I’m the Jose Molina of Bold Predictions. Sure, I can’t hit my weight, but you can still read about me on FanGraphs.
1. Victor Martinez will hit .300 with 20 home runs
Last season was a disaster for Victor Martinez. A knee injury sapped him of his power, down to 11 home runs following a career-best 32 in 2015. In particular, the injury affected Martinez from the right side of the plate, where he hit a dismal .219/.276/.339 for the season. Coming off a career year at 35 years old, there was reason to be skeptical that Martinez could repeat his performance, and now that he was so much worse than regression would have suggested a year ago and is dealing with a hamstring injury this spring, few fantasy players will be interested in a gamble on a now-37-year-old. I am one of them.
Beyond just the knee injury, Martinez was unusually unlucky in 2015. Baseball Info Solutions calculates defense-independent batting statistics based on hitter batted ball trajectories, and based on those, Martinez was the unluckiest hitter in baseball last season. He had 15 fewer hits and four fewer doubles than expected based on his balls in play. With average luck, Martinez should have been expected to hit .279/.335/.413 instead of .245/.301/.366, and improved health should improve his average quality of contact over last season. I do not believe Martinez has entered into significant decline, and so he should be a tremendous value as a late-round pick in standard leagues.
2. Carlos Carrasco will be the No. 1 fantasy starter
It’s no mystery that Carlos Carrasco is really good. Last season, he finished fifth among qualified starters with 10.6 strikeouts per nine, and he finished 24th with 2.1 walks per nine. But as outstanding as Carrasco was a year ago, his performance statistics could have been so much better. Carrasco’s 3.63 ERA was a nearly a full run worse than his 2.66 xFIP, due to a low 71.8 percent strand rate and inflated 13.2 percent home run per flyball rate. Expect standard regression to bring Carrasco’s ERA down this season, and then expect the Indians’ dramatically improved defense to bring it down even further. Shortstop Francisco Lindor was as good as advertised defensively in his rookie season, saving the team 10 runs per Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in just 865.1 innings. At that pace over a full season, Lindor would challenge Andrelton Simmons as the best in the game, and with Carrasco’s 51.2 percent career groundball rate, he is particularly reliant on his infield defense. Dallas Keuchel turned a high groundball rate on a shift-heavy team into a .269 BABIP and a 2.48 ERA, second best in the AL in 2015, and Carrasco’s stuff is so much better.
Ben Zobrist may have popularized the super-utility player, but he became a popular fantasy player because he consistently reached 20-15 with solid RBI and runs totals around the turn of the decade. Those counting stats have started to decline as Zobrist enters his mid-30s, and while he looks like the everyday second baseman on his old manager’s new team, Joe Maddon will have a new super-utility player who I think will outperform Zobrist in fantasy. Javier Baez was a top prospect two years ago, but an egregious 41.5 percent strikeout rate over 229 plate appearances in the majors in 2014 appeared to be a fatal flaw. Since then, Baez has quietly improved his strikeout rates. In 2015 in Triple-A, Baez struck out just 24.3 percent of the time, down more than five percent from his previous work in the high minors. Then, in 80 plate appearances in the big leagues last year, Baez struck out a manageable 30.0 percent of the time. All of the other elite tools are still there, and Baez has the defensive versatility to find plate appearances in a stacked Cubs lineup. I don’t think he’ll equal Zobrist in plate appearances, but I think a Zobrist-esque 20-15 season is very possible even in just 450 plate appearances.
4. Jose Quintana will have an ERA over 4.00
He isn’t sexy, but Jose Quintana has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball over the last three seasons. In each of those three seasons, Quintana has struck out between 7.4 and 8.0 batters and walked between 1.9 and 2.5 batters per nine, which has produced an ERA between 3.32 and 3.51 in all three seasons. Even without the gaudy strikeout totals, that consistency makes Quintana a top 40 starter. However, in 2016, he will lose one of the keys to his recent success.
Catcher Tyler Flowers may have failed to eclipse a .300 OBP in either of the last two seasons, but he has saved the White Sox’s pitchers 24 runs based on his pitch framing according to Strike Zone Runs Saved. Only Mike Zunino has been better over that time. Meanwhile, Flowers is now in Atlanta, and the White Sox plan to rely on Alex Avila (-8 Strike Zone Runs Saved) and Dioner Navarro (-20 Strike Zone Runs Saved), two of the worst framers in baseball. Expect every White Sox starter to suffer, but Quintana could be affected most of all. With a below-average 9.3 percent swinging strike rate—average is 9.9 percent—he relies more on called strikes than Chris Sale (14.6 percent) and Carlos Rodon (10.1 percent). In fact, Quintana had the eighth-most called pitches in 2015 and the third-most called strikes.
5. John Lackey will have a second consecutive sub-3.00 ERA season
John Lackey has been a good but not great starter since 2002, so it might come as a surprise to you that in 2015 and at age 36, Lackey just had his best statistical season. His 2.77 ERA was his first under 3.00 in 13 seasons, so naysayers have a pretty strong track record to point to. In addition, Lackey benefited from a career-best 82.6 percent strand rate and a slightly-depressed home run rate that held his ERA 80 points below his FIP and a full run below his xFIP.
