The days leading up to MLB Opening Day are a magical time. Each team is on an even playing ground (as far as the standings are concerned, anyway) and the possibilities are endless. Such a euphoric feeling lends itself to lofty preseason predictions, as every prospect is set to be the next Ken Griffey Jr., and every superstar is ready to play 162 games without injury. Naturally, it’s an entertaining exercise to get some bold predictions down on paper, with the hope that a handful of them ring true by season’s end. This year, I attempted to fly above and beyond bold with some spicy (and at points, hopelessly optimistic) predictions myself, and if just one or two of these bets pay off, I’ll consider this a success. So, without further ado, here are my ten spiciest predictions for the 2022 season. Hope you have some milk on hand.
1. Giancarlo Stanton Hits 60 Home Runs
As far as these predictions go, this might be the tamest. Giancarlo Stanton is known, if nothing else, for his incredible ability to send baseballs into the upper stratosphere. He also might be one of the only players able to credibly inspire an argument for protective netting beyond the outfield, as his blasts have been known to exceed speeds that would get your driver’s license revoked in most states. Stanton has also already made a close run at Roger Maris’ “clean” home run record of 61 back in his 2017 MVP season when he fell just short with 59 round-trippers. Since joining the Yankees, however, he has yet to hit 40 home runs in a season, often hamstrung by injuries that have caused him to miss significant time and which have (fairly or not) resulted in an ‘injury-prone’ label.
When Stanton has been on the field with the Yankees, he’s been one of their best hitters, and one of the most exciting at-bats in baseball when on a hot streak. There’s not a lot of nuance or background in this take, as it essentially just boils down to Stanton being healthy and doing what he does best: demolishing baseballs and terrorizing pitchers.
2. Seiya Suzuki Leads All Rookies in WAR
One of the more exciting narratives entering the new season is that it promises to also be an exciting sneak peek at the next crop of young superstars ready to lead MLB into the future. Highly touted rookies like Julio Rodríguez, Bobby Witt Jr., Spencer Torkelson, Reid Detmers, and Adley Rutschman are all expected to make an impact, some as immediately as Opening Day. It’s not an exaggeration to say MLB hasn’t seen a freshman class this talented in years, though there is one rookie that seems to garner less hype than the rest: the 27-year-old slugger from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, the Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki.
It’s understandable that a player approaching thirty might carry less fanfare than a teenager or player in their early twenties, but it’s Suzuki’s added experience that will allow him to hit the ground running and play at a high level out of the gates. A career .315 hitter with a .985 OPS over nine seasons with the NPB’s Hiroshima Carp, Suzuki profiles as a well-rounded hitter with strong bat-to-ball skills and good power, and knocked at least 25 home runs each year in Japan dating back to 2016. He hit a career-high 38 home runs in 2021, to complement a league-leading batting average (.317) and on-base percentage (.639).
That said, it’s worth mentioning that the competitive environment of NPB is also a step below that of Major League Baseball, which is where the doubt begins to creep in. Plenty of players have left sterling resumes in Japan to become bench or replacement level players in MLB, and its no guarantee that Suzuki’s performance will translate.
All the same, Suzuki’s fellow rookies aren’t sure things either. Despite their considerable prospect pedigrees, adjusting to life at the MLB level is no easy task, which is something baseball fans might take for granted after the overnight stardom of players like Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., and Juan Soto in recent years. It’s far more likely we see a rookie season more akin to Vlad Guererro Jr. or even Jo Adell, where players need time to get a feel for the highest level of competition in the sport. And while the young rookies may potentially see limited time as their teams ease them into the lineup, Suzuki is set to be a key cog in the Cubs’ 2022 campaign day in and day out, and is projected by FanGraphs to lead his team in both plate appearances and WAR. Simply put, I’m betting on Suzuki’s increased experience and opportunity to lift him above and beyond his peers this season, and net him a Rookie of the Year award to boot.
3. C.J. Cron Gets an MVP Vote
I’m all aboard the C.J. Cron train entering 2022. After a solid first half in Colorado last year where he hit .254 with a .833 OPS and a 112 wRC+, Cron turned on the burners down the stretch, hitting .307 and finishing the season with a career-high in WAR. The bulk of his production came in a red-hot August, when Cron slashed .387/.463/.828 with eleven home runs.
While a single scorching month isn’t necessarily an indicator of a breakout, there’s a lot to like about Cron playing half of his games at Coors Field. Most projection systems anticipate around 30 home runs and a .265 average, which is highly valuable to any team. It’s a tall task to improve upon such strong projections, but if he can outperform even to the tune of five additional home runs and points on his average, I’d say it’s a fair argument for at least some recognition come awards season. His case will be limited in part by playing first base, but with the implementation of the universal DH, I wouldn’t be surprised if fielding standards are loosened somewhat in MVP discussion. Besides, players don’t necessarily need to be even a top 20-30 player to get a vote thrown their way, with LaMonte Wade Jr. receiving a tenth place nod in 2021. That’s not a knock on Wade, but rather to emphasize that a strong offensive season even just playing to his projections might be enough to earn Cron some consideration.
