Five bold predictions for the 2023 MLB season: Steals, saves and a breakout star
The start of a new baseball season brings with it a heightened sense of anticipation.
We spend so much time every spring thinking about probabilities and what’s most likely to happen that we can forget the joy of seeing things we don’t expect.
Every so often all the pieces fall into place and we get something truly special – like Aaron Judge hitting 62 home runs. In hindsight, his record-setting feat makes perfect sense: Judge hits the ball hard every time up, and he has plus power to all fields.
In fantasy baseball, the key to winning a league title can often be a matter of finding a little nugget of truth that leads us to what might happen.
So instead of trying to make absolute sense of everything, let’s allow our minds to wander and consider some (admittedly long-shot) predictions that could define the 2023 season.
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Trea Turner steals 65 bases
One of the driving forces behind several new rules MLB is enacting this season is an effort to reduce "dead time" in games. Fans want more balls in play, more movement, less standing around.
Trea Turner could be one of the players who benefits the most.
An elite runner (99th percentile sprint speed, according to Statcast), Turner has twice led the National League in stolen bases. He’s also been successful on 59 of his 67 steal attempts (88%) over the past two seasons.
Cutting the distance between bases by a couple inches and limiting pitchers’ pickoff throws give him even more of an advantage. Moving back to the leadoff spot in Philadelphia will maximize Turner’s plate appearances, as well as his opportunities to get on base.
After losing Rhys Hoskins and not having Bryce Harper until midseason, the Phillies may need to play more small ball on offense. That all adds up to Turner taking an extra base whenever possible, putting a huge number – say 65 steals, a number no one’s reached since Jacoby Ellsbury had 70 in 2008 – very much in play.
Shohei Ohtani sweeps AL MVP, Cy Young
There’s no denying Shohei Ohtani is one of the game’s best hitters. He’s ranked in the top 10 in slugging each of the past two seasons. But he’s also become one of the game’s best pitchers.
Ohtani’s 2.33 ERA was the sixth-lowest among starters in 2022 as he improved both his walk and strikeout rates considerably from the year before, while adding 1.6 mph to his average fastball velocity.
Which raises the question: Have we seen Ohtani’s true peak yet?
He’s still only 28. And we saw how dominant he could be in winning MVP honors at the World Baseball Classic, even earning a save in relief by closing out Japan’s championship game win over Team USA.
Ohtani finished fourth in last year’s AL Cy Young voting, and an even better performance on the mound is certainly possible. The Angels are moving away from a six-man rotation – and in the 12 (out of 28) starts he made last year on five days’ rest, Ohtani had a 1.61 ERA.
He’s already in the Cy Young conversation, and if he wins that award, Ohtani would be a lock for MVP.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Our staff picks playoff teams, award winners for 2023
Brandon Belt hits 30 HR for first time
Already a member of my 2023 All-Sleeper team, Brandon Belt is a player I’m all-in on going from San Francisco to Toronto.
Injuries have always been a huge part of the equation for the Baby Giraffe. But when he’s been on the field, he’s been productive. Just look at the 2021 season, when he played in just 97 games for the Giants, but still hit a career-high 29 home runs and slugged .597.
Belt has been hitting cleanup all spring for the Jays – an enviable spot with George Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in front of him. And he’s been serving as the designated hitter, which should limit his injury risk.
He’s said his knee feels better now than it has in a long time. And he’ll benefit from the outfield fences at Rogers Centre being moved in significantly this season. So take the Belt way to cheap power.
Miguel Vargas rockets to stardom
Every year, Ryan Bloomfield of Baseball HQ offers a challenge to his social media followers: Which player from outside the top 12 rounds in drafts (180 overall) will put up first-round fantasy value?
Believe it or not, someone has accomplished the feat in each of the past eight seasons. Last year, Adolis Garcia of the Rangers. Before that, Cedric Mullins of the Orioles.
So who’s this year’s unlikely superstar? I’ll go with Dodgers rookie Miguel Vargas.
To reach such elite status, a player must first have the natural talent, he has to play every day, and have a wide range of skills.
Vargas, 23, checks all the boxes. An elite prospect, he got his first taste of the majors last season after posting a .304/.404/.511 slash line with 17 homers and 16 steals at Class AAA. He’s had a great spring after getting a late start due to a broken pinkie.
Plus, he’s got the starting second base job with the Dodgers to himself, adding to his preseason eligibility at first base. With an excellent all-around skill set and a clear path to playing time, it’s worth dreaming on Vargas’ high ceiling.
David Robertson gets 30 saves
Following Edwin Diaz’s season-ending knee injury, Mets fans have been in a full-on panic over the state of their bullpen. While depth is an issue that must be addressed, the ninth inning is in good hands.
In the Mets’ spending spree this offseason, Robertson’s one-year, $10 million deal went largely under the radar. But he was excellent for the Cubs and Phillies last season with 20 saves and a 2.40 ERA. Though his walk rate was a little high, he made up for it by striking out over 30% of the hitters he faced (11.5 K/9).
He has the ability and he has experience, with consecutive 30-save seasons from 2014-16. The Mets will give Robertson plenty of save chances this year, so look for him to take the closer’s job and run with it.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Five bold fantasy baseball predictions for the 2023 MLB season