It’s like clockwork: We circle the date pitchers and catchers report on our calendars. We cling to reports of tinkered sliders and revamped curveballs, adjusted batting stances and patient approaches. We swoon over spring home runs and filthy swing-and-miss strikeouts; those daydreams become what-ifs. Those what-ifs become stat-page study sessions. Those stat-page study sessions become bold predictions.
It’s like clockwork, until it isn’t.
The coronavirus outbreak splintered baseball’s cyclical reliability, to the point where even guessing when the season may start counts as a bold prediction itself. Amid worry and speculation, the season ahead paints an amorphous portrait of uncertainty: Will it start in May? June? Will teams just play 140 games, or maybe 120? Even if baseball is further away than we’ve hoped, we can still dream our (occasionally) improbable dreams about players and the potential they possess in the meantime. Let’s get bold, shall we?
The Rays’ bullpen is a crowded house, with several viable options likely competing for save opportunities: Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Jose Alvarado form a fearsome triumvirate, but the reliever I’m banking on for a big breakout is already cut from the same cloth as Josh Hader. Much like the Brewers’ dominant closer, Colin Poche is a fastball-heavy lefty with elite strikeout stuff. Poche’s heater (around 93 mph) sits two ticks behind Hader’s, but relies more on guile than velocity to fool opposing batters, which it does often: The pitch notched an 11.4 pVAL in 2019 with a 17.2% swinging-strike rate. Poche matched Hader in Statcast’s 100th percentile for K% (Poche put up a 34.8% mark; Hader, 47.8%) and xBA (Poche, .170; Hader, .155), and his 12.54 K/9 in his major league debut was lower than the gaudy 15.80 K/9 he’d sported in Triple-A before his call-up. Poche may not get afforded many save opportunities right away, but operating in the same kind of fireman role that Hader previously defined in the Brewers bullpen, I’ll predict the fastball-reliant Poche to lead AL relievers in strikeouts with an ERA somewhere between 2.50 and 2.75.
Top-flight pitching talent abounds in the upper minors: According to MLB Pipeline’s ETA projections, MacKenzie Gore, Casey Mize, Nate Pearson, Forrest Whitley, Sixto Sanchez, and Matt Manning are all likely to see some run during the 2020 season. But the pitcher I like best to follow the Chris Paddack blueprint to rookie success is Philadelphia’s Spencer Howard. Stop me if this sounds familiar: A National League team shells out for a marquee free agent, and, with a renewed focus on winning and lackluster options rounding out the rotation, aggressively promotes a prospect who hasn’t pitched above Double-A. The path to meaningful innings for Howard looks remarkably familiar, especially if Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez fail to inspire confidence in their first few outings, and the numbers the Philly prospect puts up will rival the Top 30 success Paddack found in his freshman effort: Around 130 innings with over a 10 K/9, a mid-to-high-3s ERA, and a WHIP around 1.20 sounds about right. Howard’s deep four-pitch repertoire is anchored by a lively fastball that sits in the mid-90s and found 99 during Arizona Fall League action, and a Phillies squad aiming to contend in the NL East shouldn’t want to waste those bullets in Reading and Lehigh Valley.
Unless you can pluck up enough enthusiasm to root for Shed Long and Mallex Smith’s empty steals, Mariners fans are in for a Coleridge-esque season, idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean. But while the Seattle roster carries its fair share of fantasy albatrosses, 2016 Golden Spikes winner Kyle Lewis offers a glimmer of hope in the outfield. Over 75 plate appearances last season, Lewis flashed prodigious power with six home runs and a .324 ISO. The rookie was pressing at the big league dish, racking up a 38.7% strikeout rate, but recorded a more palatable 29.4% mark in 517 Triple-A plate appearances, paired with a 10.8% walk rate. Lewis found the barrel on 10 of his 43 batted balls (23%), and a 46.5% hard-hit rate plus a .575 xSLG give some legitimacy to his power upside, even in a small sample. If Lewis keeps putting the barrel on the ball and carves out a full-time role in the Seattle outfield, a Jorge Soler-like breakout of 35 home runs with a .240 average is achievable.
