FOX Sports South offers 15 bold predictions for the 2015 baseball season -- a whimsical countdown that will surely feature a number of savvy, prolific hits ... and eminently laughable misses. But hey, that's why they play the games -- to generate millions in revenue and mollify those who believe Collin McHugh may be closer to winning a Cy Young than Cole Hamels. (Photos: Brad Mills/Dale Zanine/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Prediction #1: No Cubs player will win NL Rookie of the Year
RATIONALE: 1) The Cubs impressively have five assets listed in MLB.com's listing of The Top 50 Prospects -- Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards, Kyle Schwarber. But only Soler (left) has been penciled in as an Opening Day starter.2) Obviously, Bryant (right -- 9 HR, 15 RBI, .425 batting, 1.652 OPS during Cactus League action) was the redoubtable star of spring training ... but those expectations for greatness will be sky-high whenever the 23-year-old earns a big-league callup (April/May). 3) By comparison, Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson (6 HR, 12 RBI, 13 runs, .368 batting, 1.154 OPS during the spring), my pick for NL ROY, won't feel much pressure to be an all-world performer coming out of the chute. (Photos: Scott Rovak/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Prediction #2: Stephen Strasburg will lead the majors in strikeouts
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) Of the top-9 strikeout artisans from last year (David Price, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto, Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner), only Kershaw tossed fewer innings (198.1) than Strasburg (215). 2) The Nats right-hander notched a career-high 242 strikeouts last season and maintained an elite-level K/9 ratio of 10.1. 3) Of his final six outings last year, Strasburg absurdly had a 4-1 record, 1.13 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, .197 opponents' batting average and 40/3 K-BB rate. 4) The 26-year-old should be motivated by the friendly competition with teammates Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann -- both Cy Young candidates.
Prediction #3: Mike Trout will lead the AL in runs ... and triples
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) The reigning AL MVP has claimed the 'runs' title in each of his three full seasons (2012-14), averaging 115 per annum. 2) In addition to runs, RBI and strikeouts, Trout won the American League 'total bases' crown last season. 3) While it's true Trout has never racked up double-digit triples in a season, he has averaged 8.7 since 2012. 4) Trout was an unofficial Cactus League all-star this spring, accounting for four homers, 14 RBI, 18 runs, four steals, a .440 batting average, 1.300 OPS and two triples. 5) Trout has an amazing knack for reinventing himself every season -- category-wise.
Prediction #4: Collin McHugh will finish top 5 in the AL Cy Youg voting
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) Some may immediately scoff at this one, which is fine. But compare McHugh's 2014 numbers (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 157/41 K-BB) to Corey Kluber's 2013 stats (11-5, 3.85 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 136/33 K-BB) -- the year before Kluber won the AL Cy Young. Doesn't McHugh (age 27) seem primed to make a similarly stellar leap in 2015? 2) Of his 25 starts last year, McHugh surrendered three runs or fewer 21 times. 3) From Aug. 1 to Sept. 21, spanning 10 outings, McHugh had a sparkling 7-0 record, 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and awesome 55/7 K-BB rate. 4) The young, immensely talented Astros (70-92 last year) are reasonable bets for 83-85 wins.
Prediction #5: Matt Kemp will launch 30 homers in his inaugural season with the Padres
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) From 2009-12 with the Dodgers, a healthy Kemp averaged 29 homers/96 RBI per annum; and in his first year back from injury (2014), Kemp belted 25 homers. 2) Speaking of last season ... Kemp was an absolute monster in September, notching nine homers, 25 RBI, 21 runs, a .322 batting average, .700 slugging rate and 1.047 OPS. 3) Check out Kemp's lifetime marks at San Diego's PETCO Park (59 games): 7 HR, 34 RBI, 28 runs, 8 steals, .322 batting, .372 OBP. 4) Kemp should have plenty of protection in the Padres' lineup -- namely Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks.
Prediction #6: Billy Hamilton will register 80 steals in Year 2
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) As a rookie, Hamilton tallied three months of double-digit steals -- but never in consecutive months. That weird trend ends in 2015. 2) From a splits standpoint, Hamilton also posted four months of four-plus caught stealings. Ordinarily, that would be a bad thing; but as the saying goes, You've got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. 3) We're not freaking out about the kid's sub-.300 on-base percentage, citing two reasons: a) For 502 games in the minor leagues, Hamilton had a career OBP of .350. b) From a splits perspective, Hamilton (6 HR, 48 RBI, 72 runs, 56 steals, .292 OBP in 2014) produced three months of a .300-plus OBP.
Prediction #7: Freddie Freeman will draw 125 walks
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) At first, we wanted to boldly earmark the Braves for 165-plus steals, eclipsing the club's single-season record (established in 1991). But we're not convinced Atlanta has fully committed to a speed-centric or small-ball approach for all six months. 2) In terms of on-base percentage, Freeman boasts a stealth two-year average of .392. 3) It's ambitious to forecast Freeman for a 33-percent jump in walks (career-best 90 last year). However, given the Braves' lack of certifiable lineup protection in the No. 4 slot (Chris Johnson, Nick Markakis, Andrelton Simmons, Jonny Gomes, Melvin Upton Jr., whomever), opposing pitchers shouldn't feel obligated to earnestly address Freeman -- in non-emergency situations. Just bypass him ... and take your chances.
