It’s that time of year again! One quick caveat out of the way — these are bold predictions, meant to highlight interesting players in a pie-in-the-sky kind of way — and then we can start dreaming. I did okay with last year’s bold predictions, so let’s try it again:
1) Andrelton Simmons will be this year’s Jose Altuve.
Jose Altuve began last season as our 16th-ranked preseason consensus second baseman. He hit .290 with seven home runs and 33 stolen bases and ended the season as our 11th-ranked second baseman. This year Andrelton Simmons is our 16th-ranked preseason shortstop. It’s not actually that bold to predict him to join the top twelve shortstops, but hey, that’s how I get a couple right. Simmons has more power than Altuve, I like him for a similar batting average, and atop the Braves order, he might actually steal 25 bags.
2) Mike Moustakas will hit more than 25 home runs this season.
None of the projections have Moustakas hitting more than 24 homers, so call this ‘taking the over’ on those projections. Moustakas added a bunch of batted ball distance between 2011 and 2012 and by the research from Chad Young and Mike Podhorzer, that means good things. Also, Moustakas played through an injury last season, and Jeff Zimmerman found that projections can get too pessimistic about power in those situations. Moose Tacos always had more power coming up, and he’s 24 and ready to go. He still won’t be an asset in on-base percentage leagues, but the signs are aligned.
3) Injuries to Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday conspire to allow Oscar Taveras 350 excellent plate appearances this season. Wil Myers gets more plate appearances but does less with them.
Carlos Beltran is turning 36. He also spent 2009 and 2010 putting up less than 650 plate appearances combined, so it’s obvious that his knees could begin to ache again. Matt Holliday is only 33 and has averaged 650 plate appearances over his last seven years. That’s why this is fairly bold. If the Cardinals lose one of the two for a short amount of time, they can easily play Matt Adams at first and Allen Craig in the outfield and leave their top prospect in the minors for marinating. But if they lose one of them for an extended period of time, and then lose the other for a bit, then there will be a gaping playing time hole waiting for a top-three position player prospect. It’s not hard to imagine a universe in which the two old guys get hurt at the same time — and Taveras has the right combination of plate discipline, contact ability, and power to come up and hit for average and power right away. Wil Myers has way more opportunity in the Tampa outfield, but he’ll start the season in the minors, and then once he hits the majors, his rising strikeout rate will contribute to a meh batting average, and his power won’t be enough to overcome that flaw in his rookie season. At least says this Rotodamus.
4) The Mets and Astros outfields will each produce a usable fantasy player.
This one seems really bold right? And then one of them will be a deep league starter and I’ll declare victory. Just telling you what’s going to happen. The point is that the worst squads on teams that don’t win a bunch of games don’t get a lot of positive attention. But there’s always fantasy value there. If it’s Justin Maxwell doing a low-batting-average power and speed thing, or Lucas Duda showing the power that’s got to be in his oxen frame, or Jordany Valdespin overcoming his poor plate discipline to contribute in a toolsy way — someone will step forward and claim a job outright. Once they have their opportunity (and these teams are rife with opportunity), they’ll have the first of the two conditions needed for fantasy success.
5) Billy Hamilton will be the Reds starting center fielder by September.
Shin-Soo Choo is a little unsure about playing center field. Despite his steady stolen base totals, he’s not necessarily the quickest guy, nor the most athletic. He hasn’t played center for a full game since 2006, when he was with the Mariners. And was 24. Now he’s 30, and there’s this incredibly fast center fielder coming up through the Reds system we’ve all heard of. Yes, Billy Hamilton might need a little time to hone *his* center field defense, but as his acrobatic catches in the Arizona Fall League can attest, he’s got the right skill set to be a great one. September gives us five months of watching Choo stumble around in center while ESPN shows Billy Hamilton stealing home from first and diving headlong for catches in the outfield. Of course, for Hamilton to be a mixed league asset, it’ll have to happen before September, but it’s not impossible that it happens fairly quickly. An injury in the outfield, or regression from the 34-year-old Ryan Ludwick, and there’d even be an obvious spot for Choo to play defense.
