(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)
Guys, I’m really sad about Madison Bumgarner. Mainly because I made a point of bolstering my pitching staff in my home keeper league this offseason as that’s what caused me to fall just short a year ago. And lo and behold, Mad Bum was one of those targets. You better believe I was jazzed to get him too! Sigh That’s baseball.
Anyways, there are plenty of leagues where I don’t have Mad Bum, and this article will have nothing to do with him. Spoiler alert! What it does have to do with is my bold predictions for 2018. I really nailed the bold part, I think. Hope you enjoy!
1. Greg Bird leads the Yankees in HRs
No joke…as I was writing this part, I saw the news that Bird was sitting out today with a sore right foot. And so it begins. Regardless, this prediction is brought to you by the phrase “assuming health.” Look, the power skill has never been the issue. In fact, in the largest one-year sample size of his career (a laughable 178 plate appearances in 2015), he posted a 44% hard-contact rate. Last year, only Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Aaron Judge, and Joey Gallo had a higher rate than that. Also, Bird is a lefty pull hitter who JUST SO HAPPENS to play in quite possibly the best park for….wait for it…lefty pull hitters. For Bird to truly be the word in the Bronx, though, there’s no doubt Giancarlo Stanton would have to go back to being injury-prone Stanton, and Judge would have to regress in a major way. However, Judge slumped hard at times last year when pitchers stopped serving him up taters, and his second-half results reflect that. Also, Gary Sanchez‘s projections aren’t overwhelmingly higher than Bird’s at this point. Bird would need his first full season of health ever, but the ingredients are there for this prediction to come true. If he hits 40 or more, that could be good enough to lead the entire Yankee lineup.
2. Julio Teheran finishes as a Top 25 SP
Maybe it’s the Braves fandom in me coming out, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel on Julio Teheran after his worst, and likely outlier, season as a big leaguer. Ok, yes, last year was horrid for him with that 4.49 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and career-worst marks in K/9 and BB/9. However, I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it all has to do with his slider, which was by far his worst pitch last year in terms of pitch value with a -3.4 mark. Teheran’s slider tends to get popped up at a higher than average rate compared to other starters, and when you consider he had a hard time keeping balls in the yard at SunTrust last year, that’s a recipe for disaster. And check this out. Teheran gave up 20 of his 31 HR in the 1st half last season, which was also when he was leaning on his slider with more frequency and less on the fastball and sinker. In the 2nd half, he adjusted and started using his sinker as the main #2 pitch, and the homeruns were cut in half. In fact, in the month of July when he really started using the previously mentioned fastball and sinker combo with the slider less prevalent, he posted a fantastic triple slash of .225/.306/.442. Something clicked from that point on, and he put up his best marks of the season in the final two months. His ERA in August? 3.65. His ERA in September? 3.19. He allowed just 5 HRs in those last two months as well, and he held batters to a slugging mark under .400. Perhaps it’s a direct correlation to the pitch selection, or he just needed time to adjust to the home ballpark. It would take a big bounce-back from last year to finish in the Top 25, but if he can build on the second half of 2017, big things could be ahead.
3. Austin Barnes finishes as a Top 5 Catcher
It’s not the hottest of takes to say you like Austin Barnes coming into this year, but I will go so far to say that he is one of the top 5 at the position by year’s end. At this point, there’s no direct path to playing time, but that could change in a hurry. First of all, starting Dodger backstop Yasmani Grandal is coming off a season where he posted a career-worst 27% strikeout rate to go with another career-worst in his 8% walk rate. Grandal, the formerly sneaky OBP option, also saw his triple slash fall to just .247/.308/.459 in 2017. While the bar is admittedly set lower for catchers offensively, the Dodgers have an option with far more upside in Barnes. He’s got some modest 15 HR power, sure, but what really sets him apart is the high contact skill and the rare catcher speed. He’s basically another JT Realmuto. In fact, in his small sample size of 262 plate appearances a year ago, he posted an impressive triple slash of .289/.408/.486 with 8 HR and 4 SB. Also, among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, he posted the third-best walk rate and the highest OBP and wRC+ numbers for the position. He doesn’t have the ceiling to give you Gary Sanchez or Willson Contreras-type power, or the average to compete with Buster Posey, but with playing time, he could crack the top 5 easy. It is worth noting he plays a little second base too, and with the rotting corpse of Chase Utley currently penciled in as the starter, I’ll bet Barnes finds his way into the Dodger lineup more times than not.
