15 Big MLB Predictions for 2014

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistDecember 31, 2013

15 Big MLB Predictions for 2014

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    What's in store for Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers without Prince Fielder?
    What's in store for Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers without Prince Fielder?Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Everyone loves a good guessing game.

    The MLB provided plenty of twists and turns in 2013 that nobody could have saw coming. The Pittsburgh Pirates were slowly revamping their squad for the better, but who tabbed them to finish with a superior record than the Washington Nationals?

    Who called Chris Davis topping 50 homers, Josh Donaldson delivering MVP-caliber numbers and Shane Victorino becoming the best free-agent bargain? Probably nobody, which is why none of those types of wild predictions will be seen here.

    These are big predictions, not bold ones. Some forebodings are a bit more gutsy than the others, but everything here is based on reason and rationality rather than taking wild guesses.

    Here are 15 predictions for what lies ahead in 2014. The speculations includes thoughts on trade candidates and free agents, in addition to handicapping individual and team performances. That way, at least something is bound to come true.

    Note: Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

New York Yankees Will Miss Playoffs Again

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    The New York Yankees need a big year from C.C. Sabathia in order to return to the playoffs.
    The New York Yankees need a big year from C.C. Sabathia in order to return to the playoffs.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    For the first time in 20 years, the New York Yankees will miss the playoffs for the second straight season.

    The Bronx Bombers completely retooled their lineup, adding Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. They also, of course, lost star second baseman Robinson Cano.

    Those three additions combined to accrue a 10.5 WAR last season, whereas Cano earned six wins by his lonesome. Considering the lackadaisical talent surrounding the star baseman last season, this more balanced lineup should produce better numbers than last year's product, especially if Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter can give them anything,

    Then again, that's not saying much. Last year, the Yankees rated 26th with a .683 team OPS. They took significant measures to improve that deteriorating offense, but the batting order without Cano won't be good enough to carry a shaky pitching staff.

    Ace C.C. Sabathia lost some ticks on the radar gun and saw his ERA balloon dangerously close to 5.00. The rotation will perform just fine if Sabathia can fend off Father Time, but all the signs point to him becoming the team's third-best starter behind Hiroki Kuroda (who also limped to the finish line) and Ivan Nova.

    With a minus-21 run differential last season, the Yankees were lucky to win 85 games. They could easily field a better club that produces a similar or lesser win total without the benefit of several close victories. Just look at last year's Baltimore Orioles.

    Don't expect things to fall apart in the Bronx, but the Yankees will again fall a tad shy of qualifying for postseason play. Unfortunately for them, this will also likely be the second straight year a legend calls it quits. 

Derek Jeter Will Retire After Season

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    Derek Jeter will soon join former teammates Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte in retirement.
    Derek Jeter will soon join former teammates Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte in retirement.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Last year, everyone in baseball said goodbye to Mariano Rivera, the greatest reliever of all time and a man respected around the league. This year, it's Derek Jeter's turn to sing his swan song.

    "The Captain" shouldn't want to hold on too long in risk of placing a red mark on his superb permanent record, and last year did not bode well for his future. Jeter managed to play just 17 games due to injuries last year. He made his season debut in July, only to land back on the disabled list after his first game back.

    In his brief stint on the field, Jeter hit .190/.288/.254 with a minus-0.6 WAR. His $12 million extension signed for 2014 matches the amount of hits amassed during his disastrous 2013 season.

    Jeter, who will turn 40 in June, should attempt to follow Rivera's rout and write a more fitting final chapter.

    Like Rivera, Jeter probably did not want to leave the game after his career's low point. If he can't muster up any production in 2014, he'll look washed up and past his expiration date. On the other hand, a bounce-back gives him a chance to pull a George Costanza and exit the room on a high note.

    No longer an All-Star, Jeter is now a singles hitter who can't cover much ground at shortstop. Don't be surprised when the last remaining piece of the old Yankees dynasty takes a bow.

Masahiro Tanaka Will Disappoint in MLB Debut

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    Masahiro Tanaka posted the worst strikeout rate of his professional career last season.
    Masahiro Tanaka posted the worst strikeout rate of his professional career last season.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

    There's no safe free agent at this stage of the offseason. 

    Teams are shying away from Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana due to an unattractive combination of high price, high risk and the forfeiture of a draft pick for compensation. That helps Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka jump up the list as the top available hurler. 

    Buyer beware: Tanaka is another risky option who will now cost even more than those other pitchers due to the new posting rules.

