A year ago this time, Juan Soto was preparing to play for the low-A Hagerstown Suns and Max Muncy was a relative unknown in Oakland’s minor-league system. The Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays were considered non-factors in the American League playoff picture while the Minnesota Twins were looking to return to the post-season.
In baseball, a lot changes in the course of a year.
By this time in 2019, new stars and storylines will exist across MLB. As the coming season unfolds, keep these predictions in mind — and don’t be surprised when they come true…
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will immediately be one of baseball’s best hitters
In a way it feels unfair to place such high expectations on a teenager no matter how much he has succeeded already. Injuries and poor performances occur all the time, so there are never guarantees, even from a top prospect. Plus, the Blue Jays need way more than one player to maximize his potential if they’re going to build the sustained winner they want.
But with all that said, I believe Guerrero Jr. will be one of the best hitters in baseball in 2019. He won’t reach the big leagues right away, since the Blue Jays will manipulate his service time and delay his debut for at least a couple of weeks to ensure they get a seventh year of team control. Yet when he does arrive, he has a chance to establish himself as an elite bat right away.
That’s not something I say lightly, but I believe it’s what will happen for a few reasons. Objectively speaking, Vlad Jr.’s track record is exceptional. He hit .381 in the upper minors last year, then sustained that performance with an excellent Arizona Fall League showing. Projection systems took note, and are unusually bullish for 2019. The typically conservative Steamer projections forecast a 138 wRC+ that would place Vlad Jr. among the top 10 hitters in baseball.
Reinforcing those numbers are various subjective evaluations. Those I’ve asked about Vlad Jr. rave about his ability to control the strike zone and make extremely hard contact. Even among big-leaguers, that combination’s rare, so you could make a case that he’s already a top-20 hitter now and we just haven’t realized it yet.
Pitchers will be cautious from day one, and when they miss the plate, Guerrero Jr. has proven he has the patience to hold off. That means walks are a near-given. When pitchers miss over the middle, he can tap into his substantial power and make them pay.
So while it’s possible — likely, even — that Guerrero Jr. will slump at some point during his age-20 season, expect him to spend most of his season taking walks and barrelling balls. Health permitting, this will be the year Guerrero Jr. reveals himself to be one of the best hitters in the sport.
2. Walker Buehler will emerge as the Dodgers’ best pitcher — and one of the best in MLB
Clayton Kershaw may be remembered as the best pitcher of his era, but by the end of the 2019 season he might not be the best pitcher on his team. That distinction could soon go to Buehler, who showed in the playoffs just how effective his nasty breaking pitches and 96 m.p.h. fastball can be against baseball’s best hitters.
In 23 starts this past season, the 24-year-old rookie posted a 2.62 ERA with 151 strikeouts in 137.1 innings. Over the course of his first full season, Buehler has the stuff to emerge as one of baseball’s top pitchers.
3. The Padres will take a significant step forward
Generally speaking, teams with elite farm systems are well-positioned to exceed expectations. With youth comes breakout potential, and these clubs also have talented options in-house when injuries inevitably strike.
As owners of baseball’s best farm system, the Padres will surprise people for those reasons. Soon enough, the likes of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cal Quantrill will arrive at the big-league level with a chance to make an immediate impact.
Then there’s the fact that GM A.J. Preller seems resolved to improve the big-league roster, too. He keeps tabs on all the big names available in trade and free agency in case there’s a fit for San Diego.
So far that’s led to the acquisition of Ian Kinsler on a two-year, $8-million deal. Don’t be surprised if the Padres further improve their chances of surprising in 2019 by making even bigger moves.
4. The Marlins will displace the Orioles as MLB’s losing-est team
Baltimore lost 115 games last year and finished 61 games out of first place in the AL East, but the Marlins will be baseball’s worst team in 2019. They don’t have much in the way of big-league talent, and a J.T. Realmuto trade would only diminish their roster further. Off the field, they’ve been comparatively slow to adopt progressive tools such as analytics. Making matters worse, their four NL East rivals are all making big moves. It will add up to a dismal 2019 season in Miami.
5. Anthony Rendon will finally get the recognition he deserves
Considering how well Rendon plays baseball, it’s a little surprising he doesn’t get more recognition. He plays on a contending team and delivers consistently excellent results, as evidenced by his 24.8 wins above replacement over the last five years.
For some reason, though, he’s often overlooked. Maybe it’s because he has played alongside Bryce Harper for so long, or because fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado offers more highlight plays and homers at the same position. Either way, that’s about to change as Rendon enters his free-agent year.
Now age 28, Rendon’s very much in his prime. With Harper expected to sign elsewhere, the spotlight will find new faces in Washington this year. And you know Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, will talk his client up whenever possible until he hits the open market.
For years, Rendon has played like a star. The way 2019’s lining up, this will be the year he’s finally recognized as such.