This is the time of year when it's fashionable to make award predictions. But what we're going to do in this space is take a little bit of a different approach to this way-too-early discussion and look at each club's most likely candidate for a postseason honor -- be it MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year. (We'll leave out Manager of the Year and stick with players.)
On some clubs, it's hard to find a clear-cut candidate for one of those awards. On others, it's difficult to determine which of several candidates stands out, pitting elite teammates against one another.
But with the help of the Steamer projections available at FanGraphs and the good ol' gut, here are my best guesses for each of the 30 teams.
Athletics: Dustin Fowler, Rookie of the Year
Promise me Matt Olson will maintain his .651 slugging percentage from last year's 59-game sample, and I'll consider him an AL MVP Award candidate. But until then, I'll take Fowler in the rookie realm as he returns from last year's awful knee injury with the Yankees to what figures to be consistent playing time in center field with the A's.
Astros: Carlos Correa, MVP
Could just as easily go with a Jose Altuve repeat. Or maybe one of the rotation's studs steps up with a Cy. Perhaps both of those things happen.
But to me, the safest bet is that this is the year Correa surges into the stratosphere. It's not a bold prediction after he posted a .315/.391/.550 slash line in 2017, when he was limited to 109 games because of a thumb injury. For what it's worth, Correa is projected by Steamer to have a higher WAR (5.4) than Altuve (4.4).
Blue Jays: Josh Donaldson, MVP
Donaldson's age (32) limits the likelihood of this happening. But this dude was not Joshing around in the final two months of '17 (1.108 OPS), and he's in a contract year.
The worry with this pick is that, should the Blue Jays falter this season, as they did in '17, Donaldson becomes clear trade bait. But with Steamer's fourth-highest projected WAR (6.0) among position players, he's got a realistic shot at his second AL MVP Award in the past four years.
Indians: Corey Kluber, Cy Young
Can Jose Ramirez possibly be any better than he was in 2017 (148 wRC+), when he finished third in the AL MVP Awarrd voting? Can Francisco Lindor build off a .505 slugging percentage that would have been pretty much impossible to project going into '17? Can Francisco Mejia log enough time to vie for the AL Rookie of the Year Award?
I'm going the safest route with Kluber's pursuit of his third AL Cy Young Award, even though he battled back issues last season and floundered in the postseason. He is as automatic as his Klubot nickname suggests, and he's the best starter in the AL (though staff mate Carlos Carrasco is a candidate to chase him this year).
Mariners: James Paxton, Cy Young
Paxton has been limited to 70 mostly very good big league starts over the last four seasons because of a variety of maladies, but he gave up cow's milk over the offseason as part of the effort to finally put together a 200-inning campaign. And if you can't get excited about the Spring Training storyline that a change in dairy diets might propel a guy to an award-worthy season, then, really, why are you even reading preseason content?
Orioles: Austin Hays, Rookie of the Year
I would pick Manny Machado for the AL MVP Award, but I view the O's chances of advancement this season as less than those of the Blue Jays and Donaldson, so I'm going into the season expecting Machado to be dealt before the end of July.
That leaves us looking at AL Rookie of the Year Award candidates. If Chance Sisco gets a legitimate -- say it with me -- chance behind the plate, he could be in this mix. But Hays might have the higher upside after a surge in standing last season (he was promoted from Double-A to the big leagues in September) and could see a lot of time in the outfield.
Rays: Chris Archer, Cy Young
Another dude who could be dealt, but the affordable team control through 2021 at least limits that possibility somewhat. Brent Honeywell might have been an AL Rookie of the Year Award contender before his elbow gave out this spring, shortstop Willy Adames likely won't see the light of the day prior to the Super Two cutoff date and Christian Arroyo will fight for at-bats.
So I'll go with Archer. He has yet to put together that truly transcendent season, and he has a tendency to get socked by the long ball as he pitches deeper into games. But the strikeout stuff and durability are assets that could yet lead to a an AL Cy Young Award ascension.
Red Sox: Chris Sale, Cy Young
Perhaps the improved lineup protection (it's hard to look at what happened to the Red Sox in the first season sans David Ortiz and not to believe, at least a little bit, in the concept of lineup protection) brought to the table by J.D. Martinez puts Mookie Betts back in the AL MVP Award running. (History tells us it will be difficult for Martinez to win the AL MVP Award if the bulk of his at-bats come at DH.)
But I'm going to take the easy way out and say a guy who has finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young Award voting every single season he has been a starter has a good chance of finally knocking down the door. But obviously, Sale needs to overcome his career track record of enduring a statistical fade come September.
Rangers: Willie Calhoun, Rookie of the Year
Again, opportunity is a key consideration for the rookie award, and a Rangers team that has been searching a long time for somebody to stick in left field is likely to give Calhoun, the key acquisition in last summer's Yu Darvish trade, plenty of that. There are questions about the converted second baseman's glove, but not so much his bat, which churned out a .300/.355/.572 slash line in Triple-A last year.
Royals: Danny Duffy, Cy Young
The rebuilding Royals don't give us much to work with here, but Duffy at least presents us with the profile of a guy who has been 20 percent better than league average (per ERA+) over the past two seasons and perhaps has more in the tank in his second full season as a starter. But durability is a question, and Duffy might be a midseason trade candidate.
Tigers: Michael Fulmer, Cy Young
Fulmer was having a solid followup to his 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Award run (3.20 ERA through 16 starts) until elbow issues set in, and he had ulnar nerve surgery in September. But he's healthy now, and though his projected 4.33 ERA in 185 innings (via Steamer) obviously wouldn't be a Cy-type season, he's the closest thing the Tigers have to an ace.
Twins: Byron Buxton, MVP
I admit to not being sure about this pick, because, even given the greater appreciation voters have for the WAR stat (where Buxton's superb center-field defense helps him climb the leaderboard), it's not easy to assume he'll maintain his post-All-Star break .300/.347/.546 slash line for a full season.
But Buxton has the highest ceiling of any regular on a really interesting Twins team, with James Dozier not likely to eclipse his output of the past two years and Miguel Sano's consistency uncertain. So the Bux stops here.
White Sox: Michael Kopech, Rookie of the Year
The third-best pitching prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, Kopech will probably have the most/best opportunity of the members of the Sox's prospect pool to make the kind of impact that would qualify for this award. (The club's top prospect, Eloy Jimenez, is likely to arrive later in the year.) Kopech made a few starts at Triple-A and will begin the season there, but there's a high probability we see him and his ridiculous velocity at some point in the first half.
Yankees: Giancarlo Stanton, MVP
Luis Severino might be an AL Cy Young Award candidate. Gleyber Torres and/or Miguel Andujar might be AL Rookie of the Year Award candidates. And for all we know, Gary Sanchez or maybe Greg Bird could be the guy who emerges as the Yankees' best hitter in 2018.
But yes, it's Stanton and Aaron Judge who fire up the AL MVP Award imagination. We'll see if Judge can make the inevitable sophomore adjustment that'll be heavy on breaking balls, and we'll see if Stanton can handle the pressure of the Bronx. But there's no shame in going with the reigning NL MVP Award winner in the pole position here. The mixed-in DH days should help Stanton stay on the field, and he's projected by Steamer for the fifth-best WAR in baseball (5.8). Stanton has a real chance to become just the second player (joining Frank Robinson) to win the MVP Award in separate leagues and the first to do it in successive seasons.
Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr., Rookie of the Year
He is as obvious a candidate in 2018 as teammate Dansby Swanson was in '17, though hopefully it goes better for Acuna than it did for Swanson. But there's a reason scouts and prospect rankers (including those at MLB Pipeline, who have him at No. 2 overall behind Ohtani) salivate over this five-tool talent. The big question is how long the Braves delay his promotion because of service time considerations. The Braves could have multiple NL Rookie of the Year Award bids, including starter Luiz Gohara.
Brewers: Christian Yelich, MVP
Entering his age-26 season, Yelich is young enough to reach for more after posting a 121 OPS+ and averaging 4.1 WAR over the past four seasons. Plus, he's joining a competitive team and entering a hitter-friendly home park after posting a career .762 OPS at cavernous Marlins Park (with an .835 mark on the road).
Cardinals: Tommy Pham, MVP
I could see young starter Jack Flaherty vying for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Or maybe outfield acquisition Marcell Ozuna builds off last year's .924 OPS in his new home. Or maybe Carlos Martinez jumps into the NL Cy Young Award conversation. But Pham was one of only seven qualified hitters with at least a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage last season, so, entering his first full year in the bigs, he's the guy I'm counting on here.
Cubs: Kristopher Bryant, MVP
Deep team, but easy call. Though it wasn't really reflected in the voting, Bryant's 2017 season (.295/.409/.537, 143 OPS+) maintained his elite production from his '16 NL MVP Award-winning year (.292/.385/.554 slash line, 146 OPS+), and he's only 26. He's projected by Steamer to post the highest WAR (6.1) in the NL this year. But it should go without saying that teammate Anthony Rizzo could challenge him yet again.
D-backs: Paul Goldschmidt, MVP
He's crossed the age-30 threshold, and someday his run of consistently great seasons will come to an end (though perhaps not in this decade). If not for an injured elbow that limited his production down the stretch of a 2017 that was one of his best to date, Goldschmidt might be the reigning NL MVP Award winner right now. He's projected by Steamer to post the NL's eighth-best WAR (4.4).
Dodgers: Corey Seager, MVP
Clayton Kershaw is Steamer's projected WAR leader (5.8) among starters, but his 2016 and '17 back issues and more than 2,000 career innings pitched (regular and postseason) are matters to consider here. Justin Turner has finished in the top 10 of the NL MVP Award vote the past two years, but it will be tough to improve on the .945 OPS of his age-32 season. Cody Bellinger might build on last year's NL Rookie of the Year Award run. And Walker Buehler could emerge as a candidate for ROY -- an award the Dodgers happen to specialize in.
