View From Studio 3: Early awards predictions
Expect big seasons from Iwakuma, Zimmermann, Hamilton and Freeman in 2014
Every year we say the same thing: "I never thought we'd get to Spring Training. This winter seemed like it would never end."
Well, congratulations. You've made it.
While much of the country is mired in weather described by meteorologists as a "polar vortex," and described by regular people as "nonsense," pitchers and catchers are starting to get loose for the six-month roller coaster/marathon.
Instead of waiting to see how players perform in Spring Training games, I'm jumping the gun on the prediction game for a couple of major awards.
American League Cy Young Award winner: After pitching in the large shadow cast by Felix Hernandez, 2014 is the season Hisashi Iwakuma will emerge as a superstar.
Iwakuma's numbers tell you he already is pitching at an elite level. In two full seasons, the 6-foot-3 righty has a 2.84 ERA with a WHIP of 1.10. A year ago, in his first season as a full-time big league starter, Iwakuma finished among the AL leaders in many major categories.
Iwakuma will benefit this year from the added offense and publicity created by the Robinson Cano signing with Seattle. Voters and casual fans will recognize Iwakuma's greatness this season.
National League Cy Young Award winner: If you drew a picture of a starting pitcher built for a season-long battle, chances are it would look like Jordan Zimmermann. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with legs like a thoroughbred, Zimmermann may be the best pitcher in a Nationals rotation chock full of amazing talent. Stephen Strasburg gets the headlines and Gio Gonzalez gets the camera time, but Zimmermann is wicked. At 27, Zimmermann is in his prime. His workload has increased in all three seasons since returning from Tommy John surgery. His numbers in many categories have improved, and he appears to be stronger than ever. Adding a changeup to his arsenal helped Zimmermann win 19 games in 2013.
Bigger things are in store for him in the first year of a two-year contract extension.
AL Most Valuable Player Award winner: His best years may be behind him but I firmly believe Josh Hamilton will be a beast in 2014.
In some ways, Hamilton's not much different from average folks. As the weather got colder, Hamilton gained weight. But his weight is muscle. That's the difference.
The 32-year-old outfielder added roughly 25 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame in an attempt to regain his power stroke. After watching his homer total dip from 43 in 2012 to 21 a year ago, it was time to take action. A dietary change and weight lifting program followed.
Hamilton will also be more comfortable in Anaheim this year. And once again , he'll be hitting in the same lineup as the best all around player in the game -- Mike Trout . But this year, Albert Pujols should be healthy, and that works in Hamilton's favor.
Don't look past the fact that longtime hitting coach Don Baylor has joined the Angels' staff. If anyone can help Hamilton rebound from a miserable season, it's the former AL MVP Award winner. Perhaps the most respected hitting coach in the game, Baylor worked with Larry Walker and Chipper Jones during their NL MVP Award-winning seasons.
NL Most Valuable Player Award winner: I'm playing the hot hand here. Freddie Freeman will lead the pack while leading the Braves to a third straight playoff appearance.
The hulking first baseman finished fifth in the NL MVP Award voting last year and continues to improve every season. Think about it, Freeman drove in over 100 runs and reached base nearly 40 percent of the time in a lineup consisting of underachieving regulars B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. They will be better and Freeman will benefit.
At 24, Freeman was rewarded with a huge contract .He will reward the team with another monster season.
Freeman's new $135 million contract buys him out of his three arbitration years and five free-agent years. He figures to be the face of the Braves as they transition into their new ballpark.
Hart takes pioneering style to Braves
So, nearly two decades after the Indians and Braves met in the World Series, former Indians general manager John Hart is sharing his wisdom with the folks who run the Atlanta ballclub. Hart, in his first season with the Braves in an advisory role, has his fingerprints all over the Freeman megadeal and the two-year contract handed to Jayson Heyward. Remember, back in the 1990's, Hart was a pioneer in engineering long-term deals for his young, home-grown stars (all in the their early-to-mid 20s) like Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez , Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome .
This kind of strategy allows a club that is flush with young talent to send a positive message to its fan base: This group of players will be around for a while, thereby establishing "faces" of an up and coming franchise.
Hart said that conducting business in this fashion "Allows you to avoid arbitration. When you look at what happens in arbitration with club vs. player, there's a lot of uncertainty as to where the dollars are going to go."
The third piece to this complicated puzzle involves cost certainty.
"It's not without risk to the ballclub and not without risk to the player," said Hart. "But overall I think it's a win-win for any organization with young, talented players."
The Braves have plenty of those. Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran are just a couple of them. Expect the Braves to work toward locking those two up long-term if their stars continue to rise.