Bold Predictions for the 2019 MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 20, 2019

Bold Predictions for the 2019 MLB Season

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    What awaits Bryce Harper in his first season in Philadelphia?
    What awaits Bryce Harper in his first season in Philadelphia?Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    In light of the notorious unpredictability of the sport, it's wise to expect the unexpected with any upcoming Major League Baseball season.

    Perhaps it's less wise to put bold predictions in writing, but just try to stop us.

    Ahead are 15 predictions—10 for individual players and five for teams—for the 2019 MLB season. Some are bolder than others, but all of them straddle a fine line between "not bloody likely" and "not entirely implausible."

Mike Trout Will Have His Best Season Yet

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    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    According to ESPN.com's Jeff Passan, Mike Trout became the proud owner of the largest contract in professional sports history Tuesday: 12 years and $430 million.

    What better way to celebrate than with the best season of his career?

    Trout has already collected more wins above replacement through the age of 26 than any hitter in MLB history, according to Baseball Reference. The only catch is that he's had a single-season ceiling of 10.5 WAR.

    The counter for that catch, however, is that Trout is getting better with age.

    Per his 186 OPS+ in 2017 and his 199 OPS+ in 2018, Trout has been the best hitter in baseball each of the last two seasons. Such is life for a guy who walks about as often as he strikes out and is also one of the sport's elite power hitters.

    Meanwhile, Trout is still the fastest baserunner on the Los Angeles Angels, and he's been an easily above average center fielder in three of the last four years. If not for a bothersome wrist injury, all this would have led to easily the best year of his career in 2018.

    All Trout really needs to do in 2019 is stay healthy, and a new career high in WAR will be as good as his. So might a third American League MVP...but that's not exactly a bold prediction, is it?

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton Will Combine for over 100 Homers

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    This is a switcheroo from last year, when we predicted that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would fall short of 100 total home runs.

    Nailed it.

    Though Judge (52 homers) and Stanton (59 homers) would have combined for 111 long balls if they'd been teammates on the New York Yankees in 2017, they mustered only 65 in their first season as teammates in 2018. Alas, Judge was banged up, and Stanton just plain struggled.

    But no matter. The 100-homer mark should be well within their reach in 2019.

    There's certainly enough raw power packed into the 6'7", 282-pound Judge and the 6'6", 245-pound Stanton for the task. To wit, their names are all over the longest and fastest home runs hit in the Statcast era.

    Going into 2019, Judge is fully recovered from the shoulder and wrist woes that held him back in 2018. For his part, Stanton should be more consistent if he keeps his strikeout rate more like it was at the end of last season than at the beginning.

    If so, there will be dingers. Lots and lots of dingers.

Bryce Harper Will Hit 50 Home Runs

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    While we're on the topics of extraordinarily well-paid players and hitters of dingers, let's talk Bryce Harper.

    Things haven't gone well for Harper in the three weeks since he agreed to a then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. The 2015 National League MVP is 0-for-8 in five spring games, one of which featured a fastball to the ankle.

    But it'll all be water under the bridge after he enjoys the first 50-homer season of his career.

    To date, Harper only has one 40-homer season (42 in 2015) to his name. This is just one of many frustrating side effects of his tendencies for nagging injuries and long-lasting slumps.

    Driving the ball, however, is not a problem for Harper. The 26-year-old excels at keeping the ball off the ground and at hitting it hard. And in 2018, he developed an underrated quality for a slugger to have: He started to forgo center field in favor of left field and right field. That will play well at Citizens Bank Park, which features short porches on either side of center field.

    Health (fingers crossed) and consistency (fingers double-crossed) permitting, a guy with these advantages should enjoy his first 50-homer season in 2019.

Ronald Acuna Jr. Will Win NL MVP

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    In case anyone is thinking about it, Bryce Harper will be in the running for another NL MVP if he even comes close to 50 homers in 2019.

    He won't win it, though, because Ronald Acuna Jr. will be standing in his way.

