WOOOOOOO! It’s that time of year, baseball is almost here! As I have raised the Fantasy Baseball Championship Banner several times, I find myself highly qualified to write some predictions for the 2018 season and share them with you! Ok, maybe not highly qualified, but they’re fun. And I have some data to back up each one, so they aren’t just random. Anyway, let’s get on to it…
1. THE ROCKIES WILL FINISH LAST IN THE NL WEST
This is made somewhat complicated by the presence of the San Diego Padres in this division, but that’s why they call them bold! I like the Rockies and root for them at times throughout the year, but the Rockies offense continues to be the most overrated aspect of baseball. For some reason people still don’t want to accept the fact that Coors Field inflates numbers. People rave about DJ LeMahieu who had an ISO of .099 last year! For the casual fans out there, ISO helps to identify a hitter’s raw power, and .099 is horrendous. For comparison, his .099 ISO ranked 140th out of 144 qualified hitters. Colorado had two above average hitters last year, Ian Desmond looks absolutely lost at the plate this Spring (although he must have heard me typing this yesterday as he hit two bombs), Trevor Story was fun for awhile but became overmatched, and David Dahl is a huge question mark after taking the world by storm in his debut and then missing all of last year. The Rockies needed to add to their offense this offseason, and they didn’t. The only offensive signing they made was re-signing Carlos Gonzalez who is a shell of the player he once was and can’t play against lefties. They will add one of their top prospects to the lineup everyday in Ryan McMahon, but he struggled in his brief stint in the majors last year (small sample size alert!). It is hard to rely on a rookie to provide an instant impact although we saw it in Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge last year, so you never know. I like the additions they made to their bullpen adding Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and re-signing Jake McGee, but they lost Greg Holland who provided equal value to Davis last year, and their starting pitching remains a huge liability. The ace of the staff, Jon Gray, has never thrown more than 168 innings, and the remaining projected starters combined for a 4.44 ERA, pedestrian 3.0 BB/9, and below average 7.3 K/9 last year. That sort of production at Coors is not going to go well. Overall, I think this team is going to disappoint, and I think the Padres will be a bit of a surprise leading to the Rockies finishing last in the NL West.
2. SHOHEI OHTANI WILL GIVE UP ON HITTING THIS YEAR
As much as I want him to succeed as a two-way star (and not just because I own him in a fantasy keeper league), it just isn’t going to happen. This might not be considered that bold, but Ohtani loves to hit and he wants to do it in the majors – it’s one of the reasons he signed with the Angels as they promised to give him a chance. But it’s just too hard and he’s just not good enough. Scouts have raved about his raw power, but they are in almost unanimous agreement that he needs full-time reps at the minor league level to improve his skills as a hitter. As a hitter in Japan, Ohtani had a strikeout rate near 30% which would be awful by Major League Baseball standards and is made even worse by the quality of competition he faced over in Japan. Ohtani’s arm is too good to waste, and although he wants to do both, he’s going to give it up when his pitching suffers and injuries linger. He already has been diagnosed with a first-degree sprain in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (yep the Tommy John one). The Angels aren’t acting worried about it, and Ohtani is being treated without surgery, but it is only a matter of time before it becomes worse. He also had ankle surgery last season in Japan causing him to miss a lot of time. What makes this a bold prediction, in my mind, is that he is going to abandon his attempt to do both sooner than people anticipate.
3. DANNY SALAZAR WILL FINISH IN THE TOP 10 IN CY YOUNG VOTING
Alright, if that last one wasn’t bold enough then this one should help up my boldness credibility. Salazar has always shown incredible stuff and potential, but he has never put it together consistently and for a full season out of the rotation. That changes this year. When you dive deeply into Salazar’s numbers this prediction becomes less bold. It became clear just how good Salazar is as my buddy, Jake, stumbled across some insane peripheral stats on Salazar and shared them with me which led to this prediction – thanks Jake! Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last year, Salazar was second in baseball in k/9 at 12.63. He also had the 5th highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP for short) at .343 – the major league average is between .290-.310 – and Salazar’s career BABIP is .310, so he was extremely unlucky last year. Couple that with an above average O-Swing% (outside the strike zone swing percentage), second lowest