4. Clayton Kershaw Finishes Top Five in NL Cy Young Voting
Okay, now that you’re warmed up, let’s turn it up a notch. My next prediction is that Clayton Kershaw will not only enjoy a healthy bounce-back season, but he will finish as an NL Cy Young contender, if not its eventual winner. Kershaw endured a disappointing (by his standards) 2021, and finished with his highest ERA since his rookie year, at 3.55. However, upon further inspection, it appears he also underperformed his peripherals a bit with a 3.15 xERA and 3.00 FIP.
Of course, the main sticking point for Kershaw will continue to be his health, as the later years of his career have been compromised by injury, including the forearm soreness that prematurely ended his season last year. That said, Kershaw has also looked very sharp in his Spring Training starts so far, and his fastball velocity is even back up to sitting between 90-91 mph. Whether his speed maintains deep into the season remains to be seen, but it’s a promising showing despite being just months removed from significant arm trouble and even talk of surgery.
But while he has looked impressive thus far, it’s still almost an inevitability that the venerated ace will take a trip to the IL at some point in the season. However, with starting pitchers today throwing fewer and fewer innings, the impact of such a trip may be lessened when award season rolls around. As it stands currently, of the major projection systems available to the public (ZiPS, Steamer, ATC, THE BAT), only Steamer has a pitcher projected to exceed 200 innings pitched, Sandy Alcantara (Pitcher List’s own projections forecast four starters will reach that mark). If Kershaw can finish in the 150 to 160 innings range in 2022 (last accomplished in 2019), with strong pitching ratios, there might be an outside path for him to make a run at his fourth Cy Young.
Also worthy of note, however, is how loaded with pitching talent the National League is. Featuring aces such as Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes, Sandy Alcantara, Brandon Woodruff, and even his own teammates Walker Buehler and Julio Urías, the future Hall of Famer Kershaw will face an uphill battle to stand out, which is why I’m giving him a little leeway and predicting a top-five finish rather than winning it outright (though few things would make me happier!).
5. The Mariners and Angels Make the Playoffs
I know, I know. Just hear me out. It’s one thing to wager that one of these AL West teams will break their playoff drought in a given season (and not terribly likely at that), but both? I can’t fault you for thinking I might be out of my mind, but bear with me here. Under the new CBA, an additional team from each league will make the postseason, as a third wild card squad. So, in theory, four teams could feasibly make the playoffs from the AL West this year.
According to FanGraphs’ 2022 divisional projections, neither the Angels or the Mariners are expected to finish first in their division, complicating our prediction. The Astros are set to blow both teams out of the water in terms of run differential and are forecasted to win the west by a comfortable six games. Of course, projections aren’t everything. The Astros have a handful of vulnerabilities as they look to earn their fifth division title in the last six years. Most notably, they recently lost arguably their best player in Carlos Correa this offseason when he flew the coop for Minnesota. The starting rotation, while talented, may have its depth tested as it features relative question marks in the 39-year old Justin Verlander, and has already lost Lance McCullers Jr. to a flexor strain to start the year.
Houston will look to their young stars Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker to keep the team in front this season, but while they are favorites, it appears their position atop the AL West may be more precarious than in previous years. A key injury or regression here or there may be enough to bring them toppling down and open an opportunity for the emerging Mariners or Angels to steal the division. If that were the case, then only one of the two teams would need to snag a wild card berth, which will be challenging in an American League also featuring the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees all vying for one crown in the AL East.
Are the Mariners or Angels better than those teams? Maybe not. But, I’d wager the separation between the teams is smaller than one might think. Seattle has a sparkling young core featuring some of the most exciting young prospects in baseball in Julio Rodríguez, Jarred Kelenic, and pitcher Matt Brash. They also added significant punch to their lineup by trading for both Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez in the offseason, and also signed reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to lead the rotation. And while they might not make the playoffs this year, all signs point to a bright future for the Mariners in the years ahead. But while that’s very promising, I see little reason why Seattle cannot also enjoy a bright present and break their historic October drought in 2022.
