- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
It's hardly being bold to predict that Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout is going to end up as fantasy's top player this season. Trout currently sits atop the ESPN Player Rater, edging out Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. Being bold would be to predict that Alberto Callaspo, Clint Barmes or Nyjer Morgan is bound for fantasy glory, and I just can't do that.
Still, as we head to the final third of baseball's regular season, it seems a wise time to get a little bold with a handful of predictions, and I'll try to make them neither as obvious as picking continued greatness for someone such as Trout nor as silly as choosing an irrelevant fantasy option to suddenly shake the foundation of the sport. Well, unless I kind of believe it. On Thursday we'll go bold with the hitters; on Friday it will be the pitchers.
• Trout will be joined in the final top 20 (among hitters) by teammates Mark Trumbo and Albert Pujols. Trumbo is already there, and while everyone expects major batting average regression, I don't see it happening. He's hitting .288 in July. He doesn't walk a lot, but he makes enough contact to hit well, and he'll approach 40 home runs. Pujols, meanwhile, has been terrific the past two months, as expected after his slow start, and will continue to prove it to those who doubted him when he ends up a top-three overall first baseman (he's currently sixth). No other Angels hitter will end up cracking the top 100 for batters, including Torii Hunter, who currently is 99th. Oh, and the Angels will win the American League West, although since they have a better record than Texas since April, that's hardly bold.
• Baseball's eventual winner in stolen bases will be Emilio Bonifacio. The Miami Marlins speedster will do this despite having already missed seven weeks because of a thumb injury. Yeah, he's bona fide. And yeah, stolen bases are down this season, making this achievement possible. With nine steals in April, 11 in May and six in July, this is a fellow who could have flirted with 60 if healthy. I say he ends up at 50, and with second-base eligibility in 2013, that's enough for him to crack our top 50 next spring.
• Marlins teammate Justin Ruggiano will finish with 14 home runs and 18 stolen bases. Hey, I like the guy. He toiled in the minors for years and failed in brief chances with the Tampa Bay Rays, but he's looking legit for Miami, offensively and in center field. He hit for power and ran in the minors, and there's something to be said for performing when your career is on the line. He won't hit .300, but the counting numbers will be there.
• The Washington Nationals' Danny Espinosa will end up a top-10 middle infielder. He's 18th entering Thursday, but since moving over to shortstop in the absence of Ian Desmond, Espinosa has turned his disappointing season around. He's hitting .452 as a shortstop (in only 31 at-bats), .235 as a second baseman. This is a future fantasy monster whose main issue in 2011 was simply batting average. Get this: The Nationals will end up with two of the top five fantasy shortstops for the season. Who would have guessed that?
• Adam Dunn will lead the league with 45 home runs, but he'll also bat .198 and shatter the record for strikeouts. Hmm, will fantasy owners care about the average and strikeouts? I won't. Dunn also will lead the majors in walks, which is part of the reason his low batting average doesn't affect owners as much. Enjoy the 115 RBIs as well.
• Of course, Dunn will fall short of being Chicago's top hitter, according to the Player Rater, when 2012 ends. It won't be Paul Konerko, either. Alex Rios is the current leader, but he'll be passed by outfielder Alejandro De Aza. Yep! The leadoff hitter will keep on running, and since stolen bases are tougher to come by than home runs, it will propel him to more value.
• Colorado Rockies rookie Wilin Rosario will lead all catchers in home runs this season. He already has hit 16, and entering Thursday, the only backstop with more is Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox. Salty has been struggling of late, but Rosario continues to improve and will easily push Ramon Hernandez aside even if the latter isn't traded. By the way, Rosario's numbers are actually better away from Coors Field. He'll outlast Salty, Brian McCann and Mike Napoli, and hit 26 home runs.
• Speaking of young players, future Kansas City Royals outfielder but current Triple-A Omaha slugger Wil Myers will continue to toil in the minors longer than he should. Good luck to the Royals in trading Jeff Francoeur to open up space, too. Not saying I agree with their philosophy one bit, but I'll take the under on Myers getting more than 100 big league at-bats.
• Chase Utley will finish as a top-15 second baseman. While he's currently 46th at the position on the Rater, it's not as difficult as one might think to move up, and he's doing so quickly. In the past five games, Utley has two home runs, six RBIs and three stolen bases, and he isn't getting many days off. He won't need them when he finishes with 13 home runs and 14 steals, similar to what he did the prior two injury-shortened campaigns.
• Ryan Roberts will join Utley in that top 15. Yep, the new Rays third baseman has second-base eligibility and will move over there when Evan Longoria comes off the DL in late August. Roberts hit 19 home runs and stole 18 bases last season, and those skills certainly remain. Forget about the first few months of underachievement in Arizona; I say he finishes with 13 homers and 14 steals.
• As for those Diamondbacks, complain about outfielder Justin Upton all you want, but he's going to end the season with 16 home runs, 75 RBIs and 21 stolen bases. Sure, you didn't get a full return on your draft-day investment, but this could have been a whole lot worse. And for what it's worth, I'll be recommending Upton in 2013 drafts.
• The Red Sox will miss the playoffs (that's not bold), but Adrian Gonzalez will continue his second-half surge, and end up a top-10 first baseman and top-25 outfielder. Gonzalez had a disappointing first half, with six home runs in 339 at-bats. He already has hit three home runs (with a .349 average) in 43 at-bats since the All-Star break. That production will continue. And I'm similarly eager to trade for Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at current discount prices. As for Carl Crawford, and I've never wavered on this, you can have him. You loved him after three games, and since then, nothing. Crawford will play only 25 more games and hit .230.
• Just one player will post a 30-homer/30-steal season. Congrats again to Ryan Braun! For now he's my top player in 2013 drafts, and McCutchen, Matt Kemp and Carlos Gonzalez are in the top five, although I have to admit that every day I see Trout play, I wonder whether he's the best. Trout will hit 24 home runs, knock in 75 and steal 44 bases with a .336 batting average as a rookie. That's simply incredible.
Eric Karabell looks ahead to the final two months of the season and lays out a handful of bold predictions for hitters, including thoughts on Adam Dunn, Mark Trumbo and others.