Predicting MLB prize races and winners

If you picked the Braves to win the World Series this time last year, then almost certainly the overall genius of Ronald Acuña Jr., the performance of Marcel Ozuna and a comeback from Mike Soroka after a ruptured Achilles tendon were at the heart of the prediction .

In the real world, Acuña tore his knee and stopped playing after July 10th. Ozuna did poorly after being re-signed as a free agent, breaking two fingers on his left hand and then being arrested for assault and assault on his wife and subsequently placed on administrative leave via the MLB domestic violence protocols. Soroka tore his Achilles tendon again and never sprained it in 2021.

Acuña, Ozuna and Soroka did not play in the postseason. But the relatively small trade additions to the season from Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler proved massive – as did the left relief triumvirate of Tyler Matzek, AJ Minter and Will Smith. In other words, what was invaluable for Atlanta’s first title since 1995 was unpredictable at the time everyone was making predictions. Even if you picked the Braves to win it all, you didn’t have the right reasons.

That’s why I don’t particularly like making predictions. Even if you had three months of information last year, your NL MVP would have been Acuña and your NL Cy Young would have been Jacob deGrom. Neither played in the second half.

But every year this newspaper asks me to make predictions – and so I do. I thought I’d use this space to perhaps explain a few thoughts about my work, but also – I hope – to give some insights into the upcoming season:

AL MVP: Luis Robert, White Sox, CF

Besides Robert, I seriously considered Byron Buxton from the Twins and Wander Franco from the Rays. Due to injury or in the case of Franco not being called up until the third week of June, none of the trio have played more than 70 games in 2021.

Still, each achieved at least 3.5 wins over the replacement. In the wildcard era (since 1995), only one other player had this combination: the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts in 2020, when the season was only 60 games due to COVID-19.

Louis Robert
Louis Robert

Look, that could have been a chalk call with, say, a healthy rebound from Mike Trout, or teammate Trout’s Angels Shohei Ohtani, who’s again so doubly great to repeat as an MVP winner, or Aaron Judge or someone from the Rangers’ new double-play combination of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien – I genuinely believe Seager is poised to put together a healthy, brilliant season.

But Robert, Buxton and Franco are five tool players and I wanted to get off the beaten path a bit.

AL Rookie of the Year: Bobby Witt Jr., Royals, 3B

He was one of three consensus top-five prospects making lineups for the season opener, along with Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez and Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson. Were it not for spring injuries, Orioles catcher Adleyrutschman and Tigers midfielder Riley Greene might have formed their teams as well. You should both get up early enough.

And what do Robert, Buxton, Franco, Witt, Rodriguez, Torkelson,rutschman and Greene have in common? They are all American League players – young talents at that.

Bobby Witt Jr. celebrates with teammates.
Bobby Witt Jr. celebrates with teammates.
Getty Images

And there’s this: Of the top 10 free-agent signings by dollar, three players switched leagues — all moving from the NL to the AL: Seager, Javier Baez, and Trevor Story.

The NL has many talents. But the AL is deeper. Remember how many years we’ve waited for the greatest free-agent shortstop class of all time? Baez, Seager, Semien, Story, and Carlos Correa all ended up in the AL, making the position deep enough in the league that Semien stayed at second base and Story moved there.

NL MVP: Francisco Lindor, Mets, SS

Not long ago he would lead this free agent class of elite shortstops. But he was traded and subsequently signed a 10-year extension with the Mets. He’s in the NL and I think he’s ready to settle down in second grade in New York and show his full range of skills and energy.

The field is a little more open for someone like Lindor because Acuña (knee) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (wrist) are not healthy or playing early in the season. The Dodgers’ signing of Freddie Freeman gives them three legitimate MVP contenders, including Betts and Trea Turner, so potentially many votes could be split for candidates from the expected best team in the league.

Francisco Lindor
Francisco Lindor

Conversely, how much will it hurt Juan Soto that the Nationals won’t be very good? Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell offer some protection, but not enough that Soto couldn’t challenge making 200 walks. Why would anyone approach him unless there was no alternative?

NL Rookie of the Year: Seiyu Suzuki, Cubs, OF

This is another place of inequality between NL and AL. There’s no one straight out of the minors who expects to be as strong as Witt, Rodriguez and Torkelson. Fireballer Hunter Greene is in the Reds’ rotation earlier in the year, but without an elite position prospect coming particularly from the minors, Japanese import Suzuki have a clearer path to that honor.

AL Cy Young: Jose Berrios, Blue Jays, SP

So much has (rightly) been made of the Blue Jays’ strong line-up, but the club have put in a tremendous amount of work and created a strong rotation in recent years. Berrios was acquired in a trade, Kevin Gausman, Yusei Kikuchi and Hyun-jin Ryu came via free agency, and Alek Manoah was the 11th pick of 2019. And that doesn’t even count for trading and then signing with a sane company. Year contract, Robbie Ray, who rewarded that deal with an AL Cy Young last year.

Ray turned that into a $115 million package from the Mariners. Toronto also lost Semien to Texas in free agency after he finished third for AL MVP. But Toronto signed Gausman to replace Ray and traded for Matt Chapman to make up for the loss of Semien. But if you like the Blue Jays this year, that includes expecting a full season from George Springer (limited to 78 games last year due to multiple injuries) and Berrios, who joined Toronto at the trade deadline.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

I always worry for a breakthrough team when there’s so much noise around them the following season – it’s harder to win when expected than as an upstart. Still, I chose Toronto to win the hard-fought AL East. One reason is the belief that Berrios is ready to be an ace. He is the right age (28 in May). He has consolation with a seven-year, $131 million extension. And as the Blue Jays tried to make the playoffs last year, Berrios was up against a 2.93 ERA and a .587 OPS in his last seven starts. But let’s just say after his opener in 2022 – one out, four runs, a 108.00 ERA – he has plenty to do to validate my belief.

NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler, Dodgers, SP

The other two I was seriously considering were Max Fried of the Braves and Logan Webb of the Giants. Bühler was fourth last year. In a 2022 season — outside of a shortened spring — teams are challenged to find innings from their staff. A rotation horse will be as valuable as ever.

I just think Buehler is the best bet in the sport for making 30+ starts with dominance. Predicting MLB prize races and winners


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