Every now and then, a surprise player takes MLB by storm to lead the league in a major category seemingly out of the blue.
Such was the case in 2013, when slugging Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis exploded for an MLB-best 53 homers and 138 RBI. But as we look ahead to 2014, we can expect a lot of the same from the usual suspects.
Last year's MVP-winners and other top candidates like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt highlight a few of the favorites to win some of the major statistical categories again in 2014. Meanwhile, aces like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish will be counted on to do big things following their respective successes in 2013.
With about a week left before spring training starts, here's a look at projected leaders for each of the major statistical categories for the upcoming season.
Projected 2014 Total: 45
After his career year in 2013, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is poised to engage with Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera again for this year's title of home-run king.
While 45 homers would represent a dip in home-run production for Davis, it should still be more than Cabrera's total in 2014, after that latter has hit 44 in back-to-back years and now won't have Prince Fielder backing him up in the lineup.
Davis had shown power throughout his career, including a 33-dinger campaign in 2012, but his success last year was off-the-charts. The 27-year-old batted .286/.370/.634 while leading MLB with 53 homers, 138 RBI and 370 total bases.
The Orioles essentially return the same potent lineup this year, with new second baseman Jemile Weeks taking over for Brian Roberts. The team might also have to wait for Manny Machado (knee) to recover at the beginning of the season, per Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun.
Though it will be hard for Davis to replicate his AB/HR ratio of 11.02 from 2013, his consistent display of power throughout the year makes you think his performance wasn't a fluke.
Other Contenders: Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers; Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays; Prince Fielder, 1B, Texas Rangers; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks; Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays; Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates; Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Projected 2014 ERA: 2.30
There's a reason why the Los Angeles Dodgers made Clayton Kershaw baseball's highest-paid player in terms of average annual value this offseason. The once-in-a-generation southpaw earned his seven-year, $215 million extension by hitting another gear in 2013.
Kershaw won his second National League Cy Young in three seasons, posting a career-low 1.83 ERA while tossing a career-high 236 innings. It marked the third straight ERA title for Kershaw, as he also led the league in 2011 (2.28) and 2012 (2.53). He'll turn 26 during spring training, and with his recent improvement there's no reason to think he can't make it a four-peat.
Given Kershaw's ability, he's a prime candidate to become the first pitcher to post sub-2.00 ERAs in consecutive seasons since Greg Maddux did it in the strike-shortened campaigns of 1994 and 1995.
But that's not to say Kershaw won't have some stiff competition for the 2014 ERA title, namely Miami Marlins righty Jose Fernandez. The 21-year-old was a rookie sensation in 2013, posting a 2.19 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 28 starts while showcasing some of the nastiest stuff in the league.
Other Contenders: Jose Fernandez, RHP, Florida Marlins; Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox; Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers; Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants; Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Projected 2014 Average: .340
Big Miggy Cabrera has finished among the top three in MLB batting average in each of the past four seasons, leading the entire league in batting in 2013 (.348) and in 2011 (.344).
Ever since he became a full-time big-leaguer in 2004, Cabrera has consistently shown he's among baseball's best hitters on an annual basis. He's turned it up to another level the past three years, as he has a combined slash line of .340/.427/.609 in 470 contests in that span.
Even without his partner-in-crime Prince Fielder backing him up in the lineup after being traded to the Texas Rangers, Cabrera should still be a major threat to win to each of the three Triple Crown categories again in 2014. He showed some signs of wear and tear near the end of last season, but at 30 years old, we can still count on him to put up prime numbers.
By year's end, we'll likely be looking at Cabrera and Mike Trout again as the top-two players in the American League.
Other Contenders: Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels; Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds; Matt Carpenter, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals; Hanley Ramirez, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers; Joe Mauer, 1B, Minnesota Twins; Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
Projected 2014 Total: 21
Entering his third MLB season, Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish looks like a top candidate to win the 2014 American League Cy Young Award.
Darvish was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball this past year, as his 277 strikeouts were 37 more than that of his next closest competition, Max Scherzer (240). The 27-year-old Japanese star finished the year with a 13-9 mark, 2.90 ERA, 145 ERA+ and 1.07 WHIP in 32 starts.
What makes Darvish so hard to read is his wide array of effective pitches. While he usually relies on a combination of his 93 mph fastball as well as a slider and cutter, Darvish can also mix in a curveball, changeup or even a split-finger pitch to throw off batters.
He was a 16-game winner in his rookie year in 2012, and with the added run support he's expected to receive this year, Darvish has the makings of a 20-game winner. The Rangers should provide Darvish with even more opportunities to win games now that Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo are in the lineup.
Coupled with his ability to go deep into games and earn decisions, Darvish should see an uptick in victory totals in 2014.
Other Contenders: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers; Adam Wainwright, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals; Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox; Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals; Zack Greinke, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected 2014 Total: 140
It will be weird to see Prince Fielder wearing a No. 84 jersey for the Texas Rangers in homage to his birth year, but the new number shouldn't do anything to his production at the plate.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels had a busy offseason, as he also signed elite leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract after acquiring Fielder from the Detroit Tigers for infielder Ian Kinsler.
Texas has the makings of a robust lineup, and Fielder is poised to be in the middle of it, likely batting third behind Choo and Elvis Andrus while also receiving solid protection from cleanup man Adrian Beltre. When the order comes back around later in the game, top prospect Jurickson Profar could also be a potent No. 9 hitter that could be on the bases often for Fielder.
As such, the 29-year-old figures to have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs all year long. Given his remarkable durability over the past few years and the team's new-look lineup for 2014, I expect Fielder to bounce back from his mediocre output from 2013 (.279/.362/.457, 25 HR, 106 RBI) and put up some of the best numbers of his career.
