Another year, another set of bold predictions, and another introduction to The ProcessTM. I did well last year, hitting on Matt Chapman and Miles Mikolas out-earning their teammates Matt Olson and Luke Weaver despite enormous divides in National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) average draft position (ADP) as well as Madison Bumgarner being worse than a not-top-20 starting pitcher (with an asterisk for his late start in 2019). I might’ve hit more bold predictions last year than in my previous three seasons combined.
Bold predictions can but don’t have to be a frivolous exercise. As fun as it is to slap a 40-homer prediction on Franmil Reyes (…should I do that?), I don’t find it particularly illuminating unless it’s supported by evidence (…which exists for Reyes?!). You can make bold predictions without being outrageously bold — it’s exactly what I intended to accomplish last year simply by leveraging what I observed to be extreme market inefficiencies at play. I stuck my neck out for Chapman and Mikolas and Bumgarner, but not as far as folks might think. There was enough evidence in their (and, where applicable, in their teammates’) bodies of work for me to make objectively bold predictions on the basis of draft price or market consensus without them feeling particularly bold to me.
While endeavoring to go 6-for-10 this year just to match last year’s hit rate would be absurd, I do think I can hit another three, at least, in 2019 if I pick my spots correctly. So, here goes: my 10 bold predictions for 2019.
1) Mike Tauchman is a top-60 outfielder.
(My guess: he goes 20/6/.270.) It wouldn’t be a 2019 Chamberlain bold predictions post without some hype for my boy Tauchman. To the uninitiated (and the too-lazy-to-read-the-post-I-just-linked), Tauchman is a former contact- and speed-first non-prospect who suddenly developed massive power at age 26 and sustained it through his age-27 season. More than 950 Triple-A plate appearances later, his only suitable comp is Rhys Hoskins with residual speed.
As with truly bold predictions, a lot has to break right for Tauchman, NFBC’s 183rd outfielder, to realize his potential this year. He may start the season no higher than the Rockies’ 5th outfielder, sufficiently capping his playing time from the onset. What I anticipate will happen: injuries will provide Tauchman just enough daylight for him to prove his worth and make him, ah, indispensable.
2) Jeff McNeil is a top-10 second baseman.
(My guess: he goes 17/10/.300.) Last year, my pick to click was Chapman; this year, it’s McNeil. I have loved on him excessively on Twitter (exhibits A, B, C, and D) — before it was cool to do so, I might add — and his 2018 debut, despite its absurdity, has been tempered by the Mets’ insistence to bury their best young (in McNeil’s case, somewhat young) talent. McNeil is incredibly similar to Tauchman, although arguably less talented prior to 2018. Then McNeil erupted for 19 home runs in 384 PA across Double-A and Triple-A — all while striking out only 10.9% of the time. His 10.9% strikeout rate (K%) and 9.4% walk rate (BB%) in the minors last year paints the portrait of a hitter with legitimately elite contact skills that carried over to the Major League level, where he struck out only 9.7% of the time while hitting .329.
McNeil’s hit tool is a forgone conclusion. I’d be shocked if he didn’t hit .300 in a full season’s worth of playing time. The bigger question mark is the power, which did not show up the way it did in the minors earlier in 2018. Whereas Tauchman’s bigger unknown is when he’ll do it, McNeil’s is how, as I envision McNeil, NFBC’s 27th second baseman, quickly proving himself indispensable (again) while third base remains vacant to start the season.
3) Willians Astudillo is a top-3 catcher.
(My guess: he goes 15/0/.300.) Astudillo may already be more recognizable than Mike Trout, which, honestly, I’m totally fine with. My dude — our dude — has gotten his fair share of love this preseason, leaving draft boards as the 15th catcher overall despite not having a starting role locked down. That could change with news of Miguel Sano’s delayed start to 2019; it’s no coincidence Astudillo has played his fair share of third base this spring.
