The 2012 Major League Regular Season begins tomorrow at 1:00 pm EST when the Red Sox face the Tigers. Alright, so it really began last Wednesday, but who here actually paid attention to the As and Mariners in Japan? Didn’t think so. Anyways, with the season all set to kick off, let’s hand out some awards and make some predictions, all of which will undoubtedly be wrong.
1. AL MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, TAM (ZiPS projection (AVG/OBP/OPS) .274/.367/.881, 31 HRS)
I’ve said before that I believe that Tampa Bay is the best team in baseball and Longoria is the Rays’ best player. He’s had four good to great seasons in the league already, establishing himself as one of the two best third basemen in the game along with Adrian Beltre. Now it’s time to take the next step and collect some hardware for it. I think Longoria’s OPS will be above .900 with 35+ homers to go with his customary stellar defense.
2. NL MVP: Justin Upton RF, AZ ( ZiPS (AVG/OBP/OPS) .283/.366/.871, 28 HR, 22 SB)
There are safer picks, like Matt Kemp and Joey Votto, but Upton is already so good at 24 years of age that it’s impossible to ignore. I could see the stolen bases dropping a little while the power jumps. Whatever the case, Upton has been historically good at a very young age and players who play as well as he has this early almost always improve as they age.
3. AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, RHP, SEA (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 3.00, 8.57, 2.54, 2.96)
Why not? The Mariners figure to be pretty bad this season, but Hernandez already won a Cy Young in 2010, when Seattle lost 101 games — perhaps the long awaited final nail in the coffin for pitcher wins as a relevant statistic. In any case, Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander are the three best pitchers in the AL by a decent margin. Hernandez is the youngest of the three, Verlanders is due for a decent sized statistical regression, and Sabathia’s strikeout rate has been slowly declining in recent seasons.
4. NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, SF (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 2.92, 9.52, 3.17, 2.89)
Teammate Matt Cain just got the richest contract ever for a right handed pitcher — an overpay, but that’s another conversation for another day — and Lincecum should see his own big payday soon enough. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw seems to have grabbed the mantle of NL’s best pitcher from Lincecum and Roy Halladay and there’s been some hand wringing in San Francisco about “The Freak’s” diminished velocity this spring as well as his decision to junk his slider to preserve his arm. I’m not buying the anti -Lincecum hype. The velo drop could be a concern, but I’m not convinced that it’s not just a case of a veteran pitcher saving some bullets for the regular season. As for the no slider policy, it was Lincecum’s fourth best pitch anyways, and his fastball and changeup are so good that he could probably junk his curve as well and still be above average. Lincecum is perhaps the most successful slight-statured pitcher since Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax and while both of those guys had injury problems later in their careers I’m not going to worry about Lincecum until someone reports he’s having a MRI on his rotator cuff.
5. AL ROY: Matt Moore, SP, TAM
With Mike Trout getting sent to the minors for the start of the season (more on that later) there are really only two choices for the award: Moore and Darvish. Given their relative age and experience differences, I could see Darvish being the more effective pitcher in 2012 — that’s not to say I don’t like Moore, I love Moore. This pick is based more on my belief that some voters simply won’t vote for Darvish given his experience in NPB (the Japanese League). I personally don’t think that professional experience overseas should put a player out of the running for Rookie of the Year honors — after all Darvish is a Major League Rookie — but no one ever won any bets by underestimating baseball writers’ capacity for ignorance or logical fallacy.
6. NL ROY: Zach Cozart, SS, CIN
In my NL Central Preview, I highlighted another Red, catcher Devin Mesoraco, who looks to be a more valuable player than Cozart in the long run. Unfortunately, Mesoraco will begin the season backing up Ryan Hanigan. The other smart-money picks for NL ROY honors: Bryce Harper and Trevor Bauer, will begin the season in the minors and when Bauer finally gets the call it might be as a reliever. So, as Rob Neyer points out, Cozart kind of wins this by default of being the guy with the most at bats. He’s got a very good defensive reputation and the offensive bar for shortstops is set so low that he should be serviceable. He’s probably not an All-Star level player, but he might be the highest probability choice at this point.
6. The Nationals will regret sending Bryce Harper to the minors, as will the Angels with Mike Trout
Harper is 19, and he clearly has some work to do in the minors, but he has to be better than current center fielder Roger Bernadina, a replacement level player. The Nationals clearly consider themselves contenders, otherwise they wouldn’t have raided the farm system for a pitcher as flawed as Gio Gonzalez, or given a one year deal to Edwin Jackson, who is apparently on a mission to play for all 30 teams. The problem is that Washington plays in a division with three other playoff contenders — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami — and even if Harper comes up in June they’ll have spent two months getting nothing from center field, which is something that they’ll have to live with if they miss the playoffs by a game or two. Harper is far from a sure bet to be two wins better than Bernadina over two months of the season, but there’s a possibility that he is, whereas everyone knows Bernadina has no upside.
The same thing goes for the Angels and their decision to send Mike Trout to AAA. Anaheim has a great rotation, but after Albert Pujols their lineup looks awful anemic. No one knows what to expect from Kendrys Morales after two lost seasons, Mark Trumbo puts up sub .300 on base percentages, Torii Hunter is clearly on the downside of his career, and Vernon Wells remains the poster child for bad contract decisions. Trout was pretty bad in his major league debut last season, but he’s been one of the three best prospects in baseball for three years now and it’s not like the Angels have a lot to lose by playing him now. Like the Nationals, they’re going to regret the decision to not start Trout from day one if they miss the playoffs by a game or two.
7. Jason Heyward will hit more than 30 homers
Perhaps not a huge stretch given the power that Heyward showed in the minors, but his high for a season in the majors was 18 in 2010. Of course Heyward is just 22, with only two years of major league experience, which makes the rumors of his demise laughable. After a 2011 season marred by injuries and mismanagement by Fredi Gonzalez, who benched Heyward for an extended stretch, the Braves right fielder looks like a good bet for a breakout season. Remember that it was just two years ago when Heyward was drawing Griffey comparisons — the good kind. Turner Field suppresses home runs, but Heyward has special power, the ball jumps off his bat to all fields. He’s a big reason why I believe the Braves are primed to pick up one of the NL Wild Card spots.
8. Three AL East teams will make the playoffs
You may have caught this if you paid attention to the win projections in my preview columns (it’s okay, I know you didn’t). For the record, I’m not a huge fan of the new playoff structure, which places additional emphasis on the divisions. I personally feel baseball should be de-emphasizing the divisions and moving towards a more balanced schedule so the best teams in each league are in the playoffs every year rather than those who have the privilege of playing in the AL Central (revolutionary I know) — but I digress.
In any case, the AL East is stacked, as usual. I’ve already made my feelings about Tampa clear. The Yankees may have been quiet in free agency, but they made some smart moves to shore up their pitching in the offseason. I think Hiroki Kuroda was a really smart signing even if his performance drops a little as he moves to a tougher league/park. As for the Red Sox, no one should be writing them off, even if Andrew Bailey is out until July. If not for a terrible April and September, they would have had the best record in baseball. I know, I know, hypotheticals are pretty worthless in hindsight, but its hard to imagine the Sox having two historically bad months again, right? Irregardless, I don’t see how this year’s team is worse than last year’s model, and I see plenty of reasons to believe that they could be better.
As for the non- AL East wild card contenders, there aren’t any in the AL Central, unless you really want to dream on Cleveland (you don’t), and you already have my thoughts on the Angels.
9. Will Middlebrooks will be the Red Sox starting third baseman by the end of the season
Bonus Red Sox prediction, because I like to stick to what I (pretend to) know. I’m not sold on Kevin Youkilis’ ability to stand up to the rigors of a full season at third base. Youkilis is a phenomenal hitter, but he’s always had a bad body for a third baseman. My guess is that he hits the DL at some point in June and that when he comes back he splits time between third and DH. That opens the door for Middlebrooks, a guy who Red Sox fans can dream on a bit. He’s improved every year he’s been in the minors and he’s an immediate upgrade defensively over Youk. Middlebrooks’ approach needs refinement, but he’s demonstrated some pop thus far in the minors. A more likely scenario for a Youkilis injury is Mike Aviles shifting to third and Jose Iglesias getting called up to play short, but I’m not convinced that’s actually an appreciable upgrade over simply calling up Middlebrooks.
10. The Texas Ranger will lose in the World Series for the third straight year
I know I just spent a good chunk of this column talking up Tampa as the best team in baseball, and that this prediction seems a bit cruel, but deal with it okay? I just have a feeling that Texas is heading down the path to becoming the baseball version of the late 80s /early 90s Buffalo Bills, an immensely talented team whose flaws reared their head at the worst possible moments. In Texas’ case, those flaws are manager Ron Washington, and a questionable starting rotation which lacks upside outside of Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz. Colby Lewis is the Rangers’ opening day starter. His 2011 FIP? 4.54. That’s a problem.
So who’s my World Series pick? The Arizona Diamondbacks. How’s that for bold?