Opening Day for the 2013 Major League Baseball season is just a few days away and the story lines for this season are flying high.
There's the always-under-the-radar San Francisco Giants, who could actually cement themselves as one of baseball's dynasties if they capture another championship this year, which would give them three in the last four seasons.
There's the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who signed the top free agent of the offseason for the second straight year. After 2011, it was Albert Pujols who headed to the AL West after a decade with the St. Louis Cardinals. This time, it was slugger Josh Hamilton, signing with his top division rival after five dominant seasons with the Texas Rangers.
And then there's the Washington Nationals, who boast arguably the best roster in baseball, a team stacked full of top offensive talent (see: Harper, Bryce) and top pitching talent (see: Strasburg, Stephen).
Like any baseball season, though, things won't go as planned. They never do. A few surprise teams will emerge from nowhere. One may even win the World Series.
The following slides highlight 25 bold predictions for the 2013 baseball season, in no particular order, ending with my World Series champion.
Mike Trout will not duplicate his incredible 2012 rookie season. He'll see a decrease in home runs, batting average and slugging percentage. He probably won't reach over the fence to take away four home runs. And he won't finish in the top three of the Most Valuable Player voting.
But he will score 150 runs, thanks to a full season as the leadoff hitter for the best offensive team in Major League Baseball, a team that includes power hitters Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in the middle of the lineup.
That will be the most runs scored by an American League player since Ted Williams crossed home 150 times in 1949. That's pretty elite company for anybody, let alone a 22-year-old.
Mike Trout was the rookie who captured the attention of the baseball world in 2012, but Bryce Harper is the player I'd want if I was starting a team from scratch.
I actually don't think he'll have an MVP season like many experts have predicted (I have him finishing "just" sixth in the voting), but I do think he'll become the youngest player in MLB history to record a 30-30 season.
I'll go with 31 home runs, 31 stolen bases and a .307 batting average as the No. 3 hitter for the best team in baseball.
Roy Halladay has had a disastrous spring training, leading many fans to wonder if the two-time Cy Young winner will ever return to elite form again.
I don't think it happens.
As a Phillies fan, I hope I'm wrong, but I see Halladay winning just eight or nine games, with an ERA in the high 4.00s, before undergoing season-ending surgery.
With Halladay scheduled to hit free agency after the season, don't expect to see him re-signed. The Phillies will also have interest in locking up catcher Carlos Ruiz and second baseman Chase Utley to lifetime deals.
The fastest pitch ever recorded in a major league game was a 105 mile per hour fastball thrown by Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds in a 2010 game.
This season, I think the 25-year-old closer will break his own record, hitting 106 on the radar gun (106.1 to be exact) as he strikes out Buster Posey for the final out of a crucial September contest between the Reds and San Francisco Giants.
Adam Dunn rebounded from his historically awful 2011 season (11 homers, .159 average, 177 strikeouts) by smashing 41 home runs in just 110 hits for the White Sox last year.
One of the more consistent home run hitters in the game over the last half-decade, Dunn is primed for his usual display of power in 2013. I predict the Big Donkey to smash 44 homers, which should be enough to earn him his first home run title.
Despite a surprising postseason berth in 2012, the Baltimore Orioles have one of the weakest pitching staffs in the league, with no true ace.
If they struggle, and I think they will, expect top prospect Dylan Bundy to be called up to the major leagues.
I have high expectations for Bundy. In fact, I think he'll turn in the best single game score of the year by any starting pitcher after hurling a one-hit shutout with no walks and 16 strikeouts.
He doesn't receive quite the hype of Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun or Mike Trout, but Joey Votto might be the single most dangerous hitter in baseball.
Expect his usual dominant season in 2013, with 30 home runs, 100 RBI, a .320 batting average and 100 walks.
That should be enough to lead the league in on-base percentage for the fourth straight season, something that's only been accomplished by five hitters in baseball history: Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs and Barry Bonds.
If there's one reason to watch the Chicago Cubs this season, it's Starlin Castro, who has emerged as one of the league's top shortstops.