While it’s one thing to hit .300 as a catcher, it’s another to hit .300 across such high volume of at-bats. Buster Posey could pretty easily hit .300 this year, but if you give him and Astudillo identical batting averages, Astudillo’s contributions would be more valuable to the batting average category on a per-PA basis. I sincerely think he could eclipse 200 hits under the right circumstances.
If he falls into regular playing time as baseball’s most unique super-utility player, he’ll almost instantly eclipse his ADP and threaten to be among the best in baseball. And the part I left out: he has flashed legit power since 2017: in Triple-A (for the Diamondbacks, then the Twins), through a short stint in the bigs, all the way through the Venezuelan winter league. I was gonna call for double-digit power, but let’s go big: let’s say 15 home runs. (Not the official bold prediction, but I’m feelin’ it.)
4) Domingo German is the Yankees’ 2nd-most valuable starting pitcher.
This prediction would be sexier if Luis Severino weren’t missing the first month of the season. Then again, Severino missing time makes the prediction a little more achievable, a little less insane.
German first came to my attention last year when I tried to model pitcher swinging strike rate (SwStr%) and ground ball rate (GB%) using only pitch movement and velocity. Among all pitchers who had thrown at least 500 pitches at the time, German ranked 17th in “deserved” whiffs and 14th in “deserved” grounders. Only two other pitchers (Garrett Richards and Lance McCullers) ranked in the top-20 of both, and only three others (Charlie Morton, Carlos Carrasco, and Luis Castillo) ranked top-30. My efforts could have certainly turned up worse names to associate with German.
By year’s end, all four of German’s pitches ranked above-average by measure of swinging strike rate relative to their respective pitch designations. His three primary pitches — curve, four-seamer, and two-seamer, which comprise 84% of his repertoire — achieved expected wOBA (xwOBA) marks better than league-average. His change-up, despite allowing a miserable .403 wOBA and .395 xwOBA against, recorded an astounding 20.1% swinging strike rate, the best of all his pitches, suggesting (to me, at least) that German could turn the pitch into a legitimate weapon with some work.
I could be wrong, but I’m under the impression folks are more enamored with Jonathan Loaisiga as a (just-graduated?) prospect, especially after he compiled a strikeout rate exceeding 30% and a 3.44 SIERA. However, it was only four starts, and four starts does not a pitcher make. Jon Lasagna’s primary offering, a four-seamer (56%), appears especially weak. He might have stronger secondary stuff, but German appears to me to have a more-balanced arsenal. Regardless, it’s German’s turn to take a rotation spot and, like the others, make himself indispensable to his team. His biggest impediments are five months each of Severino, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka and six months of J.A. Happ. Now that I say that out loud, it still sounds pretty insane, especially if the #5 starter role becomes Loaisiga’s, and not German’s, to lose. We’ll see.
5) Austin Barnes is a top-5 catcher.
(My guess: he’ll go 10/10/.275.) Once upon a time (a year too early in 2016 and on time in 2017), I boldly predicted Austin Barnes, despite what at the time was a lack of a firm starting role, would be a top-15 catcher. At the time, he was an afterthought. Now, after a 2018 season in which he hit .205 across 238 plate appearances, striking out more than 28% of the time despite a scant 5.8% whiff rate. The two don’t gel.
I’m here to, well, not double, but triple down on Barnes. Paul Sporer and I had an impassioned discussion about this (a discussion that also involved sudden castaway Jake Lamb). BArnes is once again a fantasy afterthought — 24th among catchers in the NFBC — despite being the front-runner to the Dodgers’ starting catcher gig, facing what will likely amount to weak competition from the incoming and relatively elderly Russell Martin. I maintain Barnes is a poor man’s J.T. Realmuto, with less power, comparable speed, and better contact skills. A perpetual threat to walk as often as he strikes out, I declare 2018 an aberration and 2019 the year of the true Barnes breakout, ranking him among the elite catchers in 2020.
