| December 28, 2021, 11:46 AM
December 28, 2021, 11:46 AM
TORONTO – On July 31, 2021, Atlanta’s record was 52-54. Their best player was injured and their chances of reaching the playoffs were remote. Yet not only did Atlanta reach the playoffs, they thrived there, beating the Brewers, Dodgers and Astros en route to a World Series title.
Along the way, they provided an undeniable reminder of baseball’s unpredictability.
After watching such an unlikely title run, who could seriously believe in their own ability to predict an unpredictable sport? Someone who overestimates their own abilities, perhaps.
Or someone who writes an annual bold predictions column in the face of mounting evidence that said predictions are unreliable at best.
Either way, the time has come to look ahead at 2022. And that means I’m delivering my annual look ahead at the coming baseball season.
So brace yourselves for the unexpected, folks. And forget about what I said a minute ago. Everyone else may have trouble predicting baseball, but I’ve got a good feeling about these five.
In fact, you count on them all coming true in the year ahead…
Wander Franco will finish among the top five in AL MVP voting
In recent years, the Rays have won without a superstar. In 2022, that changes.
Wander Franco’s 20 years old. He has played in all of 70 big-league games and has just seven big-league home runs. But never mind his relatively limited MLB track record, Franco isn’t a candidate for a sophomore slump. In fact, he’s headed for a top-five AL MVP finish in what will be his first full season as a big-leaguer.
Let’s start with the skillset. He has elite bat-to-ball skills, emerging power, plus speed and the ability to handle shortstop at the MLB level. His 2021 batting line – .288/.347/.463 – is actually incredible when you consider he was just 20 years old.
Clearly the Rays believe in him, as evidenced by the $182 million extension they signed. It adds up to a complete player – the kind who belongs near the top of MVP ballots sooner than later.
Bobby Witt Jr. will overtake Sal Perez as the Royals’ most valuable player
Sal Perez is one of the best catchers of his generation, a potential Hall of Famer who hit 48 home runs this past season. Bobby Witt Jr., on the other hand, has yet to play a single game in the major leagues. Yet by year’s end it’ll be Witt Jr., not Perez, who’s Kansas City’s MVP.
At 21, Witt Jr. finds himself on the brink of the majors. He showed power, speed and bat-to-ball skills in the minors this past season, batting .285/.352/.581 at triple-A. The Steamer projection system likes him, forecasting 24 home runs with an .802 OPS in the majors. And if that comes true, well, it’s certainly possible he’d out-produce Perez, who’s now entering his age-32 season after years of huge workloads.
A new pitcher will emerge as a Cy Young candidate: Logan Webb
In 2021 Logan Webb got results while flying under the radar. In 2022, he’ll emerge as a leading Cy Young candidate in the National League.
A ground ball pitcher, Webb also strikes his share of hitters out while limiting walks. It’s a great combination – one that will keep his ERA below 3.50 for one of the NL’s top teams. And if you do that for 180-plus innings, you’ll find your way onto Cy Young ballots before too long.
By this time in 2022, John Olerud will no longer be the only batting title winner in Blue Jays history
In the 45-year history of the Blue Jays, only one player has ever won the American League batting title: John Olerud, the patient and perennially underrated first baseman who beat out teammates Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar for the highest batting average in the American League back in 1993. In 2022, that will change.
In Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, the Blue Jays have two hitters capable of winning a batting title in any given year. Even Teoscar Hernandez has what it takes to hit .300. By this time next year, someone from this lineup will earn the first batting title the Blue Jays have seen since Olerud.
Juan Soto will reach base half the time he bats
Speaking of left-handed hitters with sweet swings and lots of plate discipline, expect a historic offensive season from Juan Soto. He’ll hit his share of home runs and maintain a high batting average, but most remarkable of all is his ability to reach base. This coming season, he’ll do so half the time he bats.
The last player to post a .500 OBP was Barry Bonds, who did so every year from 2001-04. But even for Bonds – arguably the best offensive player of all time – those lofty on-base percentages were not the norm. By 2001, the first of those seasons, he was 36 years old and had refined his batting eye with years of practice. Soto may be all of 23 years old, but his strike zone judgment is that good – and pitchers want to avoid his power. The combination will push Soto’s OBP to .500 and give him the best non-Bonds OBP we’ve seen in the 21st century.