Baseball still has about a week or so until we start receiving terrible quality beat writer twitpics from Spring Training. Now's an appropriate time for a few predictions before the season truly begins.
Most are brief, a few have some analysis along the way, feel free to discuss and enjoy:
1. Ben Zobrist will lead second basemen in WAR
There have been three second basemen in the AL East consistently leading their position for the past few years: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Ben Zobrist. With the power numbers down from his eye-popping breakout season in 2009, and with team needs often forcing him to the outfield outfield, Zobrist hasn't gotten as much attention as he should. This year will be different.
There were two players last season to lead Zobrist in WAR production, Cano and Matt Carpenter, with the former moving out of the division, and the latter moving to third base this season. Dustin Pedroia also tied Zobrist for WAR, but required more plate appearances to do so.
With Matt Carpenter moving to a new category, here's last year's WAR production from the 4-hole:
Here's how that could change next season: Robinson Cano is now fat-Robinson-Cano, which is probably an illusion but a fun internet rumor, and is set to see his numbers diminish since he's moving from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium to Seattle. I'd expect less runs and more strikeouts from him next season.
Let's check the projections for 2014:
Dustin Pedroia has struggled through hand injuries the last two seasons, and both of the Fangraphs projections currently listed expect him to regress next season, either through worse defense and injury consideration (Steamer) or less walks (Oliver), dropping at least 1.4 WAR.
Should our second baseman replicate his defense, even with a tick down in offense (Steamer says up, Oliver says down), he should be able to challenge for the top spot most of the season, and I believe he will lead by year's end, garnering an All-Star vote along the way.
2. Two Rays will vie for AL Rookie of the Year nods
Brandon Guyer and Jake Odorizzi.
PECOTA is backing me up on this one. Over ~250 PA's, PECOTA projects Guyer to 1.8 wins above replacement, and that's with an extraordinarily high replacement value. If you temper that expectation of replacement value, you might even say he's worth more than two wins -- and that's while being platooned!
Guyer will provide solid defense in the corners with a plus-plus arm, great speed and the ability to give Joe Maddon the stolen bases he lacked last season, and a right handed bat that should platoon with David DeJesus well in left field.
Another player ready to step into the majors is Jake Odorizzi, especially with Jeremy Hellickson on the disabled list. There's still time for the Rays to bring in another starter to solidify the fifth place in the rotation, and there's a non-zero possibility that will occur, but once Odorizzi arrives I fully expect he will be productive. Give him 25 starts, and I believe we could see 1.5 WAR in value, which is enough to challenge for the award in your first season.
Both of these rookies are incredible athletes, and will be ready to challenge newcomer Jose Abreu, the international sensation at first base that joins the White Sox this season, for Rookie of the Year.
3. Evan Longoria will hit more home runs than Chris Davis
Chris Davis is due for some healthy regression, and I think it will bite down hard. I believe both players will have knocked a few over 30 home runs when the season is done. Unfortunately, neither of these players will lead the American League; that will be the job for a Blue Jay.
4. David Price will have an ERA below 3.00
All things considered, Price will have an excellent season. His triceps will stay healthy, and he will flash a full season of what we saw in the last few months of 2013, but only place fifth in the Cy Young voting.
5. Grant Balfour will not be the closer you want him to be
While the Rays brass have been quick to label Balfour the "closer" this season, a title they are normally not apt to give, actual closing duties may be spread out more evenly.
There are several high leverage arms ready in the Rays bullpen, with a resurgent Heath Bell, a resurrected Juan Carlos Oviedo, and a returning Jake McGee all available behind the Mad Australian. This allows Joe Maddon to tap different high-leverage arms at many times in the game.
With a rotating door, Balfour should still be his old self for most of the season, but when he struggles I think Joe Maddon might pass the plate around the table. (I need more metaphors.)
Twenty-five saves is all you're getting from Balfour this season, buthe'll still be pretty good.
6. Matt Moore will lead the Rays in strikeouts
And he may also lead them in walks. Matt Moore fell eight K's behind David Price last season, but has consistently posted K-rates around 23% in his career thus far and should at least replicate that next season.
7. Chris Archer will start using his changeup more often
It's been a work in progress, and the Rays have been hesitant to let him use it in games. I believe the development will have come much further along this year and we'll start seeing him add the final piece to his arsenal.
8. Enny Romero will be promoted in September as a reliever
Following in the footsteps of David Price and Matt Moore, we will see a future impact arm promoted in September for the playoff push, giving rest to the bullpen and overpowering bats along the way. Romero has shown a willingness to pitch in any occasion, and already has a trajectory that may move him to the 'pen in the near future. This would be the Rays opportunity to test that effectiveness after another year in the Durham rotation.
9. Alex Cobb will challenge for the Cy Young award
Other people have said this much better than I could here.
10. The Rays will promote someone you've never heard of
Steve Geltz is a name that you might have noticed was on the list of yesterday's Spring Training invitees, which steals my thunder in this prediction. There were many relievers who had positive seasons in the minors last season, C.J. Riefenhauser comes to mind after his Futures Game appearance, but Geltz stands out behind some monster strikeout rates.
67.0 IP in Durham, 31.3% K-rate. Get some.
11. Logan Forsythe and Ryan Hanigan will rebound at the plate
Properly platooned at Designated Hitter, and properly healthy after a myriad injuries last season. There are your two risers for 2014.
12. Meanwhile, Wil Myers will have a sophomore slump
Joe Maddon will still keep Myers in the top half of the order, batting third and generating more power than we saw last season, but as he swings more often he will whiff more often. Myers will have to contend with more breaking balls high and/or away in 2014, and the grim reaper of regression will come calling.
13. Jeremy Hellickson will return to form
Rebounding from his injury, Hellickson will put up a strong performance in May and June, eventually getting traded at the deadline.
14. The Rays will win the World Series
You heard it here first. I don't care how many projection systems put the Rays ahead of the rest of the division, even though most do. The Rays have had a dominant starting rotation in the past, and last year, while the rotation suffered through injuries to several key contributors, they had a dominant offense; but the bullpen never came together. The acquisitions of Juan Carlos Oviedo and Jesse Crain didn't pan out, and the bullpen wasn't there to carry the Rays through the ALDS.
This year, that changes. Established closer Grant Balfour, the resurgent Heath Bell, and the healthy Oviedo, along with late promotions (as mentioned above), will give the Rays what they need to finally win it all. In baseball, bullpens win championships. The Rays have made their investments. It's time for those to pay dividends.