I’m back, baby! After I won the Pitcher List Legacy League in 2017 and then did so badly in 2018 that I got booted to a lower league, I won another championship in 2019 to get re-promoted to the top league for 2020!
Looking back at my past bold predictions list, I realized they were rather bold, but not bold enough, not Pitcher List BOLD. So this year, my list is bolder than the “Nuclear” wings you eat to impress your bros, and then after one bite, you frantically chug down all of their glasses of ice water and whimper in a fetal position mumbling something about a hospital as your friend condescendingly pats you on the head. Yes, that bold. As Nick says, these should be bold enough that you can expect 1 out of 10 to come true at best, and if 2 come true you’re officially the new Nostradamus. So grab a seatbelt, helmet, and a cool glass of milk—onto the list we go!
1. C.J. Cron finishes as a Top 5 First Baseman
People who write him off as a boring option are going to eat Cron. I wrote about C.J. Cron (ADP #251) already here, but I’m very bullish regarding his under-the-hood improvements to his batted ball quality. His barrel rate has improved every year since 2017, with his 2019 Barrel% being 15%, the 7th best in baseball, and he improved his strikeout rate to just 21% too.
He gets overlooked due to his journeyman reputation and an injury-riddled 2nd half, but his expected stats (.277 xBA and .548 xSLG) indicated he deserved far better results and could finally have a full breakout in 2020. Now with the Tigers on a one-year deal, Detroit will have every reason to bat him in the heart of the lineup and, contrary to popular belief, the move to Comerica should actually help his offensive numbers as it played more hitter-friendly than Target Field in 2020.
Keep in mind if he starts hot, he’ll likely be dealt to a contender to further pad the run production. I think he can hit .275 with 30-35 bombs with aplomb, but if he continues improving, it wouldn’t be so outrageous for him to hit .290 with nearly 40 HR and 200 R+RBI. Okay, it would still be outrageous, but I’d be too busy maniacally laughing my way to the fantasy bank.
This may be my boldest prediction of them all, yet of all of these crazy predictions, it’s the one I’m the most confident in. Which probably (definitely) means it’s the most likely to make me look stupid. But hear me out.
When you look at their 2019 stats alone, adjusted for plate appearances, they aren’t all that far apart. When you adjust for Statcast data, Danny Santana’s (ADP #127) xBA of .275 and xSLG of .496 outmatch Fernando Tatis’s (ADP #17) xBA of .259 and xSLG of .490. Many project continued improvement for Tatis and regression for Santana, but players with Santana’s poor plate discipline and strong batted ball quality have succeeded before (Javier Baez and Ramon Laureano). Don’t expect a big decline in SBs as he is still just 28 and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing.
Although Tatis posted the stronger barrel rate, he was the #1 overperformer on Alex Chamberlain’s Expected Barrel metric, which clouds his power forecast, especially playing half his games in the pitcher-friendly PetCo Park. Also, it seems many are completely ignoring the risk of his season-ending back injury affecting his 2020 production, although a similar injury dinged the value of Ketel Marte in many drafts. He could be Correa 2.0, as he’s already had a season-ending thumb injury in 2018 and missed a month with a hamstring.
Of course, Santana could still do worse than a partial Tatis season, but I’m not as scared as some by his poor plate discipline. His exit velocity was 90th percentile so, between that and his 70th percentile speed, he should post a high BABIP as his profile isn’t far off from Ryan McMahon, David Dahl, and Yoan Moncada. For those who thought his power came out of nowhere, last year he hit 16 HR in 342 PA in Triple-A (pre-bouncy ball 2018) after posting a much-improved exit velocity and launch angle in Triple-A—so I think it’s mostly legit. Tatis could still go .260 25/25 and fall short of Santana going .260 30/25, and the odds are this prediction will be laughable, but hey at least it isn’t mild, right?
3. Mitch Keller is a Top 25 Starter with 200 Strikeouts
Sometimes, I feel like it’s better to NOT watch the games so you don’t overreact and trust the data, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Mitch Keller (ADP #228). Sure, even despite being penciled into the rotation, he’s listed on most 2020 prospect lists after #50, but I see what he showed in his debut as far more positive than negative. Yes, we all know he posted an ugly 1-5 record and 7.13 ERA over 48 MLB innings, but it was just 11 games, and Statcast believes he was the unluckiest pitcher in all of baseball (that’s including relievers).
His slider is an absolute beast, with an insane 51% O-Swing% and 27% SwStr%. His curve is nearly a Money Pitch, so it’s certainly puzzling why his 96 mph fastball allowed a .461 AVG and 44% LD% resulting in a shocking -10 pVAL. But lest you think it was still deserved, consider that he doesn’t have control problems, didn’t allow many homers, and showed dominance with an excellent 29 K% to 7 BB%. Thus, he had a fantastic 3.19 FIP and 3.78 SIERA. If he was doomed to underperform his peripherals, I’d expect to see him underperform in the minors too, but in Triple-A he managed a 3.56 ERA that was right in line with his 3.60 FIP. Add the fact that the Pirates have a new, much better pitching coach and I’m so bullish I’m chasing down a rodeo clown. Although I’m sure he will have other backers, his current ADP of 241 makes it clear many are hesitant, and I’ll be scooping him up everywhere after pick 215 if not sooner.
