Spring is here, and with it comes a renewed sense of optimism for yours truly. The never-ending cold rain and oppressive grayness of my first winter in Seattle is giving way to slightly warmer rain and a lighter shade of gray, and the sun even made an appearance last Tuesday. I’m more excited for baseball season than ever, seeing as I finally live in a major-league city for the first time in my life. Also, WrestleMania and Opening Day — objectively the best two days of the year — land on consecutive days in 2017.
Unfortunately, this time of year also means I get my annual opportunity to make a fool of myself with my Bold Predictions column. The last time I did well with these, I was still in my twenties and The Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak was intact. I’m not saying that turning 30 (or 31…or 32…) definitively altered my ability to make borderline-crazy-yet-somewhat-possible baseball predictions. However, right around that same time, I developed a bald spot on the top of my head. Without the protective layer of hair, a great many thoughts started escaping my head, and I became much less smart.
What’s changed now? I’m so glad you asked. I recently discovered the incredible Thought Screen Helmet! Originally intended to shield your brain from alien mind-control waves, it turns out that the Thought Screen Helmet not only keeps the aliens out, it also helps keep your thoughts in! Furthermore, the Thought Screen Helmet sports a great track record, with “Only one failure since 1998.”
With my Thought Screen Helmet firmly strapped in, I’m ready to unleash my new and improved Bold Predictions, now featuring occasional accuracy! Hopefully.
1. Kyle Hendricks does not significantly regress
Absolutely everyone is expecting Hendricks to take a big step back from last year’s incredible 2.13 ERA, and many of his peripherals support that notion. His FIP was over a run higher than his ERA, he stranded 81.5% of his baserunners, opposing hitters hit just .250 on balls in play, etc.
On the other hand, Hendricks made some improvements that were anything but lucky. His changeup developed into a lethal pitch; the most-effective change thrown by any qualified starting pitcher in 2016. He also topped the leaderboard for soft contact at 25.1%, while his whiff rate soared from 8.1% to 10.0%.
As a ground-ball pitcher who induces a ton of soft contact, Hendricks benefits greatly from the Cubs infield defense. He wouldn’t be this effective on most other teams. For fantasy purposes, who cares if he’s actually as good as his defense makes him look? Jake Arrieta, another Cubs starter who thrives on soft-hit ground balls, significantly outperformed his FIP/xFIP in each of the last two seasons. Why should we expect Hendricks to be any different, especially since he made several concrete improvements to his own game last year?
I suppose I should put a number on this. Put me down for a sub-2.65 ERA. That feels sufficiently bold.
2. Yoan Moncada is a fantasy non-factor
This doesn’t feel all that bold, but Moncada is owned in a shockingly high 40% of Yahoo leagues. Bold it is!
Here’s the thing, and hold onto your hats because this is one hot take coming up right here: The 2017 Chicago White Sox are going to be a horrible baseball team. They have approximately seven good players on their entire roster. There’s a chance their opening-day lineup includes three non-roster invitees, and to make things worse, those three players are Cody Asche, Geovany Soto and Peter Bourjos.
While this might seem like the ideal scenario for a young player to get regular playing time, Moncada is a 21-year-old with 53 games of experience above A-ball — 45 games in Double-A, eight in MLB. In those 53 games, Moncada struck out 76 times in 227 PA, for a 33.5% K-rate.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as high on him long-term as anyone, and I own him in multiple dynasty/keeper leagues. The problem is that it’s in the organization’s best interests to keep him in the minors for most of 2017, for multiple reasons. First off, Moncada is yet to play his first Triple-A game, and he probably legitimately needs a good chunk of experience at that level.
Additionally, the White Sox have no reason to start his arbitration clock until his Triple-A performance forces their hand. Moncada is the highest-upside player in this entire organization, and I just don’t see them calling him up early in an obvious rebuilding year, risking both his own development and their future control over his contract. Playing it safe with the centerpiece of the return for Chris Sale is the smart move, both on the field and in the front office.
If your league has reserve or minor-league slots, I could see Moncada becoming relevant for the season’s last couple months. Otherwise, you’re a year early.
3. Matt Carpenter is a top-five fantasy 2B
Carpenter slots in at No. 11 in our experts’ second-base rankings, and no one placed him higher than Brad Johnson did at No. 6. I wrote about Carpenter a few weeks ago, pointing out that he was outperforming his excellent 2015, until an oblique injury derailed his season in July.
- 2015 season:
- .272/.365/.505, .233 ISO, 12.2% BB, 22.7% K
- .298/.420/.568, .270 ISO, 16.5% BB, 17.4% K
- .229/.316/.410, .181 ISO, 10.7% BB, 21.9% K
Carpenter is again fully healthy, and I’m betting he makes that injury-clouded sample from late 2016 seem like a distant memory.
4. Travis Jankowski steals 50+ bases
Alex Dickerson’s injury came at the perfect time for Jankowski. The two were in a position battle, until Dickerson was sidelined indefinitely due to a bulging disc in his back, and Jankowski was locked into regular playing time as the Padres left fielder and likely leadoff hitter.
For much of last season, Jankowski led the league in steals-per-PA. He’s very fast, and extremely aggressive. Last year, he accomplished some incredible feats on the basepaths, like the time he stole third and home on the same play, or when he scored from second on an infield single.
While his high walk rate helped him in OBP leagues, his .245 AVG was ugly, and doesn’t look any better when you notice it was paired with a .343 BABIP. As Rylan Edwards noted in Jankowski’s player capsule, what killed sank Jankowski’s average last year was a bizarrely inflated 26.1% strikeout rate.
I decided to dig into this strikeout rate a bit further, and it seems like a fluke in just about every possible way. Jankowski’s career minor-league strikeout rate is 14.8%, and his 2016 peripherals don’t even support how high his K-rate was. His 26.1% rate in the majors last year was the 32nd-worst among players with at least 350 PA. To establish some expectations for this type of K-rate, I took a quick look at the players surrounding Jankowski on that list: Adam Duvall (#30), Welington Castillo (#31), Jake Lamb (#33) and Leonys Martin (#34).
Obviously, these are all very different players, but a strikeout is a strikeout, and something about these numbers just doesn’t add up at all:
- Jankowski: 21.3% O-swing, 7.4% SwStr
- Average of #30-#34: 31.6% O-swing, 12.3% SwStr
- Best single mark from #30-#34: 28.6% O-swing (Lamb), 11.1% SwStr (Castillo)
He chased about a third fewer pitches than other players with similar K-rates, and whiffed about 40% less. Point being, I expect a significant uptick in the batting average due to a drastic decrease in strikeouts. That, along with his baserunning and defense, will be enough to keep him in the lineup for the full 2017 season, and he will steal 50 bases.
5. Speaking of steals, Roman Quinn swipes 25+ bags
Barring injury, Quinn doesn’t have a clear path to playing time in Philly. The club traded for Howie Kendrick, and signed Michael Saunders and Chris Coghlan as free agents, essentially blocking Quinn in the outfield for now. Fortunately for Quinn, the Phillies aren’t built to win now. I’d wager there’s a better chance that all three of Kendrick/Saunders/Coghlan are gone by the trade deadline, than there is of all three staying in Philly all year.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on Quinn (and my next prediction…), check out my post from two weeks ago. In short, it’s a matter of when, not if, Quinn gets major-league playing time this year. I think he’ll get enough to make a major impact for owners in need of speed.
6. Continuing the discussion of stolen bases, Zack Granite tops 25 as well
If there’s one thing we know about a modern-day Minnesota Twins team, it’s that at some point their lineup will include a bunch of random guys you’ve never heard of. This is a team that used some dude named James Beresford as their first baseman for a ten-game stretch last year.
If you’re not familiar with Granite, now is as good a time as any to get to know him. The Twins’ left-field platoon of Eddie Rosario and Robbie Grossman is begging to be replaced by a major-league baseball player, and Granite looked fantastic in Double-A last year. He hit .295/.347/.382 with 56 steals and elite plate discipline (7.2% BB, 7.4% K), and there’s little in the way of organizational competition in the outfield.
25 steals in the majors this year? He’s got this.
7. Yasmani Grandal is a top-five catcher
Grandal finished 2016 as the No. 7 catcher, and checks in at No. 9 in our expert rankings. I wrote about the 28-year-old at great length earlier in the offseason. I believe his power spike to be legitimate, and see room for improvement. Dive into the linked post if you want to get into the details, but my research yielded the following basic results:
- Grandal dramatically increased his plate coverage against right-handers’ fastballs last season, eliminating the previously exploitable holes in his approach vs RHP.
- As a result, pitchers threw Grandal more sliders than before. He responded by hitting six sliders out of the park, after homering on just one slider in his career to that point.
- He tweaked his swing mechanics to be more fluid and repeatable.
2016 was also Grandal’s first fully healthy season, after tearing his ACL and MCL in July 2013, then playing through the 2015 season with a bad shoulder that ended up requiring surgery. Grandal’s 457 PA in 2016 was a career-high, and it was still the lowest mark among the top ten catchers — 124 PA fewer than the No. 6 catcher, Yadier Molina.
Aside from his injury history, Grandal also lost a significant amount of playing time to A.J. Ellis, who always got more starts with the Dodgers than a traditional backup would. Austin Barnes will get his fair share of playing time this year, but his positional flexibility allows the Dodgers to play Barnes and Grandal together.
If he stays healthy, Grandal should see the largest chunk of playing time in his career. I believe in his adjustments at the dish, and if his improved plate coverage translates into a bump for his batting average, he could threaten to join the elite tier of fantasy catchers.
8. Gregory Bird hits 30+ homers
After missing the 2016 season due to a shoulder ailment, Bird showed up to camp this year and promptly beat out Chris Carter for the Yanks’ primary first-base job. Never read too much into spring stats, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to see numbers like this:
- 55 spring PA – .447/.527/.1.085, 7 HR, 7 2B, 1 3B, 8 BB, 10 K
Bird is mashing so hard that he has more doubles and homers than singles (6), and I’m never going to complain about plate discipline stats like this. If nothing else, he’s proving that he is back to full health. A left-handed power prospect hitting at Yankee Stadium is always appealing, and Bird did knock 11 bombs in his 46-game major-league sample in 2015.
The playing time is there, and all signs point to 2017 being the Year of the Bird.
9. Aaron Judge hits 30+ homers
Sticking with the “young Yankee sluggers” theme, we have Judge, who finds himself embroiled in a confusing position battle with Aaron Hicks. This is hard to understand because Hicks is four years deep into a relentlessly mediocre major-league career, and Judge’s raw power is among the best of any prospect. He’s going to strike out a ton, but when he makes contact, he hits the ball hard, and usually in the air.
I’m banking on Judge to earn the everyday right-field job over the replacement-level Hicks, and joining Bird in the Yanks’ 30+ homer club for 2017.
10. The Rockies make the playoffs
I always like to make one non-fantasy prediction in these columns, and I’m liking the Rockies potential this year. Their lineup looks great, and the bullpen features quality arms from both sides. Jon Gray could be on the cusp of becoming an ace, while Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood both appear to be reliable mid-rotation starters. The fourth and fifth spots will be some combination of promising prospects German Marquez, Kyle Freeland and (at some point) Jeff Hoffman.
The Rockies need several things to break in their direction for this prediction to come true, but that’s why we call them Bold Predictions.
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.