    Based on the 21-year-old's career trajectory, perhaps this isn't such a bold prediction. He entered last season as the best prospect in baseball and ended it as the NL Rookie of the Year. If he continues to follow the Kris Bryant blueprint, then of course he'll win NL MVP this year.

    It can't be stressed enough how dominant Acuna can be in his sophomore season.

    His rookie campaign started slowly through the All-Star break, but then the Atlanta Braves suggested some changes for his swing mechanics. The next thing anyone knew, Acuna cut way back on his strikeouts and finished with a 1.028 OPS and 19 homers in the second half.

    So it goes this spring, as he's rocking a 1.080 OPS through 15 games. Throw in how Acuna is an exceptional athlete who can provide value on the bases and on defense, and all the makings of an MVP are there.

Victor Robles Will Win NL Rookie of the Year

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    While Bryce Harper and Ronald Acuna Jr. duke out it for NL MVP honors in 2019, Victor Robles will be busy following in their footsteps to the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

    The 21-year-old outfielder isn't without flaws. Take it from J.J. Cooper of Baseball America, who noted that Robles' exit velocity readings are less reminiscent of, say, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and more comparable to Alcides Escobar and Jose Peraza.

    That's not great, Bob. In fact, it's the kind of tidbit that would make a saner person gravitate toward Fernando Tatis Jr. or Nick Senzel for NL Rookie of the Year.

    But if nothing else, Robles has the advantage of already having a major league job lined up. Sans Harper, there's room for him to slide into the Washington Nationals outfield as their everyday center fielder.

    Robles' other advantages include exceptional speed and arm strength that figure to make him a regular in baserunning and defensive highlights. While he may need to work on his power, he's an uncannily advanced hitter with a .392 on-base percentage in the minors and a .451 OBP in the current spring training season.

    Exit velocity be damned, a player like this should have little trouble standing out.

Brandon Lowe Will Win AL Rookie of the Year

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is probably going to win AL Rookie of the Year. If not him, then maybe Eloy Jimenez. Or Jesus Luzardo. Or Forrest Whitley. Or the aptly named "You Get the Idea."

    But there's just something about Brandon Lowe.

    Only Baseball America has the 24-year-old rated as a top-100 talent, and it only liked him enough to place him at No. 93. Heck, we have him ranked as just the No. 7 prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system.

    However, Lowe won't stop putting up numbers. He had a .949 OPS in the minors last year, and he racked up 68 total extra-base hits (including 28 homers) in 143 games between the minors and the majors. He's still at it this spring with a 1.097 OPS and nine extra-base hits (two homers).

    Perhaps a guy who measures out at 5'10", 185 pounds shouldn't be capable of so much power, but Lowe evidently has a good feel for getting the barrel to the ball. He's also a quality athlete who can play in both the infield and the outfield.

    For now, Lowe appears locked into Tampa Bay's second base gig. Whether it's there or elsewhere, he should be a regular who keeps the loud hits coming in 2019.

Aaron Nola Will Throw a Perfect Game

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    It sure feels like Major League Baseball is due for a perfect game. Six of the 23 in MLB history happened between 2009 and 2012. But since then, nothing.

    The trouble with predicting who'll throw the next one is the reality that perfect games are inherently fluky events. But if somebody's going to do it, why not Aaron Nola?

    Though most will acknowledge the Phillies right-hander is an ace, perhaps not as many will argue that he's the best pitcher in baseball. Yet that was the honor bestowed on him by Baseball Reference WAR last season, and it's shockingly difficult to argue otherwise.

    Nola, 25, has excellent command of four above-average pitches. Accordingly, he can get hitters out in a variety of ways. He was striking out over 10 batters per nine innings by the second half of 2018. He also boasted the lowest xwOBA—which measures expected production based on contact quality—on balls in play of any pitcher.

    Any guy who can pitch like this is liable to be perfect on a given day.

    Also, he'll get to face the Miami Marlins multiple times this season. That can only help.

Justin Verlander Will Strike Out 300 Batters

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both topped 300 strikeouts in 2002. Then 300-strikeout seasons went away, and an ever-increasing emphasis on protecting pitchers made it possible to wonder if they'd return.