6) Madison Bumgarner is not a top-200 player.
“Want a fiery hot take? I think I’d take Wacha over Bumgarner. Ok maybe not that, but I’d let Bumgarner drop outside the Top 200.” – @DolphHauldhagen
— Paul Sporer (@sporer) March 10, 2019
You know what? I’m just going to lean into this one. I’ve built my brand on being the guy who was actually attuned to the fact that Bumgarner might not be OK heading into the 2018 season. I made it the focal point of his pre-2018 player caption on FanGraphs, and I made a (correct) bold prediction about it last year, and I wrote about it again after his first few starts last summer. I’ve also Tweeted about it so often, it’s too much to document.
I’ll take a moment to argue in favor of the man I’m actively disparaging. If his fastball is still broken, he might be able to get by with his cutter. Maybe MadBum defaults more to his offspeed/breaking stuff, although I think part of his secondary success relates to the effectiveness of his heater. Even if it’s all broken, the whole package, he still pitches in one of the friendliest venues in baseball, which could suppress his ERA relative to the common ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, SIERA). A lot could go wrong and still go right, is what I’m saying, and all before considering maybe his shoulder is actually healthy this season and he returns to being elite. Frankly, it all hinges on his shoulder being OK.
I’m betting that it all goes wrong and stays wrong. It’s profoundly negative, but given the market is still bullish on him — 84th overall in NFBC, roughly a top-20 starter — it’s worth driving home the point that he might not be all right.
7) Kenta Maeda out-earns teammate and (alleged) budding ace Walker Buehler.
Let’s set the record straight: I like Buehler. He’s good! Great fastball. Problem is… that’s kind of all he has. Maybe. I’m not sure! It’s too early to tell. We’re acting like 140 innings is the gospel (Weaver can tell you that, after his atrocious follow-up to his 2016-17 breakout, it’s not). The game’s other staff aces possess elite fastballs and at least one above-average secondary (Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Paxton), or, if their fastball is lesser than, two or more above-average or even elite secondaries (Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard, Mike Clevinger, German Marquez).
Buehler doesn’t quite check either of these boxes — not that he needs to. But I’m also not convinced he’s the contact management specialist he has made himself out to be, recording a .248 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and .256 xwOBA — the latter being 5th-best among 112 pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches last year. His fastball allowed a roughly league-average rate of line drives and a below-average rate of pop-ups last year yet incurred an xwOBA probably multiple standard deviations better than the mean.
I’ve had a hard time reconciling the issue, so I’ve simply faded Buehler this year, for better or for worse. I’d never anchor my rotation with him — he’d be my #2 at best, and as far as #2 starters go, I’m fine “settling” for Patrick Corbin, Paxton, etc. who are being drafted after Buehler. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong; I don’t have much skin in this — this, being Buehler not living up to expectations.
Then again, Buehler could live up to expectations and this prediction could hit, too. Those events aren’t mutually exclusive. This is more about Maeda, anyway, who owns the requisite two elite secondary pitches and has been a top-20 starter by SIERA since his debut (out of 120 starters who have thrown at least 300 innings in that span). On a per-start basis, he’s a beast. And it’s possible — it’s possible — he throws nearly as many innings this year as Buehler, if not more. That would be the interesting part, because Maeda could easily go punch for punch with Buehler while being drafted 14 rounds later on average in 12-team leagues. Converting snake draft ADP to auction dollars, it’s like paying $5 instead of $20. I’m betting that $5 not only turns a profit but also produces comparable revenue to Buehler’s $20. We’ll see.
8) Kirby Yates is a top-2 closer.
I can’t bring myself to be bolder, but I like how neatly this plays out. Yates is currently NFBC’s 13th closer off the board. Yates’ minimum pick (73) is equal to the ordinal ADP rank of Kenley Jansen, the third closer off the board, and is almost identical to the maximum pick (72) of Edwin Diaz, the first closer off the board. Let’s shoot for right in between.
