Scott Strandberg’s Bold Predictions for 2018

This is my fifth year of Bold Predictions, and I find them to be no less of a headache today than I did back in 2014, when I boldly predicted 20+ homers for Jon Singleton, and a top-40 fantasy outfielder season for Abraham Almonte. That said, I think I’m pretty close to the Bold Predictions Sweet Spot of 30% correct this year, as these are all varying degrees of “unlikely but not outrageous.” Also, I had more fun with these than I usually do, so that has to count for something. I’m sure I’ll hear from all the die-hard Whit Merrifield zealots in the comments section regardless.

Here we go!

1. Eugenio Suarez is a top-10 third baseman

Fresh off signing a 7-year, $66 million contract extension with the Reds, the 26-year-old Suarez has a lot to prove this year. I’m quite confident that Cincinnati’s front office will feel very good about that deal, and so will his fantasy owners. The good news started last year, when Suarez massively increased his walk rate for the second year in a row — from 4.3% BB in 2015, to 8.1% in 2016, to 13.3% in 2017 — while also recording a career-best 23.3% strikeout rate.

The most fantasy-relevant improvement to his game was definitely in the power department, as Suarez launched 26 bombs and posted a .200 isolated power. He also hit more line drives (24.0%) than ever before, and started pulling the ball more frequently (42.7% Pull in ’17, 39.5% in ’16). For 2018, he’s expected to bat cleanup behind on-base master Joey Votto, and he’ll also likely have copious opportunities to drive in Jesse Winker (.298/.375/.529 in 137 PA last year).

Finally, there were rumblings last year that Suarez could see time at shortstop. While he only actually played there for four innings due to Zack Cozart’s presence, I wouldn’t rule it out for this year. Jose Peraza — who is a non-threat with the bat — is penciled in as the starter, and no one else on the Reds’ 40-man roster has any major-league experience at short. Especially if you play in a league that only requires a few appearances to qualify at a new position, that’s an enticing thought.

The stars are aligned for Suarez to bust into the top 10 at third base, and seeing as he’s currently being drafted as the No. 20 3B, you can acquire him on the cheap.

2. Whit Merrifield is NOT a top-10 second baseman

The consistently overrated Merrifield is currently being drafted as the No. 6 fantasy 2B. I wrote about his overratedness once already this offseason, and since then he’s gone on to have a hot spring, hitting .436/.439/.872 in 40 PA at the time of this writing. Which is great news for the purpose of this column, because now it’s even bolder to call him a fantasy bust for 2018.

Before 2017, Merrifield had never connected on more than 10 homers in any given season, at any level. Of course, he smacked 19 dingers last year, adding 34 steals (another career best at any level) on his way to being the No. 4 second baseman in fantasy. You can certainly make the argument that xStats actually support the power surge to a degree which, sure, they kind of do — anyone can see that he hit way more balls in the air in 2017 than 2016, for instance.

On the other hand, Merrifield was just as fly-ball happy in the minors as he is now, and he never managed to hit double-digit bombs at any level. Of course, as a reader pointed out the last time I wrote about him, he was a scrawny 6’0″, 175 lbs until he gained 20 pounds during the 2015-2016 offseason…and then promptly hit 10 total homers in 636 PA split between Triple-A and the majors. To this point, no one has been able to explain to me why they think Merrifield’s power spike is repeatable — “he got stronger” is the best argument I’ve heard thus far, and that happened two years ago, not one.

I think the projection systems are right on with Merrifield, especially Steamer with the .273 AVG, 12 HR and 25 SB. Is that a useful fantasy commodity? Absolutely! Is that worth a late-6th, early-7th round pick — which is what it currently costs to draft him? Nah.

3. Ketel Marte is a top-15 shortstop

I’m far from the only one around here who’s high on Marte. In December, Jeff Sullivan wrote him up as his “favorite breakout pick” for 2018, and the player profile Andrew Perpetua wrote about him was similarly glowing. “Maybe that’s not bold enough,” I thought to myself, seeing how high some of my fellow FGers are on him.

“Nope, never mind, it’s still super-bold,” I then realized upon seeing that he’s 6% owned in Yahoo leagues. All the necessary ingredients for a breakthrough are present with Marte, so it really is surprising to see him get overlooked to this degree. He dramatically increased his power production last year, which seems sustainable due to his significantly increased launch angle. He’s also much faster than his major-league steals totals would suggest — he swiped 20+ bases in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Marte is currently being drafted as the No. 32 shortstop in fantasy leagues, behind the likes of Jose Reyes and Brandon Crawford. The No. 15 SS by average draft position is Jonathan Villar, and it doesn’t take much squinting for me to see Marte surpassing that level of production.

4. Dan Vogelbach is a top-12 AL-only first baseman

First base isn’t as deep as you might expect it to be in AL-only leagues this year. In Yahoo drafts, the No. 12 first baseman by ADP is the currently injured Yulieski Gurriel, followed by Albert Pujols. There’s clearly room for someone to jump into or past this tier of fantasy 1B, and Dan Vogelbach is poised to be that someone.

I’ve been burned by Vogey before, but this year feels different. The Mariners currently have Ryon Healy penciled in at first base, with Rule 5 pick Mike Ford also in the running, but it’s starting to look like Ford will be waived and Healy will play the short side of a platoon with Vogelbach. The 25-year-old Vogey has been one of the standouts of the entire league this Spring Training, as he’s currently hitting .400/.529/.850 with four homers and six doubles in 51 PA. I don’t put much (if any) stock into spring stats, but the way the conversation around Vogelbach has evolved makes it clear the Mariners are rethinking this whole “Ryon Healy, everyday first baseman” thing.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said as much on his podcast this week, saying “Vogelbach is making his case, whether Ryon Healy is ready or not, to be on our 25-man club.” The lefty Vogey would make a perfect platoon partner for the right-handed Healy, and the high side of a platoon would give him plenty of chances to produce in fantasy.

5. Scooter Gennett repeats last year’s 27 homers

Despite last year’s breakout performance, fantasy owners are rightfully cautious of Gennett in 2018, as he’s currently the No. 21 2B by ADP in Yahoo leagues. It seemed like his 27-homer season came out of nowhere, but his underlying metrics started shifting two years ago, with the big breakthrough coming in 2017.

He’s traded in his grounder-heavy profile for balls in the air — from 1.63 GB/FB in 2015, to 1.29 in ’16, to 1.1 in ’17 — and he’s focusing more on his pull field than on spraying it to all fields (31.6% Oppo in ’15, 30.2% in ’16, 23.8% in ’17). Also, his hard-hit rate took massive leaps in each of the last two seasons, from 22.1% in 2015, to 28.9% in 2016, and 34.4% last season.

Scooter is still a pretty mediocre hitter against lefties (.248/.287/.404 last year), but the Reds don’t really have anyone on the 40-man who makes sense as a platoon partner, so I’m not too concerned about that slowing down his quest for 27 bombs.

6. The New York Mets make the playoffs

I always like to throw in a couple of non-fantasy predictions, and I actually picked the Mets for the second NL wild card spot in our FG staff predictions. The Mets have quite a bit of talent, but this is all dependent on health. For example, Yoenis Cespedes needs to stay healthy for this offense to excel, which he’s had trouble doing lately.

Of course, the far bigger question mark is the health of the starting rotation. Jacob deGrom had his first 200-inning season last year, and is the only relatively “sure thing” in this rotation. After throwing just 30.1 innings last year, Noah Syndergaard needs to prove he can stay healthy, but is clearly a True Ace when he does. Matt Harvey was putrid last year after he returned from thoracic outlet surgery, but now his velocity is back up to 96 MPH, and he looks like the good version of Matt Harvey again.

Jason Vargas and Steven Matz have their own question marks behind those top three, but it’s easy to see this team kicking some serious ass if everything breaks right. Which, of course, it rarely does. But in the spirit of bold predictions, I’ll say the Mets stay healthy enough for their talent to carry them into the wild card.

7. Tim Tebow hits a major-league home run

This is a great time to point out that I am not trying to go 10-for-10 on these predictions, as there’s no way in hell that both No. 6 and No. 7 can happen. Tim Tebow playing in the majors and the Mets making the playoffs in 2018 are as mutually exclusive as predictions get.

