I’m barely getting these up before the start of the season, but given my track record with bold predictions, you probably shouldn’t listen to me anyway.
1. Jake Arrieta will have an ERA over 4.00
By just about any measure, the Cubs had the best defense in baseball in 2017. The particularly jarring stat is that they allowed a .255 BABIP, which was 27 points lower than the next-best team, the Blue Jays. Pretty much every pitcher on their staff benefited from it, and regression and some key losses like David Ross will at the very least probably bring the Cubs’ defense back down to earth and adversely affect their pitchers’ stats.
Jake Arrieta’s BABIP was the lowest on their staff at .241, but that was not radically different than those of Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel, who all sat between .250 and .267. However, looking only at Arrieta’s groundballs, his fortune was pretty absurd. On groundballs specifically, Arrieta allowed a miniscule .118 BABIP, 32 points lower than the next lowest pitcher with at least 100 innings.
Arrieta allowed that insane BABIP even with his 52.6 percent groundball rate, which was 16th highest of those 144 pitchers. The confluence of the Cubs’ declining defense, Arrieta’s likely declining batted ball fortune, and Arrieta’s 8.7 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine from last year, his worst rates with the Cubs, will push his ERA over 4.00, nearly a run north of what it was in 2016.
2. Kendrys Morales will hit 35 home runs
The Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million contract that looked boring at first and then even worse when the Indians signed his predecessor, Edwin Encarnacion, for a perceived bargain at three years and $60 million. Except for his career year in 2009, Morales flew under the radar by being well-rounded rather than elite in terms of power, contact ability, and plate discipline. Last year, Morales hit 30 home runs for the Royals, which likely would have earned him some attention except that everyone was hitting more home runs. But what that number itself fails to convey is that Morales experienced a major home run boost in the most difficult home park in the AL to hit home runs in, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Over the last three seasons, that park has allowed 20 percent fewer home runs than an average park compared to Rogers Center in Toronto, which has allowed 9 percent more home runs than an average park according to The Bill James Handbook. Last year, Morales hit 18 home runs on the road and only 12 at home. He could easily hit 18 or more home runs both at home and on the road this year.
3. Jose Berrios will strike out a batter per inning with a sub-3.25 ERA over 20+ starts
Jose Berrios’ first year in the majors was pretty much a disaster. Over 14 starts, he struck out just 7.6 batters per nine, walked 5.4 batters per nine, allowed an 8.02 ERA, and fell from one of the most exciting prospects in fantasy baseball to outside the top 100 starters in FanGraphs’ consensus March starting pitcher rankings. However, there is some speculation that Berrios’ struggles were not all about getting acclimated to the big leagues. If Berrios was tipping his pitches, as this article and others suggested, he should have a clearer path to bounce back than pitchers who do not have his caliber of stuff in the first place.
Berrios’ decision to pitch in the WBC limited him to 6.2 innings in spring training—and likely earned him a short-term demotion to Triple-A to start the season—so we do not have much evidence of whether he has been able to fix his problem. But I am willing to bet on the elite stuff, not to mention the major upgrade Berrios and every Twins starter can expect behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki may be an exceptional blocker of pitches in the dirt, but he has consistently been one of the worst framers in baseball. According to Strike Zone Runs Saved, Suzuki drew 38 fewer strikes than an average catcher in 2016. His replacement on the Twins in 2017, Jason Castro, drew 46 more strikes than an average catcher last season. Those extra strikes won’t all come with Berrios on the mound, but even an extra few strikes per start could be enough to push his already exceptional stuff to produce a strikeout per inning.
4. Dylan Bundy will also strike out a batter per inning with a sub-3.25 ERA over 25+ starts
Dylan Bundy wasn’t bad in his long-anticipated rookie season in 2016. In 109.2 innings split between starting and relief, Bundy struck out 8.5 batters and walked 3.5 batters per nine en route to a 4.02 ERA. Bundy enjoyed that success with a three-pitch repertoire that included a fastball, change-up, and curveball. This offseason, Bundy added a new old pitch with a cutter that, as Travis Sawchik detailed, was at one time his best pitch. I feel pretty confident that Bundy can ride that expanded repertoire to a strikeout per inning. The major reservation I have is with the predicted 25 starts. There is no getting around the fact that Bundy has had an injury-plagued career. His 109.2 innings a year ago were more than he’d thrown combined from 2013 to 2015 thanks to Tommy John surgery and several other shoulder and arm issues, and the difficulties he found the third time through orders last year were likely related to his lack of endurance. I am hoping and predicting that Bundy can put those issues behind him and become the pitcher he was always expected to be.
5. Daniel Norris will be a top-50 starting pitcher
Like Bundy, Daniel Norris has had his own series of health issues that have delayed his emergence in an MLB rotation. But last year, Norris made 13 starts for the Tigers and struck out 9.2 batters and walked just 2.9 batters per nine. There were only 19 starters who threw at least 50 innings, struck out at least 9.0 batters per nine, and walked less than 3.0 batters per nine in 2016:
Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Michael Pineda, Chris Archer, Aaron Nola, Carlos Rodon, Yu Darvish, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Duffy, and Norris.