    But then in 2015, Clayton Kershaw did the deed. So did Chris Sale in 2017 and Max Scherzer in 2018.

    In 2019, it's Justin Verlander's turn.

    The 36-year-old is the only pitcher to cross the 200-inning threshold in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Most recently, he provided the Houston Astros with 214 frames in 2018. In the process, he came only 10 strikeouts away from 300.

    To get there in 2019, Verlander shouldn't need to eat more innings. He only needs to pick up where he left off in the second half of 2018, wherein he was whiffing an MLB-best 13.9 batters per nine innings. He was already overpowering hitters with his fastball and slider. His trick was to reintroduce his curveball, now with more downward action.

    For a pitcher with these abilities, 300 strikeouts should be a cinch. If anything, perhaps the real question is if Verlander can make a run at 310 or even 320.

Shane Bieber Will Win the AL Cy Young Award

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    A 300-strikeout season would bolster Justin Verlander's case for a second Cy Young Award. But as Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer can vouch, 300 strikeouts does not a winning Cy Young Award case make.

    A couple of pitchers on the Cleveland Indians figure to challenge Verlander for the AL Cy Young Award this year. The least likely of them to win is Shane Bieber, who was just OK as a rookie in 2018.

    Or was he?

    The 23-year-old right-hander's 4.55 ERA wasn't so great, but he struck out 95 more batters than he walked in 114.2 innings. His 3.23 FIP (it's an older metric, sir, but it checks out) ranked ninth among AL hurlers.

    Bieber's best assets were his superb command and solid fastball/slider/curveball combination. His only real flaw was his platoon split against left-handed batters, who got to him for a .909 OPS. On cue, he remade his changeup into a pitch that's looking like a dandy in a spring training effort highlighted by a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings.

    From here, Bieber should rack up over 200 innings with an ERA in the low 2.00s. Such things tend to draw a crowd when it comes time to vote for the Cy Young Award.

Zack Wheeler Will Win the NL Cy Young

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The New York Mets starting rotation is headed by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom. After him comes Noah Syndergaard, who boasts an arm unlike any other in professional baseball.

    And yet here we are, about to argue that the best pitcher in New York or elsewhere in the National League this season will be Zack Wheeler.

    The 28-year-old's major league career has mostly been a letdown. He arrived as a much-hyped prospect back in 2013, yet he lost two seasons to Tommy John surgery and has never put it all together.

    However, last year is the closest Wheeler has come to doing exactly that. He logged a career-best 3.31 ERA over 182.1 innings, and he finished by racking up a 1.68 ERA and permitting a .489 OPS over his last 11 starts.

    The backbone of Wheeler's arsenal is a fastball that sat at 95.9 mph in 2018. Yet he also boasts a solid slider, curveball and splitter, and last season saw him master the art of disguising their release points and flight paths. That's the nerdy way of saying hitters had no idea what was coming.

    All Wheeler needs to do in 2019 is stay healthy. His stuff can do the rest.

The Philadelphia Phillies Will Miss the Postseason

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Nobody tried harder than the Phillies to build a winner over the winter.

    In addition to shelling out $330 million for Bryce Harper, they used free agency to bring in Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. They used the trade market, meanwhile, to go get Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. The result is a roster that looks significantly better than the one that mustered only 80 wins in 2018.

    Trouble is, last year's 80-win team was hypothetically more like a 76-win team. The gap between there and the 90-to-95 wins it could take for the Phillies to return to October may be too big for their new additions to close on their own. They'll need help.

    It won't necessarily be forthcoming. The Phillies have questions in their offense at third base, second base and center field. There are fewer in their rotation, but there is a dropoff in quality after Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

    None of this would be particularly worrying if the Phillies were in a lesser division, but the NL East is as about as good as it gets. Just as it did last year, the division figures to deal the Phillies too many blows to overcome.

The Minnesota Twins Will Win the AL Central

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Now, the Minnesota Twins, on the other hand—they're going places.