4. Willie Calhoun finishes as a Top 15 outfielder
After some start-and-stop auditions with the big club in 2017 and 2018, Willie Calhoun finally found steady playing time in the Rangers’ outfield during the 2019 campaign, swatting 21 home runs over 337 plate appearances and displaying the advanced bat-to-ball tools (85.4% contact rate, 90.8% zone contact rate, 15.7% strikeout rate) that made him a coveted prospect in the 2017 trade deadline deal that sent Yu Darvish to Los Angeles. The power is legit, and I think there’s a second gear to Calhoun’s approach that offers some batting average upside: He ran a lower major league BABIP last season (.262) than in his previous Triple-A stints (.311 BABIP/.297 average in 2019, .314 BABIP/.294 average in 2018, .289 BABIP/.298 average in the Dodgers’ system in 2017), so the .269 batting average mark he posted may just be a benchmark for bigger and better things. Dream big on a 35 home-run campaign with a .290 average over a full season of at-bats.
5. Freddy Peralta takes up the mantle of Brewers staff ace
The Brewers have assembled some intriguing names to compete for spots behind Brandon Woodruff in the rotation: Corbin Burnes burned early adopters last season, but a 3.37 xFIP and a filthy slider (35.1% swinging-strike rate) are easy to dream on. Josh Lindblom is a puzzle box after revamping his repertoire and dazzling in Korea. But Freddy Peralta is the workhorse I’m hitching my wagon to; I think he’ll shine the brightest of Milwaukee’s motley collection of starters, and, yes, that includes Woodruff. A predictable, fastball-heavy approach has limited Peralta’s upside to flashes of occasional brilliance, but I’m buying into the wipeout slider he flaunted in the Dominican Winter League as a strikeout pitch that helps diversify his arsenal.
Here’s the new slider Freddy Peralta was throwing in the Dominican winter league.
He was already due for some improvement (3.80 SIERA) but if he adds a legit strikeout pitch, which he currently lacks, he could be an interesting guy if he gets some starts at some point pic.twitter.com/L2tlHp7djm
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) February 15, 2020
Newly-inked to a five-year extension with the Brew Crew and with likely fifth starter Eric Lauer dealing with a left shoulder impingement, Peralta should have an early-season shot at the rotation. If Peralta can harness the command he flaunted in the first half of 2019 (2.49 BB/9) and in September (1.86 BB/9), pitch closer to his 3.80 SIERA, and his feel for the slider sticks, he’ll supplant Woodruff as the first Brewers starter off draft boards this time next spring, thanks to his sky-high strikeout upside.
6. Aaron Civale garners AL Cy Young votes
I’m far from the only Pitcher List staffer conducting the Aaron Civale bandwagon, but I’ll keep banging the drum for Cleveland’s most recent graduate from the University of Archetypal Indians Pitchers. Daniel Port’s Going Deep drawing parallels between Civale’s rookie effort and the numbers Corey Kluber put up in 2012 is required reading for passengers aboard the Civale Express, and there’s a compelling case to be made that a Kluber-like ceiling is within Civale’s range of possible outcomes. Civale has a deep arsenal at his disposal, with a sinker he can reliably get over the plate (53% zone rate) and four secondaries boasting double-digit swinging-strike rates. Limiting hard contact, not strikeouts, is the name of the game for Civale: In 10 starts for Cleveland, he held batters to a 2.4% barrel rate, and Statcast ranks him in the 84th percentile for xWOBA and 88th percentile for xSLG. If Civale can keep generating weak contact and springboard the strikeout potential he showed off in two spring training starts (5 innings, 9 Ks) into regular-season success, he could Mike Soroka his way into a couple of Cy Young votes.
