Mark Steubinger’s 10 Bold Predictions for 2022


Bold predictions can be tricky. How bold is too bold? What are the chances that these things happen? If too many of these do come true, was I not bold enough? Do I look bad if none of these happen?

While I wanted to be bold, I also wanted to make sure these predictions were things I actually believed had a chance to occur. Here are 10 predictions that go against general public sentiment, but I still think have a decent shot at happening. Let’s start things off with a prediction about one of my favorite players to target in fantasy baseball drafts.

 

1. Tyler Stephenson finishes with 20+ home runs, 80+ runs, and 80+ RBIs

 

In his rookie season, Tyler Stephenson quickly made an impact with his bat, slashing .286/.366/.431. His impressive batting average and on-base percentage were good for second-best and third-best, respectively, among all catchers with at least 200 plate appearances. Stephenson clearly has the tools to be one of the game’s top backstops, especially if he can fully unlock his power potential.

The only real knock on Stephenson’s rookie campaign was his lack of power. He hit 10 home runs and put the barrel on the ball at a rate of just 5.4%, which put him 147th among the 188 position players who had at least 400 plate appearances. Among that same group of players, Stephenson’s 25% fly-ball rate was 181st. There’s room for significant improvement in Stephenson’s bat if he can start hitting the ball harder and in the air more often. The good news for him is that he may be in the perfect place to make those changes.

Numerous players in Cincinnati have successfully been able to tinker with their approach over the last few years, raising either their barrel or flyball rates, and in some cases both. Notably, Joey Votto’s 2021 resurgence included both a higher flyball rate and a barrel rate that nearly doubled from the previous season. Other players with recent improvements in those areas include Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, and Nick Castellanos.

If Stephenson can take a couple of steps forward with his power output, he’ll immediately put himself in the discussion as one of the game’s best catchers. With the Reds trading Tucker Barnhart, Stephenson is already in line for a significant chunk of playing time behind the plate. If he can combine the expanded opportunity with even better power numbers, my prediction of 20+ home runs and 80+ runs and RBIs could be too conservative.

 

2. The Seattle Mariners win the AL West

 

After shocking the league last year by just barely missing out on the postseason, the Mariners seem as primed as ever to not only end their long playoff drought, but even win the AL West. The young core in Seattle could be primed for a breakout season, and big steps forward from Jared Kelenic and Logan Gilbert would go a long way in solidifying the club’s chance at contention. Combine those improvements with an impressive Julio Rodriguez debut and all of a sudden the Mariners can put some pressure on the Astros at the top of the division.

The Mariners already made a splash in free agency when they signed reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, but they may not be done shopping just yet. Prior to the lockout, Seattle had been linked to some big-name free agents like Kris Bryant, Seiya Suzuki, and reportedly even made a contract offer to Trevor Story. Signing a notable hitter to shore up the Mariners’ lineup would make this team all the more dangerous.

Baseball fans have seen the amount of tinkering Jerry DiPoto has done with non-competitive Mariners clubs, so just think of what trades he may pull off if Seattle is in playoff contention come trade deadline season. The Mariners will need a few things to break their way, but a division championship isn’t out of the question in 2022.

 

3. Kyle Hendricks finishes top-10 in Cy Young voting

 

It was a sad season on the North Side of Chicago, and not just because the Cubs traded away so many fan favorites. Kyle Hendricks survived the Northsiders’ trade deadline firesale, but his 2021 was unlike anything we’d seen from him before. Hendricks ended the year with his worst-ever ERA, FIP, SIERRA, and fWAR.

Hendricks’ bread and butter is his elite ability to deceive hitters with his low-velocity arsenal while living on the corners. Taking a look at some of his Statcast Zone Charts on his BaseballSavant page quickly shows that his pitches just weren’t nibbling the corners as often as they had been in previous years. Because of that, he allowed an 8.4% barrel rate, well over his 5.2% career mark.

Prior to 2021, Hendricks had been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league. I’ll put more weight on Hendricks’ large sample size of being a low-3.00s ERA workhorse over the one season where he clearly didn’t have his usual command. I think Hendricks bounces back in a big way and re-establishes himself as one of the game’s best control artists.

 

4. Anthony Rendon posts an OPS north of .900 and reminds everyone that he’s still one of the best third basemen in the game

 

From 2017-2020, Anthony Rendon was remarkable. He slashed .307/.399/.550, had a 146 wRC+, and his 22.9 fWAR was the third-highest among all position players during that stretch. 2021 was a totally different story – one that I think Rendon would like to forget.

Last year, Rendon was placed on the IL three times, played in just 58 games, and hit a pedestrian .240/.329/.382 with a 95 wRC+. Eventually, Rendon and the Angels got down to the bottom of his issues: a right hip impingement. After undergoing season-ending surgery to fix his hip in mid-August, Rendon is expected to be healthy for the beginning of spring training.

I think we could be in store for a huge season from Rendon. Sure, he’s getting older now, but his barrel and hard hit rates weren’t far off from his career norms even when he was playing through so many injuries. On top of that, his .267 BABIP was nearly 35 points below his previous career-worst. There’s a clear path to Rendon getting back to his previous performance level, and we’ve seen him bounce back from an injury-riddled season before.

After breaking out during the 2014 season, Rendon hit the injured list two times in 2015 while appearing in just 80 games. His OPS that year was over 100 points lower than it was the year prior. How did he respond after a rough 2015? He reverted back to his old self, raising his OPS 90 points almost duplicating his pre-injury breakout season. After another injury-plagued season in 2021, I think Rendon could quickly look like the 2017-20 version of himself and remind fans that he’s one of the best third basemen in baseball.