    Instead of clubs participating in an uncapped bidding process before the winner signs the player to a payroll-friendly contract, the new procedure places the maximum bid at $20 million. Yu Darvish signed a six-year, $60 million after the Texas Rangers paid more than $100 million for his posting fee. Tanaka will now draw a deal over the $100 million barrier.

    There's also the worry of Tanaka's heavy workload with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci looked into heavy work rate, noting that the free-agent "has thrown more innings at a young age than anybody in the majors in the past 35 years." He talked to an anonymous club executive who warned that Tanaka is far from a sure bet.

    Everyone is acting like it's a no-brainer all-in just because he's 25. He's still a pitcher and he's still got serious miles on him. [Tanaka is a] very attractive player nonetheless but a real risk ... as with basically all pitchers.

    While Tanaka recorded a dazzling 1.27 ERA last season, his K/9 rate slipped to a career-low 7.8. He has already hurled 1,315 frames, so there's more mileage on his arm than a typical American pitcher endures before turning 25.

    With the money he'll now procure, his new employer will expect Tanaka to immediately serve as a high-caliber No. 2 starter. The warning signs forebode a possible letdown.

New-Look Detroit Tigers Will Play Just as Well

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    Jose Iglesias is part of the Detroit Tigers' committment to assembling more speed and defense.
    Jose Iglesias is part of the Detroit Tigers' committment to assembling more speed and defense.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Whereas most teams are content to keep their core parts intact after a successful season, the Detroit Tigers were not satisfied with falling short of winning it all.

    The Tigers won 93 games, finished with the third-highest run differential and took the Boston Red Sox to six games in the ALCS. Sounds like a good year, but not for a squad that keeps coming up empty in October.

    So they decided to change things up. Not every move was a smart one (They received a poor return for Doug Fister), but enough talent remains on the roster to again take the AL Central.

    This year's iteration is different, but different isn't always better or worse. Detroit sacrificed Prince Fielder's power to gain some speed and defense in the process. Ian Kinsler touts All-Star capability at second base, but the move also frees Miguel Cabrera from third base, where he cost the team 18 runs last season.

    While the Tigers lost Jhonny Peralta's power at shortstop, they gained a future Gold Glover in Jose Iglesias. This improved defense will help a loaded rotation that's still an elite unit without Fister.

    Cy Young winner Max Scherzer will return, Justin Verlander regained his dominance late in 2013 and Anibal Sanchez led the AL with a 2.39 FIP. Rick Porcello made major strides last season, upping his K/9 rate to 7.22, but his 4.32 ERA did not properly match his 3.53 FIP. That should change now that the ground-ball pitcher has a better defensive infield behind him.

    There's also the fact that Cabrera's bat is still around, so don't expect any slippage from a team that no longer needs to swing for the fences to win.

AL MVP Race Will Be More of the Same

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    Sorry Mike Trout, but you'll probably get shunned again in the AL MVP vote unless Miguel Cabrera falls off the map.
    Sorry Mike Trout, but you'll probably get shunned again in the AL MVP vote unless Miguel Cabrera falls off the map.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    If the previous prediction holds any credence, the Tigers will again win 90-plus games and make the postseason. Contingent on that estimation is Miguel Cabrera producing another excellent offensive campaign.

    If that happens, he'll collect his third straight MVP trophy, even if Mike Trout generates better overall numbers for the third straight time.

    Cabrera, who will turn 31 two weeks into the season, looked human when he hit one homer during September, but the full picture evened out. In the end, he matched his career-high of 44 blasts he set the previous season, so there's no need to panic there.

    The slugger actually improved on his Triple Crown season, increasing all thee elements of his slash line to .348/.442/.636. So even though Trout also grew from his off-the-charts rookie season, he was left in the cold once again when the voters picked their AL MVP.

    Moving from third base will transform Cabrera back from one of the league's worst defenders to simply a below-average first baseman, so he could register a career-best WAR if his offensive barrage persists.

    Will it beat Trout's clip? Probably not, but the Los Angeles Angels will struggle to compete in a tough AL West. They did well by acquiring two young, cheap starting pitchers in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago as part of a three-team deal for Mark Trumbo, but their success boils down to their expensive veterans.

    For Trout to stand a chance at winning the MVP, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Jered Weaver will have to bounce back from lackluster seasons. If that doesn't make sense, maybe it's time to change how we perceive the MVP discussion.

Seattle Mariners Will Sign Nelson Cruz

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    Nelson Cruz is still searching for a new home.
    Nelson Cruz is still searching for a new home.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Seattle Mariners made their intentions of competing clear when they shelled out $240 million to Robinson Cano. While signing Cano is certainly a good start, the Mariners can use another outfielder to join the mix.