But I'm betting on the upside of the young superstar Seager here. His .305/.374/.502 slash line over the past three seasons is a pretty great starting point, and last year we saw improved plate discipline that could/should lead to more power as he enters his mid-20s. I fully admit that this is a risky pick, given Seager's injury history, including the back issue that held him out of the NLCS last fall, but I'm willing to ride "Against the Wind" with Seager.
Giants: Madison Bumgarner, Cy Young
This list is all relative, because I like Kershaw's NL Cy Young Award chances better than those of Bumgarner, but the Giants' lineup loaded with guys north of 30 doesn't present as many NL MVP Award possibilities (Buster Posey has their highest WAR projection, but a catcher north of 30 hasn't won the MVP Award since Elston Howard in 1963), and they're short on rookie candidates. Because you don't have to squint too hard to see Bumgarner returning to an elite standing after last year's dirtcapades, he gets the nod here.
Marlins: Lewis Brinson, Rookie of the Year
The talent is clear, and the opportunity in center field is there. Brinson didn't produce in his first 21 big league games in Milwaukee, but the move to Miami in the Yelich trade frees him up to progress as a player at the highest level in 2018.
Mets: Noah Syndergaard, Cy Young
Maybe Yoenis Cespedes surges into the NL MVP Award discussion and maybe all those 100-mph fastballs, 93-mph sliders and 90-mph changeups catch up with Thor's body again in 2018. But the very weapons that make Syndergaard so risky also make him elite.
Only Kershaw has a higher projected WAR among starters than Syndergaard's 5.5 mark on the Steamer scale.
Nationals: Bryce Harper, MVP
Max Scherzer is a great candidate to win his fourth Cy Young Award and third straight. But the choice here is between a 33-year-old arm with more innings pitched than any other over the past five years winning another Cy or a 25-year-old position player with a .902 career OPS (and potentially a $400 million or $500 million contract on the line) winning the NL MVP Award.
The latter is simply the safer selection. Harper was on an MVP trek last year (.326/.419/.614 slash line) before he got hurt.
Padres: Eric Hosmer, MVP
The Padres have an organization loaded with young players who could vie for the NL Rookie of the Year Award in the coming years, fronted by Fernando Tatis Jr., who is only 19 years old.
But because this system's top-end talent isn't expected to garner much in the realm of innings and at-bats in 2018, I'll just mark down their newly inked best player in the NL MVP Award realm here, knowing all too well that last year's 4-WAR, 132 OPS+ effort might represent the peak of his statistical strengths.
Phillies: Aaron Nola, Cy Young
Rhys Hoskins got caught in that no man's land in which he had too few at-bats to be a real NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate in 2017 and too many to qualify for the honor in '18. And I'm not ready to anoint him an NL MVP Award contender. I'm also iffy on rookie shortstop J.P. Crawford after his up-and-down Minor League track record.
So let's instead express some optimism about Nola's potential to build off a '17 in which, during one 10-start stretch, he posted a 1.71 ERA with 78 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 68 1/3 innings. Consistency and health are the questions, but it's not hard to imagine Nola becoming one of the NL's elite starters this season.
Pirates: Jameson Taillon, Cy Young
On a Pirates team in transition, Taillon's talent is a focal point this season. After the frustration of Tommy John surgery and shoulder fatigue in the Minors and the scare of a testicular cancer bout last year, he's more motivated than ever to succeed at this level, and his 107 ERA+ through 237 2/3 innings is a solid starting point.
The Buccos clearly aren't loaded with award candidates, though perhaps outfielder Austin Meadows emerges in the rookie race.
Reds: Nick Senzel, Rookie of the Year
Look, if Joey Votto can't win the NL MVP Award while posting a.320/.454/.578 slash line, walking 134 times against just 83 strikeouts and playing all 162 games, then I really don't know what more the guy can do. (Though I'd love to see him try.)
So I'm just going to bet on pure projection here and hope Senzel can not only live up to his pedigree as a first-round pick with a sterling Minor League stat line, but also make a seamless transition from third base to shortstop, where the most 2018 playing time is available.
That's a big bet, but what can I tell you? I'm still bitter about Votto not winning the 2017 NL MVP Award.
Rockies: Nolan Arenado, MVP
The same home-park realities that are likely to prevent guys like Jon Gray from ever winning an NL Cy Young Award with the Rockies lead to some NL MVP Award voter bias against a guy like Arenado, who obviously gets some offensive help at home. So part of me wants to go with projected first baseman Ryan McMahon's NL Rookie of the Year Award possibility here.
But Arenado has consistently proved himself to be something other than a Coors concoction, one of the game's most dynamic offensive and defensive talents. And you know he'll be in the middle of everything if Colorado advances again.