Bold Predictions for the 2018 MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 21, 2018

Bold Predictions for the 2018 MLB Season

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    What's next for the best player in baseball?
    What's next for the best player in baseball?Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    If Major League Baseball's 100-plus years of history tell us anything, it's that anything can happen throughout the course of a season.

    So, what the heck? Might as well get bold with some predictions for what will happen in 2018.

    Ahead are 15 predictions—10 for individual players and five for teams. Some of them are bolder than others, but all have one thing in common: They're probably more likely not to come true than they are to come true...and yet, they're all within the realm of possibility.

    At any rate, it's on with the show.

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge Will Combine for Fewer Than 100 Homers

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    This will be Giancarlo Stanton's and Aaron Judge's first season as teammates on the New York Yankees. If 2018 is anything like 2017, they'll celebrate it by combining for over 100 home runs.

    Sorry, it's not going to happen.

    Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, and Judge, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, certainly have the power to do it. They're gargantuan in stature, and they're fresh off owning the leaderboard for exit velocity on fly balls and line drives in 2017. That led to 59 homers for Stanton and 52 for Judge.

    Rather, it's a question of durability.

    Though Stanton played a career-high 159 games last year, that doesn't guarantee the injury proneness that limited him to 115 games per year from 2012 to 2016 is a thing of the past. For his part, Judge may not be 100 percent recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.

    "It's a work in progress until Opening Day," Judge said in February, per Coley Harvey of ESPN.

    More than 80 homers? Sure. Maybe even 90? Sure, too. But not 100. The injury bug won't allow it.

Mike Trout's Next Trick: Leading MLB in Homers

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    If Stanton and Judge do indeed take a step back in the dinger department, it will be that much easier for Mike Trout to add something new to his nigh endless list of accomplishments.

    MLB home run champion.

    This might seem like a stretch given that the Los Angeles Angels superstar peaked at 41 homers in 2015. But hitting for power is arguably the best of Trout's many talents, and it hasn't yet achieved its full potential.

    If Trout hadn't missed roughly six weeks with a thumb injury last season, he could have ridden a career-best power output to a new career high in home runs. He went yard in 6.5 percent of his plate appearances. For perspective, 43-homer slugger Khris Davis was at 6.6 percent.

    Knowing that last year's injury was an anomaly on an otherwise squeaky-clean injury track record, it's hard to name reasons why Trout can't pick up where he left off. He has elite raw power as well as a flawless approach and a knack for getting the ball in the air.

    Something like 45 or 50 homers is doable. That should be enough to top all other sluggers. It should also help Trout earn his third American League MVP...but that's hardly a bold prediction at this point.

Shohei Ohtani Will Get Sent to the Minor Leagues

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    Masterpress/Getty Images

    Alas, 2018 won't be so kind to the Angels' other ubertalented player.

    Everything that was said about Shohei Ohtani during his winter courtship with MLB teams made him sound like an impossible talent. Triple-digit heater? Check. Powerful bat? Another check. Fast legs? Still another check. 

    Nowadays, it sure seems like "impossible" is the operative word.

    Ohtani has had a terrible spring training on the mound and at the plate, giving up 17 runs in four appearances (counting two unofficial side games) and going just 3-for-28.

    Obviously, spring training isn't the most telling proving ground. It's also only fair to note that Ohtani's electric stuff and solid plate discipline are two reasons for optimism.

    However, he's also struggled with his fastball command and with hitting breaking balls. This drives home the reality that the 23-year-old isn't a finished product like, say, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka were when they came over from Japan.

    Since the Angels are looking to contend in 2018, they can't afford to wait for Ohtani to iron out his kinks in the majors. He'll need some time in the minors and likely sooner rather than later.

Heck Yeah, Ronald Acuna Jr. Is Winning NL Rookie of the Year

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    B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    If you're looking for a wunderkind who won't break your heart this season, Ronald Acuna Jr. is your huckleberry.

    Yes, the Atlanta Braves did just option Acuna to the minors. And yes, he is only 20 years old.

    But, let's be real. The only reason Acuna is starting the season in the minors is so the Braves can do with him what the Chicago Cubs did with Kris Bryant in 2015: hold him back for a couple of weeks so they can gain an extra year of club control.

    Otherwise, Acuna is ready for his major league closeup.

    All the dude has done since 2017 is advance from High-A to Triple-A in a single minor league season then dominate the Arizona Fall League and, most recently, lord over spring training. He played 16 games and put up a .432/.519/.727 slash line with four homers and four steals.

    At work here is a package of talents that makes it tough not to compare Acuna to Trout. Once he arrives in mid-April, Acuna's next feat should be earning the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award about as easily as Trout earned the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Eric Hosmer Will Be the Winter's Biggest Bust

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    While the Braves will get more than their money's worth out of Acuna in 2018, the San Diego Padres will be waiting and waiting for their money's worth out of Eric Hosmer.

    The Padres inked the first baseman to the largest deal in franchise history: eight years and $144 million.

    Since it has an opt-out after 2022, however, it's really a five-year, $105 million contract with a three-year, $39 million option. For a 28-year-old who's been an All-Star, a four-time Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger and a World Series champion, that's not unreasonable.

