minter(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)
It’s that wonderful time of the year when stockings are full of sleepers, predictions, draft tips, and busts, as we eagerly wait for the season to show up. Plenty of staff writers will be giving their Bold Predictions through the next two weeks, with Mark Weston taking his stab looking at the crystal ball today.
1. A.J. Minter takes ATL closer role and becomes a top 5 closer
26 strikeouts and 2 walks in 15.1 major league innings is what we have to go off for this first bold prediction. A fastball/slider combo that is perfectly dominant for the closer role. Minter’s history includes thoracic outlet syndrome and Tommy John surgery, both during his college days. More recently he sped through the minors and made it to the Braves 2017 roster. Limited to 1 inning appearances with no back-to-back days, the Braves have announced the “kid gloves” are coming off. With only the oft-injured Aroldys Viscaino in his way, Minter could take the closer’s role and never look back.
2. Joey Gallo ends the year as a top 5 1B
Gallo will only be 24 years only for the 2018 season. We knew he was being rushed to the majors in 2015 and he was going to have a bumpy start. Well he did have a bumpy start but in 2017 he was given a full season and he managed to stay alive. Gallo went from a 38.5% strikeout rate in the first half to 34.9% in the second half. Batting average improved from .194 in the first half to .229 in the second half. What we can realistically hope he works toward is a .250 batting average. If he can reach that we are talking 50+ home runs and plenty of counting stats to get him over 200 combined runs and RBIs. What helps boost Gallo up is also his potential to steal 5-10 bases. I’m absolutely certain Gallo has a top 5 1B season at some point, but we shall see if 2018 is the year.
3. Anthony Rendon wins the NL MVP
Rendon has always been very good. His batting eye, contact rates, and ability to spray the ball have kept him as one of the best bats in baseball, the only limiting factor is how much of that value is actual fantasy value. Rendon has had a fly ball percentage around 40% for the last few years but that jump to 45% in the first half and then 49% in the second half. If you ask me he’s decided it’s time to start hitting more than 20 home runs a year. He did see an increase to 25 home runs in 2017 but that still doesn’t really scream MVP. The problem was his hard hit rate dropped and he could not produce the home run totals he was going for. Why? I’m not entirely certain. But what I’m betting on is Rendon figures out how to continue his stellar hitting with the increased fly ball percentage and he moves into the 35 range in home runs. Without Dusty Baker as the manager Rendon won’t have to hit behind superstars like Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo as often, lending himself to increased counting stats. My guess is this is the year Rendon puts everything together and finally gets to the elite level production.
4. Ian Happ fails to reach 200 ABs in the majors
I’ve already detailed much of my doubts on Ian Happ in a previous 2017 Breakouts Revisited piece. The cliff notes version is that he has a terrible contact rate and will hit for a .225 batting average. What also will limit Happ to 200 at bats, aside from poor performance, is the lack of an opening in the Cubs lineup. Don’t get me wrong, Joe Madden is very thrifty and can fit a whole lot into his lineups, but he won’t be incentivized when Happ isn’t producing. He’s much better against lefties than he is against righties and therefore might get reduces to a lefty bench bat role. For Happ to receive a chunk of playing time he’d need one of Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, or Javier Baez to collapse. While any of those is possible, each of those players has an incredibly long leash as they are the central pieces the Cubs built around. Happ got the junk time when he was producing, but the underlying stats say he won’t keep it up and without producing he loses the playing time.
5. Carlos Gonzalez has top 20 OF season
Gonzalez struggled with timing in 2017. For much of the season he could not produce like he was used to. He was either ahead on breaking balls or behind on fastballs. This collapse and the resurgence late in the season is detailed here on FanGraphs. In short, it details how CarGo’s timing was off and he fixed it. Our very own Ben Palmer made similar observations as well. In August and September he was back to his old tricks. Those old tricks have been very valuable. He’s been a top 20 outfielder essentially every year (except 2014 due to injuries). Going back to the Colorado Rockies helps his value despite their crowded outfield, but I’d expect to see Gonzalez get right back in the cleanup spot to start the season.
6. Justin Verlander finishes outside top 40 SP
Verlander is going to be 35 years old in 2018. It has to end at some point, right? Well age is a big reason why I’m expecting a drop off. Verlander was excellent in 2017, there’s no denying that. What he did do in 2017 was have an average fastball velocity higher than it’s been since 2011. Seriously, it’s gone from 95.75 in 2o11, to 95.23, 94.54, 93.30, 93.39, 94.33, and 95.76 in 2017. I am absolutely not buying that to repeat at 35 years old, no sir. Also Verlander serves up well over 40% fly balls consistently and is going from Comerica Park to the juice box Minute Maid. I know it’s not an exact science to look at spray charts on different fields, as there are many factors that affect how far balls fly like win, temperature, humidity, and wall height. Yet still I am going to recommend you take a gander at the Baseball Savant spray chart and flip between the Tiger’s stadium and the Astro’s stadium. You can count like 18+ home runs that are beyond that fence. Again, I can’t stress enough that’s not an exact science, but tell me honestly that doesn’t scare you off.
7. Jason Kipnis finishes in the top 5 of 2B
I have already detailed much of my beliefs about Kipnis in a previous post, so I will just give you the summary. Kipnis was obviously hurt last year but there was a clear change in his approach to hit more flyballs. Now-healthy Kipnis is primed to bat second in the Cleveland Indians lineup and has potential to hit 25 or more home runs. Lots of counting stats should make reaching the top 5 at the position very possible. Current ADP is about 250.
8. Edwin Encarnacion finishes outside the top 15 1B
Age creeps up on us all. Edwin will be 35 years old for 2018. His batting average has dropped from .277 to .263 to .258 the last three years. If this trend continues and he hits in the .245 range it will be tough to overcome. His past two years have been help up with the two highest HR/FB rates of his career. If we accept the idea of aging curves, we should expect everything to regress. If the HR/FB rate comes down a bit and his average continues to drop, his season will look a lot more like Logan Morrison than you’d like. Encarnacion is being drafted as the 7th 1B off the board at an ADP of 47. That early in drafts I’m not willing to bank on a 35 year old even if he has been a consistent producer. It will end at some point and I’m not taking the chance it happens in my hands.
9. Devon Travis finally puts it all together
Travis has dealt with many injuries during his short career, most recently a bone bruise in his knee. His talent has, for the most part, always been there. xStats has his true talent level for batting average right around .290 to .300 largely based on great VH% and PH%. A lot of line drives, a good hard hit rate, and a very good contact rate make the potential appealing. I could envision him putting numbers around where Robinson Cano was in 2017 and perhaps in his career seasons looking like Daniel Murphy has the past couple years. He just needs to stay healthy and play consistently. I’m hoping this is the year he finally does.
10. The Philadelphia Phillies make the playoffs
Having just signed Jake Arrieta to join Aaron Nola atop their rotation, things are starting to look not all that bad for the Phillies. Projected standings systems still have the Phillies winning games in the high 70s, but I see a lot of room to exceed expectations. Both the lineup and rotation are very young and there’s room for players like Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr, J.P. Crawford, and Jorge Alfaro to prove themselves as more than just prospect pedigree. The rotation is a similar situation with Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez all on the edge of putting things together. Beyond that you also have Scott Kingery ready to steal a job in the majors. With all these opportunities for improvement and their solid base I believe they could surprise a lot of people.