(Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire)
Opening Day is getting so close now you can almost smell it. With the start of the season drawing ever closer, we released our staff consensus Top 300 list for 2018. For the most part, my personal rankings that I contributed to the effort very closely lined up with what the rest of the staff had. However, there were several players that I was significantly higher or lower on than everyone else. I’ve chosen six players to discuss why I ranked them where I did, and whether or not you should draft them or avoid them this year.
Players I Love
Yu Darvish (SP, Chicago Cubs) — Staff Rank 43 / My Rank 23
I had Darvish ranked highest on staff, which I find crazy because I think he is in line to have a season on par with his 2013 season when he finished second in the AL Cy Young race. After he got off to a slow (by comparison) start in Texas that saw him post a career-low 9.7 K/9, he finished off the season with the Dodgers with a lower ERA, WHIP and BB/9 while recording an 11.1 K/9 rate. Darvish also began relying on his slider and cutter as much as he did in 2013 — something he hadn’t done in the year before or after his TJS. Darvish will benefit from the somewhat weaker competition in the NL Central — Cubs division opponents averaged 4.53 runs per game in 2017 compared to Rangers division opponents averaging 4.81 runs per game — and when all is said and done I think has a good shot at competing for the NL Cy Young.
Whit Merrifield (2B, Kansas City Royals) — Staff Rank 71 / My Rank 39
Last year there were two second basemen with at least 15 home runs, 30 stolen bases and a .280 batting average. One was Whit Merrifield, the other was Jose Altuve. I am all aboard the Merrifield train in 2018, as I (once again) had the highest ranking of him on staff. Now obviously there is some question as to whether his power is legitimate, as he was one of the many players to see a dramatic uptick in home runs from previous years in 2017 — hitting 19 last year after hitting two in his 2016 rookie season. But looking at his batted ball percentages it appears the power is somewhat real, as his 9.4 percent HR/FB rate was below the league average of 13.7 percent which suggests it wasn’t an abnormal spike due for severe regression. I project him as having at least 15 home runs, 25 steals and a .280 average, which makes him a very good value at second base in the eighth round of drafts.
Gerrit Cole (SP, Houston Astros) — Staff Rank 75 / My Rank 42
Yet another guy I was the highest on in our rankings, Cole is a guy I am high on partially because of his numbers and partially because of the fact he is playing in Houston this year. Last year Cole put up numbers similar to his breakout 2015 season, with an 8.7 K/9 rate and a 16.6 strikeout-to-walk percentage. Along with that, Cole also had his highest first-strike percentage since 2013 at 63.5 percent, and his swinging strike percentage was up to 9.5 percent — the third highest of his career and best since 2015. The wild card though that I think makes Cole a slightly underrated pitcher right now is Astros pitching coach Brent Strom. Cole’s former Pittsburgh teammate Charlie Morton had the best year of his career in Houston under Strom last year, posting career-bests with a 10.0 K/9, 1.193 WHIP and 7.7 H/9. After being acquired in a mid-season trade, Justin Verlander put up significantly better numbers in Houston — recording an 11.4 K/9, 0.647 WHIP and 1.06 ERA over his final five starts of the season. With all of this plus a better offense behind him, I think Cole will have a 20-win season in 2018 and will be a front runner for the AL Cy Young award.
Players I Hate
Shohei Ohtani (SP/DH, Los Angeles Angels) — Staff Rank 83 / My Rank 155
I’ll just come out and say it: from Day 1 I have thought Ohtani was being way over-hyped. So it only makes sense that I had the lowest ranking on staff. I have always been cautious when it comes to players coming to MLB from the Nippon League. For every Yu Darvish or Hideki Matsui that makes the transition and succeeds, there are several Kei Igawa’s or Akinori Iwamura’s who don’t. Looking at Ohtani on offense, I’m not sure he’ll reach 10 home runs this year since not only is he going to have to make the adjustment to MLB pitching, he is also reportedly only going to be in the Angels lineup four days out of the week. While I think he can probably hit between .260 and .275, almost the entirety of any value he has will come from him on the mound. While I do like that he has posted four consecutive seasons with at least 10 K/9, his career-high of innings pitched is 160.2 and the slight UCL injury he brings from Japan does give me some concern. I hope that I am proven wrong about Ohtani, but until I see more from him I’m not going to draft him any time soon.
Carlos Santana (1B, Philadelphia Phillies) — Staff Rank 131 / My Rank 156
Santana to the Phillies was not a move I was expecting this off-season. Philadelphia is working on a rebuild, and signing a 31-year-old first baseman doesn’t seem to fit in that plan. Now that they’ve signed Jake Arrieta, it seems like they might be making a push for a Wild Card spot after all. Regardless, Santana is going to see a drop in his counting stats in 2018 as part of the weaker Phillies lineup. Philadelphia averaged the fourth-fewest runs per game last year with 4.26 — almost a full run less than sixth-best Cleveland — and Santana’s 2017 home run, runs scored and RBI totals would have been the most on the Phillies, and his .818 OPS would have been second-highest. Realistically the biggest hit to Santana’s value in Philadelphia will be his runs scored and RBI totals, otherwise he should be able to have similar numbers to 2017. So while it’s not a devastating drop in value, it is a bad enough drop in value for me to rank him lower than the consensus.
Miguel Cabrera (1B, Detroit Tigers) — Staff Rank 102 / My Rank 192
I’ll admit, I might be too low on Cabrera. My rank of 192 was the lowest on staff after he put together the worst season of his career in 2017. His career-low .249 average and .728 OPS both ranked in the bottom five among qualified hitters on the Tigers, and his 20.8 percent strikeout rate marked the first time since 2004 — his second year in the majors — where he had a strikeout rate over 20 percent. Granted, most of his struggles on the field could be attributed to the multiple injuries and DL stints he suffered last year, but even if he regains his form, he’s still going to have a dip in numbers because of how the Tigers roster currently stands. After seeing teammate J.D. Martinez traded away mid-season, Cabrera is now also without Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler — the top two players on the team in runs scored last year and the No. 2 and 5 players respectively on the team’s RBI leaderboard. Cabrera will be 35 this year and is coming off an injury-plagued season. Is it possible he can return to the form that earned him seven straight All-Star Game appearances prior to last year? Maybe, but I’m not taking the chance on him this year.
I definitely agree on Gerrit Cole. Maybe not to the extent of AL Cy Young, but he’s due for a dramatic improvement. There were so many starts last year where he was left in just a bit too long after pitching a gem then getting blown up in his last inning of work. I feel Houston will be wiser in that regard in addition to the new pitching coach that returned Verlander to peak condition.