With the season just one week away, it's prediction time. I'm not talking vanilla predictions of the MLB standings. That's not what we do here (well, at least not until next week). No, I'm following in Eric Mack's footsteps and giving you my bold predictions for the season.
I'll see Mack's 10 bold predictions and raise him one to 11, not to upstage the man, but simply because "11 bold predictions for '11" is symmetry too good to pass up. Plus, everyone knows 11 is one louder than 10. I'll always jump at the chance to channel my inner-Nigel Tufnel.
So here we go. Eleven predictions that flout fantasy society's conventions just in time for the true beginning of spring: Opening Day.
1. Drew Stubbs will be a top 10 outfielder: There is a lot of Stubbs-love in the fantasy community this season, but cracking the Top 10 outfielders is a daunting task. If someone on the outside looking in at the start of the season is going to crash the party, it will be Stubbs. It's not unrealistic to peg him for 25 homers and 30 steals, and with a nice lineup behind him, he should score plenty of runs. His low OBP from last year even fits into Dusty Baker's "let's not clog the bases" mentality. OK, just kidding there. His breakout would be hastened by improved on-base skills, and I like him to improve on last year's 12 percent infield-hit rate. His unseemly K-rate is going to keep his OBP down, and it warrants mentioning that he has a 20:2 K:BB ratio this spring. Even if the power was slightly a mirage last year, Stubbs is my favorite outfield target this season.
2. The Detroit Tigers will have two top 10 starting pitchers: Calling for one Top 10 starter out of the Motor City wouldn't be bold. After all, Justin Verlander is in that stratosphere annually. But this year, teammate Max Scherzer will join him among fantasy's elite starting pitchers. Across 15 second-half starts last season, Scherzer posted a 2.47 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and 96 strikeouts in 102 innings. He has always been a great source of strikeouts, and now he has finally put it all together after a brief stint in the minors last year. He slots as the No. 2 in Detroit's rotation behind Verlander, and I think he could potentially outpitch his rotation-mate.
When Scherzer doesn't strike a batter out, he's just as likely to put it in play in the air as on the ground, but Scherzer's HR/FB rate is league-average, and he has Austin Jackson patrolling the spacious grounds of the Comerica Park outfield. Everything is aligned for Scherzer to break out this season.
3. Matt Thornton will be a top five closer: You probably have to be a baseball junkie or a White Sox fan to know Thornton has been one of the best relievers in baseball the last three seasons. In 2008, he struck out 77 batters in 67.1 innings, or 10.29 strikeouts per nine innings. He increased that rate to 10.82 in '09 (87 Ks in 72.1 innings) and 12.02 last year (81 Ks in 60.2 innings). He has posted ERAs of 2.67, 2.74 and 2.67 and FIPs of 2.75, 2.46 and 2.14. Those quietly elite numbers resulted in WARs of 1.9, 2.5 and 2.2, numbers. For a little perspective, the average WAR for a relief pitcher is 0.3, showing just how dominant Thornton has been for the White Sox since '08.
He has the power fastball/power slider combo indicative of a lockdown closer. His average fastball velocity was 96.1 MPH last season, while his average slider clocked in at 83.4. He's also an inning-or-more-at-a-time lefty. Last year, lefties couldn't touch him, posting a .175/.221/.278 line. Righties weren't much better, coming in at .203/.296/.288. All the numbers over a 200-inning sample size point toward Thornton becoming a dominant closer this year.
4. Nelson Cruz will stay healthy -- and out-perform Josh Hamilton: Cruz had a great season last year, posting a .318/.374/.576 line with 22 homers and 17 steals, but injuries limited him to just 445 plate appearances. This year, he'll stay on the field all season and reach the 30-homer and 25-steal plateau. Meanwhile, Hamilton's injury history will once again crop up, keeping him from matching '10's MVP season. Cruz will end the year as the Rangers' best offensive player, and the driving force behind their narrow defense of the AL West crown from the Oakland A's.
5. Carlos Gonzalez will not be the top outfielder in the NL West, let alone the majors: The fantasy community is pretty evenly split along CarGo vs. Ryan Braun lines. I fall on the Braun side, which is hardly bold. However, I think at least one, and perhaps two, NL West outfielders will have a better season than Gonzalez in '11. The first one, the one I'd bet on, is Matt Kemp. Now free from Joe Torre's machinations, I think we'll see the Kemp we thought we were getting in '10. Even though he disappointed last year, he still hit 28 homers and stole 19 bases. His BABIP plunged to .295 from .345, due at least in part to legging out just 5.6 percent of his ground balls for infield hits, down from 12.1 percent the year before. The real Kemp is probably somewhere in between those two numbers. A 30-30 season is a real possibility for Kemp.
