Bold predictions are fun. Bold predictions about high-quality players are less fun. No offense to my colleagues, but takes about Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge don’t interest me nearly as much as takes about late-round flyers do. Because I am the guy who writes the weekly deep-league sleeper articles, I tried to gear my bold predictions toward some later round guys who could have mixed-league value down the line.
As others have stated, these predictions are bold to the nth degree. If I get even one of these right, I’m ecstatic. However, I provided a quick fantasy tip for each prediction, in case you want to know how it could affect you this season. Enjoy.
1. Niko Goodrum has a 20/20 season
Let’s kick this thing of with a good old fashioned, “who?” Niko Goodrum was the Detroit Tigers’ utility infielder/second baseman last season, hitting 16 home runs and swiping 12 bases in 131 games after coming over as a minor-league free agent.
Goodrum is a former second-round pick who spent seven seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization, flashing good speed but little else until 2017, when he hit 13 home runs and swiped 11 bases at Triple-A Rochester.
The primary reason for this prediction is playing time. Or at least it was, until the Tigers went ahead and signed Josh Harrison to be their primary second baseman. Still, I believe Goodrum is going to get full-time at-bats as a super-utility player. The predicted starting lineup right now has Miguel Cabrera, Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Jeimer Candelario around the infield, with Dawel Lugo, Ronny Rodriguez, Brandon Dixon, and John Hicks left to compete for additional playing time on the infield and at DH. Yikes.
Goodrum’s numbers last season, translated to 162 games, would have given him 20 home runs and 15 steals. xStats pegged him right at 16 home runs and Goodrum actually improved his hard-hit rate, line drive rate, and HR/FB rate—all while lowering his strikeout rate from the first half to the second half.
Regarding the steals, that will depend on if manager Ron Gardenhire gives him the green light. Goodrum ranked in the 94th percentile in sprint speed last season and has racked up 140 steals at the professional level. So reaching 20 steals—if he is allowed to run—is certainly not out of the question.
However, Goodrum only slashed .245/.315/.432 last year and xStats thought even that was a bit much. So even if Goodrum has the ability to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases, it will likely come with a ho-hum batting average and on-base percentage. I wouldn’t advocate rostering him outside of AL-only or very deep formats, but he’s worth adding to your watchlist.
Fantasy tip: Keep an eye on Goodrum in 12+ team leagues, but don’t draft him unless you’re in an AL-only or 16+ team league.
2. Jesus Luzardo finishes as a top-25 starter
All aboard the Jesus Luzardo hype train. The dynamic left-hander is expected to be kept down in the minor leagues for service time manipulation reasons, but his talent and the lack of other options for the Oakland Athletics could mean he is in the rotation by mid-April. From that point forward, I expect him to post numbers that could land him in the top-25 starting pitchers.
Luzardo absolutely dominated High-A and Double-A last season; even though he struggled in four starts at Triple-A, he still managed to strike out 18 in just 16 innings. He finished the year with 123 strikeouts and 30 walks across 109.1 innings of work.
Furthermore, Luzardo has not struggled in spring training, posting a 0.93 ERA and a staggering 15/4 K/BB rate in 9.2 innings. His quality of opponent, according to baseball-reference, is a 7.8, meaning he isn’t seeing the best of the best, but his opponents haven’t been terrible either.
Luzardo’s dominance is backed up by his filthy repertoire, which consists of a 60-grade fastball, a 60-grade changeup, and a 55-grade breaking ball (and he can vary its velocity). I could see him using the slower breaking ball and also developing more of a cutter, which could give him four plus pitches if he learns to control it.
Steamer has Luzardo projected as Oakland’s highest performing starter and they are notorious for being conservative on prospects. I’ve always considered myself less conservative and I believe that Luzardo’s strikeout potential could make him a starting pitcher worth owning in all formats, as soon as April.
Fantasy tip: Luzardo is worth a look in the last round or two of 12-teamers, but keep an eye on his status in spring training.
3. Christin Stewart hits 45 home runs
Yes I’m a Tigers fan, why do you ask? I originally had this prediction set at 30 home runs, but then we were told to go even bolder, so I figured why not? I’ll look like a genius if I get this one right and the potential is there: Stewart is expected to play nearly full-time, hit in the heart of the Tigers order, and has eclipsed 27 home runs in each of the last three seasons in the minors.
Some project Stewart to serve in a strong-side platoon situation, although his numbers have been nearly equal against both right and left-handed pitching and the Tigers really don’t have anyone who should be taking at-bats away from him. His defense is the biggest question mark and could cost him some at-bats.
Still, I see a starting left fielder and number-five hitter who, if he remains healthy, should approach 30 round-trippers and post a .245/.330/.460 slash line. His current ADP is 311 and he is absolutely worth snatching at the tail-end of 12-teamers—maybe even 10-teamers. Will he get 45 dingers? Probably not, but the raw power is very clearly there and the AL Central has a lot of subpar pitching for Stewart to feast on.
Fantasy tip: I’d love to have Stewart as my last pick in a 12-team league.
4. Corbin Burnes finishes as a top-50 starter
Corbin Burnes was ranked No. 81 on Nick’s first pass at The List this winter, where Nick admitted that Burnes could move up quickly if he lands a role in the rotation. That’s the biggest question for the hard-throwing right-hander at the moment. Presently, Jimmy Nelson, Jhoulys Chacin, and Chase Anderson appear to have rotation spots locked down with the Milwaukee Brewers, with Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, and Zach Davies all competing for the final pair of spots (barring a late free-agent signing).
If Burnes lands a rotation spot, the other question he’ll need to answer to reach top-50 status is what he will use as a third pitch. Currently, he has a hard fastball that he can elevate to get chases and a devastating slider that qualified as a Money Pitch last year, with 47.1% o-swing, 46.7% zone, and 24.6% swinging strike rates.
However, while he flashed a curveball that showed nice depth and served as a solid change of velocity, it didn’t fool a lot of hitters. He could try to turn this pitch into a more effective offering, or he could bring back the changeup that he had in the minor leagues but abandoned when he became a reliever in the show.
There are a handful of ifs here, but it doesn’t seem too crazy to envision a scenario where Burnes is a top-50 starting pitcher, posting numbers in the 3.75 ERA range with a 20% K rate.
Fantasy tip: Pay attention to Milwaukee’s rotation. If Burnes is in it to start the year, snag him in the last few rounds of 12-teamers.
5. D.J. LeMahieu is not a top-150 hitter
Am I missing something? Yes D.J. LeMahieu is a decent hitter and yes the New York Yankees have a dope lineup which should allow him to score plenty of runs, but his 195 ADP seems crazy to me when I don’t see a clear path to at-bats. Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, Troy Tulowitzki, and Miguel Andujar seem pretty set around the infield, with Greg Bird and of course Didi Gregorius set to play as well when healthy. That doesn’t even include Tyler Wade, who will also be in the picture.
I can see a reality where LeMahieu draws a handful of starts a week just to provide rest around the infield, but I’m having a hard time seeing him playing enough to merit his ADP. I think especially once Didi is back, LeMahieu will take a pretty considerable backseat. Of course, injuries are very possible (even likely) with this infield, but I’m not willing to take D.J. as high as he is going without a clear starting role. I think he’ll end up playing adequately in the opportunities that he gets, although it is worth noting that a move away from Coors Field has almost never helped a hitter. I don’t see a top-150 fantasy hitter here.
Fantasy tip: I’m not touching LeMahieu anywhere near his ADP this season and you shouldn’t either.
6. Carlos Gonzalez is Cleveland’s most productive fantasy outfielder
This fresh take is bold in the sense that Carlos Gonzalez, who signed a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians over the weekend, is not actually on Cleveland’s roster—yet. I expect the veteran to creep his way into a roster spot sooner rather than later, although I don’t think he will be up right away.
However, Gonzalez has an early April opt-out date, so it seems more than likely he will be in the big leagues by then.
From there I can see an avenue where he finishes the season as Cleveland’s most productive fantasy outfielder.
This prediction has much more to do with Cleveland’s less-than-stellar (to put it lightly) outfield crew. Jordan Luplow is penciled in to start in left field, despite his career .194 average and 72 wRC+ in 64 big-league games. Leonys Martin will be the toughest to beat, as he is pegged as the team’s center fielder and, if healthy, should approach 15/15. Tyler Naquin is expected to start in right, although this is where I think Gonzalez will eventually take over regular duty, as long as he is healthy and in playing shape.
Martin and Zimmer need to split time, or else both be injured (which is likely) causing them to lose at-bats. Bauers needs to spend the majority of his time at either 1B or DH, which I think is likely barring a late acquisition. Same with Jason Kipnis, although I doubt he sees much time in the outfield.
Otherwise, Gonzalez only needs to outperform Luplow, Naquin, and Allen, which would be kind of sad if he didn’t.
Maybe this prediction isn’t that bold after all?
Fantasy Tip: I wouldn’t draft CarGo unless you’re in an AL-only league, but if he steps into a regular role he could be worth a look in 12-teamers.
7. Spencer Turnbull is Detroit’s third-best SP
Michael Fulmer is getting a third opinion, but it looks like Tommy John surgery is going to wipe out his 2019 season. Matthew Boyd is good and will likely settle into a top two spot, but behind him are the corpsey shells of Jordan Zimmermann and Matt Moore, and a wildcard in Tyson Ross. While those guys are likely the starting five that coach Ron Gardenhire would like to go with, injuries to Fulmer and the constant injury issues that come with Moore and Ross should present an opportunity for someone else to step up.
That someone should be Spencer Turnbull. Turnbull made four appearances (three starts) down the stretch for Detroit last season and while his 6.06 ERA was ghastly, his 2.85 FIP, 21.7% K rate, and 5.8% BB rate were much more palatable.
Now, Turnbull has turned in a 2.70 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with an 8/1 K/BB ratio in 10 spring-training innings. His OppQual is only a 7.6, which is a bit concerning, but it’s still evident that Turnbull can retire big league hitters.
His stuff is even more fun, with a 60-grade fastball, a 55-grade slider, and a 50-grade changeup—all of which he can locate for strikes. In fact, Turnbull showed great proficiency at nibbling last season, as shown by this chart from Statcast:
Turnbull located 47.5% of his pitches on the edge of the zone, considerably higher than the 39% league average.
What we have is a hard-throwing right-hander with two plus secondaries, who if given a chance in Detroit’s rotation (which seems likely considering the injury prone veterans ahead of him) could easily pitch his way into fantasy relevance in deeper leagues.
Worst case, he fills a rotation spot when one of Moore or Ross (or even Boyd) is dealt in July.
Fantasy tip: I’d consider Turnbull at the end of AL-only drafts, but for now keep him on your radar if he earns a rotation spot.
8. Shed Long combines for 20+ HR/SB
This one is obviously predicated on the Seattle Mariners, you know, playing him. Right now, Shed Long is ticketed for Triple-A Tacoma and doesn’t have a clear path to playing time in the Emerald City. Dee Gordon is going to start at second base, with Dylan Moore likely holding onto utility duties. However, both Kyle Seager and Mallex Smith are going to begin the season on the IL; while that won’t open up a roster spot for Long right away, it could get him closer to a big league spot.
If Long gets to the show for long enough to post numbers, he could easily get to double-digit home runs and steals, making him an intriguing player to watch in AL-only or 16+ team leagues. Long bounced back from an ugly 2017 season to blast 12 home runs and swipe 19 bases for the Cincinnati Reds’ AA affiliate last season, which has him hovering around many top-100 prospect lists this offseason.