6) Zack Greinke will be fine. Clayton Kershaw or Josh Beckett won’t be.
It is Greinke’s elbow that’s barking, and by all accounts Clayton Kershaw says his hip is fine and he’s altered his delivery to put less stress on it. Josh Beckett hasn’t reported any ills this spring. So what gives? The most significant predictor of future injury is past injury. Greinke hasn’t been on the DL since 2011, when he was recovering from a broken rib suffered in the offseason. Kershaw didn’t hit the DL officially, but he did have a serious hip thing that was thought to require surgery, missed a few September starts, and caused some fantasy baseball agony. Beckett is 33 — age is the other best predictor of injury — and went on the DL for shoulder inflammation last year. In any case, this really isn’t that bold. Beckett’s DL% projection is over 50%, and even though Kershaw actually owns the lowest DL projection among qualified starters this year (28.1%), he did have that hip thing so very recently. It’s all a crapshoot, is what I’m saying.
7) Shelby Miller & Julio Teheran should be good, but there will be a relatively unknown pitcher that takes the season by storm and outproduces each of them.
It was supposed to be Trevor Bauer and Matt Moore that would wow us last year, and though Moore got the strikeouts, it wasn’t quite a banner year for the two top pitching prospects. Instead it was Kris Medlen that came out of nowhere to be the cheapest fantasy ace of 2012. Who might it be this year? Who knows. The point is they come out of nowhere. Would it count if Mike Fiers used his control and two secondary pitches to overcome his meh fastball? Or what if Jaime Garcia finally put it all together and got strikeouts and ground balls and stayed healthy all year? Maybe Alex Cobb or Erasmo Ramirez can ride their changeups into a dominating year? What if Drew Smyly gets the job and runs with it? Given the choice between two top prospects and ‘the field,’ I’m still taking the field.
8) Anthony Rizzo will outproduce Adrian Gonzalez at first base.
I had to throw that caveat in there, because Gonzalez is an outfielder and in a five-outfielder league, batting average a few home runs might outproduce a better first baseman. But, at first base, Anthony Rizzo is ready to outproduce the older former Padre first baseman. Rizzo fixed his swing and is ready to make more contact than he did before. It won’t mean as good a batting average as the oppo monster than Gonzo is, but it won’t matter because he’ll outslug Gonzalez considerably. Here’s why I’m worried about Gonzalez. Look at the last year and a half in the context of his batted ball distance. See how the long drives have all but disappeared?
9) Starlin Castro will hit .300+ with 15+ home runs and 30+ stolen bases.
Starlin Castro turned 23 yesterday. Yesterday! He’s still pre-peak in most facets of the game. His isolated slugging percentage has crept up in each of the last three seasons (.108, .125, .147), and his Bill James speed score has as well (4.7, 6.3, 6.6). Because of those peripherals describing what’s going on behind his increasing home run and stolen base totals, I’m going to believe in the progression and add just a bit to the projections out there. Like with Moustakas before him, take the ‘over’ on the projections for this young man on the infield.
10) Yu Darvish finds the plate. With an average walk rate, more than a strikeout per inning, and a little bit of batted ball luck, he challenges for the Cy Young.
There was evidence that Darvish was getting squeezed by umpires early in the season last year. We know that first pitch strike rate is the best walk rate peripheral, so when his walk rate started trending downwards in the late season, it’s not at all surprising that it came hand in hand with a better approach on the first pitch. Hitters can’t make contact on his offerings outside the zone, but they still reach at em, which will turn some balls into strikes. Combine that with a better first strike percentage this year, and you’ve got the conditions set for a better walk rate. Strikeout rate is positively correlated with strand rate and negatively with BABIP, and Yu’s numbers in those two categories last year (70.5% and .295 respectively) were basically dead on league rates. Give him some credit for his ability to get whiffs, better those two numbers a bit, and you can easily see a dominant year for Darvish. I know spring stats don’t matter, but it is nice to see him sporting 15 strikeouts against three walks in 13.2 innings, too.