7. Mike Yastrzemski hits 30 home runs for the Giants
San Francisco has long been bereft of a proper power bat: Not since 2004 have the Giants fielded a batter who crossed the 30 home run threshold in a single season. But I’m planting my flag on Mike Yastrzemski to end that drought like his last name would end most spelling bee competitors. Definition? Yastrzemski is the everyday starting right fielder for the Giants after belting 21 home runs and posting a 121 wRC+ in 411 plate appearances in 2019. Can you use it in a sentence? Yastrzemski’s .510 xSLG (82nd percentile on Statcast and right in line with his actual .518 SLG mark), 74th percentile hard-hit rate (42.9%), and 11.2% barrel rate make him the leading candidate to vanquish Oracle Park’s longstanding defiance of 30 home-run bats. Yastrzemski. Y-A-S-T — you know, let’s just call him Yaz. Matt Wallach took a glance at his batted-ball distribution earlier this offseason, and the foundation is certainly there for a 30 home run campaign in 2020. Let’s get jazzed about Yaz.
8. Adalberto Mondesi is droppable in 12-team leagues
What does it look like when the bottom falls out? It looks a lot like 2017 did for Jonathan Villar, when, a season removed from 19 home runs and 62 stolen bases, his plate discipline cratered in a .241/.293/.372 triple slash with 11 homers and 23 steals. Speed-first guys toe a nimble line between ‘fantasy stud’ and ‘mostly disposable,’ and Adalberto Mondesi’s impatience at the plate in 2019 (29.8% strikeout rate, 4.3% walk rate) looks a lot like Villar’s scuffling 2017 campaign (30.3% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate). Mondesi is coming off shoulder surgery, and his Statcast power indicators (16th percentile xSLG, 22nd percentile hard-hit rate) aren’t particularly optimistic, so double-digit home runs are no certainty. And, as the poet wrote, you can’t steal first base: If Mondesi struggles to find ways to get on base (6th percentile xWOBA, 14th percentile xBA, per Statcast), and his stolen base opportunities evaporate, he’ll be a replaceable option at a deep shortstop position.
9. Myles Straw steals 40 bases as a do-it-all utility guy
There are three players in the major leagues who register a faster sprint speed than Myles Straw: Tim Locastro (30.8 ft/sec), Trea Turner (30.4 ft/sec), and Byron Buxton (30.3 ft/sec). While the fleet-footed Straw might not have secured an everyday role with the Astros, his positional versatility (appearing at all three outfield spots, second base, shortstop, and DH over the course of 56 games) means we’ll often see his name penciled into Houston lineups, whether to spell Josh Reddick in right, give oft-injured Carlos Correa rest at shortstop, or come in as a pinch-runner late in ballgames. Unlike other burners, Straw doesn’t struggle to get on base, posting a 14.8% walk rate in his 2019 run with the big club, and went 8 for 9 on the basepaths. Straw was a small-sample spring training revelation (1.298 OPS in 22 at-bats) before the league suspended activity, and if he stays locked in at the plate, will bring some elite zip to the Astros’ lineup.
10. Nate Lowe has a Paul Goldschmidt-esque breakout
When it comes to Nate Lowe, calling it a path to playing time is a charitable spin: The Rays have set up a veritable obstacle course for their first baseman of the future to find everyday at-bats. With a stockpiled gauntlet of 1B/DH types in Tampa Bay (Ji-Man Choi, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Jose Martinez, Yandy Diaz) and Tampa’s penchant for a mad-scientist approach to lineup construction, the deck looks stacked against Lowe, but he’s proven all he can in Triple-A and is too talented to stay buried on the depth chart for long. Of batters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2019, Lowe ranked 36th with an average 91.3 mph exit velocity (in the same ballpark as Juan Soto and J.D. Martinez), and posted a top 20 mark in Jonathan Metzelaar’s Ideal Contact Rate leaderboard at 47.1%. Lowe’s bat will play, and the patience he demonstrated in the minors (a 17.7% walk rate in 406 Triple-A plate appearances last season) will catch up as he finds his groove at the plate. Think a 30-homer bat with a .280 average and a high OBP; a full season of Nate Lowe at the not-so-hot corner could look a lot like Paul Goldschmidt’s 2019 campaign. Buy Lowe, aim high.
Featured image by Alyssa Buckner (alyssabuckter.com) | Nate Lowe photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Mike Yastrzemski photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire