As a cynic who has seen his worst-case thoughts validated far too often in 2020, I’m trying not to drown in negativity. Playing baseball might be a terrible idea that ends horribly. Nevertheless, I’m making my best effort to maintain a semblance of positivity for my own sanity. As a result, these bold predictions mostly look on the bright side. Forget the busts; let’s have some fun with potential 2020 breakouts.
1. Ozzie Albies is a first-rounder next year
I opened last year’s bold predictions by foreshadowing a major breakout by Anthony Rendon. This year, Albies takes his place as the burgeoning superstar I always target in the late-third, early-fourth round. Unfortunately, the circumstances take some of the shine off his durability — accumulating plate appearances still matters, but we have no idea who will actually get to — and year-to-year consistency. However, I’m still enamored by a 23-year-old who already has two seasons with 24 homers, 14-15 steals, and over 100 runs under his belt.
It didn’t show in his identical home run tally, but Albies made notable power strides last season, setting personal highs in slugging (.500), average exit velocity (88.9 mph), and hard-hit rate (34.0%). Another power jump in his fourth season could spark an ascent to top-tier status akin to Francisco Lindor, who soared from 15 to 34 homers in his age-24 season. Although already an established performer, Albies is younger than Keston Hiura, Brendan Rodgers, and Alec Bohm. There’s still plenty of time for Atlanta’s second baseman to improve.
The respective 2011 and 2013 NL MVP winners, Braun and McCutchen, are both far past their heyday. They also remain above-average hitters and superb fantasy bargains.
Even into his 30s, Braun has batted .281/.345/.502 over the last five seasons. He’s averaged 28.5 homers per 162 games over that time frame, while swiping double-digit bags each year. With the benefit of his most games played (144) since 2012, Braun finished as the 35th outfielder on Razzball’s Player Rater last year. A 143 wRC+ over 60 second-half games went under the radar. He’ll now have a chance to replicate that short-lived success while resting his legs as the designated hitter.
McCutchen, meanwhile, had produced eight consecutive 20-homer campaigns before tearing his ACL last June. He had only stolen two bases in 59 games before going down, but the veteran had also collected a .378 OBP and 45 runs as Philadelphia’s leadoff hitter. Regaining that role could lead to another major tally in the often-overlooked stat. Combine that with steady results everywhere else — and hopefully a few steals — and McCutchen should return immense value on his N0. 230 consensus ADP (OF67), per FantasyPros. Both McCutchen and Braun (260, OF71 ADP) are excellent late-draft buys.
3. Jacob deGrom Earns third straight NL Cy Young Award with fewer than three wins
I’m not giving up on silly wins-related deGrom predictions. He didn’t even come halfway to my gaudy barometer of 24 set last year. (Have no fear: He’s 18-2 in late July in my MLB The Show franchise.) I almost kept the same spirit of those zealous expectations and pegged him to top his win totals from 2018 (10) and 2019 (11). That would entail him making and winning every start, which is especially a near impossibility as back issues create the risk of a shortened or delayed season debut.
Let’s go the other way. Saying deGrom will win his third NL Cy Young Award is hardly bold. It’s also no fun; this is the crazy, unprecedented year where a middle reliever could easily lead the league in wins and garner some consideration. But what if deGrom notched the rare three-peat with two wins? Despite dominating, deGrom only won 21 of 64 starts over his last two seasons. That 32.8% rate would bring him to 3.9 victories in 12 starts. Even though the Mets could wield a potent lineup and improved bullpen, they could find a way to Mets this and lead their ace to two wins with a sub-two ERA.
4. Luke Voit leads the Yankees in HRs
Aaron Judge, who? Giancarlo Stanton? Shrugs … never heard of him. And, hey, Gleyber Torres hitting 38 homers as a 22-year-old middle infielder is pretty decent. (Before you say it, he now gets to play one-sixth of his 2020 games against the Orioles). They also have Gary Sanchez and a returning Miguel Andujar, who could conceivably kick Voit to the curb if blocked everywhere else.
