Bold predictions are hard. I want to actually believe what I’m writing is possible. As much as I’d love to say it, John Means isn’t winning the Cy Young this year and Willians Astudillo isn’t going to force his way onto the Twins’ lineup by swinging at and making contact with every pitch thrown to him, thereby completing the magical no-walk, no-strikeout season. On the other hand, I want these to actually be bold. I’m not going to project someone to simply outperform their ADP or predict that Willians Astudillo will win over the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere. At the end of the day, bold predictions are subjective both in how likely we think they are to happen and, often, in the logic we use to defend them. How else could they be bold if we weren’t making big logical leaps, extrapolating small sample sizes, or analyzing cryptic tweets for hidden meaning a la Stefon Diggs? Often, the goal isn’t to be right. It’s about sending a message. Without further ado, let me start out with both my spiciest take and the one I’m most excited about:
1. Jeff Hoffman Leads the Reds in Saves
Most people are latching onto Amir Garrett as the closer-apparent in Cincinnati and for good reason. He’s a spectacular pitcher… in the right situations. David Bell and his crew are smart. They know that Garrett has allowed a solid .705 OPS to lefties in his career, but a slightly troubling .831 to righties. They also know that he strikes out lefties with reckless abandon (35% K rate vs. LHB), but is quite a bit tamer against righties (22% K rate vs. RHB). They know that Garrett is a guy that thrives when he is put in the right situations whether that situation comes up in the 7th, 8th, or 9th, and not when he’s haphazardly thrown into the 9th because we’ve called him a “closer”. Garrett will get some saves and will play a big role in the Reds bullpen, but there’s also a need for someone else in the late innings to get big outs against right-handed batters.
I would have said that the “someone else” would be Lucas Sims a month ago, but his elbow injury has me concerned and I wonder if he’ll be playing catch-up all year. Other candidates are Sean Doolittle, who’s also a lefty and who hasn’t really been effective since 2018, and Noé Ramirez, a guy you really wouldn’t be excited to have in the 9th. What about a guy who was a top-50 prospect with “elite stuff'” just four years ago and is still just 28 years old? It’s not that long ago that Jeff Hoffman was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball with both a solid fastball and a great curveball, a notoriously difficult pitch to execute in Coors. Command has been a big issue for him, but literally any ballpark besides Coors will be more forgiving of his mistakes. If there’s one organization I’d trust to resurrect a pitcher like him, it would be Spincinnati. Elevate that fastball, lower the zone rate on the curve, and throw the change as-is and, baby, you have a stew going.
Trey Mancini isn’t on this list just for the feel-good aspect of it. He’s a really, really good hitter. Even in his “down” year of 2018, his barrel rate was in the top 20 of qualified hitters. He consistently puts up Statcast Hard-Hit percentages north of 40% and has shown consistent improvements in plate discipline as well. In each of his three full seasons in the majors, he’s lowered his swinging strike rate and increased his walk rate without sacrificing any power. He’s had most of the offseason and will have a full Spring Training to get back up to full strength. I not only want to root for Mancini, I feel confident doing so.
Anthony Santander is a guy who has quietly put up 31 HRs in 570 PAs for the Orioles over the past two seasons. Projection systems are buying into this and generally have him around 28-30 HRs in 2021 with a sub-20% K-rate. The BAT X only projects 12 players to have 30 or more HRs with a K rate of less than 20%, and it’s a star-studded list of names including Juan Soto, Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and Freddie Freeman. In addition, Statcast had him at a .286 xBA last year indicating that his average could even come up from the .261 number we saw each of the last two seasons. The Orioles lineup is not deep, but they have some solid bats in the middle of the order that you shouldn’t sleep on in your drafts.
3. The Blue Jays Finish Ten Games Below .500 With a Bottom-5 Runs Allowed Per Game
Hyun-Jin Ryu is a very good pitcher. That’s about the only positive thing I can think to say when I look at the Blue Jays’ projected rotation. The four guys after Ryu combined to throw 148 IP last year and put up a 7.24 ERA. Robbie Ray had an 18% walk rate and a 13% barrel rate against last year. His best year, 2017, wasn’t even that great in terms of underlying metrics. His xERA and FIP were nearly a run higher than his ERA and he put up the lowest BABIP and highest strand rate of his career. He will have a very low IP/S either due to his performance or his lack of control. I would be very nervous about having him listed as my #2 starter.
Tanner Roark and Steven Matz have had some years where they were effective fourth or fifth starters and some years where they weren’t. Both are coming off years where they really weren’t. It’s easy to say that Matz is just coming off a down, injury-riddled season, but he hasn’t had a FIP under 4.50 since 2016. Roark at least has a longer track record of being an effective, back-of-rotation starter, but he turned 34 in October and lost 1.5 mph off his already mediocre fastball last year. We’re getting dangerously close to age-related degeneration of skills territory.
