I’ll admit, I’ve rewritten this piece three to four times over the last two weeks or so. I really struggled with the idea of how do I write a piece about my bold predictions if I have no idea when the season will start? I’ve pieced together a version that had different ranges of outcomes or cobbled together bold predictions that covered the next two years. I wrote a piece that was so open-ended it would work no matter how many games were played and one in case there was no season at all. In the end, it was Nick Pollack, our fearless leader, who helped me see the light. He said that bold predictions are about being right or wrong, they’re about conveying your enthusiasm for a player or event. I realized that’s what I wanted to do. These players are my ride-or-dies and I want to show you why. With that in mind, I went back to the original full-season format. I felt that by discussing things this way we would have a common language and would be able to place things in the proper context. So please understand that while we may end up having a partial season, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand what I’m talking about. Anyways, without further ado, here are my ten bold predictions for the 2020 season!
1. Franmil Reyes will hit at a 50+ HR full-season pace
I’ve already written a bit about Reyes for our Indians Hitter Preview, and if you’ve read it you already know that Reyes hits the ball very, very hard. His 93.3 mph Exit Velocity was the fourth highest in the league last year, while he was 15th in BBL% and fifth in Hard-Hit%. Here are the only names that hit the ball harder across the board:
There are a few names I want to make a direct comparison to here that I think could be illuminating.
Reyes’ Statcast numbers measure up with these elite sluggers and he managed to match Donaldson’s power output in 111 fewer PAs. It’s also worth noting that in his short career Reyes has greatly increased his FB% and Launch Angle since his rookie season. If that can continue to grow, we could see Reyes’ number line up and maybe even exceed Soler’s.
Let’s also talk about a few other factors that have me excited for Reyes in 2020. First, the plate appearances. As I mentioned in the Indians writeup, Reyes’ defense cost him roughly 100 PAs in San Diego. Now he’s in the American League and will play every day in the heart of the Cleveland lineup. That alone could get him close to 45 HRs. And it’s worth noting, as I did in the writeup, that Cleveland’s Progressive Field is much more homer-friendly according to Baseball Prospectus’ Park Factors (108 to 97) so that ought to add some homers in there as well. In fact to give you an idea of just how much it might impact Reyes, last year he hit 10 balls over 350 feet to either the pull side or opposite field. In Progressive Field, those are easy home runs even with the Little Green Monster out there in left field. Petco Park has a much deeper outfield wall though and is pretty famous for suppressing home runs. Let’s say 1/3 of those 10 balls in play get over the fence then suddenly he’s at 40 HRs for the season last year. Add in the extra five or six home runs from the extra at-bats and he’s at 45 or 46. Is it that much of a stretch to imagine he hits five or six more?
One last argument that has me convinced that Reyes is destined to break the 50 home run mark. When Reyes first came to Cleveland, he struggled pretty mightly for about a month. Anyone could tell he was pressing in an attempt to make a good impression on a new team while facing pitchers he had never seen before. It led to some disastrous results. Towards the end of August, Indians Manager Tito Francona sat him down for a few days with the idea of getting him to relax and get his head right. Boy, did it do the trick as Reyes came back guns blazing as he came to life down the stretch. Check out the difference.
|7/31 – 8/20
|8/22 – 10/01
It’s a night a day difference. That latter version of Franmil Reyes could easily hit 50+ HRs in a season. Now in case you were curious if it’s carried over to this season, there is a lot to be excited about from Reyes’ Spring before things got shut down.
Of course, all the usual spring training and small sample caveats exist but that’s a hitter that is looking pretty locked in to start the season. As our own Alex Fast likes to say, you’ve still got to get it down against the weaker opponents and Reyes has done exactly that. You combine all of this and I think Reyes is gonna easily get to 50+ homer. Better yet, our own Shelly Verougstraete is right in line with me and she’s WAYYYYYY smarter than I am, so you know I’m going to be right on this one.
