Brad Johnson’s 10 Bold Predictions For 2019

It’s time. Dust off your salty #NotBold hot takes because it’s bold prediction season at RotoGraphs. This year, we’re mixing things up by adding… *checks notes* ah, excuse me that was the script for the MTV reality spin off of Bold Predictions. It’s still the same game as past years. I try to name 10 things that are implausible but might happen. Later I lament about how badly I missed.

Last year I went waaaaaay too bold. This time, I’m going back to skirting the bold/not bold line. In my experience, negative predictions are massively more likely to turn out correct than positive ones. To increase the challenge, I’ll be focusing on upside more than downside.

1. Dominic Smith is the Mets top first baseman

Over the last couple days, rumors have circulated about the Mets plan to give Smith the first crack at the cold corner. While I’m as eager as anyone to see Pete Alonso, I also applaud New York for giving Smith one last shot to claim the job. It’s easy to look at his terrible performance over 332 career plate appearances and mentally toss him aside. However, he’s a 24-year-old former top prospect who was on a consistently linear growth track prior to his dreadful 2018 campaign.

Over the offseason, Smith had surgery to correct sleep apnea. The same surgery instantly converted Josh James from a near-nobody to Fringe Five superstar to an overhyped “sleeper” (prior to injury). Mike Napoli’s career also improved with better sleep. Smith has taken knocks for his work ethic. There’s a chance it will improve with proper rest. Smith is actually still using a CPAP machine. Additional research leads me to believe this narrative is getting way overhyped (even if it’s fairly below the radar) since he had the machine last season too. Smith does seem to believe it has a major influence on his success, saying a 95 mph fastball looks like it’s 103 mph if he forgets to use it.

In addition to holding off Alonso, Smith will also have to battle Todd Frazier, Robinson Cano, J.D. Davis, and (indirectly) Jeff McNeil to cling to the job.

2. Hunter Renfroe hits 40 home runs

This prediction has waited half a year to finally see the light of day. Well, that’s not technically true. I wrote about Renfroe as the next Khris Davis/Mark Trumbo last August.

Back when I predicted Trumbo to win the home run crown, I was a year too early. I have a sinking feeling I’m once again a year too early – mostly because the Padres roster is extremely deep. Any kind of slump could trim Renfroe’s playing time.

Renfroe has yet to post a full season in the majors, reaching plate appearance totals of 479 and 441 over the last two years. He has a fairly classic home run profile with lots of hard, pulled, fly ball contact. Renfroe made modest improvements to his plate discipline last year, although he was close enough to his previous numbers to wonder if we’re actually observing a change. Small sample warning: his second half numbers were especially impressive.

3. Tyler Beede is 12-team mixed relevant

The first night of the FanGraphs staff meetup, we went to watch the Athletics knock around the Giants. We also caught a glimpse of Beede in the middle-late innings. At this point, we were all more invested in nerding out about baseball than actually closely watching the game. I happened to casually notice a big number on the scoreboard.

“Hey guys, has Beede always thrown 97 mph?”

The answer is no. It’s the result of an offseason of tinkering with mechanics and using data to trim his repertoire. Beede now comfortably sits in the 96 to 97 mph range, and if the hype is real, his offspeed stuff should be more effective too. There’s scope for a serious breakout in the bullpen, one that includes well over 10 K/9 with solid ratios. Since the bullpen is so deep, I don’t foresee much of an opportunity for saves. If the trio of veteran closers is traded, Beede would still need to leapfrog Reyes Moronta and Ray Black.

There is a second path by which Beede could fulfill this prediction. Once a promising starting pitcher prospect, Beede could work his way out of the bullpen in a Carlos Carrasco kind of way. Becoming a reliever tends to be sticky, but the Giants hideous outlook for 2019 could work in Beede’s favor.

The breakout I’ve predicted basically means he’ll be a useful streaming option on days when a usable starter isn’t in evidence. If I find myself mentioning him in my Waiver Wars column, I’ll know I’ve won this one.

4. Martin Perez is the Twins best starting pitcher

You may be starting to notice a general trend with some of my picks. I’m locking in the spring breakout stories. Cheating? #NotBold? Maybe.

Perez is working at 95 mph this spring. He claims he’s using his legs and core more than in past years. That’s one way to add velocity. Perez was a complete dumpster fire last season. Adding three ticks on the radar gun won’t automatically save him from another disasterpiece. To lead the Twins staff, he’ll have to surpass a couple perennial breakout candidates in Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda. If those too happen to flop, Perez still has to outperform Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi – both of whom are steady league average types.

5. Ryan Pressly records more saves than Roberto Osuna

Upon joining the Astros, Pressly recorded a 34.5 percent K%-BB% in 23.1 innings. Such a rate would have ranked third in the majors among pitchers with 60 or more innings, behind Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader. Pressly’s full season, including his Twins tenure, was ninth best (27.1% K%-BB%).

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the hype. Every pitcher the Astros touch turns to gold, right? Here I am falling for the same hype. As good as Osuna is at pitching – he’s an easy top 10 closer – Pressly legitimately looks to be a better reliever. The Astros are not shy about reorganizing their bullpen as needed. While I don’t have a reason to doubt Osuna, any kind of slump, injury, or off-the-field infraction could open the door.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard that Osuna is working on a Marcus Stroman-inspired sinker. He already pitches way too much to contact for a pitcher with his whiff rates.

6. Anibal Sanchez is a top 50 pitcher in 12-team 5×5 mixed

To be clear, I’m referring to ALL pitchers, not just starters. Relievers have increasingly infested the top 50 list, leaving about 25 spots for starters. Predicting him as a top 50 starter would be decidedly un-bold, basically tabbing him to be mid-Glob. This pencils him in as one of the last pre-Glob starters, roughly equivalent with Miles Mikolas.

Actually, Mikolas is a fun comp. The Cardinal posted fantasy numbers of 200.2 innings, 6.55 K/9, 2.83 ERA, and 1.07 WHIP. Sanchez is coming off a breakout season with 136.2 innings, 8.89 K/9, 2.83 ERA, and 1.08 WHIP. He’s reportedly ditched at least one of his least effective offerings.

The innings volume matters. Mikolas should be projected to throw at least 50 more innings than Sanchez. However, Mikolas has a 94 ADP compared to Sanchez’s 309 ADP. That’s a big gap between two pitchers who have virtually the same per inning rates.

Of course, one could remember that Sanchez was mostly terrible in the half decade proceeding last season. Such a one would be best described as a wet blanket.

7. Trevor May is a top 10 closer

Excluding his lone start during which he allowed four runs over one frame, May had an incredible 2018 season. Like many others, his velocity is up as a reliever. He also improved his command by about half a scouting grade. The whole repertoire played up, leading to more swinging strikes despite fewer walks. Facing the trashiest offenses in the league (aka the AL Central) didn’t hurt. And the division has arguably weakened over the winter.

Home runs were a problem last year, and there’s a legitimate chance he’s “just” a Minnesota version of Kirby Yates. However, we should remember that we’re looking at a tiny sample. While the command gain looked real to me, it could be lost over the winter. Similarly, May’s high 18.2 percent home run to fly ball rate only includes four actual home runs. Small sample noise abounds.

8. Miguel Cabrera Bounces

As they say, sometimes dead cats bounce. At least, I imagine they say it. Where else would the phrase come from?

Anyway, Cabrera’s star has faded over the last two seasons. His home run rate is way down, he’s hitting more ground balls, and he’s battled enough injuries to wonder if he can stay healthy over a full season. He’s also looked exploitable with hard, inside fastballs. With Victor Martinez off the roster, Cabrera will probably be used more frequently as the designated hitter to maintain his health.

Despite the red flags, Cabrera never lost his excellent hard contact rate. He also rarely makes soft contact – he’s elite in this regard. His near-.400 OBP is still a strong asset in appropriate fantasy formats. He’ll have a good lineup role for driving in runs – even if the supporting cast is… bland. He’s reportedly in excellent playing shape this spring. A modest adjustment or three could unlock something like Joey Votto’s 2018 season. While we complained about Votto, he still had a very useful 12-team mixed campaign.

9. Adam Eaton is a dude

Eaton is the 186th player per FanTrax despite an Andrew Benintendi-like skill set. The discount is no mystery. He’s earned the Injury Prone label by making just 477 plate appearances over the last two seasons. But consider this, he made 1,395 plate appearances over the proceeding two seasons. Maybe the volume of work broke his body. Or maybe he’s just had some misfortune and can recover.

Based on everything we know about injuries, we have very little reason to assume Eaton is more likely to be injured this year than any other age 30-ish outfielder. Like everybody’s favorite iron man Andrew McCutchen. When he has played during his Nationals tenure, Eaton has performed like an ideal leadoff hitter.

A fully healthy season from Eaton includes something like 15 home runs, 15 stolen bases, 180 runs+RBI, and a strong average/OBP. He’ll look something like a top 25 hitter.

10. Willians Astudillo makes over 500 plate appearances

Arguably the most sensational player in the league, Astudillo entered the spring all kinds of blocked on the Twins depth chart. They’ve even tried him at shortstop just to develop enough utility to justify giving him a spot on the roster. At his primary position of catcher, defensive inconsistencies and the presence of Jason Castro and Mitch Garver appear to be difficult but not insurmountable hurdles. He’s possibly a better hitter than C.J. Cron (seriously), but his graceful 5’9” frame isn’t ideal for first base. He’s definitely not better than designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

The Twins currently have an opening at third base. Miguel Sano is on the shelf with a fluky foot injury. Ostensibly, that’s Marwin Gonzalez’s job to lose. It’s also the perfect opportunity to nab Astudillo some early reps. Teams, especially contenders, rarely approach playing time with marketing in mind. Minnesota would do well to discard that mindset. Set Astudillo free. From a marketing perspective, he could be a top five asset in the league.

It is assumed that Astudillo would be in the mix for top catcher if he reached 500 plate appearances.

11. BONUS: Franco will Encarnacion… some day

This is a standing prediction. In fact, most of this text is a copy/paste from last year. Edwin Encarnacion didn’t break out until his age 29 season. Maikel Franco is only 26. He’s still playing for his first team. Once he’s bounced around a roster or three, it’ll be time to grab some ultra-bargain shares. A stint in Asia feels appropriate.

Franco is currently slated to be the worst-hitting regular on the Phillies, although he might still bat something like sixth or seventh in the order. Perhaps his newly upgraded teammates can help him to his best season. If not, third base is going to top the Phillies trade deadline upgrade list.

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Re: “dead cat bounce”: the phrase is a finance term that describes a stock price movement where the price plunges very steeply very quickly, then moves back up slightly for a short period before continuing to decline. Because when dropped from a great enough height, even a dead cat will bounce.