The Angels, meanwhile, face mounting pressure to make good on their playoff window for the first time since 2014, when Mike Trout was just 22 and they were swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Kansas City Royals. Now a league veteran entering his age-30 season, Trout leads perhaps the strongest Angels team of his tenure alongside megastar Shohei Ohtani. Their lineup also features the dangerous Anthony Rendon, as well as Jared Walsh and the promising young outfielder Jo Adell. The key difference going into this year, however, is that the Angels are finally showing some semblance of depth in their starting rotation, which stretches to include a refurnished Noah Syndergaard and two emerging talents in Patrick Sandoval and Reid Detmers alongside the aforementioned Ohtani.
Do both the Mariners and Angels have major question marks heading into the season? Yes! Would a lot have to go right for them to both make the playoffs? Yes! But wouldn’t it be spectacular for baseball if they did? I’m a believer.
6. Gavin Lux Is an NL All-Star
Have you ever had that one player you were certain was going to break out and win your fantasy league, only for them to come up wildly short? Then, instead of learning or moving on, you go right back to them in the following year’s draft? I’m sure you have. Well, Gavin Lux has been that player for me for the last three years, and I’m putting my foot down. This is it. This is the year he breaks out and becomes an All-Star. Let me explain.
To begin, Gavin Lux heads an interesting group of post-hype sleepers with impressive prospect pedigrees and underwhelming MLB results. He was the number two prospect in Minor League Baseball as recently as 2020 and was the 2019 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year when he hit .392 with a 1.197 OPS and 188 wRC+ in 49 games in Triple-A. At the major league level, he thus far has not lived up to his lofty expectations, with a career .233/.314/.368 slash line and 88 wRC+ across a handful of stints in 2020 and 2021. For many, that’s been enough to write Lux off as a bust, but he simply has not had the opportunity to be successful with consistent at-bats and playing time.
Entering 2022, Lux has just 532 MLB plate appearances spread across a couple cups of coffee, and less than a full season of major league experience. He has been the primary victim of a historically talented Dodgers roster, where there are more All-Star bats in the starting lineup than not. The situation has been less than friendly to Lux’s development, especially when you consider much of his 2020 season was spent in limbo between the majors and the improvised alternate site when MiLB was shut down due to the pandemic.
Entering 2022, however, Lux is finally poised to play a more prevalent role in the team’s offense. The addition of the designated hitter to the National League will possibly benefit the Dodgers more than any other team, as they will be able to field an extra hitter and rotate their position players through to keep players rested. This will have the most significant effect on Lux’s playing time, as now he will be competing for one of nine spots in the lineup rather than eight. Additionally, the losses of Corey Seager and, most recently, AJ Pollock will contribute to clearing the logjam ahead of Lux, as he will have a shot at a full-time role split between second base, left field, and batting out of the DH spot.
I’m a firm believer that it’s far too early to cut bait on a 24-year-old with one of the most impressive MiLB careers in recent memory, especially before he’s even had an opportunity for consistent playing time over a full season. I’m all-in on Gavin Lux blossoming into a star in 2022.
7. Miami Wins the NL East
As with all bold predictions, there’s a little bit of wishful thinking involved in this one, stemming from the fact that the 2022 Marlins are, to put it plainly, really really cool. They have a roster featuring some of the most entertaining players in baseball, including the dynamic Jazz Chisholm and the veteran power bats of Jorge Soler and Jesus Agúilar. They also have one of the more intriguing young catchers on their roster in Jacob Stallings, who was one of the top defenders behind the plate and is projected to lead the lineup in WAR in 2022.
However, Miami’s pitchers are what really get me excited. There are few teams with as much potential (and as much to prove) in their rotation as the Marlins, who employ a bevy of electric arms that sprinkled top prospect lists in recent years. They have three pitchers projected by FanGraphs for at least 2.5 WAR, including 2021 Rookie of the Year runner-up Trevor Rogers and the reliable Pablo López, who enjoyed the finest season of his career thus far when he finished with a 3.07 ERA in 2021. Of course, they are led by Cy Young dark horse Sandy Alcantara, who is poised to be one of the few contenders for a 200 inning season in 2022. With one of the hardest fastballs in baseball, Alcantara’s repertoire also includes a nasty slider and heavy sinker, and he’s even been known to sprinkle in a change-up at times. He’s got one of the more polished arsenals in the National League, and one of the few that can sustain it over a high innings count as he showed last year.
The Marlins are also playing in an NL East featuring the injury-depleted Mets and a Phillies team that has shown itself to be rather inconsistent over the past two seasons, and I believe with the right breaks they can overcome either of those teams. The defending champion Atlanta is another story, however, and most signs indicate that they will remain a powerhouse this season. As it stands currently, the Marlins would need to pull off something of a miracle to overcome Atlanta, but this is baseball, and anything can happen. I’m hopping on the bandwagon early, although it still might be a year or two too soon.
