Which categories will Miguel Cabrera lead the league in this year?
As far as league leaders go, the 2013 MLB season has a hard act to follow.
The 2012 season gave the gift of baseball's first Triple Crown season in 45 years, by way of Miguel Cabrera's .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. It also gave the gift of the greatest season ever by a knuckleball pitcher, as R.A. Dickey won the NL Cy Young Award on the strength of a 20-win season in which he led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts.
Then there was Mike Trout, who led the league in old-school stats like runs and stolen bases and the big new-school stat that everyone loves/hates: WAR.
So how about it, 2013 season? What kind of league leaders are you going to provide, and how awesome are they going to be compared to what we saw last year?
The baseball gods will have the final say, but I have a few predictions of my own for the time being.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
"If, then" statements can be tricky, but I feel comfortable spewing this one out: If Joey Votto hadn't hurt his knee, then he would have been baseball's very best hitter in 2012.
Votto was hitting .342 at the time he went in for surgery on his left knee in mid-July. Eventual NL batting champ Buster Posey wasn't even hitting over .300 at the time.
Votto's knee did a number on his power after he returned, as he didn't hit any homers and slugged only .421 in his final 25 games. He still showed that he could hit, though, batting .316 in those 25 games. That allowed him to finish with a .337 average, which would have been good enough for the NL batting crown if he'd had enough plate appearances.
The health of Votto's knee is still a question mark heading into 2013, but he said last week that he feels "really good." I consider that good news in light of a December report from MLB.com's Mark Sheldon that Votto's knee wasn't 100 percent healthy yet.
If Votto's knee holds up in 2013, I'd expect more of the same. He's topped .300 in each of the last four seasons, and he was able to get his batting average particularly high in 2012 thanks to a .404 BABIP.
That's too high to be sustainable, but Votto can be trusted to have a higher BABIP than most, because he owns a .359 career BABIP and has an uncanny ability to make hard contact consistently.
Case in point: Nobody has a higher line-drive percentage than Votto over the last two seasons (see FanGraphs).
If he keeps hitting the ball on a rope while showing off his usual patience in 2013, he'll be in line for yet another high batting average.
Final Tally: .340
A few years back, somebody decided to build a machine designed to hit home runs. When it was finished, they called it Mike Stanton.
It then became self-aware and renamed itself Giancarlo.
Stanton has 93 career home runs in only 373 career games, and he's coming off a season in which he hit 37 home runs in only 123 games. Average his power production out over a full season's worth of games, and he would have ended up with an MLB-high 49 home runs.
What's scary about Stanton is that he's only becoming a more efficient home run hitter. In three seasons, his HR/FB rate has climbed from 22.9 percent to 24.8 to 28.9 (FanGraphs). If he hits the ball in the air, odds are it's going to find its way over the fence.
Stanton does have to play half his games at a ballpark that isn't exactly kind to home run hitters. Marlins Park is one of the league's more spacious ballparks, and it proved to be right there with Angel Stadium of Anaheim and PNC Park in terms of home run friendliness in its debut season (see ESPN.com).
But that doesn't matter where Stanton is concerned, as he has the kind of power that can make any ballpark look puny. According to HitTrackerOnline.com, no other NL hitter had as many "no doubt" home runs as Stanton in 2012.
If Stanton can find a way to play in 150 games and compile over 600 plate appearances in 2013 while maintaining a HR/FB in the high 20s, he'll have little trouble flirting with 50 home runs.
Final Tally: 50
The RBI stat is a silly thing, but it's certainly one of Miguel Cabrera's specialties.
He's driven in over 100 runs every season since 2004, and he's coming off a year in which he drove in a career-high 139.
Cabrera couldn't be in a better position to do it all over again in 2013. He'll still have one of the best lineup protectors in baseball hitting behind him in Prince Fielder, and he's going to have two very good table-setters in front of him.
Austin Jackson made big strides in 2012, most notably increasing his walks and decreasing his strikeouts. The end result was a .377 on-base percentage that he'll have little trouble repeating, so long as he doesn't let his bad habits come back to bite him.
Torii Hunter will bat second behind Jackson, and the Tigers should have high hopes for him after he posted an .854 OPS in the No. 2 spot in 2012. He probably won't be doing that well again, seeing as how the .426 BABIP he posted as a No. 2 hitter isn't sustainable, but he should do better than the .710 OPS Detroit's No. 2 hitters managed in 2012.
