Howard Bender’s 10 Bold Predictions by Howard Bender March 12, 2014 While they say “go big or go home,” these bold predictions tend to be a double-edged sword for us. We want to go bold, but we don’t want to be so outlandish that our predictions are unrealistic. We want to be right, but hedging our boldness only leads to the obligatory “these predictions aren’t so bold” comment which makes us feel shame for wimping out. I’m hoping to walk that fine line between wishful thinking and practical conjecture, but I tend to lean towards the outrageous, so I’m just going to have some fun here. Dee Gordon will lead the NL in stolen bases How’s that for boldness right out of the gate? Two things need to happen this season for this to come true: Gordon needs to earn and hold the starting second base job for the Dodgers and Billy Hamilton needs to spend most of his season in Triple-A. Gordon already seems to be on his way to earning the job this spring, so with him, it should come down to him exhibiting more of that improved plate discipline we saw last year. If he can keep his strikeout rate below 20-percent, maybe push that walk rate above 10-percent and see even a little boost in the BABIP department, then he should stave off Alex Guerrero and dazzle us with that crazy speed we all know he has. As for Hamilton, he needs to start the season ice-cold and put up numbers the Reds simply can’t tolerate from their leadoff hitter and starting center fielder. Perhaps the OBP decline he’s suffered with each increase in level over the last two seasons becomes a little more glaring and the Reds are forced to make a move. You certainly can’t tell me with 100-percent certainly that it won’t happen, so I’ll go bold and say that it will because Hamilton going in the tank is the only way this prediction has a chance to be right. Jose Abreu outperforms fellow countrymen Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes and, fantasy-wise, becomes the most valuable of all recent Cuban defectors, including Jose Fernandez. Abreu won’t steal bases like Cespedes or Puig will, but he’s certainly going to out-slug them both. He’ll have more home runs, more RBI and should post a better batting average than either of them. His runs scored will be close, but I only need three of the five standard roto categories to be right. I could sit here and talk about Cespedes’ injury history or the fact that Puig posted a .255/.326/.432 over the second half of his season and was figured out by opposing pitchers, but I’d much rather focus on Abreu’s mythical resume which makes him sound like a cross between Zeus and the mighty Casey at the Bat. From league MVPs to home run records to slugging percentages hovering somewhere in the stratosphere, the 27 year old first baseman is a modern-day legend in Cuba. His 2010-11 season was his masterpiece when he slashed .453/.597/.986 with 79 runs, 93 RBI and 33 home runs in only 66 games. Playing half his games at the Cell is only going to help our hero, so sit back and enjoy the ride. Cespedes and Puig will both be green with envy and Fernandez’ pitching line won’t provide the overall impact to fantasy teams that Abreu’s batting line will. Avisail Garcia goes 20-20 this season I like his swing, I like his raw talent and I like his opportunity. While the White Sox outfield continues to look a little on the crowded side, all signs point to Garcia holding down the right field gig by himself this season. He’s shown some developing power potential through the minors and posted solid ISO numbers last season in Triple-A despite being injured for a substantial chunk of time. If he can maintain a similar mark hovering around .160, then he stands an excellent chance at cracking the 20-homer barrier, given the number of plate appearances he’ll receive. As for the speed, it’s going to be about him maintaining those strong OBP numbers we’ve seen him put up in the past and getting the green light from manager Robin Ventura. It is quite possible that I’m a year early on this, but the raw skills are there, for sure. Vic Black will finish the season as a top-10 closer in the National League I just don’t have faith in Bobby Parnell to stay healthy this year. Sure, neck surgery repaired the herniated disc that sidelined him last year, but I’m still wary. I think Black has better stuff, more consistent velocity, a higher strikeout rate which tends to push towards a higher strand rate, and once he gets the opportunity, he’s not going to let go. While I have little faith in the Mets posting more wins than losses, Black should close out plenty of games to push his saves total into a top-10 range while maintaining ratios and strikeouts that do the same. Joakim Soria finishes as a top-five closer in the AL and wins Comeback Player of the Year Soria is battling with Neftali Feliz this spring for the closer job and while both are working their way back from Tommy John surgery, Soria looks like he’s having an easier time with it than his counterpart does. Maybe this being Soria’s second run at the procedure gives him an advantage as he knows the process and just what he needs to do to get himself back on track. This is all still uncharted territory for Feliz. Already this spring we’re seeing Feliz struggle with his command and he’s looked very hittable. Obviously it’s a small sample size and we can’t put too much stock in spring numbers, but when Soria is clearly ahead of him, Ron Washington is going to have to go with the guy who can hold the lead best. Feliz as a fly-ball pitcher is risky enough, but a fly-ball pitcher who falls into