SI.com's 2014 MLB experts' predictions and picks
It's been five months since the Boston Red Sox capped off an improbable run to a World Series title to wrap up the 2013 season. There was perhaps no bigger surprise that season than the Red Sox going from the AL East's worst team in 2012 to the champions of baseball in 2013. Along the way, a number of other teams made surprising playoff runs, including the Pirates, who snapped their long drought of postseason misses, and the Indians. And between Opening Day and the final out of the World Series, there was a thrilling race for AL MVP honors between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout; a duel between Clayton Kershaw and lights-out rookie Jose Fernandez for the NL Cy Young award; and a red-hot run by the Los Angeles Dodgers, sparked by the always entertaining Yasiel Puig.
This season promises to be just as compelling, as parity and competition create a number of intriguing questions. Can the Red Sox repeat as champs? Will last year's runner-up, St. Louis, take home the title? Can Puig and the Dodgers bulldoze their way through the NL for L.A.'s first World Series appearance since 1988? Will the Nationals rebound from last year's disappointing season? Can Trout finally unseat Cabrera as AL MVP, and will Kershaw's reign as NL Cy Young come to an end?
SI.com's experts are here to provide their analysis and predictions for the upcoming season. Check out their picks for the playoffs, MVP award, breakout players, and more.
He's just too good to ignore, even if the Angels don't make the playoffs again. What's scary is that Trout is getting better. With a better understanding of what pitchers are trying to do with him (he led the league in walks last year) and knowing when to attack early in the count and when to turn on pitches, Trout will push 40 home runs this year after hitting 30 and 27, respectively, in his first two seasons. He will follow the three-year full season flight paths of Alex Rodriguez (home runs in first three seasons: 36, 23, 42) and Albert Pujols (37, 34, 43).
CHEN: Mike Trout
The deserving winner of the award the last two years finally takes the prize with a monster 35 homer, 35 stolen-base season in 2014. For Trout, a more aggressive approach at the plate -- he says he'll be looking to swing away earlier in the count -- could yield even more robust offensive numbers, which is a terrifying thought for opponents.
REITER: Mike Trout
One year Trout will rip this award away from Miguel Cabrera and refuse to give it back, as voters become incrementally more attuned to the multifarious nature of his contributions. I think this will be that year.
JAFFE: Mike Trout
I picked him last year, and see no reason to stop now. Trout doesn't need to do anything but keep on keeping on; sooner or later, the voters will come around to his brilliance, and I do think the Angels will be improved enough that more will notice.
CORCORAN: Mike Trout
Trout should have been the Most Valuable Player each of the last two seasons but, in large part because of the poor performance of his teammates, finished second to Miguel Cabrera both years. Following the Angels' strong offseason and Cabrera's move back to first base, however, the stage would seem to be set for Trout to bring home the hardware.
SHEEHAN: Mike Trout
He's been the most valuable player in baseball since the start of the 2012 season. It's time he got rewarded for it, even if the team around him isn't good enough to reach the postseason.
VERDUCCI: Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers, SS
Everything is in place for a huge year. Ramirez, 30, is surrounded by great hitters in a deep lineup. He posted a 1.040 OPS in 86 games last year. He seems transformed by his experience winning 2013 World Baseball Classic with the Dominican Republic. And he is staring at a huge payday, either through an extension with the Dodgers or free agency after the season. It will be hard to deny the hardware to a .330-30-100 shortstop on a first-place team.
CHEN: Hanley Ramirez
Last year, we were all reminded that Han-Ram is one of the most dynamic players on the planet. There's always the injury risk, but if Ramirez stays healthy, he'll be the most valuable player on a potential 100-win juggernaut.
REITER: Yadier Molina, Cardinals, C
Molina has been steadily building support in this category, as he finished fourth in 2012 and third in '13. His defense is undoubtedly tremendous, though it's possible that voters have come to overvalue it because it's so difficult to quantify the impact of his work behind the plate. But as the catcher for what will likely be the league's best team and pitching staff, this year could represent his popular apotheosis, as long as he can maintain an OPS in the mid-.800s.
JAFFE: Bryce Harper, Nationals, OF
His 2013 was marred by injuries, but when he played, he showed improvement in all three rate stats, as well as his strikeout and walk rates; his on-base percentage jumped by 28 points and his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell from 2.1 to 1.5. At 21, he's a grizzled veteran, and I think he's ready to take the next step forward.
CORCORAN: Bryce Harper
We've seen flashes of how good Harper can be in each of the last two seasons. Now he's a year older, a year wiser and looking to put together his first healthy full season in the majors. With the Nationals poised to return to the postseason, this might be the year that everything comes together in the nation's capital.
