Michael Ajeto’s 10 Bold Predictions for 2019

The regular season is finally upon us and I want to toss my hat into the bold predictions arena before it really gets started.

As many of my colleagues have noted, the point of all of this is to be bold. Get it? Bold? Because I bol — anyways, many of these have a small chance of actually happening, but as I said: That’s the point! Most of these are my actual opinions, but on steroids.

Let’s have some fun, then.

 

1. The Ketel goes off for 25/25 

 

Gone are the years where the pool of competent shortstops is desolate, riddled with the corpses of players who reek of mediocrity like, say, Ryan Theriot or Jack Wilson. No, this is a new age baby!

Now, I must admit: Ketel Marte doesn’t even hold the starting shortstop job over Nick Ahmed — he of 1.7 WAR and an 84 wRC+ — but that’s no fault of Ketel Marte! This Swiss Army knife has been tasked to spell the likes of the aforementioned Ahmed, Wilmer Flores, and the doddering Adam Jones.

More than a year ago, Jeff Sullivan predicted that Marte would break out. A little over six months ago, I wrote that Marte was finally breaking out. And yet, here we are and we cannot yet say that Marte has broken out.

At just 25 years of age and heading into his fifth season (what?!), Marte is coming off of just his first full season in the majors, which is bananas. He had a lot of kinks to work out early in the year. At first, he was making too much contact. That’s a good problem to have, but he was hitting everything and hitting it weakly. You know the story: This problem went away, he was on fire, he cooled down a bit, and then he ended the season hot again.

Marte finished with a 126 wRC+ in the second half and he’s everything you need in a player. He fields the middle infield competently, he runs well, he walks, he doesn’t strike out much, and he has a deceptive amount of pop for a player who is listed at 165 pounds. He’s not going to be hurt as much as the average player by hitting balls on the ground: He has a 28.7 ft/sec sprint speed, just .3 short of Dee Gordon. If he can lift more balls in the air, he’s going to be dangerous: 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases dangerous, I dare say.

Marte is a player that I own in over half of my leagues (that’s three or four out of five) and you should too.

 

2. Corbin Burnes is a top-40 starter

 

For such a strong contender in the playoffs last season, the Milwaukee Brewers sure have a sorry starting rotation to start the year. Jimmy Nelson was ace-level when we last saw him, but he’s far from a sure thing, and Chase Anderson is pitching out of the bullpen. As it stands, Josh Hader projects to be worth more WAR than any Brewers starting pitcher.

Not if Corbin Burnes has anything to say about it.

It will be interesting to see how he changes his pitch usage as he moves out of the bullpen, but his slider is absolute filth. It’s a Money Pitch, as it had a 47.1% O-Swing, 46.7 Zone%. and 24.6 SwStr%. It was his best pitch and worked well in conjunction with his heater.

Burnes vastly overperformed last year, as his .259 wOBA was far below his .304 xwOBA.

If he can find a way to hone his curveball a little more, he should be able to pitch deep enough into games to accrue a solid amount of innings.

 

3. Jonathan Loaisiga wins AL Rookie of the Year

 

What? Jonathan Loaisiga was just optioned to AAA! Eloy Jimenez exists! Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be up! Eventually! Yusei Kikuchi, for heaven’s sake, is a thing!

Yes, all of this is true, but Loaisiga could blossom quicker than expected because of his full repertoire. His pristine command is arguably his best characteristic: Loaisiga’s BB/9 never rose above 2.10 during any level in the minors (the 2.10 mark came way back in 2013).

Justus Sheffield got a lot more recognition during his time with the New York Yankees, at least it feels like that to me, but Loaisiga has the much higher floor and I think he carries a higher potential as a starter.

 

4. Rick Ankiel plays in an MLB game

 

We all know the story. Rick Ankiel was one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in the early 2000s — so much so that he was almost named Rookie of the Year. That dream was alive until he unraveled in a playoff game during his second season. He developed what is colloquially known as the yips and deteriorated significantly as a pitcher. After tearing his UCL and switching to the outfield, he spent a few years as a serviceable outfielder and became known for several impressive, pinpoint throws.

(For those interested, Ankiel co-authored a terrific book called The Phenomenon that details his struggles with the yips. Fantastic read!)

After retiring in 2014, Ankiel has decided to embark on a comeback — this time as a left-handed reliever. Few people are able to successfully do what Ank has done, but even fewer have been able to do what Ankiel is setting out to do at the age of 39.

If anyone is to pull this off, it’s Rick Ankiel.

 

5. Marco Gonzales posts a sub-3.00 ERA

 

It’s no secret that I am a Marco Gonzales devotee. I wrote two articles about him in the middle of 2018 and then capped off the year with a Gonzales article that served as my debut article at Pitcher List.

Depending on who you are, this may or may not be that bold of a prediction. Surely most people will find this absurd, which I hope is the case, but others may think it’s not nutty enough.

Gonzales posted a 4.00 ERA in 2018, but it was the first time he had pitched a season’s worth of innings since 2014. He missed a significant amount of time from 2015-2017 — as he pitched just 76.4 innings during this span — and clearly showed signs of wear upon reaching 126.1 innings in 2017. In his first 125.2 innings, Gonzales had a 3.37 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 3.48 xFIP. Upon meeting his 2017 IP threshold, his ERA in his last 41.0 innings rose to 5.93. Clearly, something was off and that more than likely was simply just fatigue, which led to a drop in precious velocity.

Gonzales is going to need to find a way to manufacture more strikeouts if he truly wants to be elite. He’s got legit weapons in a changeup that has previously been regarded as plus-plus, a newfound plus curveball, and a cutter that he introduced in 2018 and quickly turned into his best pitch. The biggest thing holding him back is his fastball velocity, which leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s a resourceful pitcher and knows how to induce weak contact.

 

6. Matthew Boyd eclipses 4.5 fWAR 

 

In 2017, Matthew Boyd had one of the worst sliders in the league. In 2018, though, he reworked his slider at Driveline Baseball into one of the best sliders in the league. This past December, I wrote about how Boyd is going full Patrick Corbin. In this case, this means that he’s increased his slider usage to almost mirror his fastball usage and he’s throwing multiple versions of both his curveball and slider. Similar to Corbin, he used his curveball as a slower version of his slider, just as pitchers use a changeup as a slow version of their fastball. He only sprinkles in these different versions, though, and the key is how he’s using his curveball and slider to make each other better.

Don’t let his overall 2018 numbers scare you. Boyd’s fastball averaged 92 mph from 2015 to 2017, but in 2018 it took him until August 23 to average 92 mph on his heater. Boyd has great command and an assortment of pitches to work with. If he can keep his velocity up, he’s a guy that can get his ERA into the mid-three range. The dingers remain his biggest wart at this time, but I’m a believer. To push past the 4.5 WAR threshold, Boyd will have to address his home run problems, since fWAR is FIP-based.

 

7. Jose Martinez gets traded, hits 35 home runs

 

The St. Louis Cardinals just gave Jose Martinez an extension through 2020, so it may appear as if the team isn’t trading him after all. Not so! Martinez had opportunities lined up to make more money overseas in Japan, so they gave him a couple million to appease him for now.

That doesn’t change the fact that Martinez not only is a defensive liability, but he’s also blocked by Paul Goldschmidt at first. Other than interleague play, which is sparse anyhow, Martinez doesn’t have a place in St. Louis. A trade is inevitable — the question is when, not if.

For two years in a row, Martinez has underperformed via xwOBA. In 2017, he had a .370 wOBA and scorching .420 xwOBA; in 2018 he had a .356 wOBA and .377 xwOBA. For his career, he has a .365 wOBA and .392 xwOBA. There doesn’t appear to be a reason for these disparities, either. For the most part, the big things that xwOBA doesn’t account for are player speed and the shift.

Martinez is slow, but he isn’t especially slow. His 26.5 ft/sec sprint speed is ahead of the likes of Johan Camargo, Rhys Hoskins, and Khris Davis. While Martinez has consistently underperformed his xwOBA, Camargo and Hoskins have drastically overperformed their xwOBAs.

As for the shift: It’s a non-issue. Martinez is a right-handed batter and so he was shifted on just 0.8% of his at-bats (a total of five times).

Because of these factors, I don’t see a reason why Martinez should continue to underperform his peripherals. He would certainly benefit greatly from hitting more balls out of the park so he doesn’t have to leg out any doubles. There’s no avenue to as mush playing time as he deserves, so he’ll get traded at some point to a team that needs him. For my bold prediction, I hope that’s in April, but I imagine he’s more of a mover around the deadline.

 

8. Cedric Mullins goes 20/30

 

Cedric Mullins hasn’t shown a ton of pop since AA, but he’ll get a long look this year since the Baltimore Orioles are horrible. Absolutely horrible. Because of this, Mullins is going to get the chance to hit atop the lineup and start in center field every day.

At the very least, Mullins is able to cover multiple categories in fantasy, but he truly does have the opportunity to become a threat. We’ll leave it at that.

 

9. Daniel Norris earns a spot in the rotation, outperforms Kyle Freeland in ERA

 

For years now, Daniel Norris has seemingly been on the verge of a breakout. More recently, walks have become more of an issue, while his home run problems have yet to go away. His velocity was way down last season and injuries have no doubt played a role in his struggles across his career in general.

The Detroit Tigers have stashed him in the bullpen as a long reliever, but the Tigers’ rotation is bad — aside from Matthew Boyd. He should get a crack at the rotation at some point this season, and when we do, we’ll get to see his slider that has the potential to be a Money Pitch.

As for the second half of this prediction: I’m actually a believer in Kyle Freeland. There’s some regression that’s going to take place, but he’s legitimately good at limiting hitter-favorable contact, which is a must when you play at Coors. Freeland is coming off a 2.85 ERA season and I think he keeps it below 3.50 (despite what his peripherals say!), so Norris will have to work if he is to give him a run for his money.

 

10. Dan Vogelbach hits 30 home runs

 

Year after year, all poor Dan Vogelbach has ever done is demolish minor league pitching. He did it with the Chicago Cubs, but then he was blocked by Anthony Rizzo, so they traded him to the Seattle Mariners. He did it again in 2017 and was blocked by Danny Valencia and company. He did it yet again last year but was blocked by … Ryon Healy? Oh, and if they don’t get rid of Edwin Encarnacion, he may lose at-bats for the third season in a row. Gross.

The Mariners have bent over backward to not give Vogelbach his shot. Now, I can’t say I completely blame them. He’s not exactly fleet of foot and he’s pretty shoddy in the field, but all the man does is rake and they just lost two of their strongest hitters in Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. Mind you, the Mariners current regime traded for him, so it’s beyond me why he’s been held hostage in AAA.

In AAA last year, Vogelbach walked more than he struck out, hit 20 dingers in 84 games, and was good for a triple slash of .290/.434/.545 and 157 wRC+. The poor guy has absolutely nothing left to prove in the minors. It’s time for him to get a shot at a full-time(ish) job. He showed last year during his cup of coffee that he can probably hit at least league average. What do the Mariners have to lose?

 

11. Adam Jones will play 170 games during the regular season

 

Look, I don’t know how he’ll do it, but FanGraphs has him projected for 170 games played at the time of this writing, so he’ll do it. Maybe this is a lesson to not always follow the projections? I don’t know!

Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire

Michael Ajeto

Michael co-founded Sounding Off Blog, where he wrote about the Mariners. Now he writes Going Deep articles here. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mikeyajetoPL, or you can not.

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