No doubt some of that good fortune will turn on Lackey this season, but I think there are additional factors that could make up the difference. First and most obvious, Lackey remains in the NL with the Cubs after spending his first 12 seasons in the stronger offense league, the AL. Second, Lackey had the third-highest BABIP on groundballs in 2015, likely contributed to by the Cardinals’ lack of defensive shifts. And unlike Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Cashner, who will both return to similar situations in 2016, Lackey moves from the Cardinals, a bottom-five shift team in 2015 and one of just two teams with a negative Shift Runs Saved total, to the Cubs, who saved 10 runs with their shifts in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Cubs could provide other defensive advantages compared to last season’s Cardinals. Addison Russell and Kris Bryant combined for 22 DRS last season compared to -17 for Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter, and catcher Miguel Montero saved seven runs with his pitch framing. I expect Lackey to be a top 30 starter, and he will likely be available outside the top 50 at the position.
6. Pedro Alvarez will lead the Orioles in home runs
Chris Davis hit a combined 100 home runs in 2013 and 2015. Odd year magic? His 29.4 percent home run per flyball rate last season was pretty insane, but it was basically the same as he had two years earlier. Weirdly, this isn’t as much a pick against Davis as it is for Alvarez, who is a surprisingly similar player. Alvarez is perceived as a swing-and-miss king, but his career 29.1 percent strikeout rate is two percent less than Davis’s, and Alvarez’s 9.3 percent walk rate is slightly better, as well. More importantly, Alvarez moves from Pittsburgh, which allows eight percent fewer home runs than an average park to left-handed hitters to Baltimore, which allowed 14 percent more home runs than an average park to left-handed hitters. Even in a platoon, Alvarez should reach 30 home runs.
7. Jose Peraza will lead the Reds in stolen bases
Jose Peraza is a similar player to Billy Hamilton. Both players rely on their defense and their speed to be valuable. Neither player walks nearly as much as you’d like to take advantage of that speed. But Peraza has been pretty consistent in the high minors with his ability to make contact, creating a .300 OBP out of a high batting average. When Hamilton’s average dropped to .226 in 2015, his OBP fell hard with it to an abysmal .274. Meanwhile, Hamilton has yet to return to the outfield (he has DHed in a game) since his offseason shoulder surgery, and the team has actually tried Peraza some in center field. Hamilton and Zack Cozart have enough injury questions and Brandon Phillips is enough of a trade candidate that I think Peraza will find 400 or more plate appearances one way or another, and that could be enough for him to reach 30+ steals. Meanwhile, even if Hamilton is fully healthy for Opening Day, I’m concerned his poor offensive performances could land him an extended demotion from a Reds team that is most concerned with future success.
8. Hunter Strickland will be a top 7 NL closer
Bullpens are in turmoil across the NL. Kenley Jansen, Trevor Rosenthal, Mark Melancon, Jonathan Papelbon, Jeurys Familia, Hector Rondon, Brad Ziegler, and A.J. Ramos all seem fairly safe, but even half of that list has just one year of closing experience. Meanwhile, the Braves, Reds, Rockies, Brewers, Phillies, and Padres are fairly well up in the air at the backs of their bullpens. The Giants are nominally straightforward with Santiago Casilla at closer. He saved 38 games for the team in 2015 and 19 more in 2014. However, Casilla was lit up by left-handers to the tune of .260/.356/.485 last season, not an ideal quality of the one reliever you ask to face hitters from both sides of the plate. In contrast, Strickland held both left-handed and right-handed hitters to under-.250 wOBAs last season, and his walk rate was a stellar 1.8 per nine. While many of the NL teams will likely cycle back in forth among relievers for ninth-inning duties, Strickland will stick if he can land the job.
9. Christian Yelich will go 20-20
Jeff Sullivan definitely talked me into this one. The quick summary is (1) Yelich has the biggest gap between his road home run per flyball rate and his home home run per flyball rate of any player since 2002, (2) the Marlins are moving in and lowering their fences in 2016, (3) Yelich has the best hard-hit rate on line drives and fly balls over the last three seasons, and (4) Yelich is still just 24 years old. I expect this is the year that Yelich finally realizes his power potential, and he has already stolen 15+ bases in each of the past two seasons.
10. Juan Nicasio will be a useful fantasy pitcher, either as a starter or as a reliever
Neither Ryan Vogelsong nor Jeff Locke is a high-upside back-end starter, and their presence will no doubt whet the appetites of fans of prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. However, don’t overlook Juan Nicasio. Nicasio was a victim of four years of Coors Field, and in his first season outside of the unfriendly confines with the Dodgers in 2015, Nicasio became an impact reliever, striking out 10.0 batters per nine and posting a 3.86 ERA and 2.83 FIP. Now in Pittsburgh, Nicasio has dazzled with 16 strikeouts and just five hits allowed so far this spring. It’s unclear what the Pirates will do with their latest reclamation project, but I would bet on either a back-end starter spot or a high-leverage bullpen role. Behind Mark Melancon, the Pirates have some other intriguing bullpen arms, but Tony Watson is a left-hander and Arquimedes Caminero has never eclipsed a strikeout per inning despite his triple-digit fastball. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Nicasio became the eighth inning man by midseason, making him an injury away from saves.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt