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22 bold predictions for 2022 MLB season: A surprise champ, big trades, 30/30 for Ohtani, Pujols history, more

The Major League Baseball season is upon us. The owner’s lockout delayed 2022 Opening Day one week, but we’ll have 162 games and a brand new 12-team postseason format this year. To stick with the “22s” theme, here are 22 bold predictions for the 2022 baseball season ahead of Thursday’s Opening Day. Come with me, won’t you?

1. Byron Buxton stays healthy, wins AL MVP

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What we have seen from Buxton the last three seasons has been incredible. We just haven’t seen enough of it. Injuries have limited Buxton to only 187 of 384 possible regular season games the last three seasons, or 49 percent. But in those 187 games, he’s been incredible: .277/.321/.576 with 42 homers, 25 steals, and 9.6 WAR. Here is the WAR per 162 games leaderboard from 2019-21:

  1. Mike Trout: 8.35
  2. Byron Buxton: 8.32
  3. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 8.07
  4. Aaron Judge: 7.46
  5. Mookie Betts: 7.43

Buxton is right behind Trout and quite a bit ahead of Tatis. When healthy, he’s a difference-maker on both sides of the ball, and for my first bold prediction, I’m saying Buxton will stay healthy this season. And because he stays healthy, he’ll win AL MVP. He is that good and that talented, and at age 28, Buxton is right smack in his prime. A full, healthy season of Buxton could include 40 homers, 30 steals, and the best center field defense in the sport. He’s a 10-WAR season waiting to happen.

2. Cody Bellinger will be named NL Comeback Player of the Year

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I admit, this bold prediction sounded better in my head a few weeks ago, before Bellinger struck out 14 times in his first 19 spring at-bats. He’s been tinkering with his swing all spring, and while spring training stats usually don’t matter a whole lot, Bellinger having 18 strikeouts and one walk in 31 plate appearances going into Monday’s game kinda feels like it matters? Given what he went through last year, it’s worrisome.

That only makes this bold prediction more bold, however. I like to bet on talent and Bellinger has elite talent on both sides of the ball. There was nothing fluky about that NL MVP win a few years ago. Bellinger is only 26 and he’s about to enter what should be his peak years. I’m predicting Bellinger figures it out soon and has a strong, bounce-back season that earns him the NL Comeback Player of the Year award. (Just don’t look at his spring stats.)

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Fun fact: Ohtani led baseball with eight triples last season. In addition to being a 40-homer slugger and ace-caliber pitcher, he’s also a great baserunner. Ohtani stole 26 bases a year ago (he also led baseball with 10 caught stealings) and he was comfortably above average in FanGraphs’ catch-all baserunning metric, which includes going first-to-third, advancing on fly balls, etc.

With that in mind, I’m boldly predicting Ohtani will join the 30/30 club this season, all while being a great starting pitcher. There’s a decent chance Ohtani will never repeat 2021, that might be a once-in-a-lifetime kinda season, but even with a little regression, he can be among the game’s best players, and a 30/30 season is within reach — 30 homers and 30 steals. Do I hear 30 starts too? That might be too much to ask given the need to manage his workload.

4. Juan Soto trade rumors will begin

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I’m not saying the Nationals will trade Soto. I think that would be crazy. But I am predicting we will begin to see sincere “teams have called the Nationals about Soto” trade rumors this summer. Soto rejected a 13-year, $350 million extension prior to the lockout, and indicated he will go year-to-year through the arbitration process. As a top Scott Boras client, that’s a safe bet.

Furthermore, the Nationals figure to be very bad this season. Possibly north of 100 losses. And I’m not sure a quick turnaround can happen in a division with the defending World Series champion Braves, the Steve Cohen-led Mets, and the up-and-coming Marlins. Soto has three years of control remaining. Is a crazy to think Washington won’t contend in the next three years? I don’t think so.

Opposing clubs will smell the blood in the water and pester the Nationals with trade offers. I honestly couldn’t tell you what it would take to pry Soto loose (maybe the Rays would put Wander Franco on the table?), but it never hurts to ask. I think the Nationals will keep Soto and keep trying to hammer away at an extension, but I predict the trade rumors arrive in 2022.

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I’ve been beating this drum since December and it makes too much sense. Ramírez’s recent extension talks with the Guardians went nowhere, making it likely he will be traded at some point before becoming a free agent after next season. The Blue Jays are very much in it to win it, and Ramírez would slot in nicely at second base, a position he has played previously. His contract (both dollars and years) fits into their payroll structure wonderfully. Dream with me:

  1. CF George Springer
  2. 2B Jose Ramírez
  3. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  4. RF Teoscar Hernández
  5. SS Bo Bichette
  6. 3B Matt Chapman
  7. LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 
  8. DH Alejandro Kirk
  9. C Danny Jansen

Trade Ramírez at the deadline and the acquiring team gets him for two postseason runs, thus jacking up the price. The Guardians waited a little too long to trade Francisco Lindor and didn’t get that monster package in return. Trade Ramírez this summer and the return would be significant. The kind of haul that can get Cleveland back into contention fairly soon.

I think a package featuring infield prospect Jordan Groshans and a young catcher like Kirk or especially Gabriel Moreno would get Cleveland’s attention. Regardless of the package, Ramírez to the Blue Jays makes a ton of sense and I am boldly predicting it will happen sometime before the trade deadline.

(Note: Cleveland made this bold prediction unlikely before Opening Day. The Guardians signed Ramírez to a five-year, $124 million contract extension on Wednesday, the day after this post was originally published).

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It is a matter of when, not if, the Athletics will trade Montas. They’ve already traded Chris Bassitt, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, and Matt Olson, and they’re not going to keep Montas, who will be a free agent after 2023. He’s going, and I bet he goes sooner rather than later. The longer the A’s hold onto him, the more they risk seeing Montas’ trade value plummet (through injury or poor performance).

The defending World Series champion Braves are looking to repeat and there is enough uncertainty with the back of their rotation (Tucker Davidson, Kyle Muller, Kyle Wright, Huascar Ynoa, etc.) and with Mike Soroka’s health that I could see them being in the market for another starter at some point. These two teams recently hooked up for the Olson trade, so the A’s have done background work on Atlanta’s farm system. Things could come together quickly. I like the fit and see a match.

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The Reds aggressively cut costs over the winter and it feels like only a matter of time until Luis Castillo and Mahle are dealt. Texas needs pitching and they have several near-MLB-ready middle infield prospects who are suddenly blocked by Corey Seager and Marcus Semien (Ezequiel Duran, Justin Foscue, Josh Smith, etc.). They can put together a real nice package.

Mahle was quite good last season and the measurables (velocity, spin rate, etc.) suggest there’s still another level in there. The Rangers always seem to need more pitching and Mahle is under team control through 2023. He’s also the kind of pitcher Texas could look to sign long-term. Either way, Mahle to the Rangers for a package built around young infielders is a match made in bold trade prediction heaven. 

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Will it be easy? No, definitely not. Will it happen? Yes. I am boldly predicting it. Pujols is fifth on the all-time home run list and he is 21 away from becoming the fourth member of the 700 homers club. Here’s the career home run leaderboard:

  1. Barry Bonds: 762
  2. Hank Aaron: 755
  3. Babe Ruth: 714
  4. Alex Rodriguez: 696
  5. Albert Pujols: 679

Last season Pujols hit 17 home runs in only 296 plate appearances. That’s a pretty good rate! A similar pace this year would require 366 plate appearances to get to 700 homers, though there are indications the league home run rate is about to skyrocket, which will work to his advantage. The Cardinals say they plan to use Pujols as a righty platoon bat, but if he’s nearing 700 homers late in the season, you can bet he’ll start getting at-bats against righties. Welcome to the 700 homer club, Mr. Pujols.

9. Camden Yards will be a bottom 15 home run park

Or it could be top 15, depending on your perspective. Camden Yards in Baltimore has historically been one of the most homer-happy ballparks in the baseball, and that has been especially true given some of the pitching staffs the Orioles have run out there during their tank job rebuild. Here are the total home runs hit at Camden Yards the last few seasons:

  • 2021: 277 (most in MLB by 27!)
  • 2020: 89 (10th most during 60-game season)
  • 2019: 289 (second most) 
  • 2018: 223 (sixth most)
  • 2017: 262 (most)

Camden Yards is a great dinger park and I am boldly predicting that will change this year. Rather than rank at or near the top in home runs allowed, Camden Yards will rank in the bottom half of the league. Not because the O’s pitching will be better, though they do have a few young arms who could pop (Grayson Rodriguez, most notably), but because they moved the left field wall back:

“While Oriole Park will remain a hitter’s ballpark, it will no longer be an outlier among the parks,” the Orioles said in a statement.  

They’re pushing the left field wall back as much as 30 feet (!) in some spots, and they’ve increased the wall height as well. All those almost rob-able home runs that plop into the first or second row will now stay in play. Also, the universal DH will boost home run totals at National League parks going forward, moving them up the leaderboard. That works in my favor too.

10. Oneil Cruz will win the Home Run Derby

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Predictably, the Pirates sent Cruz, their top prospect, to the minors last week in a move that screams service-time manipulation. It is true Cruz has played only six games at Triple-A. It is also true that Cruz wrecked Double-A last year and was called up to the big leagues late in the season, and showed his freakish power. Look at this:

Nothing about that is normal. That’s a 6-foot-7 shortstop reaching down and flicking his wrists to hit golf shot home runs. Cruz is a freak of nature and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The 23-year-old Cruz had nine big-league plate appearances last year and in one of them he hit a ball 118.2 mph. Only six others managed to do that in 2021: Pete Alonso, Franchy Cordero, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, Shohei Ohtani, and Giancarlo Stanton. Maybe Cruz proves to be the next Cordero rather than the next Judge. I guess we’ll find out when the Pirates let us.

Anyway, this bold prediction calls for Cruz to be called up in time to show off that prodigious power, and earn an invite to the Home Run Derby, which he will then win. The Home Run Derby is nothing more than a showcase, a spectacle with the game’s top power hitters, and Cruz is made for that event. He’ll get invited and deny Alonso a three-peat.

11. Seiya Suzuki will have a top-five season by a Japanese hitter

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The Cubs won the bidding war for Suzuki over the winter (or, technically, this spring) and signed him to a five-year, $85 million contract. Last season Suzuki, who will play most of this year at age 27, authored a .317/.433/.636 batting line with 38 home runs for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. Both ZiPS and PECOTA project Suzuki as an impact hitter right away.

We’ve been fortunate enough to watch some great Japanese players the last few decades, including an all-time legend in Ichiro and the unicorn that is Shohei Ohtani, and this bold prediction calls for Suzuki to produce just as much as those guys. Here are the five best offensive seasons by a Japanese player in MLB by adjusted-OPS, where 100 is average and the higher the number, the better:

  1. Shohei Ohtani, 2021 Angels: 158
  2. Hideki Matsui, 2004 Yankees: 137
  3. Ichiro Suzuki, 2004 Mariners: 130
  4. Hideki Matsui, 2005 Yankees: 130
  5. Ichiro Suzuki, 2009 Mariners: 129

Suzuki needs a 130 OPS+ to jump into the top five and, for reference, hitters with an OPS+ in the 130 range last season include Nelson Cruz (130), Yuli Gurriel (131), and Austin Riley (132). There’s going to be an adjustment period, that’s inevitable (we’ve already seen it a bit this spring), but once Suzuki gets his bearings, he’ll take off and be among the game’s most productive hitters.

12. Bobby Witt Jr. will hit 30 home runs

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On the surface, this doesn’t seem so bold. Witt is arguably the best prospect in baseball and last season he hit .290/.361/.576 with 35 doubles and 33 home runs in 124 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. But did you know only four non-first base rookie infielders have ever hit 30 homers in a season? Here’s the list:

  1. 2B Al Rosen, 1950 Cleveland: 37
  2. 3B Ryan Braun, 2007 Brewers: 34
  3. 3B Jim Ray Hart, 1964 Giants: 31
  4. SS Nomar Garciaparra, 1997 Red Sox: 30

Several rookie first basemen have done it, most recently Pete Alonso during his record-breaking rookie season, but only four guys at the “skill” infield positions (for lack of a better term) have done it. It’s unclear whether Witt will play shortstop or third base for the Royals this season, but he will play for them, and he will join that exclusive club with 30 homers. I’m boldly predicting it.

13. Julio Rodríguez will win AL Rookie of the Year

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Witt Jr. may sock 30 homers, but Rodríguez will take home the league Rookie of the Year award. The Mariners’ charismatic outfield prospect has been a one-man highlight reel this spring. He’s launched titanic dingers, legged out an inside-the-park homer, made a leaping catch, and bat flipped a walk after falling behind in the count 0-2. Rodríguez, who is on Seattle’s Opening Day roster, is an absolute joy.

The bold prediction here is Rodríguez, who ZiPS already projects as Seattle’s best player, will have a comparable season to Witt and edge him out in the closest Rookie of the Year vote since Carlos Correa finished 15 points ahead of Francisco Lindor in 2015 (124 to 109). I hope Witt and Rodríguez give us a Rookie of the Year race (and go on to have careers) like those two.

14. Francisco Álvarez will take over as the No. 1 prospect in baseball

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The Mets have a gem in Álvarez, a power-hitting catcher who slashed .272/.388/.554 with 24 homers in 99 games split between two Single-A levels in 2021. He did that while being roughly three years younger than the average player in the league and while being a catcher. That is mammoth production and it earned him a premium spot on R.J. Anderson’s top 50 prospects list:

  1. C Adley Rutschman, Orioles
  2. SS Bobby Witt Jr., Royals
  3. OF Julio Rodríguez, Mariners
  4. RHP Shane Baz, Rays
  5. RHP Grayson Rodriguez, Orioles
  6. OF Riley Greene, Tigers
  7. C Francisco Álvarez, Mets
  8. 1B Spencer Torkelson, Tigers
  9. C Gabriel Moreno, Blue Jays
  10. SS CJ Abrams, Padres

Rutschman, Witt, Rodríguez (Julio, not Grayson), Baz, Greene, and Torkelson are all expected to graduate to the big leagues this year. Rodriguez (Grayson, not Julio) and Moreno could join them. Maybe even Abrams too. That creates a pretty clear path to the No. 1 spot for Álvarez, a 20-year-old catcher who figures to split the season between High-A and Double-A.

Jumping from No. 7 to No. 1 isn’t exactly bold, but the jump from High-A to Double-A is the biggest in the minors. That’s where the prospects separate themselves form the suspects, plus being a young catcher is just hard. If Álvarez stumbles a bit in 2022, it would be understandable. That said, I expect big things, and I have him taking over as the game’s No. 1 prospect later this year.

15. Ha-seong Kim will be a top-five shortstop in the National League

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The Fernando Tatis Jr. injury is bad for the Padres and terrible for baseball overall. Tatis is an exciting, energetic player with a “you can’t take your eyes off him” quality few players have. His broken wrist is a big loss for the game and fans in general. This sport needs more players like Tatis.

The injury is good news for Kim though. Kim doesn’t want Tatis to be hurt, obviously, but the injury opens the shortstop position and clears a path for a full-time job. Kim really struggled last year, though he was a monster in Korea in 2020 (.306/.397/.523 with 30 homers), and his top-end exit velocities were strong last season. When he connected, Kim really drove the ball.

