1. Jason Heyward will be the No. 1 overall player in 5×5 leagues with OBP instead of AVG; he will hit .295/.415/.540 with 30 home runs, 110 runs, 70 RBI, and 25 steals.
In 2012, Jason Heyward spent about half of his plate appearances in the third spot in the batting order and the other half in the four-to-seven range. A full-time move to the leadoff spot could add another 50 or more plate appearances over a full season. Of course, full season is the critical phrase. Heyward really has just one full season to his credit, in 2012. That year, he reached 651 plate appearances. Add the 50 and round to 700. For his career, Heyward has a .259/.352/.443 triple slash with 24 home runs, 95 runs, 75 RBI, and 14 steals per 700 plate appearances. As the leadoff man, those numbers should skew away from RBI and toward runs, but they are equally valuable in roto. Heyward has increased his line drive rate each of the last two seasons, from 13.1 percent in 2011 to 19.3 percent in 2012 and 21.4 percent last season. If that trend continues, his BABIP should jump 40-plus points from the .281 he had last year and carry his average to near .300. Meanwhile, most of the Braves’ lineup suffered down years in 2013. If even half recover and Heyward plays a full season, his counting stats should soar. He’s still impossibly young at 24, but I think this is the season he enters his prime and becomes a perennial MVP candidate.
2. Scott Kazmir will finish in the top five in ERA among qualified AL starters.
I’m not sure if this qualifies as a trend with a two-year sabbatical in the middle of it, but Kazmir has exceeded 11.5 percent home runs per fly ball in each of his last three seasons. Cavernous Oakland Coliseum (92 HR index in 2013 was lowest in the AL) should help keep that in check, and that is just the beginning of the improvements Kazmir should enjoy thanks to his team change. Last season, Cleveland outfielders combined for minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) while Oakland outfielders saved the team eight runs. The fly ball heavy (40.9 percent groundball rate in 2013) Kazmir is a perfect fit for his new team and ballpark. His newfound command should allow him to follow in Bartolo Colon’s footsteps.
3. The Padres outfield will lead all outfields in home runs.
In 2012, Padres outfielders combined for only 58 home runs, which was 20th in baseball and less than half as much as the league-leading Athletics. Last season, they moved in the fences, and their outfield quietly moved into the top 10 with 70 home runs. Their HR park index jumped from 89 in 2012—second lowest in baseball—to 98 in 2013—just short of neutral. More importantly, they’ve added players and enjoyed breakouts that put them in perfect position to take advantage of platoon matchups. Last season, Kyle Blanks had a .175 ISO versus left-handed pitchers. Chris Denorfia had a .195 ISO and Carlos Quentin had a .203 ISO against the same. Meanwhile, Seth Smith had a .150 ISO versus right-handers and Will Venable had a .207 ISO against the same. While Cameron Maybin is out, Venable will likely play every day. However, last season, Venable showed even more power (.248 ISO) against same-handed pitchers. Steamer projects those five players will combine for 66 home runs and ZiPS projects them for 59. I think they can reach 75, themselves, while Maybin, Alexi Amarista, and any other outfielders that find some at bats will push them into the mid-80s, which could be enough to take the home run crown in this power-depressed era.
4. Oakland OF Billy Burns will steal 25 bases.
Billy Burns probably will not make the Athletics out of spring training even if he leads the preseason in steals, which he does as I write this. However, he could be one injury away from a call up, and with an outfield of Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick—all of whom fell short of 120 games played last season—I like my odds. Burns stole 74 bases split between A+ and AA ball in 2013, and he was only caught seven times. Not only that, he has maintained a walk rate of at least 12.9 percent and an OBP over .420 at each of his last three stops. He has absolutely no power, but his average would likely be a plus in a full-time role. Ideally, he would provide a bunch of steals for you in an AL-only league as a real-life fourth outfielder.
