Anticipating the start of a new MLB season, this handicapper shares the National League's Top 5 ranking baseman and the players' futures odds at sportsbooks.
1. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
For those of you who have been following my ranking stories thus far, you might think I have a Chicago bias. That's because I listed the White Sox's Jose Abreu as the best at first base in the American League. Well, it is what it is. The Cubs have a wave of positional player prospects either already having arrived in the majors (Jorge Soler, Javier Baez) or soon to do so (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell), but the clear voice and bedrock of the Cubs is the 25-year-old Rizzo, one of Theo Epstein's first big trade acquisitions (Rizzo was a former Red sox prospect when Epstein was there). Rizzo, also a tremendous defender, had his best season in 2014 with 32 home runs, 78 RBIs and a .286 average. That was with a fairly weak lineup around him, which should be much improved this year with full seasons of Soler, Baez and Bryant (who may not debut until late April for service-time reasons). The Cubs have massive expectations for the first time in years and Rizzo isn't shrinking from them. He said in January that "we're going to win the NL Central" despite just a 73-89 record last year. FanGraphs projects Rizzo to hit .270 with 32 homers and 89 RBIs in 140 games. I don't see why he can't play 155-160 games.
MLB Free Pick: Rizzo is given an 'over/under' of 31.5 homers on MLB odds and +2000 to lead the majors in dingers. I don't like the latter but go 'over' the former.
2. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
I debated whether to put Goldschmidt at No. 1, but these rankings are based mostly on what I expect to happen in 2015, not what the player has done in the past. Entering last season, Goldschmidt would have been No. 1 in the NL. In 2013, he finished second to Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen in the NL MVP voting, batting .302 with 36 homers and 125 RBIs, all career bests. However, last season in Arizona's disastrous 64-98 campaign, Goldschmidt's season came to an end in early August when he suffered a fractured left hand after being hit by a pitch from Pittsburgh's Ernesto Frieri. Perhaps Goldschmidt could have returned late in the year had the Snakes been in a pennant race but there was no point. He finished with a .300 average, 19 homers and 69 RBIs in 109 games. I'm just not real big on what Goldschmidt has around him, although a healthy Mark Trumbo (also missed a big chunk of last season) would help. FanGraphs projects a .282 average, 30 homers and 88 RBIs in 148 games.
MLB Free Pick: Goldschmidt is given an 'over/under' of 30.5 homers and +2000 to lead the majors. I'm going slightly 'under' and no with my MLB picks.
3. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are praying that the real Votto returns this season because they signed the 2010 NL MVP to a whopping 10-year, $225 million extension in 2012. A small-market team like Cincinnati can't afford to get a big contract like that wrong. Votto has been a perennial MVP favorite since winning that award five years ago but in 2014 he missed 100 games with a distal quad strain in his left knee. He didn't play after July 6 and spent the entire offseason rehabbing the knee. Votto wasn't very good when he did play, batting just .255 with six homers and 23 RBIs. Obviously I expect a bounce-back season. He had two arthroscopic operations on his left knee in 2012 and played all 162 games the following season, batting .305 with 24 homers and 73 RBIs. FanGraphs isn't as high on Votto as I am, projecting a .279 average, 19 homers and 77 RBIs in 134 games.
MLB Free Pick: No 'over/under' homers prop yet and Votto is +1000 to lead the majors in that category. Can't recommend that. I think he hits around 30, though.
4. Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Gonzalez will have a lot of new faces around him in the lineup this season as the Dodgers underwent a bit of an offseason overhaul, including the loss of slugger Matt Kemp. I don't think it should affect Gonzalez's numbers. One thing you can count on from Gonzalez is durability as he has played at least 156 games every year since 2006. Last year in 159 games, the lefty batted .276 with 27 home runs and 116 RBIs. His 30-homer days are over, but I think his average can get higher and 100 RBIs seem a lock. FanGraphs has Gonzalez hitting .280 with 24 homers and 76 RBIs in 146 games.
MLB Free Pick: Gonzalez is +10000 MLB Futures Odds to win the MLB home-run title at sportsbooks. He has an 'over/under' of 23 dingers and I love 'over' there.
5. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
I would probably take Freeman over Votto and Gonzalez if starting a team right now, but I only list Freeman fifth because I think the Braves offense is going to be terrible after the team traded away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis this offseason. Freeman's not going anywhere as he's locked up long-term. The 25-year-old had a really good 2013 season but regressed a bit last year. He played all 162 games and hit .288 with 18 homers and 78 RBIs. He also struck out a career-high 145 times. Pitchers won't give him much to hit this year. FanGraphs has Freeman batting .285 with 24 homers and 80 RBIs in 148 games. Sounds about right.
MLB Free Pick: Freeman isn't given a homers total but a hits total of 157.5 on MLB odds. Go 'over' as he has surpassed that each of the past two years.