That’s strong company. Norris is the only member of that group who threw fewer than 100 innings last season, and so he is the biggest risk. But no one else in that group is ranked outside the top 60 starters—and they’re all in the top 50 except for Pineda—other than Norris, who is ranked 83.
6. Shelby Miller will also be a top-50 starting pitcher
On Monday, Dave Cameron explained the argument for Shelby Miller’s potential resurgence better than I could. If you don’t care to read the full article, then the major takeaway is that Miller is sitting at 97 mph with his fastball this spring and touching 99. That is about three mph up from his peak seasons and four above his disastrous 2016 campaign. Even in his Cardinals and Braves days, Miller was only a moderately useful fantasy option because he typically struck out fewer than eight batters per nine. This spring, he’s struck out 22 batters in 15.1, good for nearly 13 strikeouts per nine. Who knows whether Miller can maintain that exceptional strikeout rate when the real games start, but since he is outside the top 100 in the starting pitcher rankings, I’m more than happy to spend a (really) late draft pick on him to find out.
7. Ender Inciarte will lead MLB in hits
Ender Inciarte was a fourth outfielder with the Diamondbacks before he was traded to the Braves, and even in his first season with his new team, it was not a given that he would be an everyday player. Defensively, Inciarte is exceptional, but the Braves had a talented defensive prospect in Mallex Smith who could potentially take Inciarte’s job. But after his second consecutive three-win season, Inciarte appears locked into the team’s center field job in 2017 while Smith is now in Tampa Bay.
Defense has continued to provide the bulk of his value with the Braves, but it’s important to note that Inciarte has hit .303 and .291 in back-to-back seasons with more than 500 plate appearances in each. Inciarte has good speed and the fourth-best contact rate (90.0 percent) over that time, trailing only Ben Revere, Daniel Murphy, and Martin Prado in the latter stat. Meanwhile, after bouncing around in the Braves’ lineup for much of the season, Inciarte landed and stuck in the leadoff spot for the team on August 5. From that point to the end of the season, Inciarte had the fifth-most hits in baseball with only a 50-point BABIP jump of his career rate of .324.
Inciarte will likely always be more valuable in real life than in fantasy, but 25 stolen bases with a .300 batting average in the leadoff spot can make him a useful fantasy player.
8. Luke Weaver will win NL Rookie of the Year
Tommy John surgery has taken the presumptive favorite, Alex Reyes, out of the NL Rookie of the Year race, but I think his unheralded teammate Luke Weaver could surprise in his stead. Weaver was great in eight starts for the Cardinals in 2016, striking out 11.2 batters and walking 3.0 batters per nine. He relied heavily on his fastball and change-up last season, but since then, he’s added a new cut fastball that could help him stick in the rotation long-term. He’ll start the season in the minors with Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha earning the last two rotation spots, but both pitchers are injury risks, in particular Lynn coming off his own Tommy John surgery. Look for Weaver to be up with the Cardinals whenever one of their current starters goes down. When that happens, Weaver has the stuff to seize his opportunity.
9. Joe Kelly will save 10+ games for the Red Sox
The Red Sox finally gave up on Joe Kelly as a starting pitcher this offseason, and with relievers Carson Smith expected to miss the first half of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery and Tyler Thornburg likely starting the year on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, Kelly could quickly find himself in a high-leverage role. The team’s closer Craig Kimbrel was only bad in 2016 in comparison to the incredible standard he set over the first six years of his career, but his declining command is a cause for concern. Perhaps his issues were caused by a knee injury that required surgery last summer, but if that’s the case, we haven’t seen strong evidence that he can return from that injury to his previous untouchable form. Kimbrel will need to show me that he is fully healthy, and if he does end up needing time on the DL this season, Kelly may be the Red Sox’s only realistic option. Weirdly, I wouldn’t be that surprised if Kelly had some success in the role. He struck out more than 10 batters per nine in 2016 with some of his innings coming as a starter and some a reliever. That strikeout rate could play up even more as a full-time reliever, and his command issues should be easier to hide in one-inning stints, as well.
They couldn’t have gotten to this point by more different paths. Zack Burdi was the White Sox’s first-round draft pick in 2016 and seems poised to make his major league debut in their bullpen less than a year later. Giovanny Gallegos is an unheralded former international free agent signing who has spent five years in the Yankees’ farm system and will turn 26 this season. And I can’t help but wonder whether both relievers could be on my 2018 bold predictions as potential saves sleepers. That may not even be bold for Burdi, who as mentioned has the pedigree and has a good chance of seeing his team’s incumbent closer, David Robertson, traded by this time next season. Burdi has had really bad command in his limited experience in the minors, but he has electric stuff and has struck out more than 12 batters per nine in the high minors. Gallegos has more moderate stuff with a fastball sitting around 93 mph and a limited arsenal of off-speed pitches, but he has exceptional command. He walked less than two batters per nine in the high minors in 2016 and still struck out more than 12 batters per nine like Burdi. Both relievers will start the year in the minors, but in deeper formats where ratio relievers can help even without saves, I would still consider stashing them.
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