March 30, 2012

The calendar turns to April this weekend. The regular season (sort of) began a few days ago. Most everyone you know has had their draft or auction. There's nothing left to do but make some predictions. This week, we'll tackle the National League. Next week, after everyone other than the Mariners and A's finally open their season, we'll move over to the American League.

There's no doubt McCutchen has 30-30 potential. Now in his fourth year in the majors, this is the year he will realize that potential. Though he has already achieved 30 steals one year in his career (2010), I'm more confident in him getting to 30 homers than 30 steals this season. He hit a career-high 23 last year, and all his relevant peripheral stats are trending in the right direction. In addition to the 23 bombs, McCutchen posted career highs in isolated slugging (.198) line-drive rate (20 percent), fly-ball rate (41.7 percent) and HR/FB ratio (12.2 percent). As you might expect, he had career lows in ground-ball rate and infield fly ball percentage. While I believe McCutchen will swipe 30 bags, hitting third in Pittsburgh's order could curb his running a bit. Still, I can't imagine manager John Russell will try to tether him to the bag all that often this season. It's time for McCutchen to become one of the National League's elite.

You may not think it, but Uggla is as safe a bet to hit at least 30 homers as anyone in the majors. He has achieved that level every year of his six-year career other than his rookie year, when he only hit 27 jacks. Last year, despite having just seven homers through the first two months of the season, he hit a career-high 36 home runs, good for fourth in the NL. Two of the guys who were ahead of him, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, now play in the American League. While Uggla may be hard-pressed to hit 24 homers from July on as he did in 2011, there isn't a chance he'll have as dreadful a start to the season as he did a year ago. With a better April and May ahead of him, Uggla will just barely edge Giancarlo Stanton for the NL home run crown, 38-37.

The National League is Clayton Kershaw's world. The rest of us should just be happy he doesn't personally charge admission. But there are plenty of other talented hurlers in the league, and on a team full of them, Bumgarner will stand out as the best this season. Teammates Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain get more attention, but it's Bumgarner who will be at the head of San Francisco's charge back to the playoffs in '12. Despite pitching most of the year at the ripe old age of 21, Bumgarner struck out 191 batters in 204 innings, and posted a 3.21 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 2.67 FIP, all while being a bit unlucky. He was near the league average in line-drive rate and left-on-base percentage, while posting a 46 percent ground-ball rate, well north of the league average. However, his .322 BABIP against is not in line with those numbers. That, combined with the fact that he's just 22, suggest Bumgarner could take a major step forward this season. It won't be enough to take Kershaw's Cy Young away, but it will be enough to be considered San Francisco's best starting pitcher, and better than anyone on the Phillies' three-headed monster, too.

Let's go down the list of necessary ingredients to win the MVP award. Good batting average? Check. In the last three years, Votto has hit .322, .324 and .309. Power? Check. It took him some time to grow into his power, but Votto has 66 homers and 216 RBI the last two seasons. But we're all too smart for the traditional triple-crown stats these days. What about his on-base percentage? Well, Votto hasn't posted an OBP less than .414 since his rookie year. Isolated slugging, you ask? Let me present his last three ISOs: .245, .276, .222. What about defense? Fangraphs lists Votto's 7.4 ultimate zone rating from last year as the midway point between "above average" and "great." I'm not sure exactly what to label that, but it's pretty darn good. Finally, how's his team? Well, as you're about to find out, I think pretty highly of the '12 Cincinnati Reds. Add it all up, and you've got Votto's second MVP season in the last two years.

Led offensively by MVP Votto, on the mound by new ace Mat Latos, old ace Johnny Cueto, one of the league's best bullpens, and, defensively, by the best infield in the majors, the Reds will cruise to the NL Central crown. They'll knock off the Diamondbacks in the division series and the Phillies in the NLCS, earning the franchise's first trip to the World Series since winning it all in 1990. Who will they play? Come back next week to find out.

Chat with me on Twitter,@MBeller.

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