While 12 + 19 = 31, AA does not equal MLB, and T-Mobile park does not equal home-run friendly. Still, Long’s massive uppercut and manager Scott Servais’ willingness to let players run on the bases could allow Long to put up solid home run and steal numbers, if he gets the chance.
Fantasy tip: Keep an eye on Long for a call-up, but don’t draft him just yet. If he does get the call, he’s worth a look in 16-teamers and AL-only formats.
9. Teoscar Hernandez hits 40 HR with a sub-.300 OBP
Go big or go home right?
Consider this: xStats uses a measurement called high-drive rate. Batted balls in the high-drive rate were smoked to the tune of a .656 average and a 2.056 slugging percentage last season. The top ten by high-drive rate last season are more or less who you’d expect: Joey Gallo, Khris Davis, Matt Carpenter, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Mike Trout, Max Muncy, Teoscar Hernandez, Aaron Judge, and Ronald Acuña. It’s not hard to spot the name that doesn’t fit.
While we are considering things, here’s another one: Hernandez hit 22 home runs last year, but Statcast pegged him for 29.
Clearly, Hernandez absolutely smokes the ball when he makes contact. But therein lies the issue, Hernandez struggles—mightily—to make contact. His 31.2% K rate is a huge concern, particularly when one sees that he posted a ghastly 39.5% K rate in the second half last year. Hitters who strike out 40% of the time are rarely useful in fantasy, unless they are hitting 30+ home runs a season—which Hernandez is more than capable of doing.
The trickiest part of this prediction coming true will be the playing time. Hernandez is the favorite to start in left field for now, but if his strikeout issues continue he could lose playing time to either Billy McKinney or Anthony Alford. If he is to hit 40 tanks, he’ll need regular playing time. And if he posts a sub-.300 OBP, well that playing time will be hard to come by.
Fantasy Tip: I love Hernandez at his ADP this season, and would take him in the last few rounds of all 12-teamers, and maybe even 10-teamers as well.
10. Tarik Skubal becomes the first player from the 2018 Draft Class to make an MLB debut
I don’t know how to find this information, but I have to imagine that the first player to debut from each draft class typically had their name called in the first five—maybe even first two—rounds. Tarik Skubal was a ninth-round pick by the Tigers this past June, but I think he has the tools to be a quick-riser into a big-league bullpen.
For starters, he’s already 22 years old. Secondly, he’s a 6’3″ left-hander with a fastball that touched 97 and can sit in the 94-95 range—particularly when he is coming out of the bullpen. Pair that with a nasty breaking ball and he has the stuff to be a very, very solid LOOGY down the line, and could pitch into a late-inning role eventually.
Skubal absolutely dominated his first taste of pro ball, posting a 0.40 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and a 33/4 K/BB ratio in 22.1 innings. He was considered a third-to-fifth round target after a dominant junior year at Seattle University, but Tommy John surgery and an up-and-down senior season hurt his draft stock. He looks healthy now, and is already looking like a late round steal for Detroit.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons this take is a scintillatingly hot one. As I stated above, Skubal has only thrown 22.1 professional innings, with only 7.1 of them at Single-A. While he was great at that level, with an 11/1 K/BB ratio, that sample size is ridiculously small to the point of being basically useless.
The odds of a kid like Skubal rising from seven Single-A innings to the big leagues in one season is pretty astronomical, especially for a later-round pick with an injury history. Plus, there are plenty of other high-profile players from this draft class who are likely to reach the big leagues sooner rather than later.
Still, Skubal looks the part of a future big league reliever, and for a Detroit team that has struggled to develop bullpen arms, and doesn’t have much to play for the rest of this decade, I could see them giving him a chance if he continues to carve up minor league hitters.
Fantasy tip: None yet, unless you are in super-deep dynasty leagues.
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)