I love making bold predictions. In no other post could I make a claim like I can here without getting laughed at. It’s easy coming up with the names you want to make a prediction for, but slightly more difficult coming up with interesting ways to express your optimism/pessimism about said players. I typically shoot for predictions that have around a 20% chance of coming true, so the hope is that I get at least two of these right. Here we go…
1. Justin Ruggiano surprises everyone, except for myself and FanGraphs readers, by going 25/25
That’s 25 homers and 25 steals, of course. Have I talked about Ruggiano enough yet? If you had forgotten, Ruggiano’s average fly ball plus home run distance ranked third in all of baseball last year, right behind Matt Kemp and Carlos Gonzalez, of which the latter’s distance was no doubt boosted by the thin air at Coors Field. While there is no guarantee he will again record an average distance above 300 feet, it does suggest that at the very least his nearly 17% HR/FB ratio last season was no fluke, and may have actually been a bit low. And while Ruggiano clearly does not have blinding speed, he has always liked to run and you would think the Marlins would play small ball at every opportunity given their weak lineup.
2. Andrew Cashner outearns all starters on both the Braves and Mets pitching staffs
Might as well get my two favorite sleepers out of the way first. Those two staffs I am predicting Cashner to outearn include names such as Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Jon Niese, Shaun Marcum, Dillon Gee, and Matt Harvey. What else could you possibly look for in a breakout starting pitcher candidate? He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher in a top pitcher’s park armed with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball. The closest comps in terms of skill set (projected peripherals) are Gio Gonzalez, Yovani Gallardo and Yu Darvish, but Cashner induces more ground balls than all three of them. That’s pretty darn good company. The only lingering question is how many innings he will be able to pitch this year.
3. Josh Rutledge is demoted to Triple-A by the end of May
This is where the boldness really comes into play. I am somewhat of a fan of Rutlege this season as I like his power/speed mix and expected lineup slot. However, it would be foolish to ignore the risks, which are significant. This is a man who has never seen a pitch at the Triple-A level. This is also a man who walked, wait for it, just 23 times (24 if you include the 1 intentional pass at Double-A) in 670 plate appearances last year between Double-A and the Majors. An extended period of some bad BABIP luck means his on base percentage would be gruesome. The Rockies have several options they could use at second base while Rutledge is down on the farm, so he might not have as long a leash as some may assume.
Haren’s peripherals were still rather strong last year, but he endured his worst HR/FB rate, which contributed to the worst LOB% he has posted since 2004. His velocity was down, as his fastball sat at just 88.5 mph. But, spring velocity reports have been encouraging as he has been throwing in the high 80s to low 90s, which sounds much closer to where he was at from 2009-2011. With the move back to the National League also helping all his rate stats, he appears to be an excellent rebound candidate.
Lincecum is a little more enigmatic. We know how much he struggled last season and his velocity has been in freefall. But whether you want to call it bad luck, bad pitching, or a little of both, Lincecum’s SIERA was still over a full run below his actual ERA. Initial spring velocity reports said he was throwing 92 to 94 mph, which was fantastic news if those reports were to be believed. But more recent reports suggest his velocity has been inconsistent, so the early excitement may have to be tempered. That said, it doesn’t sound like the velocity decline trend will continue and I remain optimistic that as he gets more work in after missing time due to a blister, his velocity will rebound some and better results will follow.
5. Josh Hamilton‘s fantasy value falls outside the top 20 at the outfield position
Oddly, Hamilton has been drafted much later in the leagues I have participated in (all “expert” leagues) compared to his ADP taken from leagues composed of the general public. Maybe the industry guys don’t think this is so bold after all. Hamilton had a career power year last season, but warning signs abound. While his average fly ball and home run distance spiked from 2011, it was actually lower than 2010 and about in line with 2008, seasons in which his HR/FB rate fell between 19% and 21%. Even if he had stayed in Texas, it would have been wise to expect regression back toward the 20% mark. But he’s not in Texas anymore, a park which has significantly boosted left-handed home runs. Instead, he moves to Anaheim where lefties have a much tougher time hitting balls out of the park.