 

5. Hunter Renfroe is the only Brewer outfielder worth your time in fantasy

 

In a buzzer-beater move, the Brewers traded for Hunter Renfroe just before MLB’s lock out began on December 1st. Renfroe’s lone season in Boston was the best of his career – he hit .259/.315/.501 with 31 home runs and 96 RBIs. Now he’s moving to a hitter’s paradise in Milwaukee. Yes, Fenway is also great for right-handed hitters, but American Family Field has actually boosted home runs for right-handed hitters more consistently than Fenway has in every year since 2011.

While I think Renfroe could have a phenomenal 2022 in his new home park, this bold prediction is more of an indictment of Christian Yelich’s fantasy value than it is a vote of confidence in Renfroe’s. Since his late-season injury in 2019, Yelich’s numbers have been on a continual decline.

With nagging back problems, I’m not convinced we’ll ever see Yelich reach his MVP peak level again.

As of mid-January, Yelich and Renfroe have NFBC ADPs of 102 and 171, respectively. At those prices, I’d rather have Renfroe every single time.

 

6. The Detroit Tigers have a Top-10 offense by runs scored

 

After finishing as the 23rd-best offense in 2021, the Tigers could be in store for a massive improvement this season. The team made a big splash in free agency when they inked Javier Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract. Regardless of your thoughts on the wisdom of signing a free swinger like Baez to a long-term deal, he should offer a massive short-term improvement for the Tigers’ lineup.

In 2021, Detroit shortstops had an abysmal showing at the plate, hitting .201/.275/.321 with a .261 wOBA. The group’s 62 wRC+ was the second-worst in MLB. Now compare that miserable line to Baez’s .265/.319/.494 slash line, .344 wOBA, and 116 wRC+. Just by himself, Baez makes the Tigers’ lineup exponentially better, but he’ll also have some help.

Top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene should both be Detroit-bound sooner rather than later in 2022, and if they can quickly deliver on their prospect hype, the Tigers’ rebuild could be quickly spurred along.

 

7. Jon Gray sets career bests in wins, IP, ERA, strikeouts, and WAR

 

After dreaming about the possibilities of Jon Gray pitching outside of Coors Field for years, baseball fans will finally get to see how he fares in 2022. Several teams were interested in Gray’s services, but the Rangers came out on top by signing the former third-overall pick to a four-year, $56 million contract this offseason.

The Rangers surely have plans to optimize Gray’s arsenal, and they’ve had success working with veteran pitchers before like Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.

The immediate opposition to predicting Gray to reach a new level in 2022 is that his home and road splits were exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from a Rockies’ pitcher. In every year besides his rookie season and the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Gray actually was better pitching at Coors Field than he was on the road. Despite that, I think Gray no longer having to travel in and out of high altitude and constantly making adjustments will serve him well.

A career-best year for Gray would look something like 13 wins, a 3.50 ERA, 200 strikeouts, and 4.0 fWAR over 175 innings. That’s something that I can certainly see happening if things break right for the right-hander during his first year at the top of the Rangers’ rotation.

 

8. Gavin Lux is a Top-5 second baseman

 

As a former top-tier prospect, Gavin Lux’s first three years of MLB action have been disappointing, but 2022 should finally give him the chance he needs to showcase the tools that earned him such high prospect pedigree.

Last season, Lux hit just .242/.328/.364 with 7 home runs and 46 RBIs. While the batting line leaves a lot to be desired, 2021 was truly Lux’s first shot at somewhat consistent big league playing time – it was the first season he even had more than 82 plate appearances. Lux’s uptick in playing time should continue in 2022. With Corey Seager’s departure in free agency and Max Muncy’s injury question marks, there should be plenty of opportunity for Lux in the Dodgers’ infield.

Despite Lux’s meager results at the plate last year, he did improve his plate discipline numbers. He cut his strikeout rate from 27.5% to 21.8%, and boosted his walk rate from 8.7% to 10.8%.

In a season where he finally sees consistent plate appearances, Lux could quickly remind baseball fans why he was such a highly-touted prospect. In fantasy baseball circles, seeing Lux drafted as a top-five second baseman heading into the 2023 season wouldn’t be a shock.

 

9. Craig Kimbrel earns fewer than five saves

 

This prediction isn’t an indictment of Craig Kimbrel’s skill or one trying to forecast an injury risk. I simply am not sold on the fact that a trade moving him out of Chicago’s Southside is really imminent.

The White Sox gave up a lot to acquire Kimbrel at last season’s trade deadline – and yes, he did struggle not pitching in the closer role – but I don’t see a way the team moves him and the $16 million he’s owed this year while also getting better.

The White Sox are trying to win right now, and so is any team who would be interested in trading for Kimbrel. Will any team that’s a serious contender actually be willing to give up MLB-ready talent to acquire Kimbrel? I don’t think so, and that’s the problem.

If I’m the White Sox, I’d much rather have Kimbrel as my eighth-inning guy and valuable insurance for Liam Hendriks than a smaller payroll and prospects that may be contributors a few years in the future.

 

10. Lane Thomas has a 25/20 season and hits .250+

 

After finally finding his way out of St. Louis and into a situation where he could play every day, Lane Thomas made the most of his opportunity. During the 44 games he played as a National last season, the 26-year-old outfielder broke out with a .270/.364/.489 slash line, seven home runs, and four stolen bases.

In Washington, Thomas improved his strikeout, hard hit, and barrel rates.

At just 26-years-old, it’s not out of the question that Thomas could get even better as he continues to acclimate to big-league pitching. Although he debuted in the big leagues in 2019, Thomas still has fewer than 350 plate appearances

The Nationals are surely hoping Thomas will continue to rake at the top of their lineup this year, and if he does, a 25 home run and 20 stolen base season should be in reach.

 

(Photos from Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerGuyboston on Twitter)





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