    Nelson Cruz fits well into Seattle's interest, so it makes sense that the two parties reach an agreement before Opening Day.

    The Mariners have an affinity for power bats, even if it means sacrificing other skills in the process. Last year, they trailed just the Orioles with 188 home runs, but they ranked 26th with a .306 collective on-base percentage.

    Cruz won't masterfully cover the outfield grass, and he's not very disciplined at the plate with a .327 career on-base percentage, but he can hit the ball far. No other free agent can match his .495 career slugging percentage, although his involvement with Biogenesis taints that mark.

    They've already added Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, but that still leaves one hole in the outfield with Hart likely to be protected as a designated hitter. Desperate to keep up with a stacked AL West, the Mariners will toss any moral objections out the window and give Cruz a short-term deal.

Texas Rangers Will Win Crowded AL West

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    Adrian Beltre will have some new friends surrounding him in Texas.
    Adrian Beltre will have some new friends surrounding him in Texas.Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

    The AL West is shaping up to provide a tantalizing race, one that the Texas Rangers should currently be considered favored to win.

    Some more moves could shift the power structure, but the Rangers are standing tall after poaching on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo from the Cincinnati Reds. In Choo they acquired an outfielder who registered a sterling .423 on-base percentage and will no longer be a major defensive liability away from center field.

    Their revamped outfield also features an emerging speed demon in Leonys Martin manning center and Alex Rios, who finally produced two good seasons in secession. In the infield, Prince Fielder's power bat should flourish in Arlington while star prospect Jurickson Profar finally gets a chance to shine.

    Don't forget Adrian Beltre, quite possibly baseball's most underrated player. Since 2010, only four players (Cabrera, Cano, Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen) have accounted for a higher WAR than Beltre, who has hit at least 30 homers every year since joining the Rangers.

    The rotation is now much better with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland leading the way. The rest of the pitching staff will make or break Texas' World Series hopes, but they can make one major move to cement their status as contenders.

Rangers Will Acquire David Price

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    David Price will continue to frequent the hot stove until the Tampa Bay Rays move him.
    David Price will continue to frequent the hot stove until the Tampa Bay Rays move him.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The Texas Rangers are another big arm away from becoming a wrecking machine, and they still have some financial flexibility and a stacked farm system.

    If only there was an ace on the trading block they could acquire.

    Texas is a logical landing spot for David Price, even if that arrangement is not realized until later in the season, or even next offseason when Price is one year closer to hitting free agency.

    Although Texas will be rightfully hesitant to deal Profar, they have plenty of other trading chips in Rougned Odor, Nick, Jorge Alfaro, Wilmer Font and even Martin Perez. Unloading the farm system is rarely a wise decision, but Price is a 28-year-old ace in his prime who could catapult the Rangers to a championship.

    Also creating another layer of urgency, the Mariners are another team interesting in trading for Price. Like the Rangers, they have several top prospects that intrigue the Tampa Bay Rays, but none more than top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker.

    According to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, Seattle could snatch Price if it sends Walker Tampa Bay's way.

    The Seattle Mariners can very easily get this done if they include starter Taijuan Walker, a maneuver sources said they've begun considering internally within the past week.

    Throughout the industry, smart money is on a Felix Hernandez-David Price-Hisashi Iwakuma rotation next season.

    The Rangers should want to block that at all costs to avoid letting the Mariners owning three aces in 2014.

Washington Nationals Will Win 95+ Games

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    Bryce Harper will only get better in 2014.
    Bryce Harper will only get better in 2014.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    This year, the Washington Nationals will achieve what everybody expected of them last season.

    They entered the 2013 season as the overwhelming favorites to win the World Series, but the Nationals instead missed the postseason altogether at 86-76. Despite their late surge, which featured 18 wins in September, the Nationals came up well short of their lofty expectations.

    Don't expect their forecast to change much this spring, as the Nationals are again poised to finish as one of baseball's best clubs. Except this time around, they'll make good on the promise and push for 100 wins.

    The lucrative trio of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez will still head Washington's rotation, but now Doug Fister will take Dan Haren's place. While Haren registered a 4.67 ERA and 1.5 WAR, the undervalued Fister notched a 3.67 ERA, 3.61 K/BB rate and 4.6 WAR.

    Formerly the overlooked No. 4 starter in the AL's best rotation, Fister will now be the overlooked No. 4 starter in the NL's best rotation.

