

 

As for the Cardinals, their unbelievable run last year was in large part fueled by three phenomenal occurrences which likely wonít repeat. The first and most obvious is that they hit .330 as a team with runners in scoring position. Most players individually never achieve that yet the Cards did it as a team. I could not find any team in the last 50 years that had hit as high and only a couple that have hit within 20 points of that for a single season. None of them repeated the feat. The other two things that drove the Cardinals last year was the emergence of Matt Carpenter and the extraordinary season from Joe Kelly. Carpenter nearly doubled the highest number of doubles he had hit in any minor league season in his first season in the majors as well as hit for the best average of his career. Kellyís career minor league ERA is 3.90, allowed nearly 1.4 baserunners per inning yet managed a 2.69 ERA in 2013. Both of those guys might prove to be really good over the course of their careers (I have my doubts, particularly about Kelly), but itís unlikely theyíll be able to repeat their 2013 performances. Thereís just a whole lot of regression waiting to happen for this team. Add to that the free agent loss of Carlos Beltran, their best power hitter in 2013. Itís not just the loss of Beltran the player, though. Losing him moves Allen Craig to the outfield where heíll be more susceptible to injury (already a concern) and move Matt Adams off the bench where he canít be as judiciously used. Oscar Taveras could offset this drop if he ascends quickly but who knows how long that will take with the ongoing injury issues with his ankle.

 

 

2) Chris Heisey and George Springer will be equally valuable in 2014.

This one I covered in the prospect list.

 

 

3) Stephen Strasburg will be the most valuable pitcher in baseball.

This will be the first year that Strasburg gets to pitch as many innings as he warrants. This spring he added a slider to his repertoire so that hitters canít sit on his fastball. There are some great pitching talents in baseball right now but very few have the combination of good defense behind them, a friendly park to pitch in, solid bullpen and an offense that will score enough runs to go along with that talent. Those that do donít throw as hard or get strikeouts the way Strasburg does. Clayton Kershaw won his first Cy Young award after his fourth full season in the majors. Justin Verlanderís fourth full season was his breakthrough into the ranks of the elite pitchers; same with Felix Hernandez. This will be Strasburgís fourth full season.

 

4) Mike Moustakas in the AL and Pedro Alvarez in the NL will be the most valuable third basemen.

Both of these players look transformed this spring. When Iíve watched, both seem to be looking for a good pitch to hit, rather than the first strike they can make contact with, which seemed to be their MO previously. They both have massive power and if they can continue their selective swinging through the summer they are going to produce some very impressive numbers by seasonís end.

 

 

5) Billy Hamilton will steal 100 bases but will not top 500 at bats.

No one has more speed or a better instinct to steal bases, but I question whether he will hit enough to stay in the line-up everyday all year. So I expect heíll get out of the gate quickly but stumble as the league makes the adjustment I saw some pitchers making late this spring and begin to bust him inside. Rather than sit him on the bench, Cincinnati will demote him to Triple-A for a month or so and then heíll return to finish the season in the majors. While heís gone, Roger Bernadina will effectively man center field, then move over to left to replace the declining Ryan Ludwick when Hamilton returns. If Hamilton plays 100 games, heíll get 100 steals.

 

 

6) Jered Weaver will be the 4th most valuable pitcher on the Angels staff.

Part of this is that I donít have much faith in a right-hander throwing 88 mph fooling AL line-ups for a long time. Weaverís fastball velocity has been on a 4-year decline and last year his average was 86.5 mph. Heís now topping out at 88, rather than averaging it. That just wonít play, not for a right-hander. But the other part of my prediction is because CJ Wilson, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs will be pretty good this year. Wilson has looked sharp this spring and is much better than heís often given credit. Santiago will benefit from the move to a far less hitter-friendly home park and Skaggsí return to his old mechanics has resulted in a boost in fastball velocity of nearly 5 mph.

 

 

7) Eight players will finish the season with 40 or more homers:

This qualifies as bold since only two players hit more than 36 homers last year. Here are my guys and the reasons why:

Giancarlo Stanton (just needs a healthy full season)

Prince Fielder (moving from average park to great park for hitters will restore his power hitting luster)

Paul Goldschmidt (because his walk rate improved and strikeout rate fell each year heís been in the majors)

Miguel Cabrera (has one more great season as long as he can avoid injuries)

Chris Davis (hits in a very strong line-up and even if he has on off-year he could still hit 40)

Jay Bruce (unless like previous years he has been very selective this spring. If thatís a harbinger, watch out!)