Prediction #8: Jeff Samardzija will finally hit the double-digit victories mark
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) At first blush, this seems like a no-brainer accomplishment, given Shark's seven years in the majors and 99 career starts. But Samardzija has merely averaged eight wins from 2011-14. 2) The White Sox, Samardzija's new club, are on the short list of baseball's most improved teams for 2015. 3) Of his 33 starts last year (Cubs/Athletics), Samardzija allowed three runs or fewer 25 times. Bottom line: It's virtually impossible not to post double-digit wins with that foundation of success.
Mark J. Rebilas
Prediction #9: Johnny Cueto will break the Reds' drought of back-to-back 20-game winners
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) A little history lesson: In the early, early, early days of baseball (1882-83), the Reds' Will White insanely accrued 83 wins in a two-year span. Fast forward to the 1939-40 campaigns, when Bucky Walters collected 27 and 22 victories for Cincy. 2) Cueto enjoyed career bests with wins (20), ERA (2.25), innings (243.2) and strikeouts (242) last season; but he had been steadily building up to that greatness for some time. In other words, it wouldn't be a fluke for Cueto to replicate that 2014 success. 3) From a splits perspective last season, Cueto logged three months of four-plus wins and five months of a sub-2.60 ERA.
Prediction #10: Alex Rodriguez will match the power tallies from 2012 (18 HR/57 RBI)
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) A-Rod had a rock-solid spring with the Yankees -- against all odds -- racking up three homers, four RBI, six runs, a .324 batting average, .432 OBP and 1.026 OPS. 2) When extrapolating Rodriguez's 2013 numbers (7 HR/19 RBI in 44 games) to the 2012 amount of games played (122) ... the final tally works out to 20 homers and 54 RBI. And as a designated hitter, the 2015 version of A-Rod won't have to worry about getting injured while playing defense every day. 3) The Yankees, one of the oldest hitting lineups in baseball, will need Rodriguez to contribute all season -- combatting an inevitable slew of injuries.
Prediction #11: Houston's Chris Carter and Jon Singleton will combine for 400 strikeouts
RATIONALE: 1) Carter has averaged 33 homers and 197 Ks over the last two seasons.Translation: The man loves to swing from the heels, guilt-free. 2) In 147 games last year (minors/majors), Singleton struck out 186 times. 3) The Astros' hulking hitters -- Carter, Singleton, Evan Gattis, George Springer -- don't live in fear of striking out a lot. Ths team is predicated on speed, power and youthful exuberance/confidence ... and not necessarily the art of getting on base 38 percent of the time. That's the singular job of second baseman Jose Altuve (.341 batting, 56 steals, 85 runs in 2014). (Photos: Troy Taormina/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Prediction #12: Put Michael Brantley down for 30 homers/30 steals
SEEDS OF DOUBT: Brantley's homers jumped from 10 (2013) to 20 in 2014; and from 2009-12, he had accounted for only 16 homers in the majors. ... REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) In a three-year span, however, Brantley has averaged 36 doubles -- including a career-best 45 in 2014. Traditionally, prodigious doubles tallies lead to increased homer production -- especially involving players in their 20s. 2) On the speed front, Brantley's steals have steadily risen from 12 to 17 to 23 since 2012. It's reasonable for Brantley to make another steals jump -- especially with a .385 on-base percentage from one year ago. He's a budding superstar with Cleveland. (Photos: Joy R. Absalon/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Prediction #13: The defending champion Giants won't make the playoffs
SEEDS OF DOUBT: 1) For this decade, the Giants have won the World Series for every even-numbered year (2010, 2012, 2014). 2) For the last three odd-numbered seasons (2009, 2011, 2013), San Francisco has a so-so average of 83.3 wins -- with no playoff appearances. 3) During spring training, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy publicly scolded his club, lamenting their readiness for the regular season. 4) It's one thing to blame the baseball gods for the Giants' quirky dynasty (and yes, three titles in five years qualifies as that). It's another to appreciate how the Dodgers, Cardinals, Nationals and Pirates are presumed locks for the postseason ... leaving the Giants, Marlins, Mets, Reds, Brewers and vastly improved Padres competing for the final slot.
Prediction #14: This season will be devoid of any worst-to-first division champs
SEEDS OF DOUBT: 1) The Twins (AL Central) and Cubs (NL Central) may be knee-deep in top prospects, but neither club should be viewed as serious division-title contenders. For now. Regardless of how many Cubs fans lug that annoying It's Gonna Happen sign around Wrigley Field. 2) Adrian Beltre (left) and the Rangers waved bye-bye to winning the AL West ... the precise moment pitcher Yu Darvish went down with a season-ending injury. 3) The Phillies (NL East) and Diamondbacks (NL West) are in rebuild mode; and it will be a full-on reconstruction for Philly -- once pitcher Cole Hamels (middle) gets traded. 4) Dustin Pedroia (right) and the Red Sox are certainly playoff-worthy this season, so much that we like 'em as wild cards. (Photos: Troy Taormina/Matt Kartozian/Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)
Prediction #15: The St. Louis Cardinals will win the World Series
REASONS TO BELIEVE: 1) Of his last five healthy seasons (2009-10, 2012-14), ace Adam Wainwright has averaged 18 wins, a 2.83 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 201 strikeouts. 2) Heading into his third season, Michael Wacha (MLB tallies: 3.04 ERA, 159/52 K-BB rate) could be The Next Big Thing among National League pitchers. 3) The Cardinals boast perhaps the most balanced everyday lineup in baseball, especially with Yadier Molina anchoring the action from behind the plate. 4) The offseason acquisition of Jason Heyward (the 2014 Defensive Player Of The Year) brings a little more urgency to the Cards' championship hopes. 5) In his first full year as the Cardinals' closer, Trevor Rosenthall notched 45 saves.