Believe it or not the Major League regular season starts in Tokyo on Wednesday, and that means it's time for my annual bold predictions. The choices come mainly from a fantasy perspective, and are for entertainment purposes only. No wagering.
(Note: My column will be moving to Tuesdays starting next week. Follow me on Twitter
For 11 straight years Albert Pujols finished in the Top 10 in NL voting for MVP, winning three. He'll be a strong candidate in his first AL season, too, but the man who was often referred to as Pujols-lite early in his career, Miguel Cabrera, is my pick, especially with the newfound protection of Prince Fielder in the Tigers' potent lineup.
It's hard to fathom Matt Kemp repeating a 2011 season in which he produced a 10 WAR and led the NL in home runs, RBIs, runs scored and total bases while finishing second in slugging, OPS and stolen bases. All that plus a Gold Glove and the Hank Aaron Award as the NL's best hitter. Yet because his team was buried in the standings, he lost the MVP race to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, which should give Kemp extra motivation this year as he enters his age 27 season, a.k.a. the prime of this career.
The AL is oozing talent, so this will be one of the most hotly-contested races of the award season. Last year's recipient, Justin Verlander, should be in the thick of things again, as will the power trio of Dan Haren, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in Anaheim and Tampa Bay's quartet of David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and rookie Matt Moore. However, I believe the best pitcher in the AL will be Yu Darvish, who has arrived in the United States by allowing just six hits in nine spring innings. Working closely with the majors' best pitching coach, Mike Maddux, and one of the greatest hurlers of any era, Mike's brother Greg Maddux, will only make a pitcher who's never seen his ERA finish above 2.00 or his WHIP above 1.02 in Japan even more baffling to North American hitters.
Although the Phillies' big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be in the thick of the discussion, Charlie Manuel's offense is severely wounded, which will inevitably hold down the wins total necessary in a tight race like this. In fact, the only NL team with an elite staff that markedly improved its offense during the offseason is San Francisco with three strong contenders in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and my pick, Tim Lincecum. Look for "The Freak" to bounce back from two "down" seasons to capture his third career Cy.
It would be a foregone conclusion that Yu Darvish would take the award, but given the anti-Japanese import bias seen in the past, there's a good chance the voters will go in another direction. The next best choice is another former MLB outsider, Oakland centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who looks like he could moonlight for the Raiders, much like the player his skill set and physique is often compared to, Bo Jackson. Among traditional rookies emerging from the minor leagues, it would be hard to bet against Matt Moore, the fire-balling lefty who mowed down the AL Champion Rangers while barely breaking a sweat in last year's ALDS.
The NL's best prospect, Bryce Harper, entered camp with an outside chance to stick as a regular out of camp, but the Nationals braintrust decided he needed a little more seasoning. Although he'll start the season playing for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs learning how to play centerfield, he should accrue enough time in Washington throughout the summer to claim the NL's top prize for newcomers.
It's been nearly two years since Morales' career was halted due to a broken left ankle suffered while celebrating a walk off home run. Now he's ready to return to a lineup much more powerful than the one he once anchored. In his absence the Angels added Mark Trumbo and Albert Pujols, which will make Morales the team's primary DH. After starting slowly this spring, he's shown signs of being the same powerful hitter he was when he left. He won't steal any bases but a .290/.350/.475 season with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs is not merely a fantasy.
There is no more important member of the Giants than Buster Posey, who returns this season following a broken leg suffered in a May collision at home plate. The team's best hitter and a rock behind the plate, he was the key to the 2010 championship run and will be once again now that he's back at full speed.
Andy Pettitte didn't retire because of injury, illness or other physical malady, but because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Now that he had his fill of home life, Pettitte will be back in pinstripes by early May, trying to pick up where he left off, which was pretty effective in his last season: 11-3, 3.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP.
The Cardinals need an ace with Chris Carpenter out with nerve problems. Luckily for Mike Matheny he had another in house in the form of Adam Wainwright, who is back after missing the entire 2011 World Series campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery. Wainwright has been lights-out this spring, having pitched 14 shutout innings while holding opponents to a .114 batting average. He should out-distance New York's Johan Santana and Colorado's ageless wonder Jamie Moyer for the honor.