The opening day of the MLB season is Monday. I trust it feels as good for me to write that as it does for you to read it. Over the next several days, VEB will be previewing the 2014 season. Today, we get things kicked off with a Writers Roundtable in which we predict the players we think will win postseason awards for their 2014 performances.
Let's get to the predictions.
Masahiro Tanaka, P - Yankees
Without wading into the debate surrounding the fairness of allowing a player with multiple professional seasons under his belt to win the Rookie of the Year award, Tanaka is eligible and he is likely to be the best first-year player in the American League. ZiPS projects a five-win season for Tanaka. While Steamer's three-win season is not quite as optimistic, expectations are high for the new Yankees starter. The transition will not be easy, but he has pitched at a high level for several years, making him an easier bet than the typical rookie. It may not be fair, but Tanaka is my pick for rookie of the year.
Xander Bogaerts, SS - Red Sox
It's weird to think of a Rookie of the Year projection as being conservative or risk-averse, since by the very definition of the award you're projecting something very risky; i.e. a young player making an impact in his very first season at the big league level. Buying Lucent Technologies stock is less risky. But in this case, I feel like I'm making the safe bet, choosing a steady, patient hitter over the possible pyrotechnics of a pitching phenom as my colleagues have both done. Bogaerts' numbers in his 2013 cup of coffee were unspectacular, but a 10% walk rate for a then-20 year old is all the proof of poise one should really need, and if one needed more, just watch how he comported himself in the postseason. Bogaerts has all the tools physically, and his maturity level is off the charts for a player this young. He's going to have the opportunity to make an impact in the AL East race this season, and I think he's going to do exactly that, beating out the Yankees' Japanese import in a classic axis of evil powerhouse battle.
Yordano Ventura, P - Royals
First of all:
Second of all:
If you are bummed out about Carlos Martinez not cracking the Cardinals rotation, just watch Ventura. It is pretty much the same thing. They are both smaller guys, with similar pitching motions that can throw very hard with seemingly very little effort. They both have been nicknamed "Lil Pedro" after Pedro Martinez, who was also a smaller pitcher that threw hard. And, oh yeah, they are both awesome, Ventura being ranked 26 in Baseball America's Top 100 and Martinez 31, respectively.
The major difference between the two, of course, is that Martinez throws a fastball and a change-up, where Ventura is primarily fastball-curveball. But boy, does he throw a good fastball. It can reach 100 mph, but typically sits between 94 and 97. And his curveball is completely deadly, just ask Elvis Andrus. His change-up isn't quite ready, according to what I have read, although an official for the A's called it "unbelievable" according to a Peter Gammons tweet. Regardless, if his first two pitches are as good as they say, it most likely won't matter.
Major League hitters are typically more aware of the strike zone than minor leaguers and Ventura can struggle with his command at times, as most young pitchers do at first. In his first 15 spring training innings, which admittedly does not mean much, he has only walked one batter. He's struck out 15. Yordano Ventura is absolutely electric, and this commands attention, as we can all see by the media frenzy he has created already. He will not be limited by a shortened season as the Royals expect him to pitch anywhere from 180-200 innings. We only need to look to last year's NL Rookie of the Year to see what an electric fastball and a dirty curveball will get you, and Ventura has the potential to surpass Mr. José Fernandez.
Billy Hamilton, OF - Reds
I don't think Billy Hamilton will be the best rookie in the NL this season. I think one or more of Travis d'Arnaud, Kolten Wong, and Archie Bradley will be a better player. But, I think Billy Hamilton is going to make a ton of highlight-reel catches, hit enough to not embarrass himself, score a lot of runs, and, well, you know, steal like a billion bases. There might be more flash than substance here long-term, but I think there will be enough substance for the flash to win this award easily, and I'm pretty excited to watch.
Kolten Wong, 2B - Cardinals
Wong has something to prove to the baseball world this season, and he knows it. The Cardinals organization appears committed to having Wong as their everyday second baseman going forward, but they have also provided him with some extra motivation by signing veteran Mark Ellis over the off-season. He may have had a tough time adjusting to big league pitching after his call-up last season, but it's tough to blame him considering the way he was used by the coaching staff. Spring Training statistics aren't very predictive at all, which is unfortunate because Wong is absolutely tearing it up at the plate right now. The most important thing is that Wong appears to be much more comfortable at the plate, and one would hope that the results will continue to follow. He also projects to be an above-average fielder and base runner, making him an overall solid candidate for the NL ROY.
David Price, SP - Rays
Last season, David Price put up a solid, but not spectacular season. He had a 3.33 ERA to go along with an even better 3.03 FIP due in part to an incredible 1.3 walks per nine innings. Unfortunately injury problems prevented him from reaching 200 innings and he struck out only 151 hitters. With his injury concerns behind him in the second half of last year, Price walked just 13 hitters in 106 2/3 innings pitched good for a 2.87 ERA and 2.72 FIP, aligning nicely with his 2012 Cy Young-winning season. There is some danger that his strikeouts remain low, but given enough innings he should still post very good strikeout totals and potentially come away with another Cy Young award.
Yu Darvish, SP - Rangers
Remember when Texas gave Yu Darvish that big contract a couple years ago, and all the talking heads decried giving such a huge pile of money to such an unproven commodity, one we couldn't possibly know was going to adjust to the game at the highest level? Well, that was 10 WAR ago, and yeah, me neither. From his first season to his second, Darvish improved his strikeout rate by 5%, from 27.1% to 32.9%, dropped his walk rate from 10.9% to 9.5%, and lowered his opponent's batting average against by 25 points, from .218 to .193. The only negative was a big uptick in his home run rate as the ballpark in Arlington did that voodoo it do so well on Yu. Darvish is heading into his age-27 season, and while I don't expect him to strike out any more hitters than he did in 2013 (that would be flat-out absurd, honestly), I do expect further refinement in the rest of his game, and an enormous campaign as he attempts to keep the Rangers' boat afloat all by himself.
Chris Sale, SP - White Sox
Sale is one of the top pitchers in all of baseball, and it is quite unfortunate that his talent is "wasting away" on a team like the Chicago White Sox. The 24-year-old left-hander had the fifth best FIP (3.17), the fourth best xFIP (2.95), and the third best SIERA (2.89) in the AL last season. Sale was in the top seven or eight in almost every pitching category. ZiPS projects him to have a WAR around 6 in 2014 which would make him one of the front-runners for the AL Cy Young Award. If the White Sox can develop more of a "winning attitude" early in the season, it will pay huge dividends for Sale as he crafts his resume for the AL Cy Young Award. I know "wins" isn't a very important statistic when looking at the value of a pitcher, but it has to be frustrating for Sale to pitch as well as he did last season and finish three games below .500 at 11-14. Just think what Sale would look like with the Birds on the Bat.
Felix Hernandez, SP - Mariners
He has won a Cy Young and an ERA crown. He has 110 wins and a 3.20 ERA in his nine year career. He has amassed 41.2 fWAR in that time. He once struck out three batters in one inning on nine pitches. He has pitched a perfect game. He is King.
He's "King" Felix Hernandez.
Hernandez boasts an impressive major league resume, with traditional stats mentioned above, and also more advanced statistics (he has a 2.61 FIP with 76 ERA-, for example), but one thing he has that cannot be quantified is it. He just has it. People go to Mariners' games just to watch him pitch. He electrifies crowds. Have you seen those people in the "King's Court" in the yellow shirts waving the yellow "K" signs? It is insane – terrifies me a little bit, actually. Even if the Mariners are not contending, which has pretty much been the case during his tenure, he brings an excitement and a buzz that fans and voters alike can enjoy.
Hernandez's biggest competition is reigning Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, and second year Japanese pitcher, Yu Darvish. Scherzer ran away from the competition in his 21 win breakout season, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to maintain that torrid pace he set. ZIPS projects him regressing back to less Cy Young caliber numbers with a 3.35 ERA, for starters. Darvish, on the other hand, was just scratched from his opening day start and will see a neck specialist. If Hernandez can repeat what he has been doing for the past 5 years in 2014, there will be almost no one standing in his way.