4. Alex Bregman finishes Top 5 in AL MVP voting
Perhaps the least “bold” on the list yet, Alex Bregman exploded onto the scene last year in his first full season in Houston. His 19 HR/17 SB season with a triple slash of .284/.352/.475 and 70+ runs scored and 80+ RBI has fantasy owners salivating for the third baseman this season. Also, the fact that he posted a 9% walk rate with a 15% strikeout rate at the ripe age of 22 has me catching feelings I thought were only reserved for Justin Turner (RIP). So, what would it take to get him in the sure-to-be-tight AL MVP race? Let’s say he posted a line of 100 R/30 HR/95 RBI/15 SB/.295. That would put him in the conversation, I’d think. We’re talking about 10 more homeruns, 10 more runs scored, 15 more RBI, and about 10 points in batting average. Ok, so some of those jumps are harder to do than others, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the improvements in launch angle, ISO and the hard contact he made in the 2nd half of 2017 all make me think he’s closer to 25-30 HR than the 19 he posted last year. Did I mention he’s going to hit 2nd behind George Springer and in front of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa?
No, I did not misspell Johan Camargo. Woooo buddy. I cannot WAIT to read the comments about this one. Listen, as a Braves fan, I have been trained to constantly be looking to the future, so no one wants Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna to succeed more than me. But hear me out. This time last year, we couldn’t get enough of Dansby Swanson. After his 2016 cup of coffee yielded a .302/.361/.442 triple slash to go with his 50-grade potential raw power and 60-grade speed, we thought we had the next great fantasy shortstop. Modest power, 25 SB speed, decent average with the 55 potential hit tool. And then he fell on his face and busted hard, and he even went back down to AAA at one point. However, let’s not forget this is a player with a nice prospect pedigree, and #ProspectGrowthIsntLinear! And although Albies seems to have all the tools and flashed brilliance at the end of last year, isn’t that what we said about Swanson too? Sure, Albies’ tools have always graded out higher than Swanson’s, but why are we assuming Albies won’t struggle this year? If Swanson puts up a modest line of 60 R/12 HR/65 RBI/10 SB/.260, not only would that be a nice bounce back, but I could see Albies outpacing just one of those categories. In a perfect world for me, Albies does exactly what he’s projected to do, AND Swanson still outpaces him. BOLD!
I’m giving you guys all the catcher love today! Listen, I love Gary Sanchez as much as the next guy, but I already hinted at regression with my Greg Bird section. 33 HR feels pretty close to Sanchez’s ceiling while Willson Contreras seems to just now be tapping into his power that yielded 21 HR in less than 500 plate appearances a year ago. With extra hacks at the plate, I could see a floor of 25 HR and 30 being well within the reach of the Cubs backstop. In the 2nd half last year, Contreras really took off as he soared in terms of plate discipline, batting average, and embarrassing lefty pitchers. He also posted a 78% contact rate, which could help him best that .276 average from last season. He’s currently slated to hit 4th in a potent Chicago lineup that features Ian Happ–Kris Bryant–Anthony Rizzo in front of him and Kyle Schwarber behind. If Contreras puts up an ambitious line of 30 HR/95 RBI/.280, I not only think that will outpace Gary Sanchez, but I think it will put him in the conversation for #1 catcher in 2019.
7. Walker Buehler will start Game 2 of the NLCS for Los Angeles Dodgers
A couple of things would have to happen for this to come true. First, the Dodgers would actually have to make the playoffs and get past the Divisional Round. They’re my pick to win the NL West, and I don’t see the Diamondbacks or Rockies being able to catch them, so check off that box. And for the purposes of this bold prediction, let’s say the Dodgers top the Cubs in the NLDS to set up a date with the Nationals. Second, lots on injuries would need to occur, but with the Dodgers’ rag-tag rotation, that’s not hard to fathom.
Imagine this scenario.
