Nick Dika’s Bold Predictions for 2019

Ah yes. Predictions. While they might not always be accurate, they sure are fun to make. So comin’ in hot just ahead of opening day in Japan are my boldest ideas about what will happen during the 2019 baseball season.

Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers Out-Homer Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper

Bogaerts and Devers combined for 44 home runs in 2018 compared to Hoskins and Harper’s 68. Bogaerts improved his fly ball, hard hit and pull percentages in 2018, while maintaining strong walk-to-strikeout numbers. If Bogaerts is able to play a full season and a few of his 45 doubles turn into homers, 30-plus home runs is not out of the question.

Devers struggled in his first full big-league season but was able to hit 21 big flies in just under 500 plate appearances. Still just 22-years-old, Devers has untapped raw power to improve on his underwhelming 2018 homer total. 60-65 combined home runs from Bogaerts and Devers isn’t out of the question. A healthy Hoskins and Harper are a threat for a homer total north of 70, but their health is no guarantee. Devers and Bogaerts both have another level to their games they could unlock in 2019.

Brandon Drury is a Top-15 Second Baseman

Much has been made about Jackie Bradley Jr.’s swing changes this spring, the narrative being that he spent the offseason working with J.D. Martinez’ hitting coach to help improve his launch angle. But he wasn’t the only one. Except with Drury it happened two winters ago, before he lost his 2018 season to a rash of injuries. Drury will likely open the season as Toronto’s third baseman but should see more plate appearances elsewhere once Vlad Jr. is called up.

At second base he is battling for at bats with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (who can also play short) and the often-injured Devon Travis. Drury was a league-average hitter in Arizona (.275/.323/.453 in 2016-17) that flashed potential before any changes in his game; and he’s moving to a division full of hitter-friendly ballparks. Plan for him to crack the top-15 at a weak second base position this year.

Domingo German Finishes the Season as the Yankees’ Most Valuable Starter

While German might not technically have a long-term place in the Yankees’ rotation right now, he will likely begin the season in the rotation with both CC Sabathia and Luis Severino on the injured list. Combine his early season foot in the door with the fact that several Yankees starters have a significant injury history (James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka), or are over 35 (J.A. Happ and Sabathia), and German should find his way into enough starts to demonstrate his skills and outproduce his rotation mates.

German was top-15 in all of baseball last season in O-Swing% (35.3) and SwStr% (14.9). He also has a minor league history of posting better walk rates than he did in 2018. Combine his ability to generate swings and misses with improved control and he will be the Yankees’ best starter this season.

2019 Is the Last Season Shohei Ohtani Isn’t a Top-5 Player….For A Decade

Ohtani flashed elite skills  in every facet of the game in his debut season – his average exit velocity (92.6 mph) was 11th best in baseball, his 28.4 ft./s sprint speed is equal to Francisco Lindor and ahead of Jose Altuve. As a pitcher, he posted the third-highest average fastball velocity among starting pitchers (97.4 mph) and his splitter was rated as the best in baseball by Pitch Value.

I think concerns about Ohtani’s ability to hit left-handed pitching are overblown at this point in time. I’m not willing to concede a player this young and talented can’t hit lefties after 110 plate appearances (and a 9.1 BB%). If he fully recovers from his elbow injury, he is going to be a dynamic two-way player, and one that can help in fantasy leagues more than any other player in baseball.

A Pair of 36-Year-Olds Win Batting Titles

Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera, two potential future Hall of Famers, are coming off down and injury-shortened years respectively. At what is considered an advanced age for a professional baseball player, both Votto and Cabrera’s elite contact skills are still intact. Votto (9.8%) and Cabrera (10.0%) rank first and second in all of baseball over the last two seasons in soft contact percentage among players with 650 plate appearances. Cabrera has led baseball in Statcast’s Hard Hit percentage in each of the last two seasons.

And while Votto’s exit velocity and barrel data were down in 2018, he led the majors in Statcast’s new Sweet Spot Percentage: a statistic that measures how often a player produces a batted ball with an optimal launch angle. Votto (3rd) and Cabrera (23rd) are both among the active leaders in walk-to-strikeout rate and have career K rates under 18 percent. While neither hitter will hit 30 home runs like they did during their power peaks, they are both very much still threats to win a batting title. Even if they will finish the 2019 season as 36-year-olds.