4. Luis Arraez is a Top 10 Second Baseman
Luis’s value will only Arraez from here. Due to the complete lack of power, many are skeptical of Luis Arraez (#235), and he didn’t even make the list for Paul Sporer’s Top 30 Second Baseman (though he was an honorable mention). I get why, but I am always a big fan of players who lead with an outstanding hit tool since I find these players often make strong breakout candidates by just sacrificing some of their contact for more power. While Arraez lacks the pedigree of other top prospects, he keeps defying expectations, hitting above .300 at every level.
I believe he can win a batting title as he led the league in swinging-strike rate (Below 3%) but to be fair, his Barrel/PA was 225th out of 250 hitters, and his max exit velocity was 249th…yikes. Despite that, he said he aspires to hit double-digit homers. While that may seem unlikely, he’s reportedly been strength training (cue BSOHL skeptics) and says he plans to pull the ball more, as last year he had only a 29 Pull%. And given his low 12% soft contact and solid 35% Hard contact rate, he probably deserves better than his minuscule 5% HR/FB.
With even a little more pulled fly balls, he can volume his way into power a la Tommy La Stella. But I also believe he will get more time in the leadoff or #2 role than the #9 projected for him, as they had a lot of success batting him leadoff last year and it just makes too much sense to not have an on-base machine load up the bases for the mashers. Given that he already was 6th-best in the MLB in Sweet Spot%, I would not be surprised to see him hit .320 with 12-15 HR and scoring over 105 R, 75 RBI, and 5 SB. Sign me up for that.
Time for the fish to catch some birds. This prediction may seem implausible if not insane, or at least it was when I started writing this before the recent Mikolas injury. After all, the Cardinals led their division last year with a 91-71 record, and aside from losing Marcell Ozuna, their roster is largely unchanged. Meanwhile, the Marlins finished a putrid 57-105, 40 games back in their division, and aside from acquiring Jonathan Villar, the Marlins have mostly been just been picking pieces off the scrap heap. But they’ve added upside and depth to their lineup while I am bearish on most of the Cardinals’ hitters and non-Flaherty pitching.
I expect Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler to continue their decline, and I am skeptical of Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman continuing to be above-average hitters (Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader are just plain bad). On the mound, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and crew could implode with their contact-focused approach.
Meanwhile, the Marlins’ offseason has made their team, in my opinion, deceptively viable. Corey Dickerson has shown both the offensive and defensive ability to potentially put it all together and be a discount star, Brian Anderson and Garrett Cooper will likely improve, while Jesus Aguilar and Isan Diaz both have big upside. I still believe Caleb Smith will improve and like the depth and upside of the rest of their rotation between Sandy Alcantara, Elieser Hernandez, and—to a lesser extent—Pablo Lopez and Jordan Yamamoto. But perhaps most importantly, they have potentially major-league ready prospects ready to take over their weakest positions at OF (Lewis Brinson) and SS (Miguel Rojas) with Jesus Sanchez, Monte Harrison, and (long shot for ‘20) V.V. Mesa at OF plus smooth Jazz Chisholm at SS, and Sixto Sanchez as a high-upside rotation wildcard. Hey, a Marlin can dream.
6. Aaron Civale is a Top 35 Starter
We have only witnessed the dawn of Civalezation. Nick and I have disagreed on this, and I’m in the Paul Sporer camp of arguing that Aaron Civale (ADP #268) is more than just a Toby—but I’m taking it further. While he may never be an ace, he should be capable of a Jake Odorizzi-like high-value season. The big question is whether or not Civale’s weak induced contact is an actual skill or just luck, because although he overperformed, his xSLG of .347 was 88th percentile and xwOBA was 84th, percentile, with a 99th% percentile barrel rate. He reminds me a bit of a young Dallas Keuchel in how he was living out of the zone with his breakers and generating bad contact despite low strikeouts. Or 2019 Shane Bieber lite in how he pounds the zone with his fastball and lives out of the zone with high-spin offspeed pitches. And although he lacks a true put-away pitch, I think with his kitchen sink of whiff-inducing pitches in different velocity and movement bands along with a K rate that has room for improvement (he had 10 K/9 in Triple-A) is a pretty attractive profile. I can see him earning 15 wins with a 3.40 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 170 Ks, becoming yet another Cleveland success story.
The crazy thing is that while we think of Nomar Mazara (ADP #242) as a vet, he’s still just 25 years old. He had a far inferior 2019 compared to Kris Bryant (#57), but in this “lost” season, his expected stats told a different story. His XBA of .272 and XSLG of .485 are quite solid and career bests, and now he’ll be moving to the White Sox home park that’s even more favorable for lefty home runs than Texas was.