Aside from a decline in power, you also have to worry about the huge drop in contact rate he experienced last season. What if that was for real and he repeats that high K%? Well, if that HR/FB rate does drop as I expect it to and the strikeout rate sticks, you have two forces hampering his home run output as well as his batting average. Suddenly you’re looking at a .270 hitter who may struggle to reach 30 home runs. There’s lots of risk with Hamilton this season and the industry folk appear to be properly accounting for it.
This may or not be that bold depending on how much of a fanboy of Matt Moore you are. Cobb is an extreme ground ball pitcher who has posted excellent strikeout rates in the minors that have yet to translate to the Majors. But his spring strikeout rate hints that maybe that translation will actually occur this year. Even if it doesn’t, Cobb’s skills are good enough that he could still match Moore’s ratios if the latter doesn’t improve his control. Of course, simply matching Moore’s ratios won’t be enough to overtake him in fantasy value given the difference in strikeout totals, which is precisely why this is included in a list of bold predictions.
7. Mike Napoli is the most valuable fantasy catcher
Napoli strikes out a lot so he is prone to batting average swings based on his BABIP. Fenway Park is a double hitter’s haven as batters flip the ball off the Green Monster. This in turn boosts BABIP, the very skill of Napoli’s we question. While Fenway won’t be as kind to him in the home run department, there are other factors that could lead to Napoli’s best fantasy season. For one, he’s expected to get the bulk of the first base at-bats and when he’s not playing the field, he may very well DH. His career high at-bat total is just 453, so he has a great chance of shattering that. Next, for as long as David Ortiz is out, he is going to be hitting clean-up, which is a much better slot than he had hit in in both Texas and Anaheim. I have no concerns about his hip condition.
8. Jordan Zimmermann posts an ERA above 4.00
Last season, Zimmermann ranked seventh among all starters in SIERA-ERA differential. Despite possessing pretty good fastball velocity, he has posted below average SwStk% marks and just average strikeout rates. He posted a .288 BABIP mark last year, which isn’t outrageously low, but when it’s paired with a 23% line drive rate, you begin to wonder how he managed a BABIP below .300, especially since he induced pop-ups at just a league average rate. Magic? Perhaps. His SIERA the last two seasons has been just 3.70 and 3.80, both significantly above his actual ERAs.
In 2011, he did it by allowing just a 5.9% HR/FB rate, which naturally jumped last year, but still fell below the league average. His LOB% was the key last year, as he ranked fifth in baseball in the metric. An LOB% that high is usually only sustainable when it is paired with a low SIERA, the quick proxy to identify the most highly skilled pitchers. So skills-wise, this is a pitcher who should be posting an ERA in the high 3.00 range. Just a smattering of poor luck or a small skills decline would get that ERA to a level no one would dare project.
9. Mike Moustakas hits 30 home runs
The funny thing about these bold predictions is how they sometimes contradict other things I say. Just last week, I identified Moustakas as a third baseman I ranked worse than the consensus. But, I do see where the upside comes from. I see Eno’s 25 home run prediction and raise him 5, which will make his heart flutter. While his average home run and fly ball distance does not suggest an imminent power surge, he has shown much more power in the minors than he has shown in the Majors so far. In addition, he hits a ton of fly balls. That is really the key ingredient here. In fact, based on my projected stat line, he would need just a HR/FB rate of 14% to hit 30 long balls. That doesn’t sound too crazy.
10. Jered Weaver does not finish the season earning top 20 starting pitcher value
Like I said, this stuff could get contradictory. Shall we count the warning signs? We shall. Average fastball velocity last year was just 87.8, down by more than a mile per hour from his previous season and a career low. A SwStk% the second lowest of his career, F-Strike% down from his previous two seasons, Zone% in free fall and a career worst and strikeout rate the lowest he has posted since 2007. How long can he possibly sustain a .250 or lower BABIP? Will his HR/FB rate continue to sit below 9% every season? Will he keep stranding runners at a mid-to-high 70% clip? If everything regresses at the same time, his success level is going to come crashing down. “Not a top 20” starting pitcher might actually end up looking too conservative, as he could fall outside the top 40 and I wouldn’t be shocked.