SHEEHAN: Yadier Molina
Molina is one of the best defensive catchers we've ever seen, all but eliminating the running game as a weapon for the opposition. He's also developed into an excellent hitter, batting .313/.361/.481 the past three seasons. This is the season he gets his due in the awards balloting.
AL Cy Young
Here's what one executive told me about Darvish: "He's the best righthanded pitcher in baseball. Way ahead of [Justin] Verlander and way ahead of [Max] Scherzer. It's him or Felix [Hernandez]. Pick your poison. I'll take Darvish because he's going nine." I can't disagree. Darvish is smack in his prime, with more ways to put away hitters than any other pitcher.
How about a little love for one of the most underrated players in the game? Pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league, U.S. Cellular Field, Sale has been an elite starter the last two seasons, finishing in the top-six in Cy Young voting. And at 24, he's still getting better.
REITER: Yu Darvish
Darvish finished a distant second to Max Scherzer last season, despite a superior ERA and more strikeouts, largely because he won only 13 games. A better offense, a better familiarity with the league and better luck will increase that total in 2014. If, as many are predicting, he becomes the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to record 300 strikeouts, there will be no other choice.
JAFFE: Chris Sale
He's shown he can withstand the workload, and has been brilliant for two years running in a very hitter-friendly park; his 12.8 WAR is the AL's best in that span. The only real question is whether he can get enough offensive support to placate the wins crowd, but with Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton now in the lineup, the White Sox' offense has been upgraded.
Verlander won this award in 2011 and deserved it in 2012. Last year, he wasn't the same pitcher in the first half, but down the stretch, he rediscovered that Cy Young form, recovering lost velocity, dropping his walk rate and dominating in the postseason. In his final five starts -- two in the regular season, three in the postseason -- he allowed just one run in 35 innings and struck out 52. Having fully recovered from offseason abdominal surgery and set to start Opening Day for Detroit, Verlander should take the title of Detroit's ace back from last year's Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer.
He was the best pitcher in the AL from the time he came off the disabled list through the end of the season. His command has improved, he's healthy and he has the raw stuff to make those two things matter.
NL Cy Young
VERDUCCI: Jose Fernandez, Marlins, RHP
He might have the best breaking ball since Kerry Wood -- a violent, coast-to-coast sweeper that cuts from the righthanded batter's box to the lefthanded batter's box. Mix in plus velocity, a pitching intellect far beyond his 21 years and a red-hot furnace of a competitive streak, and you have the best young pitcher in baseball.
Sleeper pick! Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez will be in the conversation, but look out for Cashner, who started out of the bullpen last season and was brilliant down the stretch as a starter (2.14 ERA in 11 second-half starts). At 27, he's ready to take the next step.
REITER: Jose Fernandez
Opponents are supposed to adjust to 20-year-old rookie pitchers as the season goes along. Last year, Fernandez started well and got even better, as only the great ones can. In the second half of 2013, Fernandez had a 1.32 ERA, a 0.824 WHIP, 11.1 strikeouts per nine and a .160 batting average against, numbers that were across the board superior to Clayton Kershaw's. That the Marlins should improve this year will only bolster their ace's case against the current best pitcher alive.
JAFFE: Jose Fernandez
It's tempting to just lather/rinse/repeat and tab Clayton Kershaw to win his third Cy Young in four years, but if anybody is going to take it from him, it's Fernandez. He was brilliant as a rookie, but it's fair to think that he has only begun to scratch the surface of his talent. The only question in my mind is whether the 21-year-old phenom will rack up enough innings to keep him in this race.
CORCORAN: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, LHP
Kershaw has won two of the last three National League Cy Young awards and finished second in 2012, when he was every bit as deserving as winner R.A. Dickey. He has led the majors in ERA each of the last three seasons, he pitches for a likely division winner and he just turned 26 last week. You want to bet against him? Did I mention that the three other pitchers to finish in the top two spots in the Cy Young voting three years in a row while winning twice (Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson), all won the award again in the fourth year?
SHEEHAN: Clayton Kershaw
It's a league filled with great pitchers, but it's silly to pick anyone else for this so long as the very best pitcher in the game toils in this circuit.
AL Rookie of the Year
VERDUCCI: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox, SS
Flip a coin between Masahiro Tanaka and Bogaerts. You might see both of them at the All-Star Game. Bogaerts appears to be a very polished hitter who also has surprising pop (he should be a 30-40 doubles guy in Boston), and his footwork at shortstop continues to improve.
