The 2019 season is here. Let’s get right to it.
You could say that to date neither Dan Vogelbach nor Vladimir Guererro, Jr. have accomplished anything in the major leagues. While true, that’s where the comparison ends. Vogelbach is 26 years old and has less than 150 major league plate appearances on his resume (career 78 wRC+). Vlad, Jr. just turned 20 years old, is the consensus #1 prospect in baseball, and is the son of a beloved Hall of Fame player.
I have absolutely nothing against Vlad, Jr. and am as excited as anyone else to watch him carve out what is likely to be a stunning career with the bat. However, as I tried to express recently, the expectations are so high here that we may all be setting ourselves up for a little bit of disappointment. As we are often reminded with even elite prospects, baseball is hard, and the game has a funny way of humbling even the most talented athletes in the world, at least for a time. Patience will be prudent with Vlad, Jr., but most of us will have none of it.
Vogelbach has posted a minor league slash of .282/.391/.472/.864 over eight seasons, including a .907 OPS in 342 AAA games. He’s a professional hitter, but up until this point he’s had Nelson Cruz blocking his path to SEA. That roadblock is now removed, and as of this writing it’s all but certain Vogelbach will get a shot to stick on the Mariners’ roster to begin the season. From the write up for the 2019 Seattle top prospects:
Vogelbach’s approach prioritizes contact over the type of selectivity he’d need to have to get to all his power. His bat control makes this approach viable, but it may not generate offense that clears the bar at 1B/DH. He may be a good buy low target for an NL team trying to get ahead of the universal DH implementation.
By all accounts, Vlad, Jr. is a generational hitter on the cusp of stardom. For the moment however, opportunity may be all that is currently separating these two burly hitters at this stage in their trajectory. It’s bold, but that may be all Vogelbach needs to surprise us with the better season.
2 – Adam Frazier will win the National League batting title.
Bold predictions are often about forecasting the perfect storm of underrated talent and opportunity. In 2018, Adam Frazier was 16% better than the league average hitter, amassing a .277/.342/.456 line in 113 games (352 PA), good for a .343 wOBA, which made him a top 10 player at his position. Most of that positive damage was done in the second half of the season when Frazier hit seven of his ten home runs and .306/.357/.533 overall. Just about everything came together for Frazier in the second half of 2018, as he started pulling the ball more (44% vs. 30%), which helped him hit the ball harder (45% vs. 21%) with more loft (34.0% FB% vs. 27.8%) and significantly better batted ball results (13.7% HR/FB% vs. 9.4%; 23.3% LD% vs. 14.8%). Frazier will still need to prove he can hit LHP to take the next step forward in development, but if he can combine his elite contact skills (his 79.3% O-Contact% ranked first among 2B and his 5.7% SwStr% ranked 7th) with the opportunity to leadoff full time in 2019, and you have a storm worth waiting for.
3 – Dakota Hudson will finish inside the Top 5 of the National League ROY vote.
You won’t find Dakota Hudson on the recently published FanGraphs Top 100 prospects list, even if you go all the way down to 132. You will find him listed #5 overall on the Cardinals top prospect list, but even then the hype feels rightly muted. Perhaps the expectations for the tall 24 year old RHP were lowered by spending all of his 2018 MLB debut pitching out of the STL bullpen. More likely, his small sample ability (or inability) to whiff just 6.26 batters per nine innings has more to do with it, a mark that ranked him 277th out of all relievers with at least 20 IP. That is…not good, but the boldness here comes from Hudson’s special weapon that should propel him to much greater success in 2019: a heavy, blazing (97.5 mph) fastball that induces ground balls more than 60% of the time.
Here are the stats behind the last five starting pitchers to lead the majors in GB%:
2018: Dallas Keuchel – 53.7% GB%, 3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 6.73 K/9, 8.3% SwStr%
2017: Marcus Stroman – 62.3% GB%, 3.09 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 7.34 K/9, 10.0% SwStr%
2016: Marcus Stroman – 60.1% GB%, 4.37 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 7.32 K/9, 9.3% SwStr%
2015: Brett Anderson – 66.3% GB%, 3.69 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 5.79 K/9, 7.0% SwStr%
2014: Dallas Keuchel – 63.5% GB%, 2.92 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 6.57 K/9, 9.0% SwStr%
Hudson, recently named the Cardinals’ 5th starter, allowed just one home run in 138 professional innings in 2018. He has a history of big game success and measured, developmental progress. The 6’5″ right-hander has the skill set to compare favorably to the seasons above, and if the Cardinals’ coaching staff can help him more confidently harness his elite stuff (a new pitch could help too) while taking a half step forward with his command, Hudson can become an extremely effective starting pitcher, even if the results aren’t fantasy flashy. Slow and steady can sometimes win the race when it comes to rookie accolades, and Hudson is a dark horse for ROY if his pitches hit the ground running.