Nate Pearson, while brimming with potential, seems to need more time for a third pitch to develop and for his command to catch up with his stuff. With a Command+ of 83 (most starters have at least 90) and a reluctance to use the curveball and changeup at the major league level, I just don’t think this year is the year Pearson puts it together. Even their sixth and seventh options, Ross Stripling and Anthony Kay, seem shaky (although Kay’s early velocity bump in Spring Training is nice to see). This rotation is a house of cards and I don’t think the Blue Jays have the resources to deal with a complete collapse. The bullpen doesn’t make me wretch, but it’s also not good enough to be the Rays-lite, dealing with five or six innings of relief a game. I don’t want to bet against this offense, don’t get me wrong, but it is always tough to consistently win games if you’re giving up over five runs every nine innings.
4. Tyler Mahle Finishes With a K Rate Over 30%, a BB Rate Under 10%, an ERA Under 3.50, and IP Over 160
In terms of rates, this isn’t far off from what Tyler Mahle did in 2020. So, why is this bold? It’s about the volume. Only seven guys accomplished this feat in 2019; Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Lucas Giolito, Max Scherzer, and Charlie Morton. Projection systems aren’t buying Mahle’s 2020 breakout, and analysts are caught in a game of Is It Legit? with his newly found slider (most are hedging towards “no”). I’ll admit, his current pitch mix puts a lot of pressure on his slider to be there. His four-seamer isn’t dominant, and if his slider isn’t working as an out-pitch, things can get rough for him. However, the Reds are one of the best teams in the league in terms of research and development of their pitchers. He shelved his slider for all of 2019 and it came out in 2020 a changed, highly effective pitch. He shelved his curveball for 2020, a pitch that he threw 23% of the time in 2019. What if it comes back in 2021 an improved version of itself? That would take pressure off his slider, allowing him to fight through innings or games where it’s not working for him.
This prediction is based partially on my belief that Mahle’s slider will consistently give him that out-pitch he needs to succeed, but also partially on my confidence in the Reds as an organization. We’ve seen several breakouts from Cincinnati over the past couple of years, and they aren’t called Spincinnati for nothing. Look at what they did with Anthony DeSclafani‘s curveball from 2018 to 2019 (spin + 364 rpm, usage + 11.5%, SwStr + 5.7%). Why is it so farfetched for them to do the same thing with Mahle to help him get to another level?
5. The Phillies’ Best Starter in Fantasy is Zach Eflin
Zach Eflin is another guy that, for years, analysts have said was missing an out-pitch; a pitch to strike guys out at the end of counts. He’s always been able to limit walks and keep the ball on the ground, but last year was the first year he finally found that out-pitch in his curveball. He changed his pitch mix quite a bit as well, all but ditching his four-seamer in favor of his sinker. The results were what we had been waiting for all along from him. A career-high 28.6% K rate and a career-high 47.4% GB rate all while maintaining his patently low walk rate. In fact, his command was as good as ever in 2020 and he found himself in the top-10 among qualified pitchers of Command+ along with other notables like Kyle Hendricks, Aaron Nola, Zac Gallen, and the aforementioned Tyler Mahle. The difference in 2020 was that among that top-10, he sported the third highest K rate behind just Nola and Mahle. There is certainly a concern that his curveball won’t stick around and that his sinker will get hit hard too much. However, Statcast x-stats on the sinker show that it perhaps deserved to be a much better pitch than it ended up being in 2020 (wOBA – .358 , xwOBA – .295), and he spoke specifically about how he had a newfound confidence for his curveball. Perhaps it really is here to stay.
His command and ability to keep the ball on the ground create a pretty high floor that I’d feel very comfortable drafting at his current ADP. However, the ability to throw the curve more to generate more strikeouts could help him maintain that big jump in K rate from last year and create a pretty high ceiling as well. Despite that ceiling, he’d probably need Aaron Nola to really falter or get injured for this prediction to come true, but, hey, they’re supposed to be bold.
6. Carter Kieboom Finishes With a Triple Slash of .280/.380/.480
Allow me my one homer pick, OK? We all know Kieboom had a really disappointing 2020, but did you know that he was playing through a groin injury for almost the whole season? He’s said that this injury was a hindrance for the whole year, and I think it’s reasonable to assume it played a role in sapping his power. Not enough? How about LASIK surgery? He got that, too! What about #bestshapeofhislife and a #newswing? Check and check! He’s ticking all the stereotypical Spring Training boxes. Seriously, though, this is a guy who put up a homer every 32 PAs or so in the minors and put up a .303/.409/.493 triple slash in 494 plate appearances at AAA in 2019. These aren’t world-shattering numbers, but it certainly translates to more than one double and no homers in 122 plate appearances. One promising thing is that he carried over his high walk rate from the minors. 14% in 2020 is something to build on at least. Early reports are that Kieboom is 100% healthy going into spring. What do you say we wipe the slate clean and go into 2021 with the same enthusiasm we had going into 2020?