2. Aaron Civale has a 25+ K% and is a top-30 pitcher in 2020
I’ve written about Aaron Civale this season as well, and I can tell you I’m all in for 2020. Every pitch outside of his fastball has the potential to be an excellent pitch with minor growth in either location or usage, and he has followed the Kluber blueprint to a T. Then he came out and started pitching in Spring Training after a minor groin issue and blew my mind! Unfortunately, only one of Civale’s two starts were televised so I’ll start there, but it was everything I wanted to see. He relied on his four-seamer up in the zone over his sinker. He located his slider perfectly at the bottom of the zone multiple times and used his deadly cutter to finish hitters off. It was just five IP, but over two starts he struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced which comes out to a tidy 50.0 K%. That was the major concern with Civale is whether or not he could start getting enough strikeouts to remain effective and while, of course, it’s a small sample, it is a very encouraging start. And in case you were concerned about the whole “it’s spring training how good could the hitters he was facing possibly be” deal, Baseball-Reference has his OppoQual for spring training at 8.3 which is roughly AAA level competition, so it’s not like he was facing total scrubs either. I know I predicted in my recent deep dive on Civale that he was likely looking at somewhere between a 3.60 and 4.00 ERA, but if he comes out locating like this and relying on his four-seamer with even half of these strikeout number, I may have been too conservative in my predictions. In other words, we’re talking about besting Frankie Montas, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray, Brandon Woodruff, and their ilk. It’s bold but not out of the realm of possibility.
3. John Means is a top-50 pitcher
This is another one I’ve laid out in pretty good detail in an earlier piece where I laid out how Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke lay out a path for Means to make another leap in his sophomore season. The tools are all there. An elite changeup, a solid fastball, a slider with elite potential, and a curveball that could be useful as well. The biggest adjustment he has to make isn’t what he throws or how he throws but where he throws. If he can simply display better command and location of his pitches, we could see his Ks explode and suddenly he’s launching himself into that top 50 with ease. In my piece, I projected him for a 3.70 to 4.00 ERA over 180 IP with 160 to 180 strikeouts. If he does make those adjustments and increases his strikeouts, I would easily bump his numbers to something more along the lines of a 3.50 to 3.70 ERA and at least a strikeout per inning. Is it that much of a stretch that those numbers can put him in the same discussion as Robbie Ray, Dinelson Lamet, Eduardo Rodriguez, or German Marquez? He’s not as sexy a pick as any of those pitchers, but I’m willing to bet by the end of the season he’ll be as good if not better than those pitchers and easily in the top 50.
4. Renato Nunez is a top-12 first baseman next year
I don’t understand why people aren’t paying more attention to Renato Nunez this year. Sure we’ve been fooled by plenty of 30+ HR hitters who came out of nowhere one year to completely flounder the following year (I’m looking at you, Yonder Alonso), but unlike those guys, there is plenty of Statcast data to support Nunez’s results. A 10.3 BBL% combined with an 89.9 Exit Velocity, 20.0 Launch Angle, and a 40.6 Hard-Hit% is a recipe for plenty of home runs. His xStats also support his production as well. So it’s reasonable to suggest he should hit somewhere between 28 to 35 home runs next year.
What about his other stats? His 23.9 K% last year is perfectly reasonable for a slugger, and while I wish he walked more than at a 7.3 BB%, it isn’t awful, and he’s an aggressive hitter so it makes sense. Last year the Orioles were abysmal and he still managed 90 RBIs. You have to imagine there should be some improvements to that lineup just by the youngsters getting better and the eventual infusion of talent from elite prospects such as Ryan Mountcastle. That should allow him to come pretty close to or surpass that 90 RBI mark again in 2020 if he hits 30 or more homers. How does that measure up? Our Pitcher List rankings have Nunez listed as the 22nd-ranked first baseman in fantasy. Let’s look at the hitters that stand between him and being the 12th-ranked first baseman:
Nunez more than holds his own against each and every one of these hitters. In fact, earlier in the offseason I ran a series of tweets comparing Nunez to the 13th-ranked first baseman Rhys Hoskins:
There's another Oriole that I'm keeping my eye on in Spring Training (and beyond) and that's Renato Nunez. He's flying under the radar at an ADP of 267 in NFBC which is surprisingly high for a player who hit 31 HRs w/ 90 RBIs in 599 PA last season. Why are folks staying away? 1/6
— Daniel (@DanielJPort) January 3, 2020
Is the .244 AVG scaring folks off? Is it because he plays on the Orioles? Do we think he can't repeat those numbers? I dig his profile and believe he can replicate his 2019. If he does then he's got great value especially since 1B is shallow. Let's do a player comparison. 2/6
— Daniel (@DanielJPort) January 3, 2020
Nunez in 2019: .244 AVG, 31 HRs, 90 RBIs, 46.3 FB%, 16.7 HR/FB%, ,216 ISO, NFBC ADP 267, Undrafted in Pitcher List ADP.