That great free-agent class we spent the last few months talking about? Those guys all signed in the American League. Marcus Semien and Carlos Correa stayed in the Junior Circuit while Javier Báez, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story all made the jump from the National League. Here are the top NL shortstops by ZiPS projected 2022 WAR:

  1. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres: 7.5 (pre-injury projection)
  2. Trea Turner, Dodgers: 5.6
  3. Francisco Lindor, Mets: 4.7
  4. Willy Adames, Brewers: 3.0
  5. Brandon Crawford, Giants and Dansby Swanson, Braves: 2.6

The bar Kim has to clear to crack the top five isn’t that high, especially with Tatis now hurt. Good shortstop defense and a league average-ish bat is a path to 3 WAR, and if Kim plays well enough, San Diego will find a way to keep him in the lineup even after Tatis returns. Our loss (Tatis’ injury) is Kim’s gain (this is his big chance). 

16. Daulton Varsho will start 30 games at catcher and in center field

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Daulton is the son of former big leaguer Gary Varsho and he is one of my favorite players in the game today. He’s a unicorn as a guy with the defensive chops and athleticism to both catch and play center field. Last season he started 21 games in center and 30 games at catcher. This season I have Varsho jumping into the 30/30 club — 30 starts at catcher and 30 starts in center. Only three players have done it, and only one remotely recently:

  • Craig Biggio, 1990 Astros: 101 starts at catcher and 34 in center
  • Wally Schang, 1920 Red Sox: 69 starts at catcher and 35 in center
  • Roger Bresnahan, 1906 Giants: 81 starts at catcher and 37 in center

Varsho began to break out offensively late last year (.290/.349/.530 in the second half) and the center field job is all his this season. Carson Kelly is entrenched behind the plate, though injuries happen, and I’m guessing there will be 30 starts behind the plate available. It’s not like Arizona has a veteran backup catcher lined up (with all due apologies to Jose Herrera). Welcome to the unconventional 30/30 club, Daulton.

17. Jazz Chisholm will hit for the cycle

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Did you know the Marlins have never had a cycle in their history? They’re the only franchise without one. They aren’t that recent an expansion team. You’d think they’d have one (or several) by now. For this bold prediction, I’m going to say Chisholm will record the first cycle in franchise history. He has the power, speed, and all-around awesomeness I associate with cycles. To be specific, I’ll say Chisholm does the deed at home against the Mets on Monday, June 20. It has been foretold.

18. Hunter Greene will be the hardest-throwing starter ever

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Pitch tracking data only goes back to 2008, though it’s safe to assume the hardest-throwing seasons ever have taken place in the last 14 years. The sport is obsessed with velocity and the radar gun readings only continue to trend up. Here are the hardest average fastballs on record (min. 100 innings):

  1. Noah Syndergaard, 2016 Mets: 98.9 mph
  2. Sandy Alcantara: 2021 Marlins: 98.1 mph
  3. Yordano Ventura, 2014 Royals: 98.0 mph
  4. Noah Syndergaard, 2019 Mets: 97.9 mph
  5. Gerrit Cole, 2021 Yankees: 97.8 mph

In 2022, Greene will jump to the top of the list. The Reds righty has made the team and is Cincinnati’s No. 2 prospect. He’s also one of the hardest-throwing humans on the planet. Greene routinely tops 100 mph, and he reportedly threw a 105-mph pitch in Triple-A last year.

Greene’s fastball has been more hittable than the radar gun would lead you to believe, though we’re not worried about results for this bold prediction. We’re focused on raw velocity, and this season Greene will supplant Syndergaard on that list and take over as the hardest-throwing starting pitcher on record.