Here’s how Yates ranks among 111 relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings the last two years:
- SIERA: 5th (2.33)
- K-BB%: 5th (29.5%)
- SwStr%: 5th (17.1%)
Diaz ranks 6th, 6th, and 4th, respectively, in those metrics, and only Craig Kimbrel rates better in all three. Other arms who rate comparably — Josh Hader, Hector Neris, Chad Green — have a 9th-inning role that, as of today, is murky or nonexistent. Jansen, Jose Leclerc, Ken Giles, Roberto Osuna, Blake Treinen… they’re all superb relief options. But Yates has demonstrated he can hang with the best. Why not be relief ace 2019’s dart throw? I’m targeting him everywhere, so I do have some skin in this one. Let’s gooooo!
9) Jake Lamb and Jung Ho Kang are both top-12 third basemen.
This is less exciting, given Kang was very recently tabbed the starting third baseman for Pittsburgh. Still, even in the couple of days since the announcement, Kang is still only the 27th third baseman off the board — right behind Lamb, at 26th. Given a full-season pace, each of these hitters is a beast — Kang, of the 25/5/.270 variety; Lamb, of the 30/5/.250 variety. Top-12 doesn’t seem outlandish until you look at the names populating that area of the draft board:
The maximum pick for any of these players — 165, for Donaldson — is, coincidentally, nearly identical to Lamb’s minimum pick of 162 (and earlier than Kang’s minimum pick of 180). Mostly, I just want to point out that Lamb and Kang, if healthy, should provide exceptional value.
10) Nathaniel Lowe is the American League Rookie of the Year.
So there’s this kid named Guerrero and… look, that’s the boring pick. I know this pick won’t hit, but it allows me to spout off about Lowe, whose competition at first base — Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi — is not exactly the most daunting. Fact of the matter is few hitters have shown Lowe’s absurd combination of power and plate discipline at his age. To attest, he walked (13.5% BB) almost as often as he struck out (14.2%) while slugging nearly .600 and hitting 92% better than the league (192 wRC+) across Single-A and Double-A. He didn’t quite fire on all cylinders when reaching Triple-A, but anything can happen in 110 plate appearances (and he still posted a 110 wRC+ despite being “bad”).
Lowe has some prospect stature — Baseball America ranked him 97th ahead of the 2019 season; Prospects Live, 75th, the best I’ve seen (and 33rd for fantasy purposes) — but not enough given what is objectively a rare combination of two above-average (arguably plus) base skills. Half the battle with prospects is game power but no hit tool or hit tool with raw power that never becomes game power. Lowe appears to have both in spades, potentially shrinking the learning curve he might face at the big-league level.
If Lowe gets a quick call out of Triple-A, roughly around the same time Guerrero does in late April, hey! Who knows. He could rake. I think an upside scenario is 25/0/.275 in a full season, which is nearly equal to Baseball Prospectus’ 90th-percentile projection for Lowe when prorated. Given he dominated lesser competition, it’s reasonable that Pecota and other projection systems are lukewarm on Lowe. I think, perhaps foolishly, the 90th-percentile is more attainable than the projections let on. (If you want my hot take: I think part of the reason the Rays traded Jake Bauers is they perceive Lowe to be their first baseman of the future. The future is now, I say!!!)
If nothing else, keep close tabs on Lowe, whose polish I think is obscenely underrated in the immediate-term for fantasy dynasty purposes. If he hadn’t barely cracked Baseball American’s top-100 this year, he would’ve been eligible for the Fantasy Fringe Five, and you know I would have made him part of the inaugural five.
* * *
Thank you for reading. Too bold? Not bold enough? Let me know how dumb I am in the comments.
RotoGraphs is teaming up with the NFBC to provide unique content throughout the season. To find out about the various NFBC events like the Online Championship go over to the NFBC website to see their various league options.
Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 5-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.