We are nearly three weeks into the new MLB season, with teams across the majors approaching their 20th game played. In the grand scheme of a 162-game schedule, what has happened so far means — well, not a whole lot. But what’s the fun in saying that?
With that in mind, we asked our MLB experts to go all-in on what they’ve seen by making a prediction based on this small sample size. They were allowed to pick anything they wanted with two conditions: It had to be bold, and it had to be something they truly believe could happen.
Some of our predictors went really bold, while others chose to play it more safe, so we took the liberty of ranking them from mild to spicy. Here is what they chose.
Take a walk on the mild side
The Orioles are going to strike out more than anyone in MLB history
AJ Mass: The Baltimore Orioles, who already have nine players with double-digit strikeout totals, will end up breaking the record for most players on a team with more than 100 whiffs in a single season, en route to becoming the first club to hit the 1,600-strikeout mark for a season — and they’ll do it with the lowest team batting average in a full 162-game season, too.
Why it’s mild: Look, you predicted a major league record, and that in itself is bold. But there are two things we all know for sure going into a modern baseball season: (1) A bunch of strikeout records are going to fall; and (2) the Orioles are going to be bad. So we give you credit for the effort, but we just can’t go beyond that.
The White Sox won’t win the AL Central
Jesse Rogers: I consider this an extremely hot take because the White Sox are the most talented team in a division that they won last season, but once in a while things don’t go as planned. April has opened the door for other teams, and one of them — I’m not sure who yet — is going to win the division. Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit can all make a case for the title, but the Guardians might have the best chance. They have a veteran manager, more offense than people thought and Shane Bieber is looking like the Shane Bieber of old. Just because the White Sox overcame injuries last season, doesn’t mean they will again.
Why it’s mild: When we released our predictions going into the MLB season less than a month ago, 34 of our 38 experts predicted the White Sox would win the AL Central. The other four predicted the Twins. Now those folks were bold. We still appreciate you being willing to make this call after 15 games, but you stopped short of choosing who would top the White Sox — and that alone took some serious heat off your prediction. But we have a feeling this won’t be the last White Sox hot take we get today.
Cody Bellinger will be a 5-WAR player for the Dodgers.
Alden Gonzalez: I don’t know if we’ll ever again see the Cody Bellinger who terrorized pitchers through the first half of the 2019 season, but I also don’t know that we need to. Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP and amazingly one of the worst hitters in the sport in 2021, will settle into who he is this year — a high-impact player who will at times look dominant and at times, perhaps briefly, look lost. Sunday’s two-homer, two-strikeout afternoon offered a perfect snapshot. Through his first 15 games, Bellinger had four home runs, three stolen bases and a .915 OPS, but also 20 strikeouts in 60 at-bats. He brings elite power and speed, not to mention strong defense at a premium position, but he also strikes out a lot. The Dodgers will take that.
Why it’s mild: We get it, Bellinger was really bad last season. But he also has an NL MVP Award and is 26 years old. Combine that with the fact that Bellinger is off to exactly the start the Dodgers were hoping he would have, as you mentioned. With that in mind, we’re just not sure how much heat predicting Belli becomes Belli again actually carries.
We’re heating up
Bradford Doolittle: I’ve seen enough proof of concept already. He has, almost impossibly, lived up to his 80-grade hit tool as a prospect, but he’s more than that. Power from both sides of the plate. Great defense. A flair for the dramatic. And he’s already a clubhouse leader for the Rays as someone willing to fight through minor injuries to stay on the field and whose excellence delights his older teammates. Franco’s stat line is already the first thing I look at when I dig into the daily box scores.
Tristan Cockcroft: I agree with Brad here. Franco will become only the sixth 21-year-old (or younger) in history with 200-plus hits and 300-plus total bases, en route to winning the American League’s MVP Award.
Why it’s got some heat: OK, predicting a 21-year-old in his first season to win a major award is bold in its own right. But we’ve all seen Wander Franco play and the guy is incredibly good! So yeah, we’ll give you credit for predicting Franco will outperform the likes of Mike Trout, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the reigning MVP Shohei Ohtani — but here’s the thing: How bold can this prediction be if two of you were willing to make it?
Carlos Rodon will be the best signing of last offseason’s free-agent class
David Schoenfield: A record 11 free agents signed contracts of at least $100 million this offseason, but the best signing will be Carlos Rodon. Through three starts, the left-hander has allowed two runs in 17 innings, with a blistering 29 strikeouts and just eight hits allowed. Most importantly, his velocity, which tailed off in the second half last season in his return from Tommy John surgery, is back at full volume, averaging 96.4 mph. The Giants worked wonders with veteran starters last season, and they’ve had Rodon scrap his changeup (batters hit .367 off it in 2021) and focus on his fastball-slider combo. His two-year deal already looks like a bargain, and even if he opts out after 2022, the Giants will gladly take a Cy Young-caliber season.
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Why it’s got some heat: Everyone has their own definitions of hot — and this one is certainly right on the border of downright spicy. You mentioned that there are 11 free agents who signed $100 million deals last offseason, and that list includes some of the best players in the entire sport — Max Scherzer, Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, to name a few. But Carlos Rodon was also very good last year, posting a 2.37 ERA and finishing in the top five of the AL Cy Young voting, and now he’s in San Francisco, where the Giants have turned every starting pitcher they’ve touched into gold.
