Almost exactly one year ago I tried my hand at 10 bold predictions with mixed results. This year, I aim to improve my results without watering down the boldness of the predictions. There’s an optimistic vibe to my 10 predictions this year as only one calls for a disappointing performance this season.
1) The Nationals produce two top-5 overall ranked players.
Our end of season rankings for last year had Max Scherzer worth the fourth most dollars last year, so I’ll spare you analysis of how he could finish in the top-5 overall players since he did so in 2016. Ditto for sparing you analysis of 2015 National League MVP Bryce Harper since reverting back to the form that earned him that hardware would do the trick. Instead, let’s turn our attention to three others who give the Nats a few more cracks at landing two in the top five.
Daniel Murphy carried over the power gains he made during the summer of 2015 and hit a new career-high 25 homers while setting new highs in RBI (104) and batting average (.347) as well. Even with the power gains, he’s continued to avoid punch outs, and he profiles to continue to be a high average hitter. Even in a career year, he fell just short of the top-20 overall players last year. He reached double-digit steals as recently as 2014 with 13. If he could add that to his statistical contributions while possibly adding on some more run production stats in an improved Nationals lineup, it’s possible he could pick up the slack for this prediction if the two most likely candidates to make this true fall short.
Trea Turner has an ECR of 16 at FantasyPros, checking in just behind Harper (10) and Scherzer (14), so it doesn’t take too much dreaming on him in order to view him as a top-5 overall finisher. He stole 33 bases in 39 attempts in essentially a half-season of work as a rookie in 2015. The youngster projects to hit atop Washington’s order, putting him in a great spot to eclipse 650 plate appearances and make a run at 60 or more stolen bases. In addition to his speed, he hit .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers. The fence-clearing power looks a little flukey, but the sky-high batting average and excellent OBP don’t look too insane upon further inspection. The easy thing to do is look at his .388 BABIP in 2016 and scream fluke. However, in 871 plate appearances in the upper minors, he had a .381 BABIP and slashed .313/.370/.464 with a 8.6% BB%. The batted-ball profile in his rookie season was strong, too, with a 25.2% LD%, just a 6.4% IFFB% and a 34.8% Hard%. His speed should help him continue to leg out infield singles at a high clip, and there might be room for some walk rate growth as well, thus, reducing his reliance on a monster batting average completely driving his excellent OBP. Washington’s lineup is loaded, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility Turner leads the Majors in runs scored hitting atop it. Even if, like me, you don’t fully buy into Turner’s homer pace of last year, 15-20 isn’t out of the question. He wouldn’t need to add much in the RBI department to have a crack at a top-5 finish if everything else falls into place.
The final name I’ll throw into the mix is the least likely to deliver. Stephen Strasburg has pitched more than 200 innings just one time in his career, and he hasn’t posted a sub-3.00 ERA since his dozen-start rookie season. The talent isn’t hard to spot, and for his career, he owns an elite 11.2% SwStr% as well as a 2.84 SIERA, 2.85 FIP and 2.80 xFIP. The righty’s FIP has been north of three just once in a season and his xFIP and SIERA have been above three in two seasons. Strasburg’s not yet 30-years old, and he has elite stuff. Crazier things have happened.
2) Julio Teheran is not a top-50 SP.
Teheran boggles my mind. I fail to understand how he soundly beats his fielding independent pitching marks, yet he does so annually. With a 33.1% Hard% allowed to hitters last year, it’s not as if he’s limiting hard contact, and the flyball slant to his batted ball allowed profile (41.9% last year and 41.0% for his career) could be his undoing this season. Ender Inciarte is an elite center fielder defensively, but Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis are inept as defenders. Teheran owned a .280 BABIP allowed in his career prior to last year when he beat that by 20 points with a .260 BABIP. Regression was likely coming anyway, but the pendulum could swing even further in the other direction with a bad defense behind him. Teheran’s 22.0% K% last year was less than one percent better than the league average, so he’s extremely reliant on his ERA and WHIP driving his rankings. Regression to his BABIP means more baserunners and a knock to his WHIP, and it also probably means an uptick in runs allowed.
3) ByungHo Park swats 30 or more homers.
Park was outrighted off of the 40-man roster and went unclaimed this offseason. He’s in a battle for the designated hitter job in Minnesota and appears to be the favorite to win the job thanks to a strong showing thus far. Park’s raw power isn’t in question after he drilled a dozen homers with a .219 ISO in 244 plate appearances for the Twins last year, but his ability to tap into is in question due to his struggles with punch outs (32.8% K%). He’s struck out in a palatable 20% of his spring plate appearances. Also, he’s launched three homers in the spring, and after struggling with velocity last year, it’s promising that one of those taters came on an 0-2, 96-mph fastball from Jose Urena that you can view here. Last week, I wrote about Park and linked to an article noting he’s more comfortable this year and another discussing him working on adjustments in South Korea during the offseason. After a year of adjusting to a new culture and new league while also no longer carrying much in the way of expectations, I think Park cuts loose.
4) Sean Manaea is the most valuable SP in the American League West.
Yu Darvish should be the favorite to be the best starting pitcher in the American League West, and I have him ranked that way. Having said that, he’s the only AL West starting pitcher I have ranked ahead of the sophomore lefty. I’ve ranked Lance McCullers, Cole Hamels and James Paxton less than 10 places behind Manaea with none ranking lower than SP30, so I think there’s stiff competition for the top spot if Darvish falters. I’m completely enamored with Manaea, though. Ryan Pollack provided four reasons for optimism for the second-year lefty back in late February. He struggled through his first three starts, but some changes, namely a change to his changeup grip that Eno wrote about last August, allowed him to take off. In his final 21 starts, Manaea pitched 132.0 innings with a 3.14 ERA (3.79 FIP, 3.89 xFIP and 3.97 SIERA), 1.11 WHIP, 6.0% BB% and 21.4% K%. In that time frame he generated tons of empty swings (12.2% SwStr%) and coaxed batters into regularly fishing out of the zone (36.2% O-Swing%), two things that bode well for gains in strikeouts going forward. The lefty’s numbers are even more impressive if you look at just his second half. In 12 starts to close out the year, he pitched 77.2 innings to the tune of a 2.67 ERA (3.78 FIP, 3.56 xFIP and 3.67 SIERA) and 1.02 WHIP with a 5.6% BB%, 22.8% K%, 36.9% O-Swing% and 12.6% SwStr%. While the most likely path to Manaea being the most valuable fantasy starting pitcher in the AL West this year involves some hiccups from Darvish, if the southpaw carries over his big finish to 2016, he might not need Darvish to slip up at all.
5) The Cubs produce four top-25 SPs.
The Cubs actually had four starters rank within the top-20 SPs in 2016, so perhaps this isn’t that bold. Although, most folks are understandably calling for defensive regression for a team planning to slot Kyle Schwarber in left field most days coming off leading the league in team defense. I’m in the camp calling for the defense to take a step back, but they can still be one of the top defenses in the league if that’s the case. Check out the last two-year stats for the quartet of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. The worst ERA of the four belongs to Lackey at 3.03, and he also owns the worst WHIP (1.14) and lowest strikeout rate (21.6% K%) in the group. The numbers for the group are outstanding. In addition to boasting a strong defense behind them, the starters are also aided by an elite offense and a bullpen that projects to be great, too. Yeah, this might not be the boldest prediction, but having four starters stay healthy and avoid bumps in the road isn’t the easiest thing to do, so I’m going to roll with it.
7) Kendrys Morales hits more than 30 homers, records more than 100 RBI and hits north of .290.
Morales is yet another player I’ve covered in great detail already this year. This bold prediction is merely putting numbers to the glowing endorsement I previously wrote about investing in Morales in fantasy leagues.
8) Eric Thames hits more homers in 2017 than former Brewer Chris Carter hit in 2016.
Thames has spent the past three years knocking the cover off of the ball in the KBO. In that three-year stretch the lefty slugger 544.67 plate appearances and 41.33 homers per season. Carter reached the seats 41 times in 644 plate appearances for the Brewers. There you have it, just bring his average homer total across the pond, and voila, my prediction is correct. Okay, it’s not that simple. The KBO is a very hitter-friendly league and the talent level of pitching is a mixed bag, yet it’s by no means as good as what Thames will see in MLB. After accounting for the level of competition he’s faced in recent years, projections still love, as Dave Cameron noted back in early January. Jeff Zimmerman addressed the fact several experts dismiss major league equivalents, but he also pointed out that the Brewers — namely GM David Stearns — buy into changes the 30-year-old slugger has made as a hitter. His power’s legit, and if you have some time to kill and a desire to watch homers, you can check out all 47 bombs Thames hit in 2015. Can he tap into it against the best pitchers in the world? That’s the question he has to answer. Park wasn’t able to make the transition seamlessly, but Jung Ho Kang has hit 36 homers in 837 plate appearances across two season and smacked 21 homers in 370 plate last year while calling homer-suppressing PNC Park home. Thames lands with a club that has a launching pad for a home ballpark. The left-handed batter park factor for homers at Miller Park is 136, according to the rolling three-year average used at StatCorner. And after watching Thames launch multiple dingers the opposite direction in the linked YouTube clip above, I’ll also note the right-handed batter park factor for homers is 115, making it an all-around great park for mashing in.
9) Adam Ottavino is a top-10 RP.
Coors Field is nightmare fuel for most pitchers, and Ottavino got off to a rocky — apologies for the awful pun — start for them in his first season in Colorado back in 2012. Overall, he’s been fantastic for the Rockies. The righty required Tommy John surgery and missed most of the 2015 season as well as a lot of last year, but he’s sandwiched some eye-popping numbers around the surgery. Since the beginning of 2015, Ottavino has made 44 appearances spanning 37.1 innings in which he’s spun a 1.93 ERA (2.58 FIP, 2.35 xFIP and 2.02 SIERA) with a 0.80 WHIP, 33.8% K%, 6.3% BB%, 62.2% GB%, 21.1% IFFB% and 23.2% Hard%. The entire package has been off-the-charts good, but it also comes with the small sample caveat. The Rockies inked once-elite closer Greg Holland to a deal in the offseason, so Ottavino could face competition for ninth-inning duties. Holland is coming back from Tommy John and missed all of last season, though, and he only recently made his spring training debut. There’s no guarantee Holland will be the pitcher he was prior to going under the knife, and Ottavino was great last year after bouncing back from his own TJ procedure. If Ottavino opens the year in the closer role while Holland shakes the rust off, I like the former’s odds of retaining the job with his elite goodie bag of missing bats and keeping the ball on the ground at an elite rate.
10) Someone steals 70 or more bases this year.
No one has stolen 70 bases in the Show since Jacoby Ellsbury swiped 70 in 2009. Including that season, there have only been seven 60 or more stolen-base totals posted by players including the 62-steal season from Jonathan Villar last year. Three of the 60 or more stolen base seasons were posted in the 2009 season. Speed has been trending downward, and according to the stolen base and caught stealing averages at Baseball-Reference, the average stolen base attempts have dropped from 127 in 2014 to 119 in 2015 and 118 last year. In fact, there were three teams that failed to even attempt 70 steals last year and only 19 attempted 100 steals or more. Stealing 70 bases will be tough, but there are a handful of players who stand out as capable of doing so.
Villar led the way with 62 steals in 80 attempts (77.5% success rate) last year. He stole 35 in 44 attempts 79.5%) in 70 games and 313 plate appearances at the Triple-A level in 2015. If Villar matched his Triple-A success rate with the Brewers last year, he’d have added almost two stolen bases to the ledger pushing him to around half-dozen shy of the 70-steal threshold. In addition to his blazing speed, Villar’s cause to steal 70 bases is bolstered by manager Craig Counsell’s aggressiveness with baserunners. He wasn’t overly aggressive taking over for Ron Roenicke in 2015, but the Brewers attempted a league leading 237 steals last year. The next closest team was 47 steal attempts behind Milwaukee, and that’s the next closest team in steal attempts over the last three years.
That team that ranked behind the Brewers in stolen base attempts last year was the Bryan Price managed Reds. Cincinnati has ranked second in stolen base attempts the last two years and ranked third in 2014, all years Price has managed the Reds. You might have heard of this guy named Billy Hamilton, he’s really fast. He stole 56 bases in 152 games and 611 plate appearances in 2014 and has added a stolen base to his year-end total each successive season despite playing in only 114 games with 454 plate appearances in 2015 and 119 games with 460 plate appearances last year. If you extrapolate his per-PA or per-game stolen base totals the last two years over 600 plate appearances or 150 games played, he steals more than 70 bases. He was dreadful offensively in 2015 posting a 53 wRC+ and .274 OBP, and he wasn’t very good last year with a 78 wRC+ and .321 OBP. Staying healthy is the most obvious hurdle Hamilton has to clear to steal 70, because he’s proven he can rack up steals in bunches even when the stick provides little in the way of production. Of course, there’s always the possibility he takes another offensive step forward and gets on base a bit more, and if that happens, he won’t need to play in 150 games to hit the 70-steal mark.
Dee Gordon knocked on the door of 70 steals in 2014 when he stole 64 bases. He swiped 58 more in 2015, and he stole 30 in 79 games and 345 plate appearances last year. The speed’s there, but his bat cratered. He needs the bat to rebound while also hoping manager Don Mattingly is more aggressive. The Marlins ranked 20th in stolen base attempts last year with only 99. I’m more optimistic about Mattingly loosening things up than about Gordon bouncing back to an OBP above .325. Mattingly’s Dodgers ranked second in stolen base attempts in 2014, so there’s at least precedent for Mattingly letting his guys run.
The aforementioned Trea Turner stole 58 bases in 66 attempts in 156 games played and 638 plate appearances split between the minors and Majors last season. Turner’s success rate was awesome at 87.9%, and as I noted above, I expect him to continue to get on base at a high clip. At his per-game stolen base clip in the Show last year, he would have stolen 70 bases in 155 games. If you prefer per-PA pace, Turner would’ve needed 690 at his 2016 pace to get over the hump to 70 steals. There are other darkhorses who could make this prediction come true, but if I was handicapping the odds, I’d lead with Hamilton followed by Villar, Turner, Gordon and then the field rounding it out.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.