The other NL West outfielder that could best Gonzalez is Justin Upton, but I'm not ready to be that bold. I think CarGo will have a fine season, I just don't see him equaling last year's production with such stark home/road splits. Gonzalez tore it up at Coors, hitting .380/.425/.737 with 26 homers, while posting a .289/.322/.453 line with eight homers on the road.
6. Yovani Gallardo will win the NL Cy Young: Everything is set up for Gallardo to sneak up on Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee and stand out as the best pitcher in the National League this season. Gallardo had a great season last year, striking out 200 batters for the second straight year. He posted a 3.02 FIP, outpitching his ERA, and was even a bit unlucky with a .324 BABIP.
Additionally, the Brewers have the offense to support their starting pitchers, and even if Gallardo's wins are lacking, the BBWAA finally broke with its arcane standards last year in awarding the AL Cy Young to Felix Hernandez. Compared with other top pitching options, Gallardo is going relatively cheap. Jump on him and thank me in September.
7. Joe Mauer will not be one of the top three catchers: If you've read my columns, you know I'm down on Mauer this season. First, elite catchers are overvalued in one-catcher leagues. Second, there's a very good chance Mauer turns in another season of 15 homers or fewer. Unless he hits .450, he just isn't worth paying the necessary price to grab him. There are four other top options at catcher, and I believe Buster Posey, Victor Martinez, Carlos Santana and Brian McCann, in that order, will all have better seasons than Mauer. Well played, Mauer? I'm not so sure.
8. Adam Dunn will lead the majors in home runs: I've always thought Dunn was a criminally underrated offensive player. Say what you will about the strikeouts, but he's essentially a lock for 40 homers, 100 RBI and a .370 OBP. I'll always be able to find a spot in my lineup for a guy like that. After failing to acquire Dunn at the trade deadline last year, the White Sox scooped him up in free agency, creating one of the best player-ballpark matches in the majors. The ball rockets out of U.S. Cellular once the weather heats up in Chicago. Dunn will have a career year in his first season on the South Side, and his 46 trots will lead the league.
9. Second base will prove a deeper position than third base: The hot corner has long been a boon to fantasy owners while second base is perennially one of the shallowest positions. That is not the case in 2011. Both positions are top heavy, but even if you miss out on Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinser, et al, you'll be fine at second base. From Martin Prado and Kelly Johnson to Ben Zobrist and Gordon Beckham, there are quality second basemen to be found late in drafts.
Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval, Mark Reynolds and Casey McGehee are all starters at third in a 12-team league. If I have to scrape the barrel at one of those two positions, I'd much rather have it be second.
10. Adrian Gonzalez will be the AL MVP: I understand the worries about his shoulder. Now that we've seen him play this spring, I do not understand why he is roundly ranked outside the top 10 on many expert cheat sheets. Gonzalez was clearly held back by playing his home games at Petco Park. Last year, he hit .279/.383/.438 with 11 homers at home and .315/.402/.578 with 20 homers on the road. The gap was even greater in '09, when he hit .244/.413/.446 with 12 homers at Petco and .306/.402/.643 with 28 homers away from San Diego.
If that weren't enough, he's trading Scott Hairston, Will Venable and Chase Headley for Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz. The fact that he was able to pile up such ridiculous numbers considering his environment was incredible. Now that he's out of Petco with star teammates surrounding him in the lineup, the sky's the limit.
11. The Atlanta Braves will win the NL East: OK, one prediction for the standings. Everyone is handing the NL East to the Phillies, but with the uncertainty surrounding Chase Utley, I'm not sold that they'll be able to score consistently enough to hold off the Braves. No one can match Philly's starting rotation, but Atlanta's is nothing to sneeze at with Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Derek Lowe.
Provided Chipper Jones can stay healthy, they should have the best offense in the division. Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Jones, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla give them a really nice top five in the order. Those five should be enough to keep the pressure off Nate McLouth, who had a dreadful '10, and rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman. Both the Braves and Phillies will make the playoffs, but I like the Braves to nip the Phils in the division.
Got any of your own bold predictions? Share them with me on Twitter @MBeller.