He was more aggressive last year with a 51% Swing% and a career-best 78% Meatball Swing. Bryant, meanwhile, despite 31 taters, massively overperformed. He had worse power metrics than Kyle Seager and Garrett Cooper, with a mediocre 9% Barrel/BBE, 87 mph eV, and 92 mph FB/LD eV. He may have been very lucky because he had a terrible .246 xBA and .460 xSLG, belying his .380 wOBA with a .347 xwOBA that is worse than his .352 xwOBA from his lousy 2018. Considering he doesn’t steal more bases than Mazara either and is 4 years older, you may as well wait 150+ picks and take a chance on him to be Bryant’s South Side Superior.
8. Jason Castro is a Top 10 Catcher
I wrote about his “breakout” last season, and Jason Castro (ADP #343) rewarded me with doing his best imitation of garbage left out in the sun for the rest of the season.
Still, his overall peripherals look strong, and maybe his injury affected his 2nd half. But the main reason I’m scooping him up in deep leagues wherever I can is two-fold: 1) Unlike last year, he can become a full-time starter; and 2) He’s a lefty playing half his games with the Angels’ shortened wall.
To the first point, Max Stassi came up as a bat-first prospect but hasn’t been able to hit a lick, and while his framing is good, Castro has a strong reputation for defense and game-calling and lacks a grotesque platoon split, so I expect Castro to play at least 4/5 of the time if health allows it. But the big thing is that he’s moving from a pitcher-friendly park to a hitter-friendly park, which is now a super hitter-friendly for lefties. We saw firsthand how it resulted in a 33-homer season for Kole Calhoun, and even helped turn the previously punchless 30-year-old journeyman Tommy La Stella into a 30-homer threat. So, Castro has to pull fly balls, and last year, he had a 39% FB% rate and a 25% LD% rate, to go with a 40% Pull% and a 52% Hard hit%. The downside is that he’ll have to face more lefties, where he was terrible last year and with a 50 wRC+, but Stassi may take most of those days as opposed to Garver who also took away Castro’s righty matchups. Odds are against it, but who wouldn’t root for a 33-year-old to have a career year?
If my odds of one of these weren’t low enough, I made it thrice as nice. I have already been scooping up Josh James (ADP #346) in several mocks because he’s due for better luck this year. Despite his bloated 4.70 ERA, he posted a 99th percentile .171 AVG against and also 99th percentile .286 xSLG, with his merely solid .304 wOBA hiding a fantastic .263 xwOBA (93rd percentile only due to his elevated 13% walk rate.) So assuming mild regression, even with limited innings, he can be a force with his dominating 38% K rate that gave him 100 Ks in just 61 IP.
I already thought his chances of a rotation spot were good before the Brad Peacock injury, but now I consider him the easy frontrunner for the role against Austin Pruitt and Framber Valdez (Whitley will likely begin in Triple-A), and he has reworked his mechanics with exciting results. I think Dallas Keuchel (ADP #265) has lost his old mojo and will be below-average in the White Sox bandbox. Sean Manaea (ADP #169), while better, lacks both the fastball velocity/spin and durability to rack up enough Ks. And Dinelson Lamet (ADP #123), the most formidable Billy Goat Gruff, may not fare as well as James in a rotation with two pitches to James’ three. This may be too bold, but I love me a good post-hype sleeper and want a trophy with J.J. Power Pitcher and associates.
10. Justin Smoak returns to being a Top 15 First Baseman
While 1B lacks the top-end talent of the days of yore, there is plenty of depth at the top half of the position. If you think based on the name value that this projection isn’t bold, just look at their ADP: While players like Luke Voit (ADP #192), Eric Hosmer (#220) and even Joey Votto (#266) get the benefit of the doubt, Justin Smoak (ADP #404) is such a fantasy castaway that he’s already befriended a volleyball.
I get it, he’s an aging player coming off two pretty lousy years, but it’s still an overreaction of what he can provide, especially in OBP formats. Smoak was one of the biggest Statcast underperformers, with his awful .205 AVG and .406 SLG% compared to an xBA of .260 and .495 xSLG. That’s far better than his 2018 rates of .222 xBA and .436 xSLG, and last year he posted career-best plate discipline with a 21% K% and 16% BB%. His exit velo (90 mph) and launch angle (17) are all similar to his 2018 and 2019 rates, and his 11% barrel/BBE is the same as 2018 and still well above average.
Despite his awful numbers, Statcast says his 2019 most similar player is Max Muncy (ADP #74), so I think the Smoak hate has gone too far. Now on the Brewers, he may benefit from a fresh start, easier pitching matchups, and playing fewer games against the pitching-heavy AL-East. I can see him going .255/.355/.490 with 30 HR and 160 R+RBI but think he could even come close to repeating his studly 2017, which could help you win it all in OBP formats for his current cost. Side note, I refused to make an overdone “smoke” pun, but I just realized I blew my opportunity to call him “Big Jay Smoakerson.”
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)