As for Cabrera, he just has to be himself. His power alone will help him rack up a ton of RBI, and he'll only keep adding to the pile if he repeats his .356 average with runners in scoring position.
Asking him to win another Triple Crown is asking too much. But RBI? He's got those covered.
Final Tally: 140
I wouldn't mind seeing it again, but there's no way Mike Trout is going to be as unstoppable in 2013 as he was in 2012.
Trout had a .353/.411/.608 slash line through the end of July, but it was supercharged thanks in large part to a .402 BABIP. He couldn't sustain that in the final two months of the season, as his BABIP fell to .353, and he posted a .287/.383/.500 slash line.
Here's the thing, though: That's still really good.
The only everyday leadoff hitter in 2012 who had an OBP over .380 was, well, him (see ESPN.com). If he can produce another .380 OBP as an everyday leadoff man in 2013, he's going to find himself in a position to score a ton of runs.
Especially given the hitters who will be waiting to drive him in. Josh Hamilton was the most efficient RBI man in baseball in 2012 (see Baseball Prospectus), and Albert Pujols had 91 RBI in his final 118 games after he brushed aside his early-season struggles.
Trout's weight gain shouldn't impact his ability to score runs. I wrote last week that he may not steal as many bases as he did in 2012, but the trade-off could be that he'll hit for more power. If he does, then he's going to be in scoring position about as often as he was in his rookie season (which was very often).
Trout scored 129 runs in 139 games last year. I'm not expecting a drop-off over a full season's worth of work.
Final Tally: 135
If Mike Trout's added weight keeps him from stealing bases in 2013, then the door is going to be wide open for a new stolen-base champion to emerge.
I've got my eye on Brett Gardner. Between 2010 and 2011, he played in 309 games and stole a total of 96 bases. Only Michael Bourn was responsible for more thefts in that span.
Bourn would be the easier pick to lead the league in steals, but something happened to him in 2012. He hit for a little more power than usual, and that resulted in him facing 20 fewer stolen-base opportunities than he faced in 2011. He attempted exactly 20 fewer stolen bases, but got caught stealing more often than he did in 2011.
That's an indication that Bourn's days as baseball's best stolen-base artist may be over. He's about at that age when those days should be over, of course, as no 30-year-old has stolen over 40 or more bases in a season since 2008. It's just not a common occurrence.
Gardner, on the other hand, should still have plenty of juice left in his legs. The 2013 season will see him at age 29, and his lost season in 2012 could actually help his speed. He missed most of the season with an elbow injury, meaning his legs should be both well-rested and healthy.
If Gardner plays in 150-plus games and logs close to or over 600 plate appearances, he'll get plenty of chances to show off his wheels.
Final Tally: 49
In the pantheon of silly, outdated statistics, wins are right there with RBI.
But pitchers still like them, and Jered Weaver is mighty good at piling them up. He won a career-high 20 games in 2012, and only Justin Verlander has a higher winning percentage than Weaver over the last two seasons.
Weaver couldn't be in a more perfect position to keep winning games in 2013. He's a very good pitcher, for one, as he owns a 2.59 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP over the last two seasons. Just as important, he's the right pitcher in the right place at the right time.
Weaver has the advantage of getting to pitch half(ish) his games at one of the best pitchers' parks in baseball (see ESPN.com). He also gets to pitch in front of a fine defense, as the Angels tied for second in the majors in defensive runs saved last season (FanGraphs) and should be just as good in 2013. In particular, their outfield defense with Mike Trout in left, Peter Bourjos in center and Josh Hamilton in right should be tremendous.
The Angels offense should be one of the five best run-scoring units in the league with Trout at the top and Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo in the middle. The Angels should also have an improved bullpen this year, thanks to the additions of Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson.
Combine Weaver's pitching with his ballpark, his defense, his offense and his bullpen, and the end result should be another 20-win season.
Final Tally: 22
Yup, Weaver's going to pull off a sweep of the two key Cy Young categories.
Weaver has flirted with winning an ERA title in each of the last two seasons. In 2011, he had his ERA down to 1.78 as late as Aug. 5. On Aug. 6 in 2012, he had his ERA down to 2.13.
His problem has been finishing. Weaver ended the 2011 season by posting a 4.27 ERA over his last nine starts. He ended 2012 with a 4.37 ERA over his last 10 starts.
In both cases, Weaver was done in largely by home runs. He had given up only eight home runs through his first 24 starts in 2011 before giving up 12 in his final nine. He gave up 10 homers in his final 10 starts in 2012 after giving up only 10 in his first 20 starts.