Now that’s spicy
The Astros’ new shortstop will be better than the Astros’ old shortstop
Eric Karabell: Nothing against new Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, but new Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena is going to finish the season with a higher WAR and offer considerably more value to his team. Again, Correa is awesome, even though he is off to a rough start at the plate, but Pena looks more awesome, not just defensively — where he might be a legitimate Gold Glove contender even as a rookie — but with his power and plate discipline. He hit a game-winning home run over the weekend and could hit atop the team’s lineup. The Astros knew what they were doing, trusting this critical defensive position to someone with no big league experience.
Why it’s spicy: Correa was the No. 1 free agent in a loaded class and is arguably the best shortstop in the entire sport. Jeremy Pena, on the other hand, has all of 50 major league at-bats to his name. And here you are willing to declare that Pena won’t just fill Correa’s shoes in Houston this season — but that he will be better than him? That is what we call bringing the heat.
Tony La Russa won’t last the season in Chicago
Tim Keown: Chalk this up at least partly to recency bias — the White Sox have lost seven straight as of this writing — but La Russa’s run as manager in Chicago won’t last two full seasons. The White Sox underachieved last season, losing in the division series just as they did in Rick Renteria’s final year, and a 6-9 start with a stacked roster in baseball’s weakest division doesn’t bode well. He has made head-scratching decisions recently — Leury Garcia should never hit third in that lineup — in defiance of both analytics and common sense. His old-school explanations, like wanting to jump-start Garcia, he of the .261 OPS, by hitting him in front of Jose Abreu, haven’t helped the cause in the slightest.
Why it’s spicy: La Russa has been back in Chicago one season and the White Sox won the AL Central title in that one season. So you aren’t just saying it will go south on the South Side, you are saying that things will go sideways so quickly that the White Sox change directions before the end of this season. That is in a word: bold. So why isn’t it in an even spicier spot on our list? After seeing the way La Russa’s first year in Chicago played out, nothing that happens would surprise us all that much — and somehow, the takes get even spicier from here.
Jeff Passan: The gold standard for an all-time great season is the 10-WAR mark, and over the past 50 years, only eight position players have done it, according to FanGraphs: Barry Bonds five times, Mike Trout twice and Mookie Betts, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Buster Posey, Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr. once apiece. Minnesota center fielder Byron Buxton will join the club in 2022. This is a Carolina Reaper not because of Buxton’s talent but his difficulty in staying on the field.
Since 2019, he has missed 203 of the Twins’ 400 games. And yet over the past two seasons, Buxton is averaging an absurd .076 WAR per game — higher than Mike Trout (.069), Fernando Tatis Jr. (.056), Ronald Acuna Jr. (.052), Jose Ramirez (.045) and Juan Soto (.044). At that pace, Buxton needs to play only 132 games to hit the 10-win threshold. While he’s done that only once — in 2017, when he played 140 games — and already missed six this season with a knee issue, Buxton is so great it’s worth dreaming, however futile it might be, of what a full year of his resplendence might look like.
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Why it’s blazing hot: Predicting that this is finally going to be the year for Byron Buxton is an April tradition around here. Everyone who has seen Buxton play this season can attest to just how talented he is and what he’s capable of doing when he’s on the field — with how long he can actually stay on the field being the big question.
But you came at this with a new twist: You put a specific number on Buxton’s season. Ten WAR!? We looked into Mike Trout’s two 10-WAR seasons and he played 157 and 159 games. Buxton, on the other hand, has already missed a week this season. So you aren’t just predicting that Buxton will be good, and healthy, you are predicting the player we will see from here until the end of 2022 will be in the handful of the very best in the history of the sport. A Carolina Reaper indeed.
Mike Trout is going to become the first player in more than two decades to hit 60 homers in a season.
Buster Olney: He seems to improve every year, as his raw skill is stoked by enhanced knowledge of how pitchers will work to him, and now that he has protection in front of and behind him in the Angels’ lineup, he’ll get more pitches to hit. His two-homer game over the weekend was a sign of things to come. He’s got three doubles, four homers and a .690 slugging percentage so far in 2022. Barry Bonds was the last player to reach the 60 benchmark, when he clubbed 73 homers 21 years ago.
Why it’s blazing hot: Did you say 60? I mean, you would have had us at 50. Mike Trout has worn the crown of best player in baseball for a decade and never hit more than 45 in a single season. So let’s get this straight: At age 30, in the year of the non-home run across baseball, Trout is going to skip 50 and hit 60? We … love it! This is exactly the kind of spice we’re looking for here.
You sure you can handle this heat?
Paul Hembekides: Albert Pujols is up to 681 career home runs, 15 away from A-Rod and 33 away from the Babe. A year ago this time he looked washed up, but he owns a .256/.305/.470 batting line with 14 homers in 93 games since the Angels released him. Early returns this season suggest there is plenty of zing left in that barrel (90.4 mph average exit velocity), and he has vastly outperformed the Cardinals’ other DH options (Corey Dickerson, Lars Nootbaar). Give The Machine 400-500 at-bats, and we just might see him chase down 714.
Why it’s in a category of its own: You want to know which three words get our attention really fast? “Passes Babe Ruth.” Predicting a career year for Byron Buxton? Very bold. Calling 60 home runs for Trout? That is very spicy. But saying Albert Pujols will pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list this year? Literally lava. Now excuse us while we go prepare to see history.