Mystery Player A in 2019: .226 AVG, 29 HRs, 85 RBIs, 50.4% FB%, 14.3 HR/FB%, .228 ISO, NFBC ADP, 111 NFBC ADP, 97 in Pitcher List ADP. 3/6
— Daniel (@DanielJPort) January 3, 2020
Really similar seasons and profiles right? Notice the gap in ADP? Who is Mystery Player A? It's Rhys Hoskins! Now Hoskins is a better real-life player than Nunez but in 5×5 leagues? There's an argument that Nunez is a poor man's Rhys Hoskins with a fraction of the draft cost. 4/6
— Daniel (@DanielJPort) January 3, 2020
First off, that Launch Angle chart is sexy. That’s exactly what we want to see out of a power hitter who hits the ball as hard as he does. Second, if you look at that comparison between Nunez and Hoskins, is there really anything to justify a near-10 spot separation in the rankings? Given all that, is it really that crazy that if Nunez manages to replicate his 2019 numbers that he ends up a top-12 first baseman in 2020?
5. Joey Votto is also a top-12 first baseman
This one is simpler than the case for Nunez, even if it contains far less upside. I really think one of the things we struggle with the most in baseball is what to with aging players whose diminishing skills have turned them into a different player who is useful in a completely different way. We’ve seen it before with hitters like Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, and even to a lesser degree, Josh Donaldson. This is what I think the industry has done with Joey Votto. It’s all really a matter of perspective and positional expectations. It’s hard to argue the last few years haven’t been a disappointment for Votto owners as he’s almost completely lost his power, walked less, and struck out more often than ever. His average dropped along with his home runs all the way down to a .261 AVG along with a paltry 15 homers. It was hard to watch.
I’m not going to try and sell you on a full Votto rebound. The unstoppable force of nature hitter we used to know is likely long gone. I’m here to talk about what skills still remain and how his new role in the Reds offense changes how we see him. The K% is what has people most skeptical about Votto’s value in 2020 and I wonder if some of it isn’t bad luck. 19 of Votto’s 120 strikeouts (15.4%) were on called strikes Statcast classified as out of the zone. That’s over double the previous year’s 6.9%. In fact, to make matters even hinkier, six of said outside the zone strikeouts in 2019 came in full counts. If you took those six strikeouts and turned them into walks, suddenly we’re looking at a 13.3 BB% and a 19.2 K%, which feels a lot better. It would also bump up his OBP to .362, which would have him in the top 50 in OBP last year. That’s not nothing. Even the slightest rebound in Votto’s OBP could be huge for him in 2020.
Why does this all matter you ask? You don’t play in OBP leagues, you say? It still matters. For one thing, it helps keep him relevant in points leagues. For another, it means the revamped Reds lineup could lead to Votto becoming a run-scoring machine. Now he’ll have Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, and Nicholas Castellanos hitting behind him. If he can continue to get on base at even 2019’s diminished rate, it wouldn’t be crazy to think he might hit 100 runs scored pretty easily. Only five first basemen managed that mark, and all of them are ranked in the top ten for first basemen for 2020. If you check out depth charts projections, they have his average rebounding to .272. Only two of the first basemen standing between Votto and being the 12th-ranked 1B can best that mark, given how shallow first base is that might just be enough to actually get Votto into the top 12.
6. Luis Castillo is a top-5 starting pitcher
This bold prediction is a combination of my belief in Castillo’s growth and abilities and concerns about the pitchers ranked ahead of him. For a reference point, our own head cheese Nick Pollack has him ranked 13th to start the season. While I think that’s the correct ranking, I see the potential for so much more. Let’s talk about his stuff first. In my humble opinion, Castillo’s signature changeup is the best out pitch in baseball. It’s pretty easy to make an argument for a pitch that despite being thrown nearly 1,000 times in 2019 netted a 46.6 K%, with a 26.6 SwStr%, 50.2 O-Swing%, AND a 57.9 GB%. That’s nuts. That establishes his floor as a top 15-20 SP as pretty darn stable. But the rest of his repertoire has potential too, and that’s where I see Castillo making the leap.
We can start with the fact that his four-seamer stinks. Or does it? 16.6% of Castillo’s four-seamers were up in the zone. On those fastballs, he gave up a scant .185 xBA, and a.296 xwOBA. In 24 plate appearances, it generated a 41.7 K% with a 17.1 SwStr%. When you get those kinds of results and rely heavily on a pitch down in the zone like a changeup, he might simply need to throw his fastball up in the zone more. It has the velocity to be effective up there as it averages 96.5 mph and topped out at 99.7. That’s less a necessity of skill and one of command. A location adjustment might be all this pitch needs to unleash its true power.
The sinker has some potential too. Its path is essentially his changeup with less extreme movement and about 9 mph in separation. When he combines it with his changeup in the same locations it can be useful. It has a decent but not spectacular 25.4 CSW% and a 50.4 Zone%. That last number is the important one as my suspicion is that thanks to his sinker’s similarities to his changeup, the fact that he throws this pitch for a strike over 50% off time is what allows him to throw his changeup out out the zone 75.4% of the time. They likely have a bit of symbiotic relationship with each other.
Lastly, his slider. After putting up a 37.7 O-Swing% and a 19.9 SwStr%, I love his slider’s potential but like many of his pitches, he just needs to locate it better. It has gotten great results in the bottom of the zone, he just has to do a better job locating it there. If he can, this pitch could really take off.
So we’ve talked about the skills, but the other reason I feel this bold prediction could happen is because of uncertainty with the pitchers in front of him. Let’s assume that Gerrit Cole and Jacob Degrom occupy the first two spots. That leaves three open spots. Clayton Kershaw, Charlie Morton, Stephen Strasburg, and Mike Clevinger have all battled injuries in the last few years. In fact, while he’ll be ready when the season kicks back in, Clevinger has already torn his MCL this season and you can add in Justin Verlander as he has already suffered a major injury this season and is 37. We only have one year of evidence that Walker Beuhler, Shane Beiber, and Jack Flaherty are elite, and Max Scherzer has been battling back problems for the last two years and is 35 years old. Not all of these pitchers are going to be busts but if we experience more growth for Castillo AND a couple of them do bust? Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so crazy that Castillo could end up in the top 5.
7. Carson Kelly is the best catcher in fantasy in 2020
Coming into the season it’s pretty much universal that JT Realmuto is the best catcher in fantasy (no one has drafted him at Pitcher List more than me, trust me), but we shouldn’t just accept it as a foregone conclusion. I believe that there might be a contender for the crown and that up-and-comer is Carson Kelly. To say that Kelly impressed in his first full-time stint in the majors understates things. While he hit just .245 (.247 xBA) over 365 PAs, he crushed a surprising 18 homers and 19 doubles with .232 ISO and an 18.6 HR/FB%. With his 89.0 mph Exit Velocity, 14.3-degree Launch Angle, and 8.9 BBL%, we can say that his power numbers have some evidential support. Let’s say he continues that pace and in 2020 reaches the 500 PA plateau for elite catchers like Realmuto or Grandal. That would net him 25 homers and 26 doubles. Those 51 extra-base hits would have only been topped by Realmuto and Grandal. He also would have ended up with roughly 120 combined runs and RBI, which would be a perfectly competitive total for a catcher
The other thing Kelly has going for him is that he’s a big OBP asset. Thanks to an elite 13.2 BB%, Kelly put together a .348 OBP last season. The rate is supported by the underlying plate discipline stats as he managed an impressive 25.0 O-Swing% and 8.6 SwStr%. Now the OBP isn’t as great an asset in normal 5×5 roto leagues since he’s currently predicted to hit in front of the pitcher, but if he continues to walk enough, he’ll likely still put up pretty good run totals.
8. Cesar Hernandez is a top-12 second baseman
Much like Votto, this is a bet based on an aging player who everyone is dismissing because their role and abilities have changed but our expectations didn’t adjust with them. Hernandez has been battling a broken foot for years now and it has greatly affected his speed and ability to get on base the last few seasons. More importantly, the Phillies changed his role dramatically in 2019. Normally, Hernandez has spent his career nestled in either the leadoff or #2 hitter slot in most lineups, but after bringing in Jean Segura, Realmuto, and Bryce Harper over the past few years, Hernandez suddenly found himself batting sixth in the lineup. Now this is a player who has pretty been hitting somewhere between .275 and .300 with 8-12 HRs a season, 80-95 runs scored, and 15-20 SBs a year since 2017. Not to mention until last season he hadn’t had an OBP below .356 since 2015. That’s an old school top-of-the-lineup hitter, and suddenly he was asked to drive in runs and hit for more power. Hernandez became way more aggressive early on in counts and his trademark OBP skills disappeared and he stopped stealing bases and everyone wrote him off as a bust for life.
Now Hernandez is with the Indians and there are rumors circulating that he could hit either leadoff or in the two-hole again as Terry Francona loves high OBP guys who walk a lot (the year they went to the World Series, Carlos Santana hit leadoff for much of the year). If that happens, he will have Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, Franmil Reyes, and Oscar Mercado hitting after him. If he can get back to his OBP ways with those hitters surrounding him, is it crazy to expect him to cross that 90-run threshold again? In addition, the Indians were sixth in the league last year in stolen bases, so it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that he can get back in the 15-to-20 SB base range if he’s healthy. If he manages to hit .275, walk at 10.0%+ rate, hit 10-15 HRs, score 90+ runs, and steal 15-20 bases, we could definitely see him sneak back into the top 12 at the weak second base position. In points or OBP leagues? He could end up a game-changing player. Oh, by the way, he’s pretty going in the last round in 12-team drafts, so he’s pretty much free.
9. Corey Dickerson is a top-30 OF
I know, you’re thinking there’s no way that Corey Dickerson could possibly have value now that he’s signed with the Marlins, but I strongly disagree. All indications throughout the offseason and the abbreviated spring training is that Corey Dickerson will hit either third or fourth in Marlins lineup this year. Why is this relevant? The Marlins were awful last year, right? They absolutely were and were likely one of the worst offenses of the last decade. The thing is the #3 hitter for the Marlins last year was Starlin Castro. Despite the Marlins offense being vomit-inducingly bad and Castro only hitting 22 HRs, he still managed 86 RBIs. Corey Dickerson has much better power potential than Castro and should he hit there this year it’s not crazy he’d approach 100 RBIs.
It’s also worth noting the Marlins lineup has gotten much better. Last season the primary #1 hitter last year was one of Miguel Rojas (55 games, .331 OBP), Curtis Granderson (44 Games, .281 OBP), Jon Berti (42 games, .348 OBP), while the #2 hitter was one of Garrett Cooper (31 games, .344 OBP), Brian Anderson (24 games, .342 OBP), Harold Ramirez (20 games, .312 OBP), and Martin Prado (18 Games, .265 OBP). As of right now the projected #1 and #2 hitters in the Marlins lineup is Jonathan Villar (.339 OBP) and Brian Anderson ( .342 OBP). If Castro can get 86 RBIs with that group of hitters, then Dickerson can top it with Villar and Anderson hitting in front of him.
The other reason I’m all in on Corey Dickerson is his performance last season. Injuries held Dickerson back but when he played he was dynamite. For much of his career, Dickerson has vacillated back and forth between being an all-power, no-average hitter and a high-average, no-power slap hitter. Last season was the first that showed him putting both together to become a truly great hitter. Over 279 plate appearances, Dickerson put up a .304 AVG with 12 HRs and 59 RBIs. Prorated to a full 600 PAs and we’re talking about 26 HRs and an astonishing 127 RBIs. Now he’s not going to put up that kind of RBI numbers next season, but is 100 all that wild? Michael Brantley is Pitcher List’s 30th-ranked OF coming into the season, and that’s a season after he hit .311 with 22 HRs and an 90 RBI season. That sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, Brantley was a 133 wRC+ hitter last year while Dickerson put up a 127 wRC+. Whit Merrifield was a 110 wRC+ hitter and is ranked 27th. I know this is bold and Dickerson has to stay healthy, but is it really that crazy that he could put up similar value?
10. Caleb Smith is a top-40 pitcher
Caleb Smith was two very different pitchers last season. He came out in the first half throwing straight fire as over 72.0 IP with a solid 3.50 ERA, an elite 1.01 WHIP, and an astonishing 31.1 K%. Then on June 6th, he went down with a hip injury and went on the IL for a month. When he came back he simply wasn’t the same pitcher. Over his final 81.1 IP, he was a disaster putting up a 5.42 ERA with a 1.40 WHIP and a disheartening 22.0 K%. His velocity was down. He walked 10.7% of the hitters he faced and saw a 2-point drop in his overall zone%. This makes sense: the hips are an essential part of the pitching mechanism, and if it was out of sync because of the injury, it would help explain both the velocity drop and the wildness. Now Smith is back healthy, and I choose to believe that he is closer to the pitcher from the first half last year than the godawful pitcher he was in the second half. I don’t expect a 31.1 K%, but somewhere in the upper 20s makes sense to me. If that happens, I feel like he is a shoo-in to repeat that first-half success. If he is able to put together a full season at those rates, what separates him from the likes of say Kenta Maeda (37th on The List) or Matthew Boyd (40th). If he can stay healthy and rights the ship, I honestly wonder I might actually be selling him short.
Featured Image by Alyssa Buckter (alyssabuckter.com)