The 23-year-old should play in all 162 games for the second straight season, giving him an opportunity to collect 239 hits in 672 trips to the plate. That's a .356 batting average, which would be enough to win the batting title.
With all due respect to Mariano Rivera, who is unquestionably the greatest closer in major league history, no closer is as dominant right now as Craig Kimbrel.
Last year, the Braves flamethrower struck out 116 hitters and allowed 27 hits in 62.2 innings. That's better than a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-hit ratio. He recorded 42 saves and posted a ridiculous 1.01 earned run average.
Expect similar statistics this season, but don't be surprised if Kimbrel completes a perfect season, a la Brad Lidge in 2008 or Jose Valverde in 2011. He's that untouchable.
At this point in his career, Alex Rodriguez may not even be an average player. He can't stay healthy and he can't deliver at the plate even half the way he used to.
The 37-year-old is scheduled to miss most of the season after undergoing hip surgery. I'm picking him to return in early August and collect eight home runs and 33 RBI in the season's final two months.
That would leave him at 655 home runs and 1983 RBI in his career. He'd still have an outside chance at breaking Hank Aaron's career RBI mark of 2297, but he'd have virtually no chance of hitting the 762 home runs needed to tie Barry Bonds' all-time record.
From 2001 through 2010, Albert Pujols was a fixture in the MVP voting. He won the award three times, finished second four times and added a third and a fourth place finish.
Then his play dropped off, as he's failed to top 40 home runs or bat .300 in each of the past two seasons. Even his walks have taken an alarming decline.
I expect a complete bounce-back season in 2013, somewhere along the lines of 40 home runs, 120 RBI, a .315 batting average and 90 walks. It'll also really help Pujols to have Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton in the lineup.
Just 16 players in major league history have belted four home runs in a single game.
This year, I predict slugger Josh Hamilton will become the first player to accomplish the feat twice in a career, against Luke Hochevar and the Kansas City Royals on May 24.
The Angels will win in a rout, 16-3, with Hamilton collecting nine RBI and Mike Trout scoring six times, including on all four of Hamilton's homers.
One of many young, talented hitters on the Royals, Alex Gordon paced the major leagues with 51 doubles in 2012.
I'm picking him to lead the league again in 2013, with 58, which would be the most since Todd Helton bashed 59 in 2000.
A perfect game just isn't what it used to be. There's absolutely no denying that. With three occurring in 2012 and six in the last three-and-a-half seasons, they've become almost common.
I'm predicting we see another one in 2013, with Royals ace James Shields tossing the perfecto against his old team, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Shields' would become the 24th in MLB history. It would also mark the fourth time since July of 2009 that the Rays had been the victims of a perfect game.
James Shields is my rather unlikely candidate to capture the American League Cy Young award in 2013.
Shields, who has always been a solid No. 2 starter, will turn in his best year as a member of the Royals. I have Shields winning 20 games and posting a 2.77 earned run average, with 243 strikeouts in 236 innings pitched.
Throw in his nine complete games and five shutouts, including the 24th perfect game in MLB history, and you've got a trophy winner.
Although Stephen Strasburg entered the majors in 2010, he has yet to pitch a full season, thanks to Tommy John surgery that cost him some of 2010 and most of 2011, and prevented the Nationals from pitching him more than five or six innings per start in 2012.
Expect Strasburg to unleash in 2013 with the opportunity to finally pitch a full season.
I'm picking him to win the pitching Triple Crown, with NL highs in wins (21), strikeouts (246) and earned run average (2.34). I think he'll toss a trio of shutouts, including a no-hitter, which should be more than enough for him to unanimously win the Cy Young award.
One of the top third basemen in the major leagues, Evan Longoria has struggled with injuries and productivity over the past two seasons.
I think this is the year he puts it all together. I'm picking him to bat .327 with 37 home runs, 123 RBI and 101 walks. I have Tampa Bay winning 96 games and the division title, with Longoria just edging out Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols in the MVP race.
Ryan Braun edged out Matt Kemp for the Most Valuable Player award in 2011 and finished second to Buster Posey in 2012. I'm picking him to collect his second trophy with a monster 2013 season.
