We've done almost all there is to do in advance of the 2014 fantasy baseball season. We've ranked and projected every player in the fantasy consciousness. We've debated some of the most confounding player-versus-player battles in the league. We've tackled some of the toughest questions facing fantasy owners. We've gone over every position on the field and every team in the majors with fine-toothed comb, and broken down strategies for drafts and auctions. All that's left now is to make some bold predictions.
Chris Davis will belt 50 home runs again
Forget everything you assume about regression. The only reason you should even think for a second that Davis might regress is that it's exceedingly difficult to hit 50 home runs in back-to-back seasons. Davis, however, is built to achieve just such a feat. It's not just the 86 homers in the last two seasons or the 26.8-percent HR/FB ratio in the same timeframe. Davis is the rare elite power hitter who uses all fields. Twenty-three of his 53 bombs in 2013 were to center, left-center or left field. Moreover, he kept up his home run pace all season. This wasn't the case of a guy getting scorching hot for a stretch here and there. Davis started mashing from the word go last year, and he didn't stop until the season ended.
He's going to strike out his fair share, but he's also going to hit the ball on the screws enough to make up for that, and then some. Davis has prodigious power and is just as terrifying going the opposite way as he is pulling the ball. At 28 years old, he's just entering his prime, as well. He will be the first player with 50 homers in consecutive seasons since Sammy Sosa finished off a four-year run in 2001.
Ryan Braun will return to greatness
I understand why many fantasy owners are hesitant to grab Braun this year -- you're nervous that his PED usage inflated his past numbers, and dubious as to his ability to handle the scrutiny that will face him this year. I get it, I really do. Now I'm here to tell you that it's misguided.
PEDs or no, Braun's average season from 2007 through '12 was .314/.374/.568 with 34 homers, 21 steals, 102 RBI and 99 runs. Even as his power came down a bit last year while battling a thumb injury before his suspension, he still hit .298/.372/.498. We can't ever be exactly sure of what effect PEDs have on a specific player, but it's clear that the 30-year-old Braun remains one of the most lethal hitters in baseball. Don't let his past get in the way of your good judgment. Braun is a slam-dunk first-round pick, and will finish the season among the top-three outfielders, along with Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gonzalez.
Adrian Beltre will be the American League MVP
Beltre continues to defy age, hitting .315/.371/.509 with 30 home runs and 92 RBI last year, his age-34 season. It was his third straight with at least 30 home runs, and fourth straight with a minimum of 90 RBI. Beltre turns 35 during the first week of April, but that won't stop him from having his best year to date and winning the American League MVP.
Expecing Beltre to slow down now would be foolish. He had a .379 wOBA and 135 weighted runs created plus last season, the fifth- and fourth-best totals of his career in those stats, respectively. His 5.2 fWAR was also his fifth-highest total. What's more, three of the four superior seasons in terms of wOBA and fWAR were 2010, '11 and '12. He plays in a hitter's paradise and is in the middle of quite possibly the best lineup in the majors. Remember the RBI bump Brandon Phillips got last year with on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo hitting in front of him? Imagine what someone who has hit .314/.358/.545 over the last four years can do with a guy like that in front of him in the lineup. Given that he'll also have Elvis Andrus and Prince Fielder in front of him, Beltre feels like a lock for 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBI. The MVP voters love rewarding a player on a winning team, and that's what will help Beltre edge an ever-deserving Mike Trout for the award.
Yasiel Puig will fall short of expectations and finish the season outside the top-20 outfielders
Puig is one of the most electrifying players in baseball and his mere presence is great for the sport. Ok, now that we got that out of the way, allow me to explain why he will not be a presence on any of my fantasy teams. While Puig broke out last year and clearly has the type of power that could see him blossom into a 30-homer guy, he's going to have trouble duplicating what he did last year. Puig's batted-ball rates simply do not square with a .383 BABIP, especially when you consider that he had a 22.5-percent strikeout rate. His xBABIP was just .341, a full 11 percent worse than his actual BABIP. We can already pencil in some regression right there. Even if he makes up for it to some degree in his counting stats given that he'll be in the majors all year, there's still so much risk tied up in his rates. While I tend to look the other way on off-the-field issues when valuing players, the fact that Puig has had so many this early in his career is another red flag. Finally, outfield is one of the deepest positions on the board, and Puig will likely cost you a top-30 pick. That's far too steep a price to pay for a guy with this much uncertainty.
Jose Fernandez will lead the National League in strikeouts...
Fernandez was a force in his rookie year, posting a 2.19 ERA, 2.73 FIP and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings. That translated to a 9.75 K/9, the fifth-highest ratio in the majors. Three of the four guys ahead of him, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, are in the AL. Only A.J. Burnett had a better K/9 among NL pitchers last year. The Marlins, you will recall, shut down Fernandez with three weeks remaining the season. He made his last start on September 11, a gem in which he allowed one run on five hits while striking out five and taking on the arbiters of the unwritten rulebook, the Atlanta Braves. Fernandez showed no signs of tiring toward the end of the year, striking out at least eight batters in four of his final five starts. Now that he's ready to take on a full workload, he should climb the strikeout ranks even farther. If he maintains his same K/9 but pitches an additional 20 innings, he would strike out 209 batters, which would have ranked fifth in the NL last year. If he throws marginally more innings or increases his strikeout rate ever so slightly, he'll be right there with Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. The bet here is he does just that.
...but Stephen Strasburg will be the National League Cy Young
Strasburg had a down year last year, right? That's what most would have you believe, but it isn't exactly the truth. He may have won just eight games, but he had a 3.00 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 3.15 xFIP, 1.05 WHIP and 191 strikeouts in 183 innings. His fastball again sat a touch over 95 mph, and, according to Pitch F/X, he got the best results he's ever had out of his changeup and curveball. Strasburg is primed for a Cy Young campaign, and on a team as good as the Nationals, he will get it.
It's not just that Strasburg remained an elite strikeout pitcher last year. He upped his ground-ball rate to 51.5 percent while cutting his HR/FB ratio and keeping his walk rate flat in the very manageable 7.5-percent range. The concerns over his health remain greatly overstated, as Strasburg has missed exactly three scheduled starts since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. He did have surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow this offseason, but he has been lights out this spring, most recently shutting out the Tigers over five innings while allowing three hits and one walk with five strikeouts. Everything is in place for the 25-year-old Strasburg to have the best year of his career. He will go out and do that, and be the most valuable fantasy pitcher in the league this season.
Jose Reyes will not be a top-five shortstop
Reyes played in just 93 games last year because of ankle and knee injuries. He's going on 31 years old, and has always derived much of his fantasy value from his speed. He's already dealing with a hamstring issue this year that caused him to undergo an MRI on Monday. Need I go on? Reyes was still quite valuable on a per-game basis last year, but how many games is he going to play in 2014? He just isn't worth the risk, especially since you'll have to use a pick somewhere in the 40-50 range to get him. If he's not stealing 40 bases, his fantasy value takes a huge hit. I'm not willing to bet on him reaching that level this year. Not only will Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez finish the season ranked ahead of him, but so will Ian Desmond, Jean Segura, Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus.
The Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals will square off in the World Series
Behind the strength of what will end up being the best offense in the majors, the Rangers will end the A's two-year reign in the AL West, then knock off the Royals (wild card) and Tigers (AL Central champs) en route to the World Series. The other playoff teams in the AL will be the Rays and A's.
Meanwhile, after a disappointing 2013 season, the Nats will ride the league's best starting rotation to the NL East crown and NL pennant. Joining them in the playoffs in the NL will be the Cardinals (NL Central champs), Dodgers (NL West champs), Reds (wild card) and Giants (wild card).
The Nationals will be the 2014 World Series Champions
In what promises to be a classic showdown between pitching and offense, pitching and the Washington Nationals will ultimately win out and claim the 2014 World Series. While Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister will be the unit that leads the Nats to the title, Bryce Harper will win the World Series MVP.