Did all that establish this as bold enough of a prediction about a player who slugged .671 and deposited 15 homers in his first 47 games with the Yankees?
Following a Ruthian debut for the Bronx Bombers in late 2018, Voit also started the following year strong. He launched his 15th homer on June 2, the Yankees’ 58th game of 2019. A month later, he went on the injured list due to an abdominal strain.
After the injury halted an All-Star trajectory, Voit entered summer camp in the Best Shape of His Life. We’ve already seen him demonstrate top-shelf power in the Big Apple when healthy. Heck, he could feasibly lead baseball’s most powerful team in long balls even if Judge and Stanton manage to stay on the field. Yet avoiding injuries remains a big ask for that hulking duo, and Torres’ .482 xSLG doesn’t exactly scream home run crown. Target Voit (194 ADP) as an overlooked corner infielder with immense bounce-back upside.
5. Carlos Correa is a top-5 SS
I initially felt guilty for stepping back from a “Carlos Correa wins the AL MVP” take, but let’s remember how stacked shortstop is at the top. In 2020 drafts, Fernando Tatis Jr. is the fifth shortstop off the board, going in the second round ahead of Torres, Xander Bogaerts, Adalberto Mondesi, and Javier Baez. Takes a big sip of water …. and Bo Bichette, Manny Machado, Marcus Semien, Tim Anderson, Corey Seager ….
Finishing inside the position’s top five is a tall order for Correa, who’s going 15th among shortstops. It’s not as simple as staying on the field; he’ll need to make up for not running by dominating everywhere else. That’s certainly a possibility. He smacked 21 homers in just 321 plate appearances last season, and Houston’s loaded lineup led to a pace of 132 RBI per 162 games. His .380 wOBA tied Trevor Story for third among all shortstops (minimum 300 PAs), but he still under-performed a .391 xwOBA that bested Semien by 30 points for the position’s lead.
It may feel like we’ve waited forever for 2012’s No. 1 pick to live out his prophecy as The Chosen One, but he’s only 25. Correa could once again establish himself among shortstop’s elite tier.
6. Twins have three top-25 SPs … not including José Berríos
I like the Twins, you like the Twins, we all like the Twins this year. None of their 2020 opponents finished with a top-10 wRC+ last season, and that dips to 16 when only considering the AL Central. (Cleveland and the White Sox look better on paper than last year, though.) Minnesota’s rotation is soaring up draft boards, and I’m buying. Well, maybe not all of them. Looking at updated ATC projections and ADP from NFBC drafts in July (as of July 19), their ace continues to go far above the rest.
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Berríos is the most durable of the bunch, and he possesses a higher floor than Maeda, Odorizzi, and Hill. That’s still a steep price to pay for a pitcher with a 3.80 ERA over the last three seasons. Hill (21.0%) and Maeda (18.4%) have him beat in K-BB rate over that time frame, and Odorizzi was actually the best starter of the bunch (3.51 ERA, 178 Ks in 159 IP) last season. It’s possible they all pass Berríos if he hits one rough patch, or merely carries on as a solid SP3.
Also, if you want to get really weird, Homer Bailey posted a 3.22 ERA in last year’s final 10 starts. He’s a sneaky sleeper who will at least be a viable streamer any time Minnesota faces Kansas City or Detroit.
This is more about appreciating Davis than disparaging Alonso. (One of these days, I’ll reunite with the bobblehead of Alonso riding a polar bear that’s been sitting alone on my office desk since March.) However, a 26.4% strikeout rate and fly-ball approach pose some jeopardy of a prolonged slump derailing the reigning home run champion’s sophomore season. While Alonso is certainly the larger power threat with a secure spot in the heart of a Mets’ order, the gap lessens when looking at rate stats and quality of contact. Davis’ xwOBA matched Alonso’s actual wOBA, while his actual wOBA equaled the first baseman’s xwOBA.
Davis is going 139 picks after Alonso. I find myself constantly targeting Davis as a corner infielder, outfielder, or utility play near the pick-150 range. As much as I love Polar Bear Pete, I’m fading the third-round price tag. If his average tumbles, I’d gladly take a discount in 2021 drafts.