Other Contenders: Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks; Mike Trout, 1B, Los Angeles Angels; Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles; Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds; Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves; David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox
Projected 2014 Totals: 245
The Miami Marlins possess arguably the best young pitcher in the game in Jose Fernandez, who burst onto the scene with a stellar 2013 that resulted in the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Fernandez finished the year with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA, 176 ERA+ and a 0.98 WHIP that was highlighted by his impressive 5.8 hits allowed per nine innings. The 21-year-old Cuban also had 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings before being shut down by the team in the second week of September.
But it's not the statistics that have people talking, rather it's his stuff. Sure, the fastball that sits at about 95 mph is nice, but his devastating slider and curveball are what separate him from other pitchers in baseball. When it comes down to it, Fernandez might have the most filthy arsenal of any MLB starter.
Yu Darvish took this category by a landslide with 277 punchouts last year, but with loosened inning restrictions for 2014, expect Fernandez to become a major challenger to Clayton Kershaw for the National League Cy Young Award and pile up the Ks.
Other Contenders: Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers; Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers; Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox; Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago Cubs; Cliff Lee, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies; Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Projected 2014 Total: 125
The Texas Rangers should be racking up the runs in 2014, and Shin-Soo Choo will be the main proponent.
Last year, Choo established himself as an elite leadoff hitter with a .423 on-base percentage, one that helped him secure a massive seven-year, $130 million commitment from the Rangers in free agency this offseason. Hitting first for a potent Cincinnati Reds lineup last year, Choo finished third in MLB with 107 runs scored.
While Matt Carpenter (126) was a prolific run-scorer in 2013, leading second-place Mike Trout (109) by a hefty margin, Choo has so many weapons behind him now that it's easy to see him taking the crown this year.
A batting order that also features Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios should lead to plenty of run-scoring opportunities for Choo, who also has some pop in his bat with a combined 37 homers over the past two years to drive himself home.
Top 2014 Contenders: Matt Carpenter, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals; Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels; Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates; Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks
Projected 2014 Total: 45
The Atlanta Braves bring back their top trio of starters in Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor for 2014, and while the loss of Brian McCann might hurt the offense, closer Craig Kimbrel should have plenty of save opportunities for this well-rounded squad.
Kimbrel is widely regarded as the top closer in the game after leading the National League in saves in 2013 (50), 2012 (42) and 2011 (46). The hard-throwing right-hander has been tough to hit in that span, posting a 1.48 ERA with a 0.87 WHIP, 14.9 K/9 rate and 0.5 H/9 rate.
Former Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson has posted back-to-back 50-save seasons in each of the past two years, but it's hard to envision him keeping up that torrid pace, even while playing for a quality new team like Oakland.
Kimbrel is a better pitcher and a safer bet to lead the league in 2014 after tying Johnson last year.
Other Contenders: Joe Nathan RHP, Detroit Tigers; Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Cincinnati Reds; Kenley Jansen, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers; Greg Holland, RHP, Kansas City Royals; Jim Johnson, RHP, Oakland A's
Projected 2014 Total: 85
The Cincinnati Reds have an explosive option to fill the void left by last year's elite table-setter Shin-Soo Choo. While he doesn't provide the same offense or high on-base percentage as his predecessor, Billy Hamilton is a unique talent who possesses speed that baseball hasn't seen in a long time.
Not since Vince Coleman's 109-steal season in 1987 has a player cracked the century mark in stolen bases, but if last year's September cameo was any indication, Hamilton might have a chance to do it. The speedy center fielder racked up 13 steals in 13 games while getting caught just once, serving mostly as a lethal pinch-runner.
Expect 100 steals later down the road if he matures as a hitter, as he batted .280 throughout his minor-league career and had a .308 OBP at Triple-A in 2013. Hamilton's best year on the basepaths came in 2012, when he stole a ridiculous 155 bases in 132 contests between Single-A and Double-A ball.
It's also worth noting that Hall of Famer "Sliding Billy" Hamilton eclipsed 100 stolen bases in four different seasons. Granted, the rules were different and you could rack up "stolen bases" by advancing on the basepaths far enough during base hits, but it's still a cool twist of baseball history.
Other Contenders: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, New York Yankees; Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres; Carlos Gomez, OF, Milwaukee Brewers; Rajai Davis, OF, Detroit Tigers
Projected 2014 Total: 245 IP
Looking at Chris Sale's progression from 2012-2013, there's reason to think big things are in store for this upcoming season. The talented southpaw will turn 25 on March 30, a day before he's expected to take the ball in the season opener for the Chicago White Sox.
Sale went 11-14 with a 3.07 ERA in 2013, a year after posting a 3.05 mark, with both seasons resulting in an ERA+ of 140. But his increase in K/9 rate (9.0 to 9.5), and decreased BB/9 rate (2.4 to 1.9), WHIP (1.14 to 1.07) and FIP (3.27 to 3.17) suggest the best has yet to come for Sale.
The lefty tied Max Scherzer for ninth in MLB in 2013 with 214.1 innings pitched, but I think he'll establish himself as one of the most dominant and economical pitchers in the game and consistently go deep.
Sale has a fastball that sits at about 93 mph and a devastating slider that often overshadows his solid changeup, which has improved drastically over the past couple of years and contributed to his development. The offspeed pitch comes in about 10 mph slower than his fastball, and he's clearly grown comfortable with it, as he threw it a career-high 19 percent of the time in 2013 while his fastball percentage was a career-low 51.4.
Now that Sale has a firm grip on his arsenal, he should continue to blossom as one of the top pitchers in the game.
Other Contenders: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers; Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers; Adam Wainwright, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals; Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers