Ten Players I’m Excited to Watch in 2018

We’re currently in the midst of a lull in the baseball calendar. The offseason has officially arrived and yet the Hot Stove hasn’t really been lit yet. I suppose I could get excited for Awards season, but the painfully slow roll out and the heated arguments wear me down fairly quickly.

So, instead, I try to make my own baseball entertainment. For me, one exercise is simply to look over the league and attempt to identify the players about whom I’m most excited for next season. Not superstars, necessarily: everyone is always excited to watch the game’s brightest lights. And not prospects who haven’t yet reached the Show, either. I’m not really qualified to talk about those players in a meaningful way, so I’ll leave those players to Eric (and Chris) and all the scouts out there.

Outside of those groups, though, there are still hundreds of players from which to choose. I’ll be excited to watch more than these 10, of course, but in surveying the league, these are ones who caught my eye. Note that this isn’t in any particular order. I’m equally excited about all 10. Perhaps you’ll agree with me, perhaps not. Feel free to conduct your own exercise and let me know who your 10 players are in the comments.

Rafael Devers

The new Red Sox third baseman enjoyed a meteoric debut month, swatting his way to a 224 wRC+ in his July call-up. That covered just 27 plate appearances, though, and as we moved into August and September, he cooled off significantly. He hit safely from his second game (July 26) through his eighth game (August 4). At that point, he was hitting .389/.463/.694, for a 205 wRC+. From August 5 through the end of the regular season, though, he hit .263/.312/.441, for a 92 wRC+. Doom and gloom, right? Not entirely, no, because in Boston’s abbreviated playoff run, he was one of the few bright spots, slashing .364/.429/.909. He slugged two homers — one off of Francisco Liriano and one off of Ken Giles. The latter was of the inside-the-park variety, but it was impressive nonetheless:

So, it’s hard to know what to expect from young Devers. Andrew Benintendi was similarly hyped coming into last campaign and was decidedly mediocre for large swaths of the season. Will that be Devers’ fate too? And what of his fielding? He made seven throwing errors and seven fielding errors in his short time in Boston. If the Red Sox acquire a legit first baseman this winter (or a legit DH and move Hanley Ramirez to first) and it turns out that Devers can’t hack at it at third, the Red Sox will have a conundrum to solve.

Gio Gonzalez

The Washington Nationals’ run of regular-season greatness coincided with Gio Gonzalez’s arrival. Obviously, Gonzalez hasn’t been the lead or only factor in this run, but I think we also don’t give him the credit he deserves. To wit:

Nationals, 15+ WAR, 2012-2017
Player PA/TBF WAR
Bryce Harper 3,262 27.7
Stephen Strasburg 4,074 24.7
Gio Gonzalez 4,644 21.2
Anthony Rendon 2,684 20.5
Max Scherzer 2,581 18.0
Jordan Zimmermann 3,301 15.3
Ian Desmond 2,491 15.1

That 4,644 batters faced total for Gonzalez is tops on the Nationals by quite a bit during that timespan. Now, obviously players like Max Scherzer have contributed more on a rate basis. Nevertheless, the point remains: Gonzalez has meant quite a bit to the Washington franchise. And, like his justifiably more famous teammate, Bryce Harper, 2018 will be Gonzalez’s walk year. The narrative will focus on how this could be Harper’s final year in Washington, but the same could be true for Gonzalez, as well.

Dellin Betances

It was a trying year for the Yankees flamethrower. It started with his team president openly criticizing him following an arbitration hearing, and it ended with him sliding almost completely off the Yankees’ stacked bullpen depth chart. It would stand to reason that Betances will wear a different uniform next season, but no matter which uniform he wears, it will be interesting to see if he can get his groove back. For all of his struggles last season, we’re still talking about a guy who posted a 38.3% strikeout rate and 71 FIP-. Since his 2014 full-season debut, he’s been the second-best reliever in the majors by WAR, and the seventh best by WPA. It’d be a shame to see him fall completely apart.

Nomar Mazara

The Rangers outfielder is the definition of a post-hype sleeper. Heading into the 2016 season, he was ranked 21st among all prospects by Baseball America. He’s played two full seasons in the meantime, his age-21 and age-22 campaigns. He’s been slightly above replacement level in each, totaling 1.6 WAR thus far in his career. It would be easy to write him off as a player who’s decent across the board but unlikely to get any better. And yet, Steamer sees more. The projection system is betting on a 40-point bump in his slugging percentage, and a 15-point bump in wRC+, improvements that would make him essentially a two-win player next season. That alone would be a victory, but perhaps there’s even more in Mazara’s future. In any case, when evaluating Mazara, it’s important to note that he didn’t really get much time at Triple-A — just 23 games and 101 plate appearances. Perhaps he needed more time and will settle in for a better career. Perhaps he won’t. Either way, I’m not ready to give up on him.

Jon Gray

The Rockies, as you may know, do not have a storied pitching history. Ubaldo Jimenez started an All-Star Game. Jason Jennings won Rookie of the Year. There’s not a lot beyond that. By way of further example, consider that Jon Gray is already in the top 10 in pitching WAR in Rockies franchise history. Among qualified starters, he’s easily holds the organization’s all-time top marks in K/9 and K%:

Rockies, All-Time Top 5 in K/9 & K%
Player IP K/9 K%
Jon Gray 319.0 9.51 24.80%
Ubaldo Jimenez 850.0 8.18 21.60%
Pedro Astacio 826.0 8.16 20.60%
Jorge De La Rosa 1124.1 7.72 19.90%
Jhoulys Chacin 653.0 6.71 17.50%
Juan Nicasio 360.1 6.92 17.40%
Among qualified starting pitchers

Gray has posted two consecutive three-win seasons, and yet hasn’t even pitched a full season up to this point. He was called up in late April of his rookie campaign, 2016. This past season, meanwhile, he basically got recorded only half a season — and still put up 3.2 WAR. His ascension seems preordained — among starters with at least 200 innings the past two seasons, Gray’s 77 FIP- ranks 11th best in the majors. But he still has to show he can be great over a full season. I can’t wait to see him do it.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios had a frightening MLB debut in 2016, and we should never speak of it again. Fortunately, he showed this past season that he’s capable of big-league success. He only allowed five or more earned runs four times in 2017; on the other side of the spectrum, he allowed one or fewer runs seven times. In five of those seven latter outings, he worked at least seven innings. In fact, he was just one of 20 pitchers to work at least 7.2 IP in four or more games last season. As we push closer to reliever takeover, Berrios looks to be a throwback.

Dee Gordon

Speaking of throwbacks, how about Dee Gordon? He’s one of the most anti-three-true-outcome players in the game today. Over the past three seasons, he’s been one of the sport’s anti-TTO leaders.

Anti-TTO% Leaders, 2015-2017
Name PA TTO% wRC+ SB Def
Ben Revere 1317 14.7% 79 66 -14.1
Jose Iglesias 1456 16.8% 80 25 39.5
Andrelton Simmons 1713 16.9% 92 34 67.3
Brandon Phillips 1811 17.2% 94 48 8.2
Alexei Ramirez 1128 17.6% 70 25 -14.1
Nori Aoki 1233 17.9% 104 31 -14.8
Alcides Escobar 1973 18.1% 66 38 31.2
Dee Gordon 1693 18.5% 97 148 21.5
Among qualified positon players

These are the eight players over the last three seasons who’ve ended fewer than 19% of their plate appearances with a walk or strikeout or homer. Looking across the board, we can see that Gordon does so many things well. He’s a league-average hitter, something that only one or two others on the list can claim. He’s fast and adds value on the bases. And he plays good defense. Finally, though I didn’t list it in the table, Gordon is a triples threat — only Charlie Blackmon and Dexter Fowler have legged out more triples the past three seasons than Gordon. In a game increasingly filled with inaction, you can count on Flash Gordon to do something exciting.

Mike Zunino

That’s not to say that walks and home runs and strikeouts don’t have their place. They do. Few players better embody that approach better than Seattle catcher Mike Zunino. Over the past three seasons, his 48% TTO mark is topped only by Chris Carter, Chris Davis, and Miguel Sano. This past season was a revelation for the oft-maligned backstop. He put 3.6 WAR, slugged 25 homers, and even stole the second base of his career. By CSAA, he was firmly in the top third of major-league catchers last season. There’s not much more you could ask from your friendly neighborhood backstop. But given that it took him five major-league seasons to get here, I will be eager to see if he can do it all over again, or if 2017 will prove to be his high-water mark.

Lorenzo Cain

The center fielder and World Series champion finds himself near the top of Dave’s free-agent rankings. Cain has long seemed like a player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Over the last five seasons, he’s been worth 20.5 WAR, good for 22nd best among position players and fifth-best among outfielders. That’s partly because so much of his value comes from his defense — only Juan Lagares and Kevin Kiermaier have better DEF totals among outfielders the past five seasons — and partly because he plays in flyover country. It’s my hope that Cain signs with a team that gets more press coverage and that more of the baseball-loving world begins to give him the appreciation he deserves.

David Wright

Finally, we come to the guy who just won’t give up. If you can make it through this Lindsay Berra column on all the work David Wright is doing without cringing for Wright’s health — both now and in the future — then I applaud you. Reading it, it became clear to me just how much he has endured physically. It’s been fun to make light of his disappearance from the Mets, but his absence has been sad to contemplate — and doubly so once you read about what he has endured. Even if he’s never the same ballplayer — and, odds are, he won’t be — I’m rooting for him to get back on the diamond on a regular basis.

We hoped you liked reading Ten Players I’m Excited to Watch in 2018 by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

Fun list. I liked this a lot. Thanks.