There are two reasonable excuses for this: One is fatigue, and the other is bad luck. Weaver is a fly-ball pitcher, but his career 7.7 HR/FB rate (FanGraphs) is hardly indicative of a Jeremy Guthrie-esque home run problem.
If Weaver is able to stay stronger down the stretch in 2013 while keeping a bout with gopheritis at bay, he'll be able to do what he's nearly done in each of the last two seasons: finish with the best ERA in the league.
Final Tally: 2.20
Yu Darvish had nasty stuff from the very beginning of last year, but what changed as the season went along was that he learned more and more how to use it.
Darvish had an impressive 10.3 K/9 through his first 21 starts in 2012, but it didn't do him much good because he was walking so many hitters in between strikeouts. In those first 21 starts, he was walking just about five batters per nine innings.
Something clicked late in the season. He walked only 10 hitters in his final seven starts, which spanned 50.2 innings. Even scarier, he was racking up strikeouts at an even better rate than he was before, as he finished the year with a 10.6 K/9 in those final 10 starts.
If Darvish can pick up right where he left off in 2012, he's going to be one of baseball's most lethal strikeout artists.
A K/9 in the 10.5 range would put him among the league leaders in that category. If he pitches over 200 innings, he should be able to flirt with 250 strikeouts.
With his stuff, it's a fair bet that it'll happen.
Final Tally: 250
Justin Verlander would be the easy pick to lead the league in innings, as nobody has logged more innings than he has over the last two seasons.
But I'm going to be slightly more adventurous and tab Clayton Kershaw instead, just because he still has some untapped potential left to discover.
Kershaw has led the league in ERA twice and strikeouts once, and he's logged more innings than any other left-hander in baseball over the last two seasons. About the only thing he hasn't done yet is have one of those huge 240- to 250-inning seasons normally reserved for freakish workhorses like Verlander, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay.
But Kershaw certainly has it in him to have a season like that. Take his illness-shortened start on Opening Day last season out of the equation, and Kershaw was averaging better than seven innings per start from the beginning of the season through the middle of September. His production in that span would have averaged out to a 239-inning season over a full 162-game slate (i.e. 34 starts).
Such a season will be in the cards for Kershaw in 2013 if his health holds. And since he will only be 25 this season, his health should be just fine.
Final Tally: 240
Some easy picks are just impossible not to make. Craig Kimbrel leading baseball in saves in 2013 is one of them.
Among relievers, there's no better strikeout artist in the game than Kimbrel. He struck out 16.7 batters per nine innings in 2012, an improvement on his 14.8 K/9 from 2011. What was even more unfair was that he walked only two batters per nine innings, meaning hitters actually had to hit him in order to beat him.
They had no such luck. No reliever in baseball held opponents to a lower batting average than Kimbrel in 2012 (FanGraphs).
The save opportunities should keep coming for Kimbrel in 2013. The Braves have an improved offense that will help them grab more leads, and the bridge to Kimbrel will be strong if Jonny Venters enjoys a healthy bounce-back season. It will be even stronger if the Braves can get Jordan Walden's control squared away.
All the Braves have to do is get Kimbrel close to or more than 50 opportunities. He'll take care of the rest.
Final Tally: 48
And now for a stat that really matters (he said half-jokingly).
He's come close a couple of times, but Ryan Braun is finally going to lead the league in WAR in 2013, thanks to a perfect combination of hitting, baserunning and fielding prowess.
Braun's hitting skills don't need much of an introduction. Only he, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have compiled batting averages over .310 and as many as 160 home runs over the last five seasons. Braun is also fresh off a season that saw him lead the NL in OPS for a second straight year while slugging a career-high 41 homers.
Braun also stole 30 bases for a second year in a row, and his ultimate baserunning score of plus-1.4 qualified him as an above-average baserunner in general (FanGraphs).
But defense is where Braun really improved in 2012. His defense in left field has been getting a little better every year, but 2012 was the first year in which both the ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved metrics agreed that he was an above-average defender (FanGraphs).
If Braun's hitting and baserunning stay steady and he continues to make improvements on defense, he's going to be about an eight-win player in 2013. Assuming Mike Trout doesn't light the world on fire again, that's going to make Braun baseball's most well-rounded player.
Final Tally: 8.1
Note: Yes, I'm assuming Braun is going to survive the season without being suspended because of the Biogenesis mess. The latest ESPN.com report revealed his ties to the clinic to be stronger than they were initially portrayed, but MLB is going to need more damning evidence to punish him.
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