Scott Strandberg’s Ten Bold Predictions for 2016

It’s been a weird week for me, delaying this article by four days. I originally intended to have this up by Monday, but a spontaneous — and completely awesome — decision to attend the NCAA Tournament provided the first delay. I got to see Oklahoma/VCU and the historically unprecedented Texas A&M win over Northern Iowa, so I didn’t feel too bad about being a day late.

Unfortunately, I got myself concussed in a fender-bender the next day (not my fault!), and spent the last few days listlessly staring out my window, the owner of a half-working brain. Hopefully, I’ve recovered enough for the following to make sense, but the fact that my 31st birthday looms this coming Monday means I’m in the midst of my annual birthday-related existential crisis, brain injury or not.

Regardless of the circumstances, it’s Bold Predictions time! I did pretty darn well two years ago, but last year my success rate was roughly equivalent to that of the Brooklyn Brawler. (Fun fact: The Brawler briefly performed in WWF as “The MVP” Abe Knuckleball Schwartz, a bad-guy persona used to rile up fans during the MLB strike of ’94.) Let’s turn the clock back to 2014 and get my boldness rate back to the sweet spot.

Here are my ten Bold Predictions for 2016, roughly arranged in ascending order from safest to craziest:

10. James Shields is not a top-65 starting pitcher, despite throwing 200+ innings for the tenth straight year.

How do we value a 34-year-old coming off a season like Shields just had? He logged over 200 innings and made his annual 33 starts, but posted his worst-ever walk rate — and it’s not even close — at 3.60 BB/9. His HR/FB ballooned to another career worst, at 17.6%. Shields also experienced career bests in two areas, strikeouts (yay!) and strand rate (hmm…).

Trying to wade through the noise, let’s start with the fact that a pitcher’s career-best K-rate should not be paired with his worst-ever K/BB ratio, which is exactly what Shields did last year. More troubling for me is that this problem grew steadily worse as the season progressed (best month, worst month):

  • April: 31.8% K, 7.0% BB, 24.8% K/BB
  • May: 29.8% K, 6.3% BB, 23.4% K/BB
  • June: 21.9% K, 9.4% BB, 12.5% K/BB
  • July: 21.6% K, 10.8% BB, 10.8% K/BB
  • August: 22.4% K, 8.7% BB, 13.7% K/BB
  • September: 23.5% K, 14.7% BB, 8.8% K/BB

As you can see, Shields’ huge jump in strikeouts was mostly just in April and May. In those months, his K/9 sat in the 11.6 range, as opposed to ~8.6 for the season’s last four months. On the flip side, his walk rate grew especially bloated as the season went on.

If you need one more reason to avoid Shields like the plague this year, I’ve got you covered. Throughout his career, Shields has experienced nearly equal success against both righties (.316 wOBA) and lefties (.315 wOBA). Last year, he developed some crazy platoon splits for the first time ever:

  • vs. L: .278/.368/.522 (.380 wOBA), 20.1% K, 11.6% BB, 2.16 HR/9
  • vs. R: .213/.284/.376 (.288 wOBA), 30.4% K, 7.1% BB, 0.84 HR/9

In short, we’re discussing a 34-year-old whose command completely fell apart late last year, who is also suddenly getting shredded by lefties. I understand our rankers putting him at No. 40 for 2016, because Shields was one of the steadiest pitchers in baseball until last year. Still, considering he got progressively worse with each passing month, I’ll be more than a little bit surprised if he actually posts top-40 value this season.

9. Neil Walker is a top-ten second baseman.

Coming off a bit of a down year, Walker finds himself entering the season as our No. 17 2B. The 30-year-old’s 2016 wasn’t as bad as it seemed, as his strong finish was masked by an unusually low .270 second-half BABIP. For example, his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved by about 30% post-All Star break, while his ISO jumped from .136 to .188.

I love Walker’s run and RBI potential this year, as he’ll likely hold down the No. 5 spot in the batting order with the Mets, sandwiched between Lucas Duda and Travis d’Arnaud. Don’t sleep on Walker; while he’s far from sexy, something tells me he’ll vastly outperform that No. 17 2B preseason ranking.

8. Kevin Pillar is a top-20 outfielder.

This is not rocket science. This is easily the simplest of my predictions, but since Pillar is our experts’ No. 44 OF, it is still suitably bold. The 27-year-old was actually 2015’s No. 25 OF, despite regularly batting somewhere between seventh and ninth in Toronto’s batting order.

In 2016, Pillar is expected to lead off for the Jays, with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki batting behind him. With that kind of firepower following him, the guy is practically guaranteed to score a run every time he gets on base. And yet, he’s currently the No. 56 OF taken in Yahoo drafts.

Short version: All Pillar has to do is carry over his production from last year. He doesn’t even need to improve at all to prove me right on this one. I don’t feel like this prediction is very bold, but the rankings and ADPs disagree. Bold it is!

7. Kevin Gausman is a top-30 starting pitcher.

Gausman opens 2016 as our No. 64 SP, with no ranker placing him above No. 57. Even in this position, he’s already being severely underdrafted, as he’s currently the 89th SP drafted in Yahoo leagues.

In his first three partial major-league seasons, the Orioles constantly yanked Gausman between the bullpen and the rotation, and also between Triple-A and the majors. FINALLY, the crazy train of Gausman’s development seems to be reaching a logical station, as the 25-year-old owns a (seemingly) tight grip on a regular spot in Baltimore’s rotation.

Gausman throws two plus pitches — a mid-upper 90’s fastball and a nasty splitter — and if he can cut down on the homers while maintaining last year’s positive K/BB growth, he’s a breakout season waiting to happen. He’s currently dealing with minor shoulder discomfort, which should mean his price is even lower than it otherwise would be.

Gausman is expected to be ready to roll by the time Baltimore needs a fifth starter on April 10, so don’t let that scare you away. In fact, now might be the perfect time to make a lowball offer to a nervous Gausman owner…

6. Ender Inciarte is a top-30 outfielder.

Our experts have Inciarte as the No. 60 OF, but trust me when I say that Ender’s game is better than that. The move to Atlanta clearly appears to be a negative, because the Braves offense resembles something assembled as the result of a childhood dare. Still, with Inciarte entrenched in the team’s leadoff spot, he’s got to score at least a decent amount of runs.

Furthermore, with Atlanta’s lineup being as weak as it is, why wouldn’t they let Ender run wild at the top of the order? If he gets on base to start the game, how much trust will Braves management place in the likes of Erick Aybar and Nick Markakis to drive him home? I say Inciarte shatters his 20-SB major-league average, ending up in the 30-steal range and solidifying him as a top-30 OF option.

5. Eduardo Escobar’s ownership rate exceeds 87% by season’s end.

The Twins’ shortstop is the most under-owned player in fantasy baseball right now. Despite qualifying at four positions (2B, 3B, SS, OF), Escobar is currently rostered in a paltry 13% of Yahoo leagues, hence my 87% eventual ownership prediction. The 27-year-old made huge strides at the plate last year, most importantly figuring out how to hit right-handed pitching by expanding his plate coverage:

  • pre-2015 vs. R: .232/.261/.320, .581 OPS
  • 2015 vs R: .257/.317/.428, .744 OPS

As detailed in the article linked above, Escobar also showed huge improvement against off-speed pitches with vertical break (a major problem for him in the past) and thrived as an everyday player. After bouncing around between multiple positions early in the season, Escobar settled in as Minnesota’s regular shortstop. Having a clearly defined role in the field gave him a big boost at the plate, as he hit .294/.349/.514 in games that he played short.

Escobar’s .262/.309/.445 season line doesn’t come close to representing just how good he was as the Twins’ starting shortstop. With the job firmly in hand entering 2016, Escobar may be the single most underrated player in fantasy. A look at our own expert shortstop rankings confirms this notion, as he didn’t even crack the top 30 at the position.

4. Blake Swihart is a top-eight catcher.

Swihart’s .274/.319/.392 slash from 2015 isn’t anything to scoff at for a catcher, but it also doesn’t reflect how good the rookie really was. A god-awful debut month of May (.225/.257/.268) throws a ton of noise into his season data. In 168 second-half PA, Swihart slashed an impressive .303/.353/.452.

He was ranked as the No. 18 catcher by our experts, probably at least in part as a reaction to the expectation of a position battle with Christian Vazquez. As it turns out, Vazquez hasn’t healed enough from Tommy John surgery, and will almost certainly begin the season in the minors. Furthermore, while Vazquez is a whiz behind the dish, he’s also an objectively detrimental hitter.

Swihart will get off to a hot enough start with the bat to relegate Vazquez to a reserve role, once the latter is ready to return to the majors. As a result, you’re looking at a top-eight catcher for 2016. Believe that.

3. Kyle Schwarber is not a top-eight catcher.

Schwarber was a nearly unanimous pick for the No. 2 catcher in our expert rankings, and for good reason. After all, he hit 16 homers in just 273 PA in 2015, with a .241 ISO. However, his numbers from last season are heavily influenced by a hot start that didn’t carry over:

  • June: .364/.391/.591
  • July: .302/.412/.488
  • August: .221/.324/.537
  • September: .208/.352/.389

If you’re in an OBP league, this isn’t concerning, but for those of you looking for batting average, let me throw some additional salt in the wound. Those first two .300+ AVG months? A total of 78 PA. August and September saw Schwarber receive 199 PA, and he spent the entire time fighting nobly to stay above the Mendoza line.

Schwarber’s power is legit, but so are his swing-and-miss tendencies. He’ll still hit his fair share of homers, but his batting average will hurt his owners enough to place him (barely) outside the top eight catchers.

2. Nolan Arenado is the No. 1 overall hitter in fantasy baseball, regardless of position.

If we’re getting bold enough for ya, gimme a hell yeah! *smashes beers together* I’ve been crazy-high on Arenado since I first saw him play in Double-A back in 2012, and I would link you to the blog I wrote about him at the time, but the website no longer exists. Take my word for it when I say that it was an unfettered genius piece of writing. At least I can still direct you to this glowing 2014 Rotographs post I wrote about Arenado.

I actually had this prediction in my outline before Spring Training even started (for those of you who remain unaware, Arenado is 23-for-38 with ten extra-base hits). I don’t really care much about spring stats, but it’s not like his performance thus far is a deterrent to my argument, so there it is.

One thing that goes overlooked about Arenado’s 2015 is that he actually hit more homers (22) on the road than he did at Coors (20). Questions seemingly abound regarding the legitimacy of his 42-homer season, with both Steamer and ZiPS projecting a 30-homer 2016 for Arenado. If you think he won’t surpass the 30-homer mark, I’ve got two words for ya!

…He will. How’s this for evidence that his power plays anywhere? Half of Arenado’s 22 road dingers last season took place in Petco Park and AT&T Park. Yes, he seriously hit 11 home runs in 68 at-bats between Petco and AT&T, and while Petco isn’t as cavernous as it used to be, AT&T remained the most difficult park in baseball to homer in last year. “Whatever,” says Arenado, as he blasts six homers in nine games at baseball’s worst stadium for home runs.

Arenado will cut down slightly on his strikeouts and see a small bump in his BABIP, becoming a .300+ hitter for the first time in the majors. Pair that with a repeat of his power production, and you’ve got 2016’s No. 1 fantasy hitter. Book it.

1. Despite being left off the Rotographs top-150 starting pitchers list, Julio Urias is a top-65 SP in 2016.

The Dodgers’ phenom didn’t even make our experts’ top 150 SP list for 2016, and I get it, I really do. He’ll start the year in Triple-A, and he’s probably looking at a fairly low innings cap, especially given the Dodgers’ caution with the 19-year-old thus far. Urias has 222.1 IP under his belt through his first three professional seasons, which is more than understandable given that he was 16 when he pitched his first inning in A-ball.

Still, I’m certain Urias will make a fantasy impact in 2016. First off, he would have thrown more than 80.1 innings last year if not for the two months he missed following elective eye surgery. Last spring, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said that the team was looking at giving Urias a 20-to-50 inning bump from the 87.1 frames he pitched in 2014. Seeing as his time on the disabled list last year was due to cosmetic surgery, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club push the upper limit of that 20-to-50 inning bump this year.

I became convinced of Urias’ impending fantasy relevance when working on the Dodgers Pitcher Playing Time Battles column. For a team that’s projected to win the NL West, their rotation is loaded with uncertainty. Brandon McCarthy (elbow) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder) were already slated to begin the season on the DL, and now Brett Anderson (back) and Mike Bolsinger (oblique) will join them. Additionally, Brandon Beachy is experiencing soreness in his elbow, which has undergone two Tommy John surgeries in a 21-month span.

It’s still March, but the Dodgers’ pitching depth is already decimated to the point where either Zach Lee or Carlos Frias — probably Lee — will enter the season as the team’s fifth starter. Lee has all of 4.2 major-league innings under his belt, and at this point he’s looking like a fringy back-end starter at best. For more on that, just click over to his player page and read my comments on him from last month. As for Frias, he’s coming off a 2016 that saw him post an absolutely disgusting 1.65 K/BB rate.

I see a good deal of bust potential in Alex Wood (for more in-depth reasoning, click here), and suddenly this Dodgers’ rotation isn’t looking very deep at all. Kenta Maeda is an unknown quantity, and even though I rarely put much stock into spring performance, so far Scott Kazmir looks about as imposing as a proud uncle serving up Wiffleballs right down the middle because he thinks it’s cute when his nephews hit it over the fence.

Let’s get back to Urias and that innings cap, because I hope I’ve made it clear by now that the opportunity will soon be there (if it isn’t already). If any of Maeda, Kazmir, Wood or *gasp* Clayton Kershaw were to hit the DL, how long will the Dodgers string along a rotation with both Zach Lee and Carlos Frias in it? Even as things look right now, all it will take is a couple bad starts from Lee and a couple good ones from Urias down in Triple-A to get the rumor mill — and the Los Angeles media pressure cooker — abuzz.

What would Urias have to do to prove me right, and end the season as a top-65 mixed-league fantasy starting pitcher? Let’s take last year’s No. 65 SP — Jake Peavy — as an example. Peavy tossed 110.2 frames, winning nine games with a 3.58 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 6.34 K/9. I’ll take the under on 110 major-league innings for Urias, but given his considerable strikeout upside, I’ll posit that he could hit that value with 90-100 innings.

Urias’ talent is pretty much unquestioned, so the extreme boldness of projecting a guy our experts placed outside the top 150 as a top-65 pitcher comes from him getting to the majors as soon as possible. The Dodgers are smart enough to not go wasting his innings in Triple-A — it’s not like he’s going to be carrying Oklahoma City into the 7th inning every fifth night. I’ll guess that his average Triple-A start lasts between four and five innings, meaning that he could make ten starts in the minors. If he takes the mound for OKC every fifth night, ten starts would be enough to keep Urias down in Triple-A through the end of May, and still pitch ~90 innings in the majors before reaching his assumed cap.

Basically, what I’m banking on here is that Urias makes his debut sometime in (or before) June. If he’s pitching well in the majors — and the Dodgers are playoff contenders, as expected — would anyone be shocked if that innings cap developed a little wiggle room, thus providing me with that same wiggle room in my bold prediction? Obviously, the club will be cautious not to overdo it with their young phenom, but letting him throw 135-140 total innings doesn’t sound too crazy.

Bottom line? Urias pitches enough in the majors this year to provide top-65 value, despite likely throwing fewer than 100 innings.

Albums listened to during the research and composition of this article include: Black Sabbath – “Heaven and Hell,” Gunship – “Gunship,” Mama Sweet – “21 Echo,” Megadeth – “Dystopia,” Opeth – “Pale Communion,” Washed Out – “Life of Leisure.”

We hoped you liked reading Scott Strandberg’s Ten Bold Predictions for 2016 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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My league added BB this year so Arenado worries me there but since he’s a 25yo, high contact power hitter who plays in Colorado, there’s always the off-chance for some ridiculously mammoth .340/50HR/140 RBI/120 R MVP caliber season. I’d hate to be the guy that passed on him and have him do that.