I was a FanGraphs reader long before I became a scribe for them, and writing this is like coming up onstage for the first time at an open mic night at your favorite bar. Fortunately, it’s that time of the year when we’re allowed to dream big, and since the word “bold” is right in the title, there’s no shame in digging deep and sending out some Hail Mary passes as dawn rises on the 2014 season.
As saying Belt will have (even more of) a breakout year isn’t the boldest of predictions, I figured I’d turn up the volume a bit. As he enters his age-34 year, a lot of ink (pixels?) has been used to document Pujols’ recent decline, but here are the CliffsNotes: that’s now four consecutive years in which Prince Albert’s ISO has declined (ditto for the homers), he posted the worst contact percentage since his rookie year and only appeared in 99 games due to a foot injury. That’s not to say Pujols is finished — Steamer and Oliver combine for a forecast of about 25 home runs, 85 RBIs and a .272 average — but Belt’s star is rising. Where to begin? Batted ball distance? It’s improved each year. Strikeout rate — also improving. The ISO jumped nearly 50 points last year from 2012, the 17 homers he hit more than doubled his career total, and he really took off in the second half, posting a delicious .396 wOBA. This could be a close one, but I think Belt’s ready to fully make good on his promise in 2014, and his ceiling is good enough to surpass a “mediocre” season by Pujols standards — assuming the latter stays on the field often enough to make it a competition.
2. Kyle Seager finishes among top seven third basemen
Put another way, Seager finishes either sixth or seventh at the hot corner, as I expect better seasons from Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Josh Donaldson and some guy named Miguel Cabrera. But that’s not to drain all the talent out of the pool, and for Seager, who finished 12th in our end-of-the-season rankings, that would still be quite a jump. Why the optimism? Seager, 26, has combined for seven WAR over his two full major league seasons, and showed improvement in his plate discipline last year, which helped raise his walk rate by nearly three percentage points. But he’s been expected to carry much of the Mariners’ offensive water during that time, and a look at his stat sheet reveals an interesting disparity depending on where he hits in the lineup:
That’s not a ton of sample size, and much remains to be determined about Seattle’s batting order, but having Robinson Cano in the mix should take some pressure off Seager, give him more pitches to hit and yield even better fantasy results.
With a few bounce-back seasons, the Blue Jays would be better than they were in 2013, but even if they climb out of the AL East’s cellar, a few things would need to break their way for them to contend. If things go south again, Janssen — whose contract is up at the end of the year — could very well himself head south to the US of A, while Santos — on whom the Blue Jays have club options through 2017 — could take his place. If so, fantasy owners wouldn’t complain; Santos saved 30 games as recently as 2011, and although his 2013 season was hollowed out by elbow surgery, he looked just fine upon returning in August, punching out batters at a better-than strikeout-per-inning clip, posting a loopy 17.7 percent whiff rate and walking just three in more than 21 innings. I’m not the first to hope for this outcome in recent memory, but a mediocre first half in Toronto or a shoulder injury to Janssen could make it happen in 2014.
4. Wilson Ramos finishes among the top five catchers
This isn’t complicated. When Ramos, 26, has been on the field, he’s hit; 16 long balls in 303 plate appearances last year, or one every 19 trips to the plate. Yes, that benefited from a ludicrous 27.6 percent HR/FB rate, but in Ramos’ only other full season, he belted 15 dingers in 435 plate appearances, and the pop in his bat is legitimate. He doesn’t walk, but then again, he doesn’t really strike out that much, either, and a .270 BABIP was at least 20 points underweight considering Ramos’ nearly 20 percent line drive rate. Meanwhile, the Nationals’ lineup should be potent enough to give Ramos some protection, but it’s not so stacked as to crowd him out of a decent slot if he can stay on the field. Oliver swoons over Ramos, projecting 24 homers and 86 RBIs, which would establish him as one of the elite catchers in the game, but even a 15 percent reduction in those numbers would put him alongside second-tier talent like Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy — just at a much, much more discounted price come draft day.
5. Scott Kazmir posts a 4+ WAR season en route to becoming a top 40 starting pitcher
Like Ramos, this prediction is bold simply for having confidence in Kaz’s ability to stay healthy, but the lefty re-emerged as a fantasy option last year when he posted a 24 percent strikeout rate and the best BB/9 of his career. It didn’t hurt that his fastball velocity was at its fastest in six years, or that his swinging strike percentage was his best since the Bush administration. Now, take all that and translate it to Oakland’s pitcher-friendly ballpark and an Athletics team coming off a 96-win season. Still just 30 years old, Kazmir will need to cut down on the line drives he allowed last year, but if he can translate some of those to fly balls and maintain his improvements in throwing first-pitch strikes, the results should be fun to watch.
This was about as un-bold a prediction as I was going to make until Hamels’ “fatigued” shoulder raised the stakes. But here it goes: in 2012, Lee was a lousy 6-9 despite excellent strikeout / walk rates and wood-knockable peripherals, dropping his value in too many drafts ahead of a very Lee-like 2013. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they merely replaced lefties luck-wise last year, as Hamels was an even worse 8-14 — despite putting up a 4.2 WAR season. Obviously, the prospect of losing starts in April — or beyond — will rightly push back Hamels in many drafts, but the Phillies don’t seem terribly alarmed, and the 30-year-old has averaged more than 200 innings over the past seven seasons. Unless the medical news gets worse in the next couple of weeks, consider Hamels a discounted asset with significant upside on draft day.
7. Ike Davis will hit at least 25 home runs and drive in 80
Some predictions are bold. Some are tame (and familiar). Some are self-indulgent. For this Mets fan, the category to which this prediction belongs isn’t a mystery, but look: as awful as Davis was in 2013, he’s only two years removed from a 32-homer / 90-RBI season, and he was noticeably better upon being recalled from Triple-A last year, saving his best baseball — .290/.468/.522 with three homers — for August before an oblique injury deprived him of September. Injuries have nagged him over the years — from the time David Wright stepped on his ankle to his bout with valley fever to his current ailment, a sore right calf that has him in a walking boot and will cost him at least a week of spring training — but if this man can get 600 plate appearances, I’m comfortable betting on Davis’ genuine talent and track record, and perhaps a little competition from Lucas Duda will help light a fire underneath the lanky first baseman as he enters his age-27 year.
8. Andrew Heaney emerges as the Marlins’ second most valuable fantasy starter
You won’t find Heaney’s name on Miami’s 40-man roster, but does that really matter? The Marlins practically were a Triple-A team last year as they were punished to the tune of 100 losses. The season’s bright spot, of course, was Jose Fernandez, whose success came after pitching just 138.1 professional innings. So although Heaney has only made 24 starts in the minors, Fernandez’s precedent and the Marlins’ utter lack of anything to really play for should result in at least a midseason call-up for Heaney. Once he arrives, the left-hander will be an instant add in most NL-only leagues and deeper mixed leagues, and while he won’t have Fernandez’s magic, his success in the minors and the Arizona Fall League this offseason hints at a promising major league career. All he has to do in 2014, so far as this prediction is concerned, is pitch better than Nathan Eovaldi — not an insurmountable goal.
This one isn’t so much about Martin’s upside as it is about Marte’s downside. The .363 BABIP is the most obvious stat likely to regress for the Pittsburgh outfielder, but it’s telling that it was only able to produce a .280 average; even in the second half, when Marte’s BABIP fortune continued, he was only able to come up with a .254 average. You can chalk that up, in large part, to the fact he struck out nearly once every four trips to the plate. That he’s not Wade Boggs would be more forgivable if he could take a walk once in a while, but a 4.4 percent rate is unsightly, and the power numbers (12 home runs, 35 RBIs) help reveal what too many fantasy drafters seem to be overlooking: Marte is a limited fantasy player for what’s a moderately high draft price. Martin, on the other hand, is currently being drafted well behind Marte on Mock Draft Central (a 95 ADP compared to Marte’s 61), and yet, ended 2013 with a more realistic .260 batting average, stole just five less bases despite having nearly 60 less plate appearances, and has flashed better plate discipline ability in the minors than Marte has. A bad platoon split against left-handed starters could affect Martin’s playing time, but I could see similar outcomes for the two — making Martin the significantly better value.
10. Wily Peralta finishes among the top 70 starting pitchers
That would be quite a leap for a guy currently being drafted as the 100th fantasy hurler, but as I wrote last week, too many owners seem to be scared off by what was a mediocre overall statline last year. But a change in pitch selection began to erase left-handed hitters’ success against the burly right-hander as June turned into July, he throws absolute gas, and he’s always showed strong ground ball tendencies. The walk rate is his biggest red flag, even though significant improvement in his H/9 helped calm down his WHIP in the second half, and if he can maintain or improve on the 7.3 K/9 he flashed during his last 17 starts, he could outperform the likes of Drew Smyly, Brett Oberholtzer and Travis Wood, all of whom are currently being drafted inside the top 70 starting pitchers.
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