7. Jorge Polanco is a Top-5 Fantasy 2B
Will the real Jorge Polanco please stand up? 2019 looked like a real breakout for Polanco. His power numbers finally came through and he put together a fully healthy season. However, the power didn’t stick in 2020, his barrel rate plunged below 3%, and his HR/FB ratio was the lowest he’s had since 2016. There are a couple of things going Polanco’s way in terms of his fantasy value going into 2021, however. First, the Twins project to be a top-five offense in the league. No matter where Polanco hits, he’s going to have chances to score and drive in runs. Second, he moves from SS, one of the deepest positions this year, to 2B, arguably the shallowest non-catcher position. It’s honestly tough to tell if Polanco’s 2019 power surge was a flash in the pan or a true breakout. 2019 numbers suggest that it was real, but 2020 numbers suggest the decline was real, too. One possible explanation for this is the ankle injury that forced Polanco to get surgery just after the season in October. He said this bone chip caused problems especially when he was hitting left-handed and, hey, what do you know he put up a .606 OPS as a lefty last year versus .805 as a righty. He’s actually been a stronger hitter as a lefty for most of his career (.791 OPS as LHB vs. .721 as RHB), so that split looks especially strange given his career context. Maybe a healthy ankle brings the power back? Given where he’s going in the draft and the upside potential we saw in 2019, why not believe?
8. Nolan Arenado Surpasses His Career-Best wRC+ of 133
Nolan Arenado‘s current ADP seems to reflect fantasy managers largely giving him a pass for 2020, so this may not seem very bold to some. However, that forgiving spirit isn’t shared by many industry experts and projection systems. Many are projecting even his park-adjusted numbers like wRC+ to be what would be his lowest in five years. Now, I’m not saying he’s going to match his raw Coors numbers. 40 HRs and 120 RBI on a .310 average from St. Louis would be almost certainly an MVP season, and that’s even bolder than I’m willing to go. However, despite the down season, I don’t really see the argument that we should expect a true skill decline quite yet from Arenado. His plate discipline metrics held steady or even improved. Swinging strikes and strikeouts were down while his contact rate was up. He also hit 7 homers in August with a .852 OPS, which means that most of the damage to his rates came in July when he was still trying to adjust to the shortened Spring Training 2, and in September when he was quite possibly frustrated and fed up with the Rockies’ management and losing record. What are the chances that he just suddenly lost it at age 29 in an extremely weird season with no in-game video? Even controlling for park factors, this was a top-30 hitter in the majors from 2016 to 2019, and now he gets to play on a team that is actually trying to win baseball games. I’m going to bet on the 4+ years of data being right rather than 200 PAs.
9. J.B. Wendelken is the A’s Closer by the All-Star Break and He Provides Top-10 Value the Rest of the Way
I don’t really want to bet against Trevor Rosenthal. He’s a really good pitcher. However, if he does falter, I don’t trust Jake Diekman that much as a closer. Very few closers have success with a walk rate over 10%, and Diekman’s career rate is 13%. I’ll wait for the next train, thank you very much. Enter J.B. Wendelken who quietly has a 2.30 ERA on a 3.03 FIP over 74.1 IP since the beginning of the 2018 season. Over that time, he outshines Diekman in key indicators like FIP, K-BB%, SIERA, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate. Wendelken may not sport the overpowering fastball or devastating breaking ball of the top closers in the game, but he has a wide variety of offerings and a manager in Bob Melvin who likes to have one consistent guy in the 9th and who has expressed increased confidence in Wendelken as somebody who could be a setup man. If you’re drafting Rosenthal in a deep league or are looking for an under-the-radar guy in a SV+HLD league, consider going for Wendelken. He’s currently 88th on Rick Graham’s Top 100 relievers for saves and holds, and I guarantee you he will be shooting up that list.
10. A Highly Regarded Left-Handed OF Prospect for the Twins is in the Conversation for AL Rookie of the Year and His Name is Not Alex Kirilloff
It’s Trevor Larnach, everybody! This is not a statement about how I think Alex Kirilloff will not work out, but rather that I see Trevor Larnach and Kirilloff as very close in terms of upside. As is often the case in fantasy, we’re overvaluing the favorite and undervaluing the next-in-line player. While Kirilloff is the favorite to come up first and solidify a hold on a corner outfield spot, I think Larnach’s chances of doing so are almost as good, but he’s getting nearly no love in drafts with Kirilloff going over 300 picks earlier in February’s NFBC data for 12-team, 50-round leagues. Larnach displayed more patience (12.2% vs. 7.1% walk rate) and more power ( 25.9 vs. 45.7 PA / HR) than Kirilloff in their most recent AA stint together in 2019 and has a better arm. While neither of them will be great fielders and Larnach’s sample size was considerably smaller than Kirilloff’s at AA, the numbers still speak to his potential as a pure power hitter with a great eye who isn’t a complete defensive albatross in right field. While everyone in your league goes out and targets Kirilloff, see if you can snag Larnach on the cheap if you have a deep bench. It just might pay off.
Photos Wikipedia Common/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)