5. Ervin Santana will have an ERA over 5.00.
As I write this, I don’t know where Ervin Santana will pitch this season. However, I’m pretty sure it won’t be in Kansas City, and that is bad news for his numbers. Last season, the Royals led all teams with 92 Defensive Runs Saved. The resulting .267 BABIP may not seem too out of place for Santana with his career rate of .282, but even that is heavily influenced by some dominant Angels’ defenses—they saved 55 runs in 2012 and 29 runs in 2011, and Santana allowed a .241 and .272 BABIP in those seasons. Santana is particularly susceptible to the defensive play behind him because he does not strike out many batters; for his career, he has struck out just over seven batters per nine. Meanwhile, his 2.2 walks per nine in 2013 was his first season under 2.8 since 2008.
6. A.J. Burnett will have an ERA over 5.00.
The unknown for Ervin Santana is scary, but the known for A.J. Burnett is even scarier. In leaving Pittsburgh, Burnett is losing a favorable home park, a defense that saved 77 runs in 2013, and catchers Jeff Sullivan projects to gain the second-most extra strikes in 2014 due to framing. In Philadelphia, Burnett will replace that with an unfavorable home park and a defense that cost itself 103 runs, the worst total in baseball. Last season, the Pirates were the sixth most frequently shifting team while the Phillies were the second least per Baseball Info Solutions, which is a particularly foreboding change for a pitcher with a 56.5 percent groundball rate, the second-highest rate among qualified starters in 2013. Doug Wachter estimates that the changes in circumstances could push Burnett’s ERA over 5.00 even if he pitches as well as he did last season. And entering his age-37 season, Burnett could be on the precipice of decline.
7. Daniel Webb will record 30 saves for the White Sox.
The White Sox have set a precedent Daniel Webb could follow. Addison Reed had just 7.1 major league innings entering 2012 when he became their closer. Incidentally, he fell one save short of 29 that season. I expect Webb to edge him by at least one. Webb struck out more than a batter per inning at all three minor league levels he pitched in 2013, so there is little doubt he could do the job. His chances are getting better by the day, as both Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom are injured. Reed also proved that an early commitment to a young closer can pay off for a rebuilding team, as the White Sox were able to trade him for an outfield prospect in Adam Eaton with several years of team control.
8. Marcus Stroman will be the best fantasy starter on the Blue Jays.
The boldness of this call is in saying that Stroman will make the team out of spring, not that he will be effective. Stroman struck out more than 10 batters per nine in 111.2 innings in AA last season. Meanwhile, service time issues should be less of a concern for the Blue Jays than most 88-loss teams since they have the talent to compete for a Wild Card spot. Throwing Esmil Rogers or J.A. Happ out there every fifth day is not the way to get there. R.A. Dickey may have a slight edge in strikeouts because of a 40-plus inning advantage, but Stroman will more than bridge that gap in ERA.
Obviously, playing time will have a lot to do with the counting stats, but I think the Rays added Forsythe to be more than a utility infielder. He has the skills to be 80 percent of Ben Zobrist. Forsythe may have hit just .214 in 2013, but he had a line drive rate of 28.5 percent, fourth-highest among batters with at least 200 plate appearances. Meanwhile, his .255 BABIP was 50 points lower than the next-lowest player with 200 plate appearances and at least a 26.0 percent line drive rate (there were 25 such players). In 2012, Forsythe hit .273 with a .316 BABIP when he, again, finished fourth among batters with a 28.7 percent line drive rate. I expect that BABIP to climb toward the .330 range, especially if his power expands in his age-27 season. With 10-plus games played at second, short, third, and left last season, Forsythe could be a tremendously valuable utility player in deeper formats.
10. Jameson Taillon will strike out more than nine batters and walk fewer than two and a half batters per nine following a midseason call up to the Pirates, which will make him a top 25 starter in the second half.
Gerrit Cole is on the short list of best stuff in baseball. However, in 68 innings in AAA in 2013, Cole struck out just 6.2 batters per nine. That trend continued as he made his major league debut as he struck out only 6.0 batters per nine over his first nine starts in the bigs. Over his final nine starts of last season, the strikeouts came. He struck out 9.2 batters per nine over that stretch, thanks in large part to the reintegration of his exceptional curveball. Jameson Taillon could follow suit. His walk rate suffered more than his strikeout rate across AA and AAA in 2013, but Taillon has been developing a changeup. Once he reaches the majors, he can rely more heavily on his fastball and curveball, which should help his numbers improve. Expect an immediate impact once he’s promoted midseason.