    There's just one problem: There's basically a 50-50 chance of Hosmer being terrible in any given season.

    Add up his wins above replacement from 2013, 2015 and 2017, and you get a solid total of 11.2. Add up his value from 2012, 2014 and 2016, however, and you get just 1.5 WAR.

    That's the kind of inconsistency that comes when you combine less-than-stellar defense with a ground-ball habit that has Rasputin-level powers of survival. Because these things have a habit of holding him back in even years, here's guessing 2018 will be yet another rough one for Hosmer.

Carlos Santana Will Be the Winter's Biggest Steal

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    On the flip side of Hosmer in 2018 will be Carlos Santana, who will leave the Philadelphia Phillies feeling quite pleased with their purchase.

    It helps that Santana has a smaller contract to live up to, as the Phils picked him up for just $60 million over three years. What helps even more is that he's an underrated performer who can get even better in his new threads.

    Santana has averaged 153 games with an .808 OPS and 24 homers per year since 2011. That's largely a testament to his excellent patience and power that's already good but that can still get better.

    When Santana puts the ball in play, chances are it's going to be a ball in the air to his pull side. If these habits are good for power anywhere, they're especially good for power at Citizens Bank Park. Had Santana been able to take aim at its short porches in 2017, quite a few of his air balls would have produced better results.

    Oh, by the way, he's also a pretty good first baseman. All the more reason to expect his $60 million deal to look like a megabargain in 2018.

Manny Machado Will Have a Better Walk Year Than Bryce Harper

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    While we're on the topic of free agents, we might as well acknowledge that all eyes will be on the free-agent salary drives of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in 2018.

    Most of said eyes will be on Harper. The Washington Nationals right fielder became a baseball celebrity at 16 and has since won a Rookie of the Year Award and an MVP. When asked about the possibility of earning a $400 million contract one day, he famously replied: "Don't sell me short."

    But to that end, it won't help his cause that Machado is about to have a better walk year.

    Now that he's moved from third base to shortstop, the Baltimore Orioles star is more valuable by default. And while he managed "only" a .782 OPS and 33 homers last year, Statcast's xwOBA metric (which is based on quality of contact) suggests he hit into a lot of bad luck. A rebound is in order.

    For his part, Harper's enormous talent is often undermined by injuries and plain, ol' inconsistency. So much so, in fact, that these things are now worth betting on.

    So, that $400 million contract? After this year, it'll be more likely to go to Machado than to Harper.

Willson Contreras Will Win the NL MVP Award

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    If Harper does indeed stumble in 2018, there will be one less obstacle in Willson Contreras' path to the National League MVP Award.

    He's probably not the first MVP candidate to come to mind from among the North Siders, let alone the entire National League. The Cubs have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and the NL at large has such luminaries as Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Nolan Arenado and Buster Posey.

    Still, there's little question that Contreras has the goods.

    The .851 OPS and 33 homers he has in 193 career games qualify him as an excellent hitter by catcher standards. He was better than ever at last check, as he finished 2017 with a 1.000 OPS over his final 60 games.

    The 25-year-old is also graced with a howitzer of a throwing arm. And according to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, one of his primary goals for 2018 is improving his pitch framing.

    If he does that while also continuing to do everything else, Contreras will emerge as an elite catcher for a team that's ready, willing and able to win its second World Series in three years. MVP voters will be forced to take note.

Noah Syndergaard Will Win the NL Cy Young Award

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    A safe pick to win the 2018 National League Cy Young Award would be Kershaw or Max Scherzer. After all, the two have taken home the trophy in four of the last five seasons.

    But, nah. The pick here is Noah Syndergaard.

    The New York Mets right-hander sure has looked the part of a Cy Young-caliber ace in spring training. He's taken the mound five times and put up a 1.35 ERA with 23 strikeouts and only six walks in 20 innings.

    Seemingly every fastball he's thrown has been clocked at 100 mph. Though that's aroused discomfort in some circles, Syndergaard swore to reporters that he's throwing "free and easy."

    That may have to do with his response to a lat injury that cost him all but seven starts last year. Rather than return to bulk-oriented workouts, he adjusted his offseason so he'd be more flexible.

    If so, there's no reason the 25-year-old can't have his best year yet. Considering he's the only pitcher his age to ever strike out five times as many batters as he's walked, such a season should be more than overpowering enough to net him his first Cy Young.

David Price Will Win the AL Cy Young Award

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    Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Syndergaard as the 2018 National League Cy Young Award winner not bold enough for you?

    Very well. How about David Price as the American League Cy Young Award winner?

    The veteran left-hander won a Cy Young in 2012 and finished second in the voting as recently as 2015, but injuries and ineffectiveness have marred his two seasons with the Boston Red Sox.

    When Price was healthy last year, however, he basically carried over his strong finish to the 2016 season. All told, he owns a 3.50 ERA and 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 39 regular-season appearances.

    More recently, Price has looked fantastic in two spring training starts. He's had all four of his pitches working and has had little trouble painting corners.