Expect a .340 batting average, 43 home runs and 128 RBI, similar numbers to 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
I have the Brewers winning 92 games and collecting a wild-card berth.
There are some pretty brutal teams in baseball right now.
The Houston Astros, who switch to the competitive AL West this year, appear to be a lock to lose more than 100 games, thanks to a payroll that is less than the salaries of 23 individual players.
The New York Mets have one great player, David Wright, but their season is going to be a disaster, especially with the recent news that ace Johan Santana will miss the entire season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The Miami Marlins also have just a single weapon on their team, and it'll be interesting to see which is higher by the end of the season: Giancarlo Stanton's home runs or the Marlins' victories.
The New York Yankees have reached the postseason in 17 of the past 18 seasons, with seven trips to the World Series and five titles. That's largely due to a core group of players that includes Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, as well as a massive payroll that allows them to cover up any weakness by buying big-name free agents from around the league.
I don't see this team qualifying for the postseason in 2013, even with the added wild-card berth in play for the second straight season.
Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Michael Pineda and Phil Hughes will open the season on the disabled list.
Questions surround closer Mariano Rivera, who returns from an ACL injury at the age of 44, as well as aging veterans Ichiro Suzuki and Travis Hafner.
With Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia as the only sure things on this roster, a postseason berth appears unlikely. I'm picking them to win 85 games, which would give them a 21st straight winning season.
But I have the Blue Jays and Rays finishing ahead of the Yankees in the competitive AL East.
The Angels have the most dangerous trio of hitters in the sport, with Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols at the top of their lineup.
They also have Cy Young candidate Jered Weaver, a solid No. 2 starter in CJ Wilson and a tremendous bullpen, which includes Scott Downs, Sean Burnett, Ryan Madson and Ernesto Frieri.
I'm picking them to lead the league with 104 victories, which would be the most by a team since the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals won 105.
Alex Gordon. Eric Hosmer. Billy Butler. Mike Moustakas. Salvador Perez. James Shields.
The Kansas City Royals have some top young talent, making them my surprise pick to reach the postseason in the American League. I don't see them winning the division, but I do have them grabbing the final wild-card spot and winning the one-game wild-card play-in, as well as the ALDS, to advance to their first ALCS since 1985.
Their magical regular season should be enough for Ned Yost to secure Manager of the Year honors.
The Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball ever since they dropped the 'Devil' from their name. They've recorded five straight winning seasons, but since appearing in the World Series in 2008, have failed to make it out of the ALDS.
That should change in 2013, as the Rays have both the offense and the pitching to make it back to the World Series.
For what it's worth, I have the Rays winning the AL East, the Tigers winning the AL Central and the Angels winning the AL West. I have the Blue Jays and Royals earning the two wild-card berths.
Then I have the Royals beating the Blue Jays in the wild-card game, and then shocking the Angels in five games in the ALDS. I have the Rays over the Tigers and then the Rays over the Royals (in five).
The Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball heading into the 2013 season. Rarely does the best team end up winning the World Series. In fact, it hasn't happened since 2009, when the New York Yankees captured their 27th title.
The Nationals are primed to change that. With a tremendous pitching staff and an underrated lineup, the Nationals have all the ingredients of surviving a seven-game series against any team in baseball.
In this particular matchup against the Rays, I have them winning in seven games, with Cy Young winner Stephen Strasburg out-dueling David Price in a Game 7 for the ages.
In the NL postseason, I have the Nationals winning the East, the Reds winning the Central and the Giants winning the West. I have the Brewers and Braves earning wild-card berths, with the Brewers besting the Braves in the one-game playoff.
Then I have the Nationals beating the Brewers, the Reds besting the Giants and then the Nationals beating the Reds (in six).
I'm not picking Bryce Harper to win the National League MVP this season. Not yet, anyway.
But I am picking him to win a more important Most Valuable Player award, and that's the one in the World Series.
I'm picking the Nationals over the Rays in seven games, and I'm predicting Harper to drive in three runs in the deciding game to lock up the series MVP honors.
In all, Harper will bat .360 with two home runs and six RBI in the seven most important games of his life. He would become the youngest player to lock up series MVP honors.