4 – The Miami Marlins’ starting rotation will finish with an ERA lower than the rotation of the New York Yankees.
The Marlins have been underwhelming their fan base for years, so it will be easy for the casual fan to overlook what could be an interesting group of young arms in Miami this season.
Jose Urena: Urena fell apart in the 2nd half last season, but he was useful in deep leagues in the first, pitching to a 3.71 FIP, 7.37 K/9, 1.22 WHIP, and 53% GB% performance in just over 100 IP. He’ll pitch almost all of 2019 at 27 years old and if he can regain some first half magic he’s at least radar worthy.
Trevor Richards: One of my personal favorite breakout candidates for 2019, Richards (25 years old) is armed with a phenomenal change up and a very mediocre fastball. That combo doesn’t happen often but Richards made it work last year (9.26 K/9), especially in the 2nd half (10.32 K/9, 1.23 WHIP) where he cut down significantly on hard hit damage from opposing batters. Richards has had a great spring, possesses a solid minor league track record, and is also working on a new pitch, so he could be a great low cost option this season to pitch ~150 very valuable innings.
Caleb Smith: Smith will need to avoid injury and the occasional blow up start to really take a step forward, but he led the Marlins last season in strikeout rate (10.24 K/9) because both his change up and slider can be lethal when working together. Smith is a fly ball lefty (just 28.4% GB%) that will give up his fair share of home runs, but he’s under the radar due to last season’s injury and could further cement Miami as a breakout rotation.
Pablo Lopez: Lopez (23 years old) has had a terrific spring (0.90 ERA), which gives hope that he can also put things together and fill in for some great low cost innings in 2019. Nick Pollack profiled both Lopez and Smith here, but he looks like he should claim the #5 spot in the rotation right out of the gate.
Sandy Alcantara: Potentially destined for relief because of spotty command, Alcantara still has an intriguing blend of stuff and youth (23) that might put him on the map in 2019. Alcantara sits just inside the FanGraphs Top 130 prospects (50 FV) and you can read more about him here.
What about the Yankees? With question marks surrounding Luis Severino and a long checkered injury history for James Paxton, the Yankees suddenly look thin at SP despite entering 2019 as one of the top teams in the game. While their bullpen will be exceptional, the starting rotations between these two teams could be finish a lot closer than many people believe at the start of this new season.
5 – Trevor Story will win the National League MVP.
I was not always a Story believer, but you have to adjust to what you see. This is bold because Story’s teammate is one of the best players in the game, but if all the trends continue, Story could have a further breakout season big enough to earn top honors this year. Positive signs include an increase in contact rate (from 70.4% in 2017 to 77.4% in 2018), a three year reduction in strikeout rate (down to 25.6% in 2018), and final confirmation that he can hit right hand pitching with authority (his .360 wOBA vs. RHP matches well with his rookie season of .369, a big jump from the .287 wOBA struggle in 2017). Story also led MLB in extra base hits last season and has wheels too, stealing 27 bases to go along with those 85 XBH. Things are trending up for this 26 year old shortstop and he may have the talent to finish atop the best players in the league if further developments occur.
Despite an injury-ruined season, my Soler prediction paid off last year, so I’m going to the well again in 2019. I have always loved Soler and this year he’s finally healthy (again) and ready for a full time slot at DH. Full, protected playing time may be all Soler needs to set himself up for a huge season because his skills are often on display when rested from the field (career .225 ISO as DH). Kansas City isn’t going to be very good this year, but Soler is going to be a bright spot, and with that one amazing, healthy season he’s destined to have, he’s going to outshine even some of the brightest young stars in the game.