19. Logan Webb will have a record ground ball rate

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Webb made the jump from “hey this guy is pretty good and flying under the radar” last regular season to “this guy is a star” in the postseason, when he dominated the Dodgers twice in the NLDS. The Giants lost the series, but Webb is now a household name, and soon his ground ball ability will be as well. He used his sinker to produce a stellar 60.9 percent ground ball rate in 2021.

This bold prediction calls for Webb to improve on that number this season and post the highest ground ball rate on record. Batted-ball data dates back to 2002. Here are the highest ground ball rates among qualified pitchers since then:

  1. Derek Lowe, 2002 Red Sox: 67.0%
  2. Derek Lowe, 2006 Dodgers: 67.0%
  3. Brandon Webb, 2006 Diamondbacks: 66.3%
  4. Brett Anderson, 2015 Dodgers: 66.3%
  5. Derek Lowe, 2003 Red Sox: 65.9%

Lowe also has the 7th, 14th, and 18th best ground ball seasons on that list. His sinker was a bowling ball. So is Webb’s. Brandon’s and Logan’s. It’s too bad Brandon got hurt. He was nasty. Logan is nasty as well, and his ground ball ability improved during last year too: 58.7 percent in the first half and 62.2 percent in the second half.

The Giants have a thing for maxing out their players’ strengths and Webb’s ground ball ability is his strength. The jump from 60.9 percent to 67.0 percent is pretty big, but I’m betting on Webb’s sinker being that damn good.

20. Four AL East teams will reach postseason

Last season the AL East became the first division in the divisional play era with four 90-win teams and only the second division ever, joining the seven-team AL East in 1978. This year it will become the first division to send four teams to the postseason (sorry Orioles, not you). The new 12-team postseason format makes that possible. Look at the FanGraphs postseason odds:

  1. Blue Jays: 89.0%
  2. Astros: 85.9%
  3. Yankees: 83.1%
  4. White Sox: 71.5%
  5. Red Sox: 62.6%
  6. Rays: 58.4%
  7. Angels: 43.7%
  8. Twins: 41.6%

FanGraphs says the four non-O’s teams in the division have four of the six highest postseason odds in the league, so the objective computers agree with me. So it shall be. Four AL East teams are heading to October thanks to the 12-team postseason format.

21. The White Sox will reach the ALCS

Four AL East teams will reach the postseason, but the White Sox are going to the ALCS. This is notable because a) the White Sox have not won a postseason series since the 2005 World Series, and b) an AL Central team has not won a postseason series since Cleveland won the 2016 ALCS. AL Central teams are 4-23 in the postseason since Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series. 4-23! The tide begins to turn this season. The South Siders will advance to the ALCS.

22. The Brewers will beat the Astros in the World Series

Do I love Milwaukee’s offense? No. Hunter Renfroe is a big offensive upgrade over Jackie Bradley Jr. without being a big defensive downgrade, and surely Christian Yelich will get his slugging percentage back over .400, right? Even then, it feels like the offense’s ceiling is pretty good rather than great, and offenses like that can get exposed (like in the NLDS last year).

That said, the pitching is great, and the offense only needs to be great for a few weeks in October. Who saw Eddie Rosario having the best month of his career last postseason, or Jorge Soler socking clutch homer after clutch homer? Weird things happen in October. Get in and you can win. The Braves showed that last year and this year I’m boldly predicting the Brewers do the same.

As for the Astros, letting Carlos Correa leave is a significant loss — Jeremy Peña could have a Rookie of the Year season and still be a multi-win downgrade because Correa is that good — though they’re still very good and I would not want to face them in a short postseason series. They still have six great hitters plus a (hopefully healthy) Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr.

For my final bold prediction, I have the Brewers winning the first World Series championship in franchise history, and the Astros losing the World Series for the second straight year and the third time in the last four years. This sport can be cruel. As for a World Series MVP pick, how about Rowdy Tellez? When in doubt, pick the dude named Rowdy.

Baseball has not had a repeat champion since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. With all due respect to the Braves, I don’t see that streak ending this year. Milwaukee will be title town come October.