hitter’s counts regularly is more likely to give up some late-game leads. Soria should earn the nod by the end of March and quietly return to the days of yore when he was affectionately known as the Mexecutioner. Yes, I know he doesn’t like the nickname, but it’s just so damn good. I see strong strikeout totals, very helpful ground ball rates and enough to slide in just behind the AL’s top-three in Greg Holland, Joe Nathan and Koji Uehara. Regardless of record, the Astros finish in the top-five for runs scored in the second half. Once the Astros are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, which should be sometime around mid to late June, and there are no arbitration clocks with which to be concerned, the team is likely to summon, if they haven’t already, both George Springer and Jonathan Singleton. Combine them with Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter and Jason Castro in the heart of the order and Dexter Fowler and Jose Altuve setting the table and the Astors could be looking at quite the second half surge in runs scored. There’s plenty of power here, good speed a very hitter-friendly home ballpark and come the second half, these guys aren’t going to have much in the way of pressure on them. Sure, their pitching staff may guide them to a number of 7-5 losses over the second half, but the potential of this offense seems too good to ignore. Mike Moustakas out-earns Josh Donaldson This is a combination of me believing that Moustakas has done the necessary work to correct his problems at the plate and that Donaldson peaked last year and has nowhere to go but down. Moustakas has continuously put in a ton of work to his approach at the plate and will hopefully continue to bring that IFFB% down as he has each year for the last three years. He actually improved his contact rate last year, swung at fewer pitches outside the zone and reduced his overall strikeout rate as well as his swinging-strike-percentage. I believe he can return to that 20-home run level and post numbers closer to his rookie season. With Donaldson, I see a 28-year old late-bloomer who posted a career year that he will struggle to sustain. His strikeout and contact rates in the minors were never anything to be excited about and he’s rarely posted a string batting average. Even if you assume only a slight regression, his and Moustakas’ numbers should be extremely similar by year-end. If that’s the case, it comes down to where you drafted Donaldson versus where you drafted Moustakas and in looking at their respective ADP numbers, we’re talking about a fifth rounder versus a 20th-rounder. Andrelton Simmons finishes the year as a top-five NL shortstop Plain and simple, I believe he licks the pop-up issue from which he suffers, posts close to, if not exactly, 20 home runs, and sports a BABIP well above the .247 mark he struggled with last year. I see him maintaining his solid plate discipline and also finding his way to double-digit stolen bases. If all that goes the way I think/hope it will, a 20-10 season with a .270-ish batting average could be all he needs to crack the top five in the NL. Of course, I’ll need a little help here as well as Troy Tulowitzki will need a major injury (very possible) while at least two of Ian Desmond, Jean Segura, Starlin Castro and Everth Cabrera need to struggle throughout most of the year. They don’t have to be huge struggles; just enough to let Simmons squeeze past them. Gerald Laird and Christian Bethancourt each finish the year with as many, if not more plate appearances than Evan Gattis Defensively, Gattis isn’t very good. He ranked just 38th overall amongst all backstops who accumulated 250 or more plate appearances. Offensively, he put up two solid months to open the year last season, batting .281 with 12 home runs, but from June 1 to the end of the season, he posted a .219 average with just nine home runs. If he hits like that again and the defensive work hasn’t improved, the club could very well turn to Gerald Laird for at least a platoon while they await Bethancourt who seems to be primed for a solid second -half call-up. Despite the rash of injuries to the Braves rotation, the team is still likely to be in a win-now mentality and subpar performances behind and at the plate are only going to be tolerated for so long. I see the team tiring of Gattis’s struggles both offensively and defensively and reducing him to what he should be — a right-handed bat off the bench. The New York Yankees celebrate Derek Jeter’s final season with their 28th World Series championship. And finally it’s time for me to put my fan hat on, don the Jorge Posada jersey that doubles as a reminder to all Red Sox fans that Bucky Dent once crushed their spirits in a way almost indescribable to most and just asssume that most problems can simply go away if you throw enough money at them. With the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka and a healthy Michael Pineda, the team not only stays healthy, but thrives all year. Kelly Johnson becomes the next Scott Brosius, Brian Roberts and Brendan Ryan keep the keystone covered, Mark Teixeira comes back to jack at least 20 homers and all the other parts, with the help of some of that Yankees mystique and aura, fall right into place.The Captain posts a solid final season for himself, gives the finger to those who continuously hate on his defense and earns his sixth championship ring. Sure, I may be living a pipe dream here, but if it all wasn’t possible, then the Vegas oddsmakers wouldn’t have put the Yankees at 14 to 1, sixth lowest amongst all MLB teams.