None of the Top 5 Starters Being Drafted Finish in the Top 10 Starting Pitchers

As much as the top tier of starting pitchers provide elite production relative to the rest of the pitcher pool, there are minor concerns with all of them. Justin Verlander is 36 and Max Scherzer turns 35 in July. Their skills remain consistent, but age-related regression will be a factor at some point. And both pitchers have logged a ton of innings in recent seasons to boot. Jacob deGrom should be good, but we can’t expect an ERA under 2.00 and its possible he gives back some of the strikeout and walk gains that he saw last year.

Chris Sale dealt with shoulder inflammation last season and saw his velocity drop when he did return (albeit only during the regular season). If the Sox decide they want to manage his workload it could affect his counting numbers. Corey Kluber continued to do Corey Kluber things in 2018 but his underwhelming fastball will be a cause for concern at some point. This column is about going bold, and this is as bold as they come.

Jake Bauers Goes 25/20 While Hitting At Least .250

The perception by some is that the Rays had given up on Bauers, evidenced by his offseason trade to Cleveland. Bauers struggled to hit for average in his first MLB season, but the young outfielder/first baseman has a lot going for him. Still just 23-years-old, Bauers posted strong walk and strikeout rates in the minor leagues; and continued to walk at the major league level after his call up (13.9 BB%). Strong batted ball data (40.5 Hard%, 15.0 Soft%) and a career-low .252 BABIP suggests he likely won’t be fighting with the Mendoza line again.

Bauers appears to have made a swing change last season in order to unlock more power and has always demonstrated an ability to run (although not particularly efficiently). The fact that young Bauers has already attempted these types of adjustments is a good sign as well. He should open 2019 with the opportunity to play everyday in Cleveland. If he can put together the different skills he’s flashed already in his young career he could be a very valuable player.

Aaron Sanchez is a Top-30 Starting Pitcher

Sanchez’ last two seasons have been completely derailed by finger injuries, managing to log only 141 underwhelming big league innings since 2016. Between blister issues and a freak finger injury in 2017, Sanchez’ right hand hasn’t been fully healthy in two seasons. The last time it was, Sanchez won the American League ERA title. Sanchez’ fastball, curveball and changeup all graded out favorably by Pitch Values in 2016 and with healthy fingers, he should be able to tweak his pitch mix and utilize them effectively once again in 2019. Currently, Sanchez is being drafted as the 103rd pitcher off the board, behind pitchers like Tanner Roark, Mike Minor and Kyle Gibson. Expect him to finish the season with an ERA in the mid-3s and inside the top-30 starters.

Cody Bellinger Wins the National League MVP Award

To many, Bellinger’s sophomore season was a disappointment. If only we could all be so lucky. Falling back to earth for Bellinger meant posting a .260/.343/.470 slash line (120 wRC+) good for 3.6 WAR while splitting time between first base and center field. Much of this offensive regression can be attributed to his performance against lefties, which in turn led to Dave Roberts sheltering Bellinger from certain lefties in the second half (despite still appearing in all 162 games). Bellinger was one of the leagues best outfielders by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric playing in center field and has has the ability to be a solid defender at fist base as well.

Still just 23-years-old, Bellinger hit fine against left-handers in his rookie season and spent the offseason working with, stop me if you’ve heard this before, J.D, Martinez’ hitting coaches. His raw skills are impressive – his sprint speed (90th percentile) and exit velocity (71st percentile) are both above average. Robert’s has also committed to playing Bellinger everyday, acknowledging that platooning him is detrimental to the youngster’s development. With 64 home runs and 24 stolen bases (in 28 attempts) in 1180 big league plate appearances, Bellinger’s power/speed combo could make him a fantasy MVP as well.

 

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Nick thinks running a Major League or fantasy baseball team is incredibly easy. Until he is handed one of those coveted GM positions, his writing at RotoGraphs will illustrate how to do it properly. Fantasy baseball trade consultations and anything else can be sent to nick.dika@gmail.com or tweeted to @nickdika.

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Some BOLD predictions, especially regarding the top 5 pitchers. I like German and Bauers though!