Clayton Kershaw pitched a beautiful, complete game shutout of the Nats in Game 1 at Nationals Park. Well before this and after realizing he was a 31-year-old pitcher with a 57-year-old arm, Hyun-jin Ryu returned to his native Korea to retire as a Hanwha Eagle aka “where it all began.” Rich Hill‘s season-long blister suddenly combusted in Game 3 of the NLDS, which has ruled him out until Spring Training 2020. He’s not an option, obviously. Alex Wood was traded to the Yankees in exchange for a Single-A 28-year-old pitcher and the rest of Matt Kemp‘s salary. Some media members were calling for Kenta Maeda to start, but when posed with the question in a press conference, Manager Dave Roberts grunted a simple, “Who?” The media was left contemplative and perplexed.
Therefore, the Dodgers were left with 2nd half darling and resident flamethrower Walker Buehler as the lone possibility for Game 2. Though he struggled with command at times after a late-June call-up, Buehler worked a phenomenal 12 K/9 rate thanks to his devastating curveball, lights out 96 mph fastball, and cutter/slider with a crazy movement that has baffled hitters all year long. Even in Washington, fans take a…day off…to see Buehler’s postseason debut in this afternoon tilt.
Dream sequence complete.
8. Alex Reyes will finish as a Top 5 NL closer
The current St. Louis Cardinal’s bullpen features a number of options that manager Mike Matheny has yet to name as the definitive closer to start 2018. Dominic Leone has been a hot name among closer hunters at the back end of drafts this season, and with Luke Gregerson expected to open the season on the shelf, the window of opportunity is wide open for Reyes to make his move. The Cardinals traditionally love starting their young pitchers in the bullpen (ie-Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and countless others), so even if they have prospects of Reyes starting some day, it looks like the bullpen is his destination for a good portion of 2018. He will be returning from Tommy John, so there’s risk making a call like this, but Reyes was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball prior to his injury. A 70-grade fastball that can hit triple digits combined with a very good curve means he has the one-two combo of pitches needed by effective relievers. Doesn’t hurt that he has a good changeup as well. Oh, and he has a 0.52 ERA with 23 Ks in his 17 1/3 career innings as a reliever. It’s a small sample-size, but it’s a heck of a start.
9. The Atlanta Braves will defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL Wild Card game
Yet another bold prediction that favors my beloved Braves. So, let’s say Julio Teheran DOES bounce back. And let’s assume Sean Newcomb gets the control under…well…control. With his strikeout upside, he becomes an effective number 2 pitcher. Next, we get Mike Foltynewicz to not totally be horrible and be the innings-eater we think he can be. IF Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy can stay healthy for at least most of the year, then we’ve got some semblance of a rotation in Atlanta. I’m thinking at least replacement level.
Offensively, Freddie Freeman is BAE. He has the MVP season we’ve been waiting for with 30 HR/110 RBI/.300, and no one can keep Ender Inciarte or Ozzie Albies off the bases in front of him. Dansby Swanson bounces back as previously stated, Nick Markakis performs at his usual replacement level, and Ronald Acuna bursts onto the scene with a Kris Byrant-like debut. 15 HR/20 SB after his early May call-up means the Braves have a team that’s well in contention for the 2nd Wild Card spot as we head into the summer and beyond. The Diamondbacks get there on the backs of their #Humidor-infused pitching staff, but the Braves come into Chase Field and get a 13 K performance from Newcomb to advance to Washington. Acuna chips in with a 3-run blast to seal the deal late in the 7th. UPCHOP PARTY ENSUES!
10. Willie Calhoun hits 30 HR at the Major League level after his May 5th call-up
So many things to digest. Not only am I calling for Willie to get called up on a specific day, but I’m expecting him to RAKE once he does. Like at a historic pace. The path to the majors is currently blocked by
the Rangers manipulating the service time clock Ryan Rua, but come on…Ryan Rua? How long is that going to last if Calhoun starts off 2018 by blasting balls out of the Round Rock city limits. But in all seriousness, there’s major power potential here as he’s made a habit of hitting 25 homeruns in the minors. That should translate quite well to the Ballpark in Arlington or whatever they’ve started calling it these days. This isn’t the BOLDEST (get it?) of calls on this list as many projections have him with at least something close to 20, but I’ll go one step further and call for 30.