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Bleacher Report's Full 2014 MLB Season Preview and Predictions

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 30, 2014

Bleacher Report's Full 2014 MLB Season Preview and Predictions

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    Bryce Harper and the Nationals are actually going to be good this year. It is known.
    Bryce Harper and the Nationals are actually going to be good this year. It is known.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

    You can't predict baseball. You just can't, man.

    And yet we try. Especially this time of year.

    As you're all surely aware, the first non-Australian regular-season MLB game will be played Sunday evening. Come Monday morning, we'll all be grinning ear to ear as we speak those two magical words: "Opening Day."

    To mark the arrival of the 2014 season, I'm going to turn my eyes to a few categories of interest and do a little previewing and a whole lot of predicting. "Previcting," I suppose you'd call it. You know, if you're into making up lame words.

    In any event, here's your cue to follow me this way for some predictions that, while surely doomed, must be offered up to the baseball gods anyway.

     

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. You'll also come across links to relevant graphs/tables/etc., on Brooks Baseball.

Biggest Offseason Bust: Ubaldo Jimenez

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    Gene J. Puskar

    Oh man. Following an offseason in which billions (yes, with a "B" and plural) were spent on free agents, there are SO MANY OPTIONS TO CHOOSE FROM HERE.

    But I'm going to go with Ubaldo Jimenez, whom the Baltimore Orioles signed for four years and $50 million.

    Jimenez doesn't get that $50 million contract without the second half he had in 2013. It was quite go...OK, fine, it was quite brilliant. A 1.82 ERA is brilliant. So is 100 strikeouts in 84 innings.

    But goodness gracious does that feel like a performance Jimenez can't hope to repeat.

    Jimenez made eight of 13 starts against clubs that ranked in the bad half of MLB in runs scored last year. He also made seven of 13 starts at the pitcher-friendly Progressive Field.

    He'll be missing such advantages in the AL East. The division only has one pitcher-friendly park (Tropicana Field) and is loaded with deadly lineups.

    It would help if Jimenez had rediscovered his old stuff last summer, but he was still averaging less than 95 with his heat. And while his walk rate did improve, I trust his ability to repeat those funky mechanics about as far as I can throw him.

    The Orioles paid for a solid No. 2/3-type starter. What they'll get is more like a No. 4/5.

Biggest Offseason Bargain: Doug Fister

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    It's hard to pick out "bargains" from an offseason where agents, players, executives and owners were playing dodgeball with bundles of cash, so I'll go with a trade.

    In early December, the Washington Nationals acquired Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers. Based on his 3.30 ERA and 586.2 innings over the last three years, it should have cost the Nats some quality talent.

    Nope. Just Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and Robbie Ray, the player-package equivalent of a case of beer and a box of batting-practice balls.

    The deal admittedly doesn't look so bad for Detroit now that Fister is starting the season on the disabled list with a lat strain, as reported by Bill Ladson of MLB.com. Before that, he battled some elbow inflammation. 

    But, meh, I'm not worried. Even if Fister only recovers to give the Nats, say, 20 to 25 starts, he could still give them way more value (read: basically none) than the Tigers are going to get out of the guys they received.

    It helps that I don't have to worry so much about Fister regaining electric velocity or anything of the sort following his return from injury. If he's able to get his terrific sinker and excellent command back, he'll ground-ball his way to another fine season.

Young Breakout Stars: Nolan Arenado and Tyler Skaggs

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    I'll make things a little tougher here and bar myself from selecting rookies. Instead, I'll give you two established youngsters (one hitter and one pitcher) who will put it all together in 2014.

     

    Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

    We know Arenado can pick it at the hot corner. The Gold Glove he won was well-deserved, as he was very nearly Manny Machado's equal in Defensive Runs Saved in 2013.

    But no need to tell Arenado that he could be about more than his glove.

    "I want to be the complete player," Arenado told ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick earlier in March. "I don't want to be a guy who's just known for his defense. I want to be a guy who's known for his overall game." 

    After posting a modest (especially for a Rockies hitter) .706 OPS last year, the key is obviously Arenado's bat. To this end, the 1.092 OPS he posted this spring is a good sign. More importantly, Arenado ended 2013 by hitting .300 with a solid .752 OPS over his last 42 games, and he ended the year hitting both breaking balls and off-speed stuff with some authority.

    If Arenado can raise his OPS from .704 over .800 and play excellent D, he'll be a stud.

     

    Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels

    Skaggs fell from the golden land of the top prospects last year, losing rookie eligibility and pitching to a 5.12 ERA in seven major league starts. He stunk in the minors too, pitching to a 4.60 ERA.

    But things should be better for Skaggs in 2014. As Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times noted, a mechanical adjustment has returned some of the velocity that Skaggs lost in 2013. I also like the idea of him pitching regularly at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in front of what should be a solid Angels defense.

    I don't know about a Cy Young campaign or anything, but if Skaggs can manage an ERA in the mid-3.00s, he could be the best player from the Mark Trumbo trade in 2014.

Most Disappointing Veterans: Hunter Pence and CC Sabathia

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants

    Yes, Pence could have gone a few slides earlier under the "Biggest Offseason Bust" banner. But since he didn't change teams when he signed his $90 million contract, I'm going to allow his inclusion here.

    The $90 million contract the Giants gave Pence came on the heels of what was, by fWAR, the best season of his career. But it was also an overreaction to a month of September that saw Pence hit 11 of his 27 home runs. According to FanGraphs, a ridiculous 32.5 percent of the fly balls he hit went over the fence.

    Before that outburst, Pence had a .777 OPS on the season. I'd say he's much closer to that player than the guy he was in September. We'll soon be reminded of that.

     

    CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

    On the heels of a 1.29 ERA in five spring outings, it's safe to say there are indeed expectations on Sabathia heading into 2014.

    But as nice as Sabathia's spring numbers are, his velocity is still a legitimate concern. Even in his most recent outing, Erik Boland of Newsday says the big lefty was sitting 86-88 with his velocity. His fastball got crushed at an average of 91.1 in 2013, and the lack of velocity separation between it and his changeup had a hand in the latter being crushed as well.

    Sabathia's new cutter could save him. But as of now, he told Brendan Kuty of NJ.com it's only his fourth-best pitch. 

MLB Batting Triple Crown Leaders: Votto, Davis and Cabrera

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    You know, as in batting average, home runs and RBI, because (he grumbled) people still care about these things.

     

    Batting Average: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

    Miguel Cabrera is the easy pick here, but does anybody else feel like Joey Votto is way overdue for a batting title?

    Votto is a .314 lifetime hitter, and it's downright remarkable that a low-speed guy like him has done no worse than a .349 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in any of the last five seasons. 

    Votto would have had MLB's best average in 2012 at .337 had knee surgery not robbed him of precious plate appearances. Now that he's well over a year removed from that surgery, I'm expecting some vintage Votto in 2014.

     

    Home Runs: Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles

    I doubt Davis is going to hit 53 home runs again, but that's OK. Even so few as 45 dingers would have done the trick of leading the majors in 2013, and something like that could be good enough in 2014.

    Davis should be able to reach a bar of 45 homers. He has the most effortless power of any major league hitter, and it helps that he plays in one of the hitter-friendliest parks there is. He's also what every elite slugger should be: a good fly-ball hitter.

    In fact, Davis' FanGraphs splits can show he actually got better at hitting the ball in the air as 2013 went along. If he picks up where he left off, he shall be #Crush Davis once again.

     

    RBI: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

    Despite my indifference toward the stat, sometimes you need to recognize guys who have a nose for the RBI. With 381 RBI over the last three seasons, Miggy fits that description better than anyone these days.

    More to the point, though, I like the idea of him hitting in front of Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter instead of Austin Jackson and Hunter. Kinsler had a better on-base percentage than Jackson last year, and I'm expecting more of the same in 2014. Miggy's RBI count will benefit.

MLB Pitching Triple Crown Leaders: Wainwright, Strasburg and Kershaw

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    David Goldman

    As in wins, strikeouts and ERA, only one of which Brian Kenny wants dead!

     

    Wins: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

    Three things, really.

    One: Wainwright doesn't leave much to chance. He led MLB with 241.2 innings last year, and he also led with 26 starts that lasted at least seven innings. 

    Two: Waino is a really good pitcher. He's coming off a 2.94 ERA, and he outpaced the great Clayton Kershaw in a little doodad known as "xFIP." It's one of many metrics that attempts to measure what a pitcher's ERA should have been and has been known to be predictive.

    Three: Have you seen the Cardinals? They're loaded, and that should mean all the wins for Waino.

     

    Strikeouts: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

    Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish are the MLB leaders in strikeouts per nine innings over the last two seasons, so they're the three best bets to lead MLB in strikeouts in 2014. 

    So why Strasburg?

    He has the built-in advantage of pitching in the National League, for starters. I also like that he's added an off-speed pitch in his new slider, which he told The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore he's confident in. 

    The big question is if Strasburg can pitch enough innings. I figure he can if he ups his innings count by another 20 or so like he did last year, as that would put him in the low 200s. That would make anything upward of 250 strikeouts attainable.

     

    ERA: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

    I'm assuming Kershaw will recover from his back injury just fine. I'm also assuming he'll continue to pitch regularly at Dodger Stadium while being his generally awesome self.

    A mix of those latter two things have helped Kershaw rack up an MLB-best 2.21 ERA over the last three seasons, so...yeah. Next.

MLB Stolen Base King: Billy Hamilton

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Billy Hamilton certainly has the one thing you look for above all else in a potential stolen base king: speed.

    Heck, Billy Hamilton is speed.

    We'd been hearing as much while Hamilton was in the minors, and we saw it when he finally arrived in the big leagues. In 13 games, he stole 13 bases. My powers of mathematical analysis say that 162 steals in 162 games is therefore possible.

    Alas, there are two projection systems that say no. According to FanGraphs, Steamer and ZiPS see Hamilton being slowed by an OBP in the low-.300 range and stealing only 60-70-ish bases.

    But even that would likely be good enough to lead baseball, of course. And if Hamilton builds on what's been a strong spring and posts an OBP closer to .350, he'll run laps around the field.

    Like, literal laps. Are you getting that he's fast, people?!

MLB Saves King: Trevor Rosenthal

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Had I done this a couple of weeks ago, I would have gone with Craig Kimbrel.

    But then, out of nowhere, the injury bug came and went all T-Rex-on-Gennaro on Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. The Braves did save face by bringing aboard Ervin Santana, but now I'm not sure if they have the starting pitching to get Kimbrel enough save chances.

    Which leads me to the next-best bet: Trevor Rosenthal.

    By virtue of being, as I mentioned earlier, an all-around awesome team, it's easy to imagine the Cardinals getting Rosenthal plenty of save chances. You know, just like they did with Jason Motte when he co-led the National League in saves in 2012.

    As for Rosenthal, he actually throws a smidge harder than Kimbrel and has a comparable strikeout habit and better control. 

    The Cardinals will look up and shout, "Save us!" And Rosenthal will shrug and say, "Sure, guys."

MLB Non-Mike Trout WAR Leader: Buster Posey

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    Because of course Mike Trout is going to lead MLB in WAR. That's what he does. By FanGraphs' reckoning, Trout was been worth more WAR over the last two seasons than everyone else by a mile.

    So it's really all about who's going to be the runner-up to Trout in the WAR room. I'll go with Buster Posey.

    Which isn't much of a leap based on the precedent of 2012. Posey was the National League leader in WAR that year, and he finished just 0.1 points behind Robinson Cano for the honor of being Trout's runner-up. And where Cano is on the wrong side of 30, Posey's heading into just his age-27 season.

    That Posey is a catcher is another advantage. WAR is a stat that cares about players' positions, and there are components in it that recognize that it doesn't get any tougher than catcher. Catchers who are good at everything are, basically, good at WAR.

    If there's a question mark, it's whether Posey will hit well enough. I suspect he will, as this is a guy who had a .957 OPS in 2012 and a .931 OPS in the first half of 2013 before he hit a wall down the stretch.

    A full offseason of rest rather than one abbreviated by a trip to the World Series should help Posey last in 2014. By the end, he'll only be looking up at Trout.

Cinderella Team: Colorado Rockies

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    Jack Dempsey

    I really want to pick the Houston Astros here. Or the Miami Marlins. Or the Minnesota Twins. 

    But I'll go with the Colorado Rockies, who really do have a Cinderella-y look to them.

    As they usually do, the Rockies certainly have the bats for a Cinderella run. They have a batting champion in Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau will be an upgrade over Todd Helton if Coors Field boosts his power. And since I'm counting on a breakout from Nolan Arenado, that will obviously help too.

    Then there are Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, who might constitute the best duo of all-around talents on any one team. It's also encouraging that CarGo had a higher OPS away from Coors Field in 2013. 

    As for the pitching question mark, it's pleasing to the eye that the Rockies ranked third in MLB in ground-ball percentage in 2013. That they then acquired Brett Anderson was too perfect, as his ground-ball habit is getting better every year.

    Anderson will have to stay healthy, of course. For that matter, so will Gonzalez, Tulowitzki and Morneau. These are iffy propositions, but, meh, I'll take my chances with what looks like very real upside.

Most Disappointing Team: New York Yankees

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    All the Yankees have to do to be a disappointment is fail to win the World Series, which is something they've done four years in a row.

    They'll make it five in 2014. Worse, they'll miss the playoffs for a second straight season for the first time since, I don't know, the dawn of man or something.

    Which, mind you, isn't much of a bold prediction as far as the projections are concerned. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both have the Yankees finishing with 83 wins. I can see them doing better than that, but not much better.

    I've already said my bit on CC Sabathia. I don't see Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira turning back the clock either. I trust neither Carlos Beltran nor Brian Roberts to stay healthy. I'm probably more forgiving of Jacoby Ellsbury's injury history than most, but it is distressing that he's already battling a leg injury.

    The Yankees are going to be screwed if Murphy's Law strikes. Theirs is a top-heavy roster, after all, and the lack of depth they have in their minor league system will make it hard to acquire any needed upgrades on the trade market.

    The Yankees have gone bonkers in free agency each of the last two times they've missed the playoffs. I can't wait to see what they do after missing out two years in a row.

American League Division Champions: Rays, Tigers and Angels

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

    As much as I like the Red Sox, I have trust issues with teams coming off a World Series victory. Also, I'm not sold that they're that much better than the Rays on paper.

    Though I'm not sure about its depth, I still love how the Rays' starting rotation looks one through five. Especially one through two, as David Price and Alex Cobb make for one of the top one-two punches in baseball. I also won't be at all surprised if the latter has a better year than the former.

    Elsewhere, don't sleep on this Rays offense, especially not with Wil Myers slated to play a full season after winning the Rookie of the Year for a half-season of work. You can also always count on the Rays to have a good bullpen. And above all, you can always count on Joe Maddon.

     

    AL Central: Detroit Tigers

    Even with the departure of Doug Fister, the Tigers still have the American League's top starting rotation. And though the Tigers will be regretting Miguel Cabrera's extension later, well, that's later. Miggy also still has a very good supporting cast even with the departure of Prince Fielder.

    There's also the question of who can challenge the Tigers. I'd say the Royals are the best bet, but they'll need a whole lot to go right. They're a good team, but they didn't do enough over the winter to put themselves in line for a proverbial "next step."

     

    AL West: Los Angeles Angels

    Just about every instinct in my body says to pick the A's, who I still like even despite their injuries.

    So I guess this pick comes down to being mesmerized by Baseball Prospectus' projections of the Angels as the best team in the AL West. Could it be?