Jose Bautista (just needs to stay healthy)

Edwin Encarnacion (2013 was not substantially different than 2012. Just didnít hit as many flyballs)

 

 

8) Mark Trumbo will not top 30 homers.

The boost from moving to Arizona is not as much as some would believe; Angel Stadium is actually a decent park for right-handed power. Working against him is the change in leagues which could drive his batting average even lower, and his away games at Petco, AT&T and Dodger Stadium which are tough places for right-handers to put one over the wall. Another big hit to his chances is not facing an Astros pitching staff 18 times, against whom he hit five of his 34 homers last year.

 

 

9) The Washington Nationals will score 800+ runs and lead the NL.

Last year was an incredibly disappointing year for the Nats, especially scoring runs. But two of the biggest drags on that offense are no longer an issue. Danny Espinosa, who was simply dreadful trying to play through a shoulder injury, will now be a utility player whose bat wonít be as vital for everyday production. In his place will be Anthony Rendon, who was league average last year and has the skills and tools to be among the best offensive second basemen in the league. The other, Denard Span, was stymied by the change in league but in the second half played much more like the player the Nationals were hoping to get when they traded for him. With those two and a bounce back year from Adam LaRoche, the Nationals have a chance to have a player at each position with an OPS+ of 110 or better (10% better than league average). Additionally, moving Espinosa to the bench and adding solid players like Nate McLouth to it, there wonít be much drop offensively on days in which the regulars need a day off. I also think new manager Matt Williams will be more involved in games than Davey Johnson was and will do a better job of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

 

 

10) Derek Jeter will win the AL MVP

NO, itís not because he will do anything on the field to merit it. He may or may not have a good final season. But thatís always been irrelevant with Jeter, hasnít it? Heís been a terrible defensive shortstop for at least a decade but that never seems to deter the writers and TV media from ranking him among the top players in the league every year. His average with men in scoring position (.302) has always been lower than his regular average (.312) but that hasnít stopped them from referring to him as one of the greatest clutch hitters in history. So why would they start now creating a narrative that corresponds with reality? This year the love-fest goes into final overdrive and reaches embarrassing heights. The irony is that I like Jeter.

 

OK, seriouslyÖ 10) The Rockies will win the NL West

Every year there is some team that seemingly comes out of nowhere to excite the baseball world. A coupe of years ago it was the Oís and the Aís. Last year it was the Pirates. This year the trendy pick is the Royals but I donít have a lot of confidence in their rotation depth after James Shields. So Iíll go with a team that doesnít need rotation depth Ė the Rockies. Thatís an exaggeration, of course. Every team needs pitching but in the thin air itís hard to tell good pitching from mediocre pitching, at least until they travel to a ballpark on Earth. That said, the Rockies pitching is better than they are getting credit for. Juan Nicasio looked like a world-beater when he made his debut in 2011, struggled a bit in 2012 until he got seriously injured by a come backer in June of that year. This spring he looks like the guy who pitched fearlessly in 2011. Brett Anderson looked like an ace in Oakland until injuries derailed his progress. Heís looked solid this spring as well. Both of those guys are solid top of the rotation talents when healthy. Tyler Chatwood and Jorge De La Rosa are serviceable starters in the middle which is important because theyíll be replaced eventually by two upper tier talents, Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, both of whom should make their debuts this year. Gray is simply a larger version of Jose Fernandez and Butler is a four-pitch phenom. If the Rockies can stay in the mix for the West into June, I would not be surprised to see both of these pitchers starting games for them before the All-Star Break. The other pitcher who intrigues me is Franklin Morales. He always had more talent than his numbers reflected and I think the move to the bullpen in Boston freed him up to work on refining his primary pitches and to learn to pitch more aggressively. This spring, the Rockies gave him a shot at starting and he excelled. Still only 28 (it seems like heís been around forever) he could be a nice surprise. On the obvious side, the Rockies will score some runs. If Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales stay healthy for 140+ games, theyíll score a lot of runs. What gets lost in all the hoopla about Tulo and Cargo is that the rest of the line-up is pretty decent, too. Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado are solid. Even if Morneau isnít back to his MVP level, heís still an upgrade over what the Rockies had last year. If he does manage to make it all the way back, the Rockies will have three MVP-type hitters. What happens at second base and the other outfield slot is almost irrelevant because they have enough options to mix and match to make the position serviceable. Even so, thereís some upside with Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs and Tim Wheeler with Kyle Parker waiting in the wings. So a team that has a very solid offense and a rotation that could feature four, maybe five really good starters by seasonís end? Yeah, Iíll roll the dice.

 

And letís face it Ė theyíre not called ďbold predictionsĒ for nothing.