    "I guess today is the 20th," Price told reporters after his second outing. "This is the best I've felt on March 20th in spring training. I want to continue this trend up until my first game. That's what I plan to do and I'm excited."

    Besides, Price's looming opt-out is an excuse for him to go into salary-drive mode. Rising from the ashes to win a second Cy Young would certainly help.

The Blue Jays Will Make It 3 Playoff Teams from the AL East

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    In the Red Sox and Yankees, the American League East contains two obvious picks to make the 2018 postseason.

    The Toronto Blue Jays can make it three.

    Though they lost 86 games, the Blue Jays were a perfectly capable opponent for much of 2017, going 70-69 after April 28. This despite the fact that their offense was painfully shallow and their staff sorely missed Aaron Sanchez, the reigning American League ERA champion, for much of the year.

    Neither of those problems should linger into 2018.

    Toronto's lineup is still headlined by MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, but what really stands out is how much deeper it is after the additions of Curtis Granderson, Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz.

    On the mound, the bad news is that Marcus Stroman has a shoulder problem. The good news, however, is multifold: Stroman's injury isn't serious, Sanchez is healthy, and there's more depth thanks to the additions of Jaime Garcia and Seung Hwan Oh.

    There's enough in Toronto for a run at 85 wins. These days, that's all it takes to earn a wild-card berth.

The Revamped Giants Will Make It to 90...Losses

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Unlike the Blue Jays, the San Francisco Giants are a team that was bad in 2017 and should stay bad in 2018.

    Certainly, they deserve credit for how they tackled the offseason. They entered it with a shallow farm system and limited payroll flexibility yet still exited it with Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Austin Jackson and Tony Watson.

    Take those pieces and put them next to a strong group of incumbents led by Posey and Madison Bumgarner, and it's hardly impossible to see the Giants getting over last year's 98-loss flop and returning to contention.

    And yet, concerns abound.

    The Giants aren't deep, particularly in their starting rotation and bullpen. If that doesn't sink them, their collective age could do the trick. Once Brandon Belt turns 30 on April 20, Bumgarner and Joe Panik will be their only key players on the south side of the big 3-0.

    In all, there's more downside than upside in San Francisco. At the bottom of it is another 90-loss season.

The Dodgers Will Barely Make It to 90 Wins

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    If it's any consolation to the Giants, 2018 won't be all rainbows and gumdrops for the Los Angeles Dodgers either.

    It should be in theory. They're coming off a season that featured 104 regular-season wins and a trip to the World Series. They're also studded with enough stars to earn high marks (97 wins from Baseball Prospectus and 93 from FanGraphs) from the big projection systems.

    There's much to worry about, however.

    At the start of spring training, the list included Kershaw's back, Corey Seager's elbow and Chris Taylor's likely regression. Now it includes Justin Turner's wrist, which was broken by a wayward fastball Monday night.

    The Dodgers have enough depth to soldier on even if these red flags become real problems. They're not quite as deep as they were last year, though. And even if the Giants don't give them problems, the National League West has two reigning playoff teams (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and one up-and-coming squad (the Padres) that could.

    Another 100-win season? Yeah, right. The over/under belongs at 90.

The Nationals Will Make Another Early Exit from October

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Oh, the temptation to write "The Washington Nationals Will Win the World Series" was strong, all right. Maybe stronger than it's ever been since they arose as a major contender in 2012.

    Knowing them, that's all the more reason to assume they won't even make it past the first round of the playoffs.

    The Nationals have come close to advancing a few times but have gone down in the National League Division Series in each of their four playoff trips since 2012. In so doing, they kept the franchise's postseason series win meter stuck at one—and zero since the former Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, D.C.

    The Nats won't have a problem getting back to October in 2018. Their lineup and rotation are both as loaded as they were a year ago. And this time, the team should have an excellent bullpen for the whole season.

    Washington won't become battle-tested playing in a weak National League East, however, and that's only one thing that could trip it up (again) in October. Between Harper, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton and others, it has a lengthy list of stars who come with age and/or injury concerns.

    Sorry, Nationals. Maybe next time.

Neither the Astros nor the Dodgers Will Return to the World Series

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The 2017 World Series starred the 104-win Dodgers on one side and the 101-win Houston Astros on the other side yet still managed to surpass expectations.

    But in the immortal words of Apollo Creed: Ain't gonna be no rematch.

    The Dodgers' problems were covered a couple of slides ago. The Astros seem to have fewer, as their encore season comes with the promise of a full season of Justin Verlander and the extreme upside of new arrival Gerrit Cole.

    It's too bad they have the World Series hangover to worry about. Apart from the 2009 Phillies, it's been successful in keeping reigning champions from returning to the World Series every year since 2002. Behold, the powerful double whammy of physical exhaustion and psychological letdown.

    The Astros have another problem: The American League is stronger this year. The Yankees and Red Sox are better. The Cleveland Indians are still good. And the American League West might have as many as four wild-card contenders in it.

    All told, both the Dodgers and Astros have a lot of pitfalls ahead of them. At some point, they'll each fall into one for good.

        

    Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus. Contract information courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.