With Opening Day set to get under way in less than twenty-four hours (!), the time to prognosticate about the season is winding down. While my recent performance in March Madness ought to deter me from venturing into the forecasting world again, I've always thought it was fun to toss out some predictions and then get all smug when one or two of them pan out (the other eight or nine are, of course, forgotten by late May.) With that in mind, I've listed ten gut feelings I have about the upcoming season below. It was a fun list to ponder, and I hope that most of them are reasonable enough. I'd also be happy to hear about any of your predictions if you want to leave some in the comments.
1. One Of The Big Three Pitching Prospects Will Regress Significantly In 2012. Let's get the most negative one out of the way first. Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton are the jewels of the Mariner farm system and each has the potential to be a top of the line starter in the major leagues. However, the attrition rate for prospects, particularly among starting pitchers, is quite high. Whether injury, overhype, or sudden ineffectiveness is to blame for the annual flameouts, they are an inevitability. Just look at Kevin Goldstein's 2007 top prospect list: Phil Hughes and Homer Bailey are his top two pitchers, while Andrew Miller and Adam Miller (no relation) sit in his top twenty. Not everyone declines or gets hurt (the above four sandwich around Clayton Kershaw, Matt Garza, and Yovanni Gallardo) but counting on three pitching prospects to pan out is worse than betting on the weather.
2. Tom Wilhelmsen Will Be The Closer By September. This would have appeared a bit more brazen before it became apparent that Shawn Camp and Hong Chih Kuo weren't going to make an impact (or the team) out of the bullpen. Nonetheless, Wilhelmsen's strong second half last year, and particularly his increased command in the final months, suggest that he could establish himself as a shutdown reliever in 2012. Assuming that the M's deal incumbent Brandon League, Wilhelmsen should be his replacement.
3. The Mariners Will Get Off To A Decent Start. Bucking an unwelcome trend from recent years, the M's should actually look pretty good out of the gate. The two games in Japan, along with a bunch of off days early in the season (including an open date on a Sunday; first time I've heard of that) give the M's an ideal slate to set up a favorable pitching rotation. First, they don't need to use their fifth starter until April 21st, and can then skip that spot again the following week. More importantly, the schedule allows them to start Felix Hernandez on full rest in four of their first twelve games. Anything can happen in two weeks, and with a little luck, the M's can rattle off a bunch of wins right out of the chute.
4. Carlos Peguero Will Get More Playing Time In 2012. If Franklin Gutierrez misses significant time this season or if the Mike Carp-Casper Wells platoon doesn't cut the mustard, there will be plenty of plate appearances up for grabs in the outfield this season. Given Eric Wedge's fondness for Peguero, the free swinging lefty might be the most likely candidate for an extended look if one or more of the above falters. Managers are generally supportive of their younger players, but Wedge's comments about Peguero glowed a little brighter than his words for the rest of his band of outfielders. That, plus Peguero's late cut this spring, hints that Carlos won't be in Triple A for long.
5. Jesus Montero Will Still Be Catching In September. While I doubt that Montero will be catching every day, I wouldn't be shocked if Wedge periodically slides him in behind the plate throughout the year. Nobody in the prospecting world praises Montero's defense behind the plate, but if he can just be bad defensively as opposed to godawful, he might be more valuable as a catcher than as a DH. My hunch is that the M's will give him every opportunity to prove he can play the position competently.
6. Michael Saunders Will Establish Himself As A Big Leaguer. After Saunders' debacle at the plate last season, this might be the most optimistic item on the list. Still, as a crazy athlete and excellent defensive outfielder, Saunders only needs to hit a little to hold down a big league job, and if he's anywhere close to league average at the plate, he's worth starting. Why do I think he might hit enough to be worth a roster spot? I'm almost embarrassed to say, but... spring training. I'll hedge and say that while I don't think his statistics are all that meaningful, the fact that he has altered his approach enough to enable him to hit for power to the opposite field is encouraging. If he can translate that into regular season games, the M's will have a fourth outfielder at the very least, and maybe quite a bit more.
7. Moving To Leadoff Won't Help Chone Figgins. I'm not breaking new ground here, but it seems kind of strange to expect a professional baseball player to rejuvenate his career simply because his first at bat will happen earlier in the game. As Dave Cameron mentioned, Figgins actually hit worse when he was leading off an inning last year, adding fuel to an argument that didn't really need any. I feel bad for Figgins more than anything else, and I think this attempt to boost his value is worth a try, but any improvement is likely to be minimal and probably not a consequence of his place in the batting order.
8. Blake Beaven will make fewer than ten starts with the Mariners. With Charlie Furbush, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, and the aforementioned trio of pitching prospects lurking in the bullpen and high minors, Wedge's leash on Beaven will be short, particularly if Kevin Millwood and Hector Noesi start strongly. If Beaven's luck on balls in play isn't as good this year as it was in 2011, he could be out of a job quickly.
9. Miguel Olivo Gets Traded. Olivo's contract is expiring and in Montero, John Jaso, and Adam Moore, the M's have three other candidates for playing time that are a more appropriate fit for a rebuilding club. After hitting nineteen homers (no small feat for a righty in Safeco) a year ago, Olivo doesn't appear to be in the twilight of his career just yet. If any team winds up in a Buster Posey situation, Olivo would be an attractive trade target.
10. Justin Smoak Will HIt 25 Homers. Last year, Smoak endured a death in the family, two broken bones, and a two and a half month stretch without a dinger, and yet he still managed to hit fifteen home runs on the season. While twenty-five is at the optimistic end of his power potential, scouts still believe in his game, and it's worth mentioning that he can't be neutered by relief specialists: he slugged .397 against righties last year, and .394 against lefties. If he can stay healthy for a full season, twenty-five homers isn't out of reach.
What do you guys think? Do you have any bold predictions for 2012?