Jose Fernandez, SP - Marlins
I will do my best to forgo flowery prose here, but I can't make any promises. Last year he was 20. He had never pitched higher than A-ball when it was announced he made the big league club to start the year. He was pretty good in his first ten starts of the season, the last of which took place on May 27th. After that, he was one of and perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. After that 10th start, he pitched 120 1/3 innings. In that time, he gave up just 4 homers, struck out 135 batters and walked 37. This is his second-half slash line against: .160/.222/.239. There are a dozen hard to believe stats I could throw out there. Here's another one: he had a 1.19 home ERA. He was 20. I'm losing it here, you all. I'll end with this: Yes, making his case is helped by using an arbitrary starting point, but seeing the best 20 year-old pitcher since Doc Gooden improve markedly throughout the year is telling. This is a special player, and I think it's pretty easy to imagine him putting up a year so dominant that he wins the award despite playing in a less than ideal situation team-wise.
Clayton Kershaw, SP - Dodgers
All due respect to Adam Wainwright, Kershaw is the National League's best pitcher. While he may not be able to repeat his ridiculously low 1.83 ERA, the returning leader in strikeouts and both versions of WAR will not have to equal his 2013 numbers to retain the crown. Wainwright, Cliff Lee and perhaps Jose Fernandez should challenge Kershaw, but the newly minted 200-million dollar man is the best bet to again exceed 200 innings, 200 strikeouts, and post and ERA in the low twos. That should be enough in 2014.
Adam Wainwright, SP - Cardinals
If 2013 were a sequel in a series of films about Adam Wainwright as a superhero, it would've been entitled: Wagonmaker Returns With A Vengeance. (It's a combination of the titles of the second Tim Burton Batman and the third Die Hard that would test really well with audiences.) Wainwright tore his UCL before 2011 even began, missed the season due to Tommy John surgery, and watched from the dugout as his teammates won one of the most dramatic World Series championships in baseball history. In 2012, in his first post-surgery season, Wainwright didn't look like Wainwright. But last year things clicked. Waino was back and as good as ever, albeit in a slightly different way. The Georgian still K'd batters at an above-average rate, but he complemented that by walking virtually no one. He nearly halved his BB% to a mere 3.7%, which drove his K/BB to 6.26. If Wainwright can put together such a performance again this season, he will become the second Cy Young winner Yadier Molina has caught.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B - Tigers
Miggy had the best hitting season of his career last year, and it likely would have been even better had he not played with a hernia the last month of the season. Yes, Mike Trout appears to be on track to be one of the greatest all-around players in history, and Albert Pujols spoiled us by being so good for so long. But neither of these things should diminish what Miggy has done the last four years. From the offensive side, he's had four seasons in a row that compete with Albert's best four, and last year, Miggy put up a wRC+ higher than any season of Pujols'. And he did it with a tear in his core muscles throughout September. We are looking at a truly great offensive peak right now, and nothing last year gives any clues that it's due to start winding down. I think Miguel Cabrera will make another run at the triple crown, will again be the best hitter in the league, and will play for a playoff team, while Mike Trout continues to be an extraordinary all-around player on a team that misses the post-season. Like it or not, that adds up to another MVP for Miggy.
Mike Trout, OF - Angels
Trout is the best player on the planet right now, and in all honesty, he probably deserved the AL MVP each of the last two seasons. Despite having only 336 career games under his belt, his 21.1 fWAR ranks 497th of all time. Let me repeat that. In a little over two full seasons, Trout is already considered one of the top 500 baseball players ever (1871 through 2013) in terms of fWAR. If Albert Pujols is able to remain healthy and return to form and the Angels are a contender again, I fully expect Trout to run away with the AL MVP Award. Should team performance affect MVP voting? Maybe or maybe not, but the truth is that some voters most definitely take it into consideration.
Evan Longoria, 3B - Rays
Yeah, that's right. Could I have picked the winner of the last two AL MVPs, Miguel Cabrera? Sure. Could I have chosen the AL and MLB leader in WAR from the last two years, Mike Trout? Of course I could. But I didn't, because that is the easy way out. Leave that to Joe and Fink. I mean, Joe is busy with pharmacy school, and Fink has Armagnac to drink and robes to wear, so it is understandable, I guess.
Why did I pick Evan Longoria? Part of it is I feel the Rays are primed to contend as AL East champions, giving Longo the ever-necessary media spotlight. Another part was his 32 home runs last year, good for 10th in the MLB. One facet was his strong defensive play at the hot corner, ranking third among MLB third baseman in the defensive component of WAR. The biggest factor, though? In his six major league seasons, he has garnered less than 5.5 fWAR one time. That was 2012, when he accumulated 2.5 fWAR in only 74 games. Evan Longoria has been a steady player for the Rays throughout his entire career.