    As for the lineup, Jayson Werth finally earned some of his massive contract by hitting .318/.398/.532 last season. Anthony Rendon shows promise to become an above-average second baseman, and Ian Desmond has racked up two straight five-win campaigns.

    Ryan Zimmerman's health and Bryce Harper's progression are the keys to Washington's success. While we can't say with confidence that the third baseman will avoid a DL stint, Harper should continue to morph into a MVP-caliber superstar.

    During his sophomore campaign, Harper upped his walk rate to 12.3 percent while lessening his strikeout rate to 18.9 percent. With another year of seasoning, Harper could tally a .500 slugging percentage and become one of MLB's fiercest position players in 2014.  

Jose Fernandez Will Deserve NL Cy Young, but Not Get It

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    Expect another monster season from Jose Fernandez.
    Expect another monster season from Jose Fernandez.Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Hear me out on this oddly specific prediction.

    Jose Fernandez will follow through on his sensational rookie season to post sensational numbers, but one specific stat will cost him the NL Cy Young award.

    The Miami Marlins looked crazy for jumping Fernandez straight from Single-A to the majors on Opening Day, yet the Cuban defector made us the dumb ones. Fernandez recorded a 2.14 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 187 strikeouts through 172.2 innings.

    But since he played behind baseball's worst offense, he was only afforded 12 victories.

    The 22-year-old finished his inaugural campaign in style, notching a 1.32 ERA after the All-Star break. By harnessing his control with a 2.38 BB/9 rate over that stretch, Fernandez became virtually unstoppable to close out 2013.

    As long as his young arm stays intact, Fernandez should further bolster his case as a premier starter. By 2014's end, he'll boast the best stat line, but another dominant ace such as Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright or Stephen Strasburg will ride slightly inferior numbers to a Cy Young award due to a higher win total.

    Granted , the voters are smart enough to overlook the meaningless win column if there's a clear discrepancy throughout the ledger. But if Fernandez holds a 2.35 ERA with 15 wins while Kershaw sports a 2.50 ERA (A real comparison should delve much deeper than ERA, but that's just to simplify the scenario) and 20 victories, who do you think the electorate chooses?

Gerrit Cole Will Be This Year's Matt Harvey

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    Gerrit Cole is in store for a breakout year in 2014.
    Gerrit Cole is in store for a breakout year in 2014.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Matt Harvey's season ended with Tommy John surgery, but not before he gave the New York Mets something to cheer for every fifth game. In his second year and first full season as a starter, Harvey earned a sensational 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 6.16 K/BB ratio.

    This year, Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates is primed for a similar leap to stardom during his first full year of action.

    On the surface, Cole's 3.22 ERA and 1.17 WHIP are just dandy for a rookie starter, but that does not tell the entire story. His 7.67 K/9 ratio, 2.15 walk rate and 49.1 ground-ball percentage have all the makings of a sturdy starter. Don't forget a pretty 2.91 FIP to support his success.

    Also, Cole improved throughout his four months in Pittsburgh. Including his two playoff starts, Cole allowed three or fewer runs in each of his final 10 outings. He also struck out a batter per inning after the All-Star break, maintaining pristine control in the process.

    Harvey's ascension to an ace resulted from his lowered walk rate to match his strikeouts. By enhancing his strikeouts to match his low amount of walks, Cole will enjoy a similar jump in 2014.

San Diego Padres Will Trade Chase Headley Near Deadline

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    Chase Headley will become the focus of trade talk during the season.
    Chase Headley will become the focus of trade talk during the season.Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    They may hold on to him for now, but the San Diego Padres will relent around the trade deadline and jettison Chase Headley to the highest bidder.

    Next year's free-agent class is bleak for position players, which serves well for Headley receiving a big deal. He won't ever match his 31 home runs from 2012, but Headley is a superb defensive third baseman with a .350 career on-base percentage.

    Even with his .415 slugging percentage representing the norm rather than his bloated .498 mark from two years ago, Headley will receive plenty of money on the open market.

    That likely signals the end of his tenure with the Padres, who don't hand out many long-term deals. Excluding players still in their arbitration years, only two players (Cameron Maybin and Cory Luebke) are under contract after 2015, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

    All the more money to give to Headley. Perhaps, but unlikely considering he turns 30 in May while the Padres are nowhere close to building a contender. Instead, they're likely to trade him for prospects when they're out of the playoff hunt in July.

    It's too early to say where he'll go, but the Tigers (if rookie Nick Castellanos struggles), Yankees (if Alex Rodriguez loses his suspension appeal) and Cleveland Indians are some potential destinations.