With that out of the way, let’s imagine everything goes wrong for the Mets this year, like it always does and (let’s be honest) probably will again in 2018. If they’re 20 games back on September 1, playing out the string in front of a handful of increasingly bitter fans every night, what better distraction would there be than Tim Freaking Tebow? Can you even imagine the media frenzy of Tim Tebow launching bombs — or more specifically for this prediction, launching at least one bomb — in New York City?!

I’m not sure this one is even that bold — if the Mets suck this year, and Tebow has been even kind of sort of okay in the minors, they will totally find an excuse to call him up for the fleeting embrace of positive media attention. If/when this happens, expect ESPN to abandon all non-Tebow programming and finally become the Tebow-starring real-life version of “The Truman Show” they’ve always wanted to be.

8. Delino DeShields leads the league in steals

This may not seem likely, because Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon are both in this very same league that I’m claiming DeShields will lead in steals. Still, Rangers manager Jeff Banister recently said that DeShields will be the team’s everyday leadoff hitter, which throws an intriguing wrench into the 2018 stolen-base race.

In case you’ve forgotten, DeShields stole an astounding 101 bases back in 2012, which he accomplished in just 135 games in A-ball. Of course, stealing bases in the majors is a whole different ballgame, but Banister himself says he would like DeShields to steal at least 50 bases this season. If there’s anything a fantasy owner loves to hear, it’s their player’s manager setting lofty goals like that, and if he really does get the 650+ PA that come with batting leadoff every day, he could do it.

To be honest, my original prediction was “Delino DeShields steals 50 bases,” but seeing as his own manager said he wants him to do that, I figured I needed to up the ante a bit to make this sufficiently bold. So, I guess I’m hoping he steals 60, and both Hamilton and Gordon come up just short. (And also, I just now noticed that Brad Johnson predicted 70+ steals for DeShields in his Bold Predictions, but that’s a touch too bold for me.)

9. Chris Taylor is NOT a top-15 SS (or top-45 OF)

Taylor’s plate discipline is a pretty big red flag to me. As I pointed out last month

I know it seems like players strike out all the time these days, but there were still just 18 qualified hitters who struck out in at least 25% of their plate appearances last season, and Taylor was one of them (to be fair, his rate was exactly 25.0%). Of those 17 other players, only five (Tim AndersonJavier BaezTim BeckhamByron BuxtonAdam Duvall) walked less frequently than Taylor (8.8%), and all but two of them (Anderson and Buxton) hit more homers than Taylor’s 21. Every single one of those 17 other 25%+ K-rate hitters hit for a lower batting average than Taylor’s .288.

The rest of Taylor’s offensive profile doesn’t really gel with his plate discipline stats. Most guys who strike out that much are sluggers with lots of homers and low batting averages, so if he’s going to even repeat last year’s numbers, he’ll again be an anomaly — which is the more difficult brand of breakout to buy into. If he doesn’t improve that K-rate, it would only take a BABIP drop-off from last season’s .361 to .320-325 to drag his AVG down to the .250 range. With some of our projection systems predicting numbers not too far north of that, I think there’s high bust potential here — even if his power/speed potential is legit.

10. Jose Berrios is a top-15 starting pitcher

Berrios made a big step forward last season, and I’m predicting he makes another one this year. The 23-year-old has a wipeout breaking ball, mid-90s heat, and made a bunch of small adjustments last season that paid off big results — namely, he straightened out his delivery and moved off the first-base side of the rubber.

Berrios has big stuff, and as he continues to mature as a pitcher, that stuff will only play up. He has serious heat that can reach 97-98 mph when he really reaches for it, paired with one of the most electric curveballs in the game today. Also, he pitches deep into games, which is becoming more and more of a rarity these days — in fact, Berrios pitched at least seven innings in eight of his 25 starts last year. This is the year we stop talking about Berrios’ ace-like potential, and start talking about Berrios the ace.

We hoped you liked reading Scott Strandberg’s Bold Predictions for 2018 by Scott Strandberg!

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Brad Johnson

re: #8, I knew others would share the credit if I just predicted him to lead the league.

re: #4, I love how you repackaged your “Dan Vogelbach will be a top 30 1B” headline