It’s my favorite time of the year here at RotoGraphs, the season of bold predictions. (My least favorite time, naturally, is late September, when I have to atone for these forecasts.) As usual, the trick here is to balance imagination against reality, the impossible versus the attainable, the speculative against the demonstrable. It’s a tough task that, for me, often results in happy predictions, but then again, it’s March — ’tis the season to indulge in some fantasy baseball fantasies, right?
Travis d’Arnaud is this year’s Devin Mesoraco, finishing among the top five catchers.
I laid out the keeper case for d’Arnaud back in September, though commenter mario mendoza took things one step further in comparing d’Arnaud to 2014’s breakout backstop, pointing out similarities in plate discipline and ISO through their minor league careers. It’s an exciting comparison: both players are 26, had big success coming up through the minors, and lost some of their prospect shine when they didn’t immediately conquer MLB pitching. But although d’Arnaud’s overall 2014 line isn’t all that exciting, he slashed .265/.313/.479 after a Triple-A stint in June, smashing 10 home runs as one of the second-half’s more valuable catchers. This year, the Mets’ lineup will be better, Citi Field’s fences have been moved in a tad, and d’Arnaud has been healthy this spring. His durability will always be an issue — although that goes for most catchers — but an upside of 25 homers, 80 RBIs and a .270 average is an achievable best-case scenario.
A.J. Burnett returns to mixed-league relevance as a top 50 starter.
This one might seem a bit obvious: Burnett compiled 7.3 WAR over his two years in the Steel City, and now, after a dreadful 2014, he returns to Pittsburgh, where he will reunite with pitching coach Ray Searage. But let’s not forget just how awful Burnett was last year: he went 8-18, led baseball in walks allowed and runs scored, and watched his ERA shoot up to 4.59. His fastball velocity dipped nearly a full mile and he lost more than two percentage points off his whiff rate from 2013. Oh, and he’s now 38 years old. But … Burnett pitched through 2014 with a hernia, for which he underwent surgery after the season, underperformed his FIP, xFIP and SIERA by about a half run and he posted by far the lowest strand rate of his career. As for the return to Pittsburgh, that shouldn’t be understated: not only is Burnett re-pairing with Searage, but the Pirates promise to be contenders in 2015 and the infield defense can only improve now that Pedro Alvarez is off third base. And if you still don’t think Burnett stands to prosper in Pittsburgh, ask the man himself: he took a more than $4 million pay cut to return to the Pirates, the only club for which he wanted to play in 2015, his final season. Burnett is currently being drafted outside the top 90 starters, so a jump of more than 40 spots would be very impressive, but there are reasons to believe Burnett will be a friend to many a mixed-league owner.
Jay Bruce finishes outside the top 40 outfielders, again.
It’s not that I don’t like Bruce personally or want to see him fail; frankly, the player described in these Eno interviews seems like a personable, thoughtful guy. I just think his problems in 2014 were more than the result of a knee injury or a fluke. As I wrote in the 2015 Hardball Times Annual (which, heh, is available at fine online bookstores everywhere), Bruce’s streak of increasingly poor plate discipline and a batted ball profile that has resulted in more ground balls and less fly balls has been years in the making, only bottoming out in 2014. True, he underwent surgery for a meniscus injury in May that could have played a part in his dreadful year, but he missed no significant time after the injury and even stole a career-high 12 bases, hardly the sign of an immobilized player. To make matters worse, he’s being shifted against much more often, and it’s not clear that he has any answers against the alignments. Bruce shouldn’t be written off completely — he had an outstanding career entering 2014, and he’s only turning 28 this week — but there was more wrong with him last year than just a knee injury. My outlook might be different if Bruce was tearing the cover off the ball this spring, but he isn’t, and I can’t recommend drafting him as a starting outfielder in standard formats.
Is there a better closer-in-waiting to own as the 2015 season dawns? Soria, who turns 31 in May, had a nice bounceback season in 2014, with his 48 appearances his most in three seasons. Although he busted badly after being dealt to the Tigers midway through the year, he still managed a terrific 23.1 K%-BB% rate overall, and has looked strong so far this spring after a blister caused a bad outing early in March. Nathan, meanwhile, sure looked like a guy approaching his 40th birthday last year, evidenced by a sharply declining strikeout rate and a slower fastball velocity, and it hasn’t been the smoothest spring for him. It’s going to be a competitive AL Central this year, and if Nathan gets off to a slow start, Soria could take over the ninth inning by the end of April.
Mike Zunino hits at least .250 and smashes 30 homers.
Disclaimer: This prediction cribs a bit from Scott Strandberg’s bold belief that Devin Mesoraco will become the first catcher since Javier Lopez in 2003 to hit 30 homers — a perfectly realizable goal, of course. But I’m going to roll out the heavy artillery on this one: Zunino is a long ball machine who cranked out 22 homers in his rookie season and shows no signs of stopping in his sophomore campaign. His average batted ball distance of 290.17 feet last year placed him ahead of boppers like Oswaldo Arcia, Chris Carter and Anthony Rizzo, his 49.5 FB% ranked second among hitters with at least 450 plate appearances, and Safeco Field’s pitcher-aiding ways weren’t able to stop him, either, as hammered 10 home runs in Seattle. The average is more of a challenge, but although catchers typically have below-average batted ball luck, data compiled by Jeff Zimmerman found that he was cheated significantly with his .248 BABIP last year, and, with the necessary caveats, I’ll note that he was much more successful in that department as a minor-leaguer. Speaking of which, Zunino just turned 24 after being rushed through the system, so it’s reasonable to believe that he’ll improve against major league pitchers, and his defense is good enough to keep him in the lineup every day for the Mariners. Finally, let’s not forget that he’s torn up Cactus League pitching this spring. Zunino is worth a roster spot in all 12-team single-catcher mixed leagues, and has the potential to emerge as a terrific fantasy asset.
Juan Lagares swipes 25 bases, hits .280 and becomes a top 40 outfielder.
You’re well within your right to chalk this up to the wishful ramblings of a Mets fan dreamer, but there’s reason to believe Lagares will be more than just a glove-only MLB player in 2015. He already reached the .280 mark last year, and he was enough of a high BABIP guy in the minors to make a return possible. He’s the team’s leading candidate to bat leadoff this year, where he stole nine of his 13 bags last season, and he’s coming off a torrid spring, which may have been a byproduct of drills taught by new hitting coach Kevin Long. Lagares is almost certain to play everyday, not just because he’s a Gold Glove centerfielder, but because the Mets really can’t afford to sit him with Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer occupying the corner outfield spots. More walks will be necessary if Lagares is going to hit leadoff, and there’s little reason to believe even 10 home runs are likely, but he’s entering his age-26 season after having taken a significant step forward at the dish in 2014.
If there was ever a time to … uh, well, forget it … about Phillips, now is a good time. Astute fantasy observers knew Phillips wasn’t as good in 2013 as the 103 RBIs might have suggested, but his 88 wRC+ and .678 OPS last year were still startlingly disappointing. Sure, a torn ligament in his thumb didn’t help matters, but Phillips turns 34 in June and his contact and whiff rates are trending in the wrong directions. Panik, despite a dreary spring, remains Bruce Bochy’s choice to hit second in the Giants’ order, where he hit .303 last year, and if the 24-year-old can improve his walk rate to that of his minor league career, he will score runs and could even deliver double digit steals. An empty .280 average probably remains his ceiling, however, limiting him to NL-only formats and just a few deeper mixed leagues — just like Phillips.
Ian Kennedy earns 4+ WAR and finishes as the most valuable Padres starter.
Because I’m probably (and deservedly) going to get hit for not having bold enough predictions, I might as well throw this one out there. The Padres boast a deep rotation this year, with their top four starters all deserving of attention in mixed leagues. But as much as I like Andrew Cashner, he’s still yet to break the 180 innings mark in his career. Tyson Ross? He’s looked good so far this spring and was tremendous in 2014 — but with such heavy reliance on his slider, that right elbow is a ticking time bomb. James Shields? I got nothing against the 33-year-old, especially as he moves to a National League team in perhaps the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball. But the strikeout rate has slipped in recent years to where it’s become league average, and his ERA slightly outperformed his peripherals. Compare that to Kennedy, who posted 3.5 wins last year, better results than Shields in the FIP, xFIP and SIERA departments, and punched out hitters at a 9.3 K/9 rate. A strikeout-per-inning pace will be tough for Kennedy to maintain, but a change in his delivery has helped him pick up two-and-a-half miles on his fastball since 2012, and he’s throwing his curveball with more vertical movement than ever before. True, an outfield defense of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp won’t do Kennedy, a flyball pitcher, any favors, but his 2014 was no fluke, and his rotation mates will be hard-pressed to match him in 2015.
Take 2: Last year, I swooned over Belt in my bold predictions column, expecting him to break out in 2014 and leapfrog Pujols by the end of the season. Obviously, that prediction fell on its hind parts, owing mostly to a terrific bounceback year from the Prince, but also because Belt’s season was ruined by stupid injuries, including a broken thumb and a concussion he suffered when an errant throw in batting practice hit him in the face. The good news is that there wasn’t anything so major as to completely derail Belt’s future, and what we saw of him on the field — including nine home runs to open the year before the thumb injury, and a .292/.409/.449 slash line through the playoffs after returning in mid-September — did nothing to dampen hopes he can break out in this, his age-27 season. He’s also been killing the ball this spring. The 36-year-old Pujols, of course, continues to set a high, high bar — projections are virtually uniform in their expectations for about 25 homers and 85 RBIs — but a breakout season from Belt, and the very real possibility that Pujols could perform like a guy entering his late 30s, could make this prediction work this time around.
Just as Vanessa Williams might say, I went ahead and saved the best for last. I admit, part of the reason behind my inclusion of A-Rod’s name on this list has to do with my giddy, can’t-help-myself joy of reminding my Yankee fan friends that Rodriguez is alive, well, and on the team’s payroll for another three years at $61 million. But look: he remains one of the game’s greatest all-time players and he’s looked fabulous so far this spring. Yeah, he turns 40 in July and is playing on two surgically-repaired hips, but on the other hand, he’s had a full year off to rehab, and even fringe fantasy talents deserve attention playing at Yankee Stadium. And if A-Rod didn’t have a burning desire to prove people wrong and stick it to his critics, he would have retired a long time ago. In Frazier, meanwhile, I have doubts that the 29-year-old will be able to sustain the nearly 30-homer power he suddenly produced last year, it remains to be seen whether he can replicate the 20 steals and much of his production dried up in the second half. This one’s a reach, to be sure, but a healthy campaign from A-Rod and a return to 2012-13 levels of production from Frazier could narrow the gap between the two.
Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.