Cole Hamels Will Win at Least 15 Games

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    Cole Hamels was the latest Philadelphia Phillies pitcher to get short-changed in the wins column.
    Cole Hamels was the latest Philadelphia Phillies pitcher to get short-changed in the wins column.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Do the gods have to sacrifice one Philadelphia Phillies pitcher each year to ensure a fruitful harvest?

    In 2012, Cliff Lee's stat card featured a measly six wins despite his 3.16 ERA and 7.39 K/BB ratio. Lee's win column was restored to normalcy when he collected a decent 14 victories last season. He could easily win 20 under the right circumstances, but let's not get greedy.

    During the season that saw Lee receive no run support, Cole Hamels amassed 17 victories while not pitching significantly better. In 2013, Hamels experienced a slight drop-off, but not nearly enough regression to warrant just eight wins.

    Last year, Lee and Hamels both fell in the bottom 10 in terms of run support, but Lee happened to fall on the winning end of six more games. Wins are weird. Wins are flunky, and one year's total can't predict future outcomes in the category.

    It is reasonable to expect a better season from Hamels, whose 3.60 ERA represented his highest mark since 2009. His strikeout rate slid a bit, but a 8.26 K/9 ratio is still plenty good considering his great control.

    Having started more than 30 games in each of the past six seasons, Hamels is one of baseball's most durable pitchers. His 3.26 FIP hints at his ERA dropping back into the low threes, but he'd still earn more wins with identical numbers from his 2013 campaign.

    Considering the Phillies' aging, injury-prone offense, Lee's 14 is probably a more reasonable estimate, but let's be a little bolder and give Hamels a few more Ws as reparations for his unlucky year.

Ryan Braun Will Return with a Vengeance

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    How will Ryan Braun fare in his return from a 65-game suspension?
    How will Ryan Braun fare in his return from a 65-game suspension?Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    How much does a player benefit specifically from the use of performance-enhancing drugs? Will Ryan Braun be exposed as a cheater who is nothing more than average on his own, or will he return to his MVP ways in 2014?

    The answer is probably neither, especially since the voters would never vote for Braun out of moral disgust and avoidance of awarding good players on bad teams. Even if Braun does not crush 40 homers this season, expect a great campaign from one of baseball's most decorated players before his PED use tarnished his reputation.

    Braun admitted to having some help when he hit .332/.392/.557 in 2011, but a neck injury also hindered him when he posted a .298/.372/.498 slash line in 61 games last year. 

    This is not a defense of Braun, who broke the rules and then adamantly lied about it, shifting the blame to sample collector Dino Laurenzi Jr. It's just difficult to see a .312/.374/.564 career hitter completely fall off the map.

    Even if he's not elite, Braun can still reach Steamer's .293/.367/.513 projected slash line, which amounts to a highly effective hitter. If anything, that forecast is on the tame side.

St. Louis Cardinals Will Win at Least 100 Games

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    Michael Wacha will help the St. Louis Cardinals push for another World Series appearance.
    Michael Wacha will help the St. Louis Cardinals push for another World Series appearance.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The St. Louis Cardinals finished 2013 with an NL-high 97 wins and represented their league in the World Series. Sorry to break it to everyone else in the NL, but the Cardinals got better during the offseason.

    Despite leading the NL in on-base percentage and runs scored, St. Louis identified two glaring holes at shortstop and center field. Pete Kozma negated his defensive offerings at short by hitting .217/.275/.273 while Jon Jay was a solid, yet replaceable center fielder.

    To promptly fix those weaknesses, the Cardinals added Jhonny Peralta and traded for Peter Bourjos. Peralta hit .303/.358/.457 while playing solid defense at shortstop, and Bourjos is a defensive wizard when healthy.

    While Bourjos staying healthy is a big if, the Cardinals also have top prospect Oscar Taveras waiting in the wings. They lost former playoff hero David Freese to acquire Bourjos, but they will slide Matt Carpenter to third while inserting rookie Kolten Wong and newly signed veteran Mark Ellis at second.

    As for their pitching staff, they get Michael Wacha for a full year. The rookie became the toast of the town during his incredible postseason run. Even before tallying a 2.64 ERA in the playoffs, Wacha registered a 2.78 ERA and 65 strikeouts through 64.2 regular season innings.

    Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly give St. Louis a formidable rotation, and Trevor Rosenthal is ready to become a shutdown closer in Edward Mujica's place. Be very afraid of the Cardinals this year.

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