Does all of this translate into an AL MVP award? Not necessarily, but it does make an excellent all-around player. All it takes is an injury or a slump from some top contenders (see, Miggy or Trout), and Longoria leading his team to a division title, and this steady player could be looking to take home some hardware. Besides, do we really want to give Cabrera another award?
David Wright, 3B - Mets
It feels really, really strange to think of David Wright being not only a veteran, but a legitimately Older Player, yet that's very nearly where we are. In my mind he's still the young gun of the 2006 team we all expected to watch dominate the NL for the next decade as part of a Metropolitan powerhouse. Now, closing in on that decade later, the Mets haven't made a postseason appearance since, and Wright's career has consisted of several darkhorse MVP candidacies, a struggle to adjust to a gigantic new ballpark, and weirdly inconsistent defensive ratings. Over the past two seasons, however, Wright has looked like the behemoth we thought he could be, worth better than 13 WAR between the two despite missing nearly 50 games in 2013 due to injury. In fact, if he had stayed healthy last season, I think he would have won the award going away rather than Andrew McCutchen. Wright is still young enough to have another monster season in him, though he's probably nearing the point where we'll start to see some decline. With the Mets being more competitive than they have been in a deeply mediocre NL East this year, Wright will have both huge numbers and narrative on his side, even though we'll have to listen to sportswriters debate the definition of 'value' for the something to the somethingth power time, since his squad will ultimately fail to make the playoffs. Again.
Bryce Harper, OF - Nationals
Last year, Bryce Harper batted for a .274/.368/.486 line over 118 games for the Nationals. He added 20 homers, which were two fewer than he hit in 2012. Here's the thing—Harper took 100 fewer plate appearances in 2013 than in 2012. This offseason, Harper added more muscle to further power his gorgeous swing. I mean, just look at this:
Harper came to camp to eat Girl Scout Cookies and kill baseballs. And he's probably all out of Girl Scout Cookies. (He only brought two boxes.) So look out, NL, all Harper has left on his agenda is commit dozens upon dozens of baseball homicides.
Harper plays the game in the type of all-out way that is a joy to watch. At 21, I think he clubs over 30 homers and leads the Nats to a divison title. The voters will take note and award him his first MVP, bro.
Yadier Molina, C - Cardinals
Molina has come close to the MVP in each of the past two seasons, finishing fourth in 2012 and third in 2013. Last year, Molina was able to finish strong despite a stint on the disabled list. If he puts up his customary numbers and the Cardinals have another great season, he might have just enough of a narrative to pull it off. Voters will not want to vote for Andrew McCutchen again if there is a viable alternative. Catcher appreciation, perhaps due partially to Molina, is rising and a solid offensive season copied with his stellar defense might be enough to win him MVP.
Matt Carpenter, 3B - Cardinals
Number 4 in 2013 MVP voting, number 13 in your programs, number 1 in your hearts, Matt Carpenter is poised to make a run at the NL MVP award in 2014. If you know nothing about Matt Carpenter (which you should know SOMETHING), know this:
Last year he led the National League in hits with 199, and tied for first in all of MLB. 55 of those hits were doubles, also leading the NL and MLB, and he obliterated the rest of the majors with 126 runs scored, 17 more than second place, some schmuck named Mike Trout. And he did this while playing a competent second base, a position he learned just an offseason before. All this without batting gloves. This amounts to 7.0 fWAR, second in the NL to 2013 MVP, Andrew McCutchen. In 2014, he is projected to fall off a bit from his 2013 numbers, which is most likely due to his lack of a major league track record to look back on. We know lil' Carp will hit - throughout his career he has always been a high contact, high line drive rate, high walk, low strikeout hitter, with a solid batting approach and with his move back to third, his defense should be even better.
Matt Carpenter was the spark plug to the best offense in the National League in 2013, and an offense that only improved in the offseason. He is the engine that makes the St. Louis offense go. After his breakout last season, he will not fly under anyone's radar. Across the league, people will see what he means to a team that is expected to be a World Series contender, yet again. And if I haven't convinced you yet, just watch this.