CHEN: Yordano Ventura, Royals, RHP
A star of the Catcus League this spring, Ventura and his 100 mph heater are the real deal. Jose Abreu might hit 30 bombs in Chicago, but Ventura could help lead Kansas City to its first postseason since 1985.
REITER: Nick Castellanos, Tigers, 3B
The American League's rookie class is loaded. At least a half-dozen of them -- including Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu, Xander Bogaerts, Yordano Ventura and Taijuan Walker -- could have more impressive numbers than last year's winner, Rays outfielder Wil Myers, who, to be fair, played just more than half a season. Some of Castellanos' competitors will have flashier moments, but the 22-year-old third baseman's consistency will win out.
JAFFE: Xander Bogaerts
There's so much to like about the 21-year-old shortstop's game, but it all starts with a high baseball IQ and mature approach at the plate that only amplify his physical gifts. We're going to be talking about this kid for a long time.
CORCORAN: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees, RHP
An established Japanese player hasn't won a Rookie of the Year award in either league since Seattle's Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki did it in consecutive years in 2000 and '01. Expect that to change this year. Tanaka is the real deal and has veteran teammates and countrymen in Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda to help ease his transition. Kuroda in particular should be a huge benefit to Tanaka as not only a fellow front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher who is entering his third season in the AL East, but also as arguably the Japanese pitcher who has had the most sustained success in the United States.
SHEEHAN: Jose Abreu, White Sox, 1B
The power is very real, but we knew that when he signed. He showed some ability to hit for average this spring. There remains a question as to whether he'll manage the strike zone, but 30 homers should win him rookie honors, regardless.
NL Rookie of the Year
VERDUCCI: Gregory Polanco, Pirates, OF
Polanco, a very skilled 6-foot-4 outfielder, may start the year in the minors, but he could have a Wil Myers-like impact on the Pirates. He has a career .350 OBP in the minors with an 80-percent success rate at stealing bases, and as he hinted with a huge winter ball season, he will grow into more power. An outfield of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco may be one of the best defensive alignments in a long, long time.
This year's Yasiel Puig could be Baez, a free swinger with towering upside. Baez possesses otherworldly bat speed and 30-homer potential. He'll start the season in Triple A, but, like Puig a year ago, he could reach the majors around June and never look back.
Hamilton's speed is so remarkable that it distracts from the ways he has improved in other aspects of his game: his defense in centerfield, his baserunning on a technical (as opposed to physical) level, his approach at the plate. He will likely always strike out far more than he walks, largely because pitchers will refuse to issue bases on balls to him as he'll almost certainly steal second, but as a rookie, I think he'll get on base enough (often via singles and bunts) to emerge as a disruptive, run-generating force atop Cincinnati's powerful lineup.
JAFFE: Billy Hamilton
I don't think he'll actually be the best rookie in the league in either the short or long term, but he's the one starting the year with a full-time job, giving him a leg up on the Pirates' Gregory Polanco, the Mets' Noah Syndergaard, the Diamondbacks' Chris Owings and others. His blazing speed will garner enough attention to offset the deficits in his game, which -- given a .308 on-base percentage at Triple A -- could include his ability to reach first base.
CORCORAN: Kolten Wong, Cardinals, 2B
Between Wong, Carlos Martinez and outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals should be well represented in the Rookie of the Year voting this year. Wong is the only one of those three entering the season with a starting job, however. Among the other NL rookies who will open the season as a major league regular, Wong -- who hit .303/.369/.466 in Triple A last year, got postseason exposure in October and has been on fire this spring -- would seem to have less pressure than Billy Hamilton, more security than Arizona shortstop Chris Owings, and a better medical history than Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
SHEEHAN: Kolten Wong
How often do you get to pick the same guy for this award two years running? Matt Carpenter blocked Wong last year, but with Carpenter now at third base Wong has the second base job to start the season and he won't give it up.
VERDUCCI: Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox, 3B
He's not an on-base machine and his defense needs more refinement, but Middlebrooks has crazy raw power. In 169 career games -- spread over two years -- Middlebrooks has smashed 32 homers and driven in 103 runs. His stroke seems made for Fenway Park. Here's something else that's crazy: He might be the best power-hitting third baseman in Red Sox history. That's because only one Boston third baseman has hit 30 home runs: Butch Hobson, who hit 30 in 1977.
Suddenly, with Atlanta's rotation decimated with injuries, the 23-year-old lefty is one of the Braves' key players. A 2012 second-round pick out of the University of Georgia, Wood had an excellent spring and has the shutdown stuff (gotta love his strikeout rate and groundball-rate combination) to be better than Julio Teheran in manager Fredi Gonzalez's rotation.