    Perhaps above all, this Twins team is powerful. Only the Yankees have hit more home runs during spring training. With help from new additions Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez, it's very possible the Twins will keep that up into the regular season.

    For his part, Byron Buxton is finally looking ready for an offensive breakout of his own. The former No. 1 prospect is raking with a 1.450 OPS and four homers this spring.

    Not to be outdone, Twins pitchers have been racking up strikeouts. Call it the "Wes Johnson Effect." Minnesota's new pitching coach is a proponent of analytics and biomechanics with a specialty in squeezing velocity out of pitchers. It's notably working on Martin Perez, who's up to 97 mph with his heater.

    Granted, the Twins would be the underdogs in the AL West or AL East, where they'd have to worry about titans like the Astros, Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

    But in the AL Central, they only have to overcome the Indians, whose roster is marred by a shallow offense and bullpen. These things could easily doom Cleveland to a second-place finish.

The Colorado Rockies Will Win 95 Games

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Colorado Rockies might pull a Twins and upset the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, but...nah. The Dodgers have some red flags, but not enough to keep them from a seventh straight division title.

    But for the Rockies, winning 95 games for the first time would be a solid consolation prize.

    They won 91 a year ago, yet their actual quality was more akin to an 85-win team. Their offense (which was effectively useless on the road) was a particularly bothersome bugaboo.

    But in 2019, the Rockies offense should get a boost from newcomer Daniel Murphy and several key incumbents: David Dahl in left field and a Ryan McMahon/Garrett Hampson platoon at second base. In other words, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon have help this time around.

    Pitching-wise, the Rockies will need their starters to offset the loss of Adam Ottavino from the bullpen. Luckily, Kyle Freeland and German Marquez pitched like aces in 2018, while Tyler Anderson was a solid No. 3. And now that he has his slider working again, Jon Gray looks like a man on a mission with 22 strikeouts and only one walk in spring training.

    All told, don't be surprised when the Rockies surprise everyone else.

So Will the Tampa Bay Rays

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Like the Rockies in the NL West, the Rays are in a less-than-ideal situation in the AL East. Both the Red Sox and Yankees hit triple digits in wins last year, and they can do so again in 2019.

    Nevertheless, the Rays should also have 95 wins in them.

    They made it to 90 in 2018, and there was nothing fluky about it. Their pitchers put up a 3.52 ERA after manager Kevin Cash first leaned into the "opener" strategy May 25. They were also a spectacular defensive team, and they had one of MLB's best offenses by the second half.

    Tommy Pham had much to do with that, and he's now in for his first full season in Tampa Bay. He's joined by newcomers Avisail Garcia, Mike Zunino, Yandy Diaz and Guillermo Heredia. Between them and exciting incumbents such as Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows, this Rays offense is quietly deep and dynamic.

    Meanwhile, on the mound, the Rays made one of the best moves of the winter when they signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal. He, reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and hard-throwing righty Tyler Glasnow are a dangerous rotation trio.

    The Rays should pick up where they left off in the second half in 2018, wherein they played .600 baseball.

The Boston Red Sox Won't Return to the World Series

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    It's not overselling it to say the 2018 Red Sox were one of the best teams in major league history.

    Beyond winning 108 games in the regular season, they made winning the World Series look way too easy. They endured only three losses in dispatching the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers. The first two were 100-game winners in the regular season. The third should have been.

    But after a season like that, the only way to go is down.

    Granted, it's mostly a good thing that the 2019 Red Sox are almost a carbon copy of the 2018 Red Sox. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez still lead a deep offense. Chris Sale and David Price still lead an excellent rotation.

    However, it's hard to ignore the lack of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly in Boston's bullpen. Or to not worry about it, for that matter. Regardless of who the "closer" label belongs to, it's never a good thing when a bullpen has two fewer power pitchers with experience in high-leverage situations.

    Further, the dreaded "World Series hangover" darn well should be feared.

    Since 2001, only the 2009 Phillies have gone back to the World Series a year after winning it. Even these Red Sox will be hard-pressed to except themselves from the rule.

                       

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