1. Mike Trout will finally win an AL MVP trophy. Trout, at age 22, is already a two-time runner-up who may still be getting better. After his superlative 2012, he led the majors in runs and stolen bases. He actually improved in 2013, hitting .323/.432/.557 with a 179 OPS+ and upping his walk and line-drive rates by five percent each. With Peter Bourjos gone, Trout will play centerfield full-time where he’s most comfortable and most valuable.
2. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will both hit more than 30 home runs. Pujols, who turns 34 this month, hit a career-low 17 home runs last year but should finally be healthy after knee and foot ailments plagued him a year ago. Meanwhile Hamilton, 32, will be locked in as only a leftfielder and with an extra year in Anaheim under his belt after hitting 21 in 2013, the first season of his five-year, $125-million contract.
3. Stephen Strasburg will win the NL Cy Young award. The competition in the Senior Circuit is as fierce — and young — as ever, but it’s the “old” phenom from 2010, Strasburg, who will have the best season among NL pitchers. The Nationals’ ace will barely edge the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha, a cohort all aged 26 or younger.
4. Neither the Yankees nor the Mariners will make the playoffs. The two most active clubs this winter haven’t done enough to reach October. New York still has question marks at all four infield positions, due to attrition (Robinson Cano leaving), recent injuries (Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira) and looming suspensions (Alex Rodriguez). Seattle, meanwhile, isn’t sure if it will get enough offense from its outfield (Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Logan Morrison and/or Corey Hart).
5. The Padres will return to the postseason for the first time since 2006. San Diego doesn’t have a classic ace but it does has enviable pitching depth: Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, who emerged in the second half of last season; veterans Ian Kennedy, Eric Stults and free-agent addition Josh Johnson; prospects Burch Smith and Matt Wisler; and Tommy John recoverees Casey Kelly, Joe Wieland and Cory Luebke.
The Padres also don’t have a classic heart-of-the-order thumper (unless Chase Headley returns to his 2012 form), but they have a balanced lineup with talented two-way players up the middle in centerfielder Cameron Maybin, shortstop Everth Cabrera, second baseman Jedd Gyorko and catcher Yasmani Grandal (who’s recovering from an ACL tear but should return at midseason).
6. The Mets will have a winning record. The loss of young ace Matt Harvey, who will miss the 2014 season after having Tommy John surgery, has clouded an otherwise strong offseason that includes the additions of Bartolo Colon in the rotation and Curtis Granderson and Chris Young in the outfield. With the underrated Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee in the rotation alongside Colon and the high-ceilinged Zach Wheeler, plus an improved defense, the Mets should fare well in run prevention.
7. The Indians will regress; the Pirates won’t. Of the two surprise playoff entrants in 2012, the A’s returned to October baseball a year later while the Orioles fell off the pace. If the pattern holds for the 2013 longshots, look for the Pirates to be the ones that make a repeat postseason appearance while the Indians sink back in the AL Central.
Pittsburgh’s groundball-heavy pitching staff will still play to its favor, and the likely midseason arrivals of its next two top prospects, outfielder Gregory Polanco and righthanded starter Jameson Taillon, will keep the Pirates churning along behind reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Cleveland, however, won’t get the starting pitching it needs and will especially miss Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez (unless he makes a surprise decision to re-sign with the Indians).
8. The Reds will finish fourth in the NL Central. Their offense was already top-heavy in 2013 — with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo levying a disproportionate amount of damage — and now it will be without Choo, who signed with the Rangers. (Brandon Phillips‘ 103 RBIs last year were deceiving in light of his poor .706 OPS.) While the first five in the team’s rotation is strong with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake, there’s no depth should anyone get injured (unless Bronson Arroyo, another free-agent, returns). The Cardinals will continue to be a power, the Pirates will remain strong and look for the upstart Brewers to finish a game or two ahead of Cincinnati.
9. Rules changes will be very popular. During the offseason, an outline for expanded replay has taken shape and home plate collisions have been banned. Both changes will be in effect in time for next season and both will be a success. There inevitably will be a few hiccups with the early implementation of expanded replay, and some slowdown in the pace of game should be expected as everyone adjusts to the new program. And, of course, it should have happened years ago. But by midseason, when everything is running smoothly and fewer games are being decided by blown calls, we’ll barely remember the prehistoric era in which correctable human error had a prominent place in the sport.
As for collisions at the plate, eliminating the previously acceptable practice — whereby professional athletes could sprint for 90 feet and collide with a standing target who receives the blow while unable to fully protect himself because he’s trying to hold onto the ball — is long overdue. The word “concussion” will be used less frequently in a baseball context while some creative sliding will make the highlight reels.
10. Billy Beane‘s you-know-what finally works in the playoffs. The well-rounded club put together by Oakland’s general manager will win its first World Series in 25 years. The A’s, who have won just one postseason series in eight tries under Beane’s leadership, have either above-average players or capable platoons at every position, plus a dynamic young rotation and the makings of the game’s best bullpen. They’ll defeat the Nationals — who will do in 2014 what they were supposed to do in ’13 by reaching the Fall Classic — and return the championship trophy to the Bay Area for the third time in five seasons.
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