8. Shohei Ohtani Joins the 40-40 Club
Why not? Many believe we saw Shohei’s offensive ceiling last year in his historic 2021 campaign when he crushed 46 home runs and swiped 26 bases alongside a 3.18 ERA in 130.1 innings pitched. It was an unprecedented performance in the modern era, as Ohtani finally cashed in on all of the hype and promise that had followed him since his move to MLB in 2018. So where do we go from here? How do you improve upon what is arguably the greatest baseball season of all time? It’s always possible Ohtani refines his pitching as he accrues experience, but how can he follow up his MVP year on offense? The answer: steal more bases. Shohei’s 6’4″ frame is deceptively quick on the bases, and he clocked in the 91st percentile of players last year with a sprint speed of 28.8 feet per second (30 feet/second is considered elite). However, adding a cool 20 steals onto his 2021 total is no small challenge. Ohtani ranked 23rd last season (min. 20 attempts) with a 72.2% success rate on 36 stolen base attempts (sixth-most in baseball). At less than a 75% success rate, the Angels would likely have been better off in the long run if Ohtani stayed put on the bases, but where’s the excitement in that? I’m positing that Ohtani, now with a little more experience at swiping bags at the MLB level, increases his attempts considerably and steals on a far more efficient basis. Of course, with his health being of the utmost importance to the Angels, its also entirely likely we never see him steal (or even attempt) 20 bags again. But then again, the last player I’ll ever bet against is Shohei Ohtani.
9. No Player Bats .300
Alright, bring on the eye-rolls. Simply put, pitchers have just gotten too nasty these days. Last season, just 14 players hit above .300, with Trea Turner leading the pack with a .328 average. This is down from 19 hitters to clear the mark in the previous full season in 2019, and 16 in 2018. The league average has also continued to fall, and sat at .244 in 2021, down over ten points from a decade previous.
With high-powered bullpens becoming more and more of a factor in the league, batting averages will continue to fall around the league, barring any further rule adjustments. 2022 looks to be no different, as starting pitchers work fewer and fewer innings. Having to adjust to a greater number of pitchers and their looks in a game is a difficult task for even the best hitters, especially as relievers are more frequently pushing triple-digit velocity complemented with knee-buckling breaking pitches.
Additionally, the cultural shift to the three true outcomes style of play in recent years has worked to suppress averages around the league, with batters now placing a greater value on selling out for home runs at the cost of making contact. The optimization of team defenses through the increased use of the shift has also taken away many of what might have been base hits under the “traditional” style of play as well, with more teams shifting in 2021 than ever before. According to Baseball Savant data, the league shifted on 31% of plate appearances in 2021, and a staggering 52.5% when facing left-handed hitters.
It might be an overreaction to argue that these larger overall trends will have such a drastic impact as soon as this season. But they are emblematic of a greater shift to where I wouldn’t be surprised if we only had a handful of .3oo hitters in the next couple years. But like I said, we’re here to get spicy.
10. David Fletcher Hits Double-Digit Home Runs
Finally, we reach my spiciest take yet. David Fletcher, cult hero and utility extraordinaire, is about as far as you can get from a power hitter. His career-high for home runs in a season came in 2019 when he hit half of his career total, flexing his way to six long balls on the year. Instead, he profiles out to be something of a slap hitter, finding holes in the outfield and avoiding strikeouts. Just take a look at his Savant snapshot:
That’s a lot of blue.
This year, however, will be different. That’s because this year, David Fletcher is cracking at least ten home runs. Yeah, I said it. The player with the lowest average exit velocity and hard-hit rate in baseball last year is going to enjoy an offensive renaissance at age 28, one year removed from a season when he went 665 plate appearances without a single barrel. What evidence do I have to support this? Honestly, it’s pretty slim (hence being all the way down here at #10). Most projections forecast Fletcher hitting around five home runs, with Steamer (and PL) taking the lead once again with a whopping seven. You would be forgiven for thinking both of those numbers are rather generous, but conservative projections are not what we’re here for. So while this take is as spicy (and flimsy) as can be, I’m behind it wholeheartedly. David Fletcher. Ten home runs. Book it.
Before we wrap this one up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to quickly jot down my picks for the 2022 postseason and award winners.
AL East — Blue Jays NL East — Atlanta
AL Central — White Sox NL Central — Brewers
AL West — Angels NL West — Dodgers
AL Wild Cards — Rays, Mariners, Red Sox NL Wild Cards — Padres, Phillies, Giants
AL Rookie of the Year — Julio Rodriguez NL Rookie of the Year — Seiya Suzuki
World Series — Dodgers over White Sox in 5.
Pictures by apardavila (https://www.flickr.com/people/apardavila/) and Eric Drost (https://www.flickr.com/people/62091376@N03 Erik Drost) | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)