REITER: Alex Cobb, Rays, RHP
Cobb, 26, is only eligible for this title because of the liner he took the to the right ear last June, which ended up costing him two months of starts. That time on the disabled list prevented him from joining the league's elite (he still went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA), but a full season will get him there this year. He's got excellent command of four pitches, including a changeup that is one of the league's best. A scout told me this spring that David Price might soon be considered the Rays' second-best pitcher.
JAFFE: Gerrit Cole, Pirates, RHP
He showed maturity beyond his years as a rookie, not only putting up strong numbers across the board but also sticking to a game plan that emphasized efficiency, allowing him to tally 196⅓ innings in his age-22 season. With the help of pitching coach Ray Searage, I expect the 2011 No. 1 overall pick to emerge as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation talent.
CORCORAN: Christian Yelich, Marlins, OF
Yelich snuck into the league in late July of last season, hid out in the Marlins' historically awful lineup, lowered expectations in his first eight games, and then hit .304/.388/.425 over his final 237 plate appearances with 10 steals in as many attempts. He's no longer a rookie, but Yelich could be among the majors' better young players this season. He's a speedy 22-year-old who hit .313/.387/.499 in the minors and has already made adjustments to major league pitching.
It feels like he never really put it together with the Rockies, but Fowler has a broad set of tools and skills and, at 28, is the best player on his new team. He'll take a step forward this year.
VERDUCCI: Jose Abreu
This is more about the contract and expectations. The White Sox dropped $68 million on Abreu, and his raw power is why they took the bet. He should do some damage in time, but major league pitching and the advanced scouting tools in the game today that exploit holes could make his adjustment a rough one at first.
Philadelphia's winter addition of Burnett, an oft-injured 37-year-old who is an odd fit on a aging non-contender like the Phillies, made no sense. Yes, he was one of the top pitchers in the NL a year ago, but so much of Burnett's success in Pittsburgh was tied to the Pirates' excellent defense. In what may be his last season, Burnett will struggle in Philly's bandbox of a ballpark without the security blanket of a top defense.
REITER: Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees, OF
Not primarily because he is a health risk, but because he is a 30-year-old whose game is predicated on speed. Nearly half of his career home runs -- 32 of 65 -- came in a single year, 2011, that now looks to be an aberration. The Yankees really gave $153 million over seven years to his legs, and legs don't improve with age, as Carl Crawford and Michael Bourn, among others, can tell you.
JAFFE: Scott Feldman, Astros, RHP
He's a serviceable swingman, but even if you include his big 2009 season, he's a guy who has averaged 134 innings with a 4.50 ERA (98 ERA+) and 0.9 WAR over the last five years (0.2 WAR over the past four). That's not worth anything close to the three-year, $30 million deal Houston gave him.
Hughes' back problems, which have hampered him to varying degrees in each of the last three seasons, stem back to a herniated disc suffered in 2004, the year he was drafted. Since returning to the Yankees' rotation from a brief and wildly successful stint as a setup man in 2009, he has averaged just 147 innings a season and posted a 91 ERA+. At his best over that stretch, he was a league-average starter -- 2012, when he put up a 4.19 ERA (101 ERA+) in 191⅓ innings. At his worst, in early 2011, mysterious shoulder problems sapped his velocity and resulted in a four-digit ERA.
The distance between the "Phil Franchise" expectations in New York and his modest $24 million, three-year deal with the Twins, with whom he'll play second-fiddle to Ricky Nolasco, should work in his favor, as should the ballpark. Target Field is a safe haven for flyball pitchers like Hughes, who has a 2.11 ERA there in three career starts. But he won't get to face the Twins' lineup there anymore, and he won't have the Yankees' bats supporting him, either.
SHEEHAN: Curtis Granderson, Mets, OF
Granderson, the ex-Yankee who inked a four-year, $60 million contract to move across town, was signed as much for the press conference as for what he'll bring to the Mets. He was in sharp decline the past two years in the Bronx and is moving to a park much less tailored to his skills. Jason Bay 2.0?
Best Player Under 25 (Non-Mike Trout/Bryce Harper Division)
VERDUCCI: Salvador Perez, Royals, C
Surprised? Perez is one of the more underrated stars in the game. Last year at age 23, he posted a .757 OPS while driving in 79 runs. Do you know how many other catchers that young have done that in the past 27 years? Two: Brian McCann and Joe Mauer.
CHEN: Sonny Gray, A's, RHP
When it comes to pitchers under-25, the obvious choices are Jose Fernandez and Michael Wacha. But I'll take Oakland's 24-year-old ace, a sleeper Cy Young candidate who has serious breakout potential this year after his enticing 64-inning cup of coffee last season. With his polished and deep repertoire of pitches, Gray will be just as good as Fernandez and Wacha, and better than Danny Salazar, Gerrit Cole and Zach Wheeler.
REITER: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers, OF
Yes, the 21-year-old Jose Fernandez is my predicted NL Cy Young winner, but I think this category should go to an everyday player. For me, the choice is the 23-year-old Puig. Yes, he does silly stuff once in a while, but the cumulative result of the skills of what one rival GM admiringly calls "a freak of nature" is astounding. His 5.0 WAR as a rookie last year might have been more like 7.5 had the Dodgers not waited until June to call him up, which would have put him above Miguel Cabrera. Some expect a sophomore slump, but I do not.
JAFFE: Jose Fernandez
I have him dethroning Clayton Kershaw to win the Cy Young in his age-21 season. I also expect him to cure one or two diseases along the way.
CORCORAN: Jose Fernandez
Fernandez is 21 and rivaled Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball over the final four months of last season, a season that he started at the age of 20 having never pitched above High A. In September, when he was approaching his innings limit, his fastball averaged 96.8 miles per hour (per BrooksBaseball.net). His curveball and changeup are both devastating swing-and-miss pitches, and he can hit a little as well (he was tied for fifth in OPS+ among pitchers with at least 40 plate appearances last year). Right now, he's not only leaps ahead of every other under-25 player eligible here, he's better than Harper as well.
SHEEHAN: Andrelton Simmons, Braves, SS
Andrelton Simmons won't hang the numbers that some do, but he's a transcendent shortstop with amazing lateral range and the best arm of any infielder in the league. He's a must-watch player who at any moment could make the crowd -- and Twitter -- explode with his Ozzie Smith-meets-Shawon Dunston skill set.
Bold Prediction For The Season
VERDUCCI: Big moves are coming at the trade deadline
The trade deadline will be madness. Three teams loaded with veterans and carrying large payrolls may start shedding parts if they stumble: The Phillies, Angels and Blue Jays. Moreover, with more players signing extensions that buy up potential free-agent years, weakening the free-agent class again, July is becoming a more important month of acquisition for clubs (and not just for two-month rentals).
CHEN: Despite their big winter splurge, the Mariners still finish fourth in the AL West, with under 75 wins
No doubt the offense is improved with Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison in the lineup (also expect a big breakout season from Brad Miller), but the pitching will be a problem. Hisashi Iwakuma will be out until at least mid-April with a finger injury, the club is expecting a little too much out of Taijuan Walker in his first season and Fernando Rodney is a ticking time bomb at the back end of the bullpen.
REITER: The Astros' run of No. 1 draft picks is over
Houston will be more like a 100-loss team (as opposed to the 111-loss team it was last year), and for the first time since 2010, there will be a team that does worse: the Phillies. Philadelphia shed 29 wins between '11 and '13, and its 73-89 finish last year might have been a bit lucky, as its Pythagorean record -- based on its run differential -- was 66-96. The Phils' longtime stars (Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley) are now just old, Cole Hamels will be out until at least late April, and their rotation behind Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett is ugly.
This will be the year in which GM Ruben Amaro finally realizes that he must blow things up, and he will trade whatever valuable assets he has left -- like Lee -- which will further depress his club's record in the short term. At least it will be able to draft a very good prospect with which to begin its rebuilding process.
JAFFE: The Mets will climb to .500
The Mets have made enough upgrades -- Curtis Granderson in the lineup, Bartolo Colon in the rotation -- that even without ace Matt Harvey, who is out for the year after having Tommy John surgery, they'll finish third in the NL East at .500.
CORCORAN: The Marlins won't finish in last place
Miami lost 100 games in 2013 and was the worst team in the National League. However, it has enough young talent working its way onto the roster -- and division rivals New York and Philadelphia figure to struggle so much -- that it's not hard to imagine this year's version moving out of the basement. The free-agent signings of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones and Jeff Baker (the latter two of whom will platoon) represent significant upgrades at catcher and first base, respectively, and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton and a full season of Christian Yelich will vastly improve the offense. Meanwhile, Jose Fernandez and the rest of their young rotation will take another step forward.
SHEEHAN: The Twins will contend for a playoff spot
Minnesota has lost at least 96 games three seasons in a row, but the Twins will hang around .500 and the fringes of the wild-card race for much longer than anyone expects them to. Free-agent signings Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes will bolster the rotation in front of an improving defense.