Over the past four seasons, Paul Goldschmidt has averaged 32 home runs and 20 stolen bases. He’s now the new franchise player of the St. Louis Cardinals and primed for another big season. However, Tommy Pham is ready to give the perennial early rounder a run for his money if he can carry some of his late 2018 hard hit gains into a full, healthy season in Tampa Bay. Unlike Goldschmidt, former Cardinal Pham has never seen 600 AB’s in a major league season, so health is the primary obstacle here. But sometimes sustained health is the last ingredient for a true breakout, and that may be more true for Pham than any other player as he finished 2018 on one of the hottest streaks in the game. In his final 50 games, Pham hit .331/.433/.580/1.013, good for a .428 wOBA. The 30 year old Pham already hits the ball unbelievably hard (his 47% hard hit rate compares favorably to Goldschmidt), but that hard hit rate rose to over 50% in the second half of the season as he hit more line drives (28.6%) despite pulling the ball significantly less (from 42% in the 1st half to 30% in 2nd half). Pham can hit, and if healthy, he can run too. Now with regular access to the DH, he’s going to make the Redbirds question whether they swapped one franchise player for another.
In his recent starting pitcher rankings, Paul Sporer listed Darvish as the 20th best SP in the land; Lance Lynn was listed at 142. I recently detailed some interesting month by month splits for Lance Lynn here, but the primary takeaway is that he was a terrific pitcher in four out of six months last season. Consider:
April + July (47 innings): 7.23 ERA, 6.59 FIP, 1.9 HR/9, 3.0 K%-BB%, 8.6 K/9
Other (109 innings): 3.70 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 0.30 HR/9, 16.6 K%-BB%, 9.5 K/9
There are some staggering differences there, and while pitching in Texas won’t do him any favors, I like Lynn for a very valuable and underrated campaign in 2019 that eclipses what we can expect from the much more heralded but homer-prone Darvish, a former Ranger himself. This prediction, like others, may come down to health, but I don’t see a gap of over 100 pitchers between these two 6’5″ right handed arms. Just to be specific, I’ll say Lynn ends the season as the better starting pitcher on a per innings pitched basis.
The White Sox didn’t land either of their superstar targets this winter, but they did manage to sign their own budding slugger to a long term agreement just this week. With the ink still wet and plenty of press still at the top of Twitter timelines, I won’t go into all the finer points surrounding Jimenez’ 60 FV profile, but I will leave you with this quick career comparison:
Eloy Jimenez: .315/.359/.519/.878 in 408 minor league games
Manny Machado: .282/.335/.487/.822 in 926 major league games
Bryce Harper: .279/.388/.512/.900 in 927 major league games
Comparing and then projecting minor league success over and above the major league production of two historic talents is most likely a fools errand, but these are supposed to bold, right? Unlike most slugging prospects with “cartoonish all-fields power”, Eloy can really hit, and his ability to improve while climbing the ladder to AAA last year (AA OPS of .925 to AAA OPS of .996) gives at least some small sample to hang the hope of this prediction on. Jimenez is likely to feast on some of that AAA-like AL Central pitching, and new long term agreement should ensure he gets the AB’s needed to thrive. If Jimenez can stay healthy in his rookie season, he may find himself not just in the ROY discussion but on the MVP short list, too.
10 – Stephen Piscotty finishes with a line of at least .300/.400/.500.
Piscotty had the mini-breakout last year scouts always thought he was capable of, hitting 27 home runs in route to a .267/.331/.491 line. His success can be attributed to a much more aggressive approach (career high 37.7% O-swing% and career low 6.9% BB% rate) that helped him generate more hard contact to the center of the field. The 28 year old Piscotty hasn’t hit .300 or better since his 2015 rookie season, and he’s never slugged .500 or better, but he’s a heady player now another season removed from the weight of family grief. With a resume that now includes a .220+ ISO (2018), an ability to hit for average (.305 in 2015), a knack for getting get on base (13.0% BB% in 2017), and potentially a new found ability to pull the ball (50.8% in September 2018), it’s at least possible Piscotty has the intangibles needed to put all these puzzle pieces together for one terrific season in 2019.
Trey is a 20+ year fantasy veteran and an early adopter of Ottoneu fantasy sports. He currently administers the Ottoneu community, a network of ~1,200 fantasy baseball and football fans talking sports daily. More resources here: http://community.ottoneu.com