    It sure could. The Angels have baseball's best player in Mike Trout, and it's notable that they finished seventh in runs scored in 2013 even despite the hardships of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. If those two produce in 2014, this offense will crush.

    And that will make the Angels' pitching out to be good enough, especially if Tyler Skaggs makes good on my breakout prediction.

National League Division Champions: Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    NL East: Washington Nationals

    I still like the Braves. Just not as much as I liked them before Medlen and Beachy had their elbows blow up, like, two minutes apart.

    Besides, I liked the Nationals more to begin with anyway. They'll have a rotation with four legit top-of-the-rotation types once Fister gets healthy, and their lineup should be one of baseball's best. It's a pleasant little bundle of power, speed and upside.

    That upside isn't all in Bryce Harper, mind you. Don't overlook Anthony Rendon, who went from a pre-August .688 OPS to a .775 OPS after August as a rookie in 2013. 

     

    NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals

    The Cardinals are always the safe pick to win the NL Central, but they feel like an even safer pick this year.

    The Cardinals have a top-five starting rotation, their lineup is about as impressive as Washington's and their depth looks good even without considering that Oscar Taveras will be along eventually.

    Elsewhere in the NL Central, it feels like Cincinnati's window is closing, and the Pirates are likely due for some regression. Their rotation will feel the loss of A.J. Burnett, and asking their bullpen to repeat its 2013 performance is asking too much.

     

    NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers

    The Dodgers aren't a perfect team. They're not without injury concerns, and Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com is right about their bench.

    But it's a pitching league these days, and that's something the Dodgers have a lot of. Kershaw and Zack Greinke lead an elite rotation, and the Dodgers sure have some outstanding arms in their bullpen.

    I'll also say this: I don't think any National League hitter made hard contact more frequently than Hanley Ramirez last year, and Yasiel Puig has an uncanny knack for ensuring the good outweighs the bad.

AL and NL Wild Cards: Red Sox, A's, Rockies and Pirates

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    AL Wild Card: Boston Red Sox

    AL Wild Card: Oakland A's

    Though I'm not expecting the Red Sox to top the Rays in the AL East race, they're too good to miss out on October altogether. It helps that they have some quality depth at the major league level, not to mention plenty of young talent in the minors to promote or trade if things get really rough.

    The same pretty much goes for the A's. They have enough depth to keep from crashing and burning, and one factor that shouldn't be overlooked is them possibly getting a boost from top prospect Addison Russell at some point in the summer.

     

    NL Wild Card: Colorado Rockies 

    NL Wild Card: Pittsburgh Pirates

    Hey, if you're going to pick a team to be a Cinderella, you kinda have to pick them to make the playoffs. 

    As for the Pirates, the regression they're due for isn't necessarily a deal-breaker considering the amount of mediocrity outside of the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers in the National League this year.

    I figure 85-90 wins could be enough to earn a wild-card spot, and the Pirates can manage that. They still have good pitching and an MVP-caliber player in Andrew McCutchen, and they'll get a huge boost if both Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon arrive and produce. 

World Series Matchup and Winner: Nationals over Tigers

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    World Series Matchup: Tigers vs. Nationals

    Winner: Nationals in 6

    I'm pretty sure this is the exact same World Series prediction I made last year.

    If so, well, you know what they say: If at first you don't succeed, be a stubborn son of a gun and tick everyone off by trying again.

    Despite not being a huge fan of what the Tigers did over the winter, they still have the look of a team that's built to win in October. The Red Sox were probably the only team that could have stopped them last year, and I'm not sure they'll be up to the task again this year.

    But it's the Nationals I'm going with to win the World Series. They'll face stiff competition from the Cardinals and/or Dodgers in getting to the World Series, but I feel fine betting on the Nats' stacked rotation and deep lineup, not to mention their enviable mix of youth and experience. These things will get them to the Fall Classic, and then the baseball gods will take it from there.

    Unless, of course, they do what they usually do with predictions.

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