8. Héctor Neris is a top-3 closer
A breakout closer in 2017, Neris tumbled out of the ninth-inning gig with a 5.10 ERA in 2018. However, a 2.22 SIERA and 37.4% strikeout rate pointed to a swift recovery. He complied, winning back the final frame to tally 28 saves with a 2.89 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Oddly enough, he actually got worse in terms of strikeouts (32.4%), walks (8.7%), and SIERA (3.23).
Neris was still great, though. The righty notched the ninth-highest swinging-strike rate (17.7%) among all qualified relievers last year, and only four bested his 63.5% opposing contact rate. He accomplished this by relying way more on his splitter, which flummoxed the opposition to a .222 wOBA. While the season could go south on Neris in a hurry if he doesn’t have a feel for the precise offering, he can also ride the pitch to stretches of unhittable dominance.
It’s his job to lose in Philadelphia, and the closer position often tumbles in a hurry after he’s off the board. Although Neris carries plenty of risk in a shortened season, he’s also capable of swinging leagues with two months of elite strikeouts and run-prevention.
9. Tommy La Stella wins the AL batting title
Too bold? Too bad. My icy heart needs to believe in something. Rather than choosing faith or friends or humanity, I’m believing in La Stella’s breakout.
Actually, let’s backtrack for a second. I have no idea where that power came from, and I don’t expect it to return. It’d be cool if he ever again comes close to 16 home runs in a season, but he’s never doing it in an 80-game window. That progress, however, accentuated La Stella’s stellar contact tendencies. Setting the minimum to 300 plate appearances, his 89.9% contact rate ranked fifth in the majors. Only Luis Arraez — everyone’s favorite pick to bat .400 in the shortened season — struck out less often than La Stella (8.7%).
Baseball Savant compared La Stella’s 2019 batted-ball profile to Michael Brantley, Jeff McNeil, and Alex Verdugo. Such great company lends hope of him maintaining a high average despite a previous resume of mediocrity. Like any good bold prediction, I’m simply dialing up the excitement scale to 11 by prognosticating a batting title.
10. Padres win the NL pennant
OK, maybe I shouldn’t have stopped at the goal line and just picked the Padres to win the whole thing. But the AL is scary at the top. The NL, on the other hand, features little separation of power beyond the Dodgers. It’s far easier to overcome one Goliath, especially one who has started slowly in previous years and hasn’t punctuated their stellar reign with a title.
FanGraphs projects the Padres for 31.2 wins, placing them right in the midst of a crowded wild-card race. Of course, health is the main obstacle for all 30 teams this season. Provided they get that (within reason), the Friars will be in business if Tatis and Chris Paddack prove they’re for real. They’ll need Machado to steer closer to superstar form, in which case they’ll have a strong top of the order that now also includes Tommy Pham.
Beyond Paddack, their rotation has the potential to improve immensely. Dinelson Lamet ranked fifth in strikeout rate among all starters over 2019’s final two months. Garrett Richards will attempt to stay on the mound long enough to match intermittent stretches of mastery flashed over the years. Although he’s unlikely to make the Opening Day roster, uber-prospect Mackenzie Gore could make his presence felt before October.
The key to unlocking this pick is their bullpen, whose 4.00 FIP led the NL last year. It’s far improved entering 2020. All-Star closer Kirby Yates is flanked by the underrated Craig Stammen and offseason acquisition Emilio Pagan. Drew Pomeranz, who posted a 2.39 ERA and 45.0% strikeout rate in Milwaukee’s bullpen late last year, could become their Josh Hader in a flexible, high-leverage role. Trading Franchy Cordero for the 30-year-old Tim Hill was odd, but his dominance against fellow lefties (.239 wOBA) will come in handy during pivotal spots. And don’t sleep on Matt Strahm, who recorded 37 strikeouts to five walks in 33 innings of relief work last season.
While their roster is riddled with volatility and health hazards even in normal times, the Padres have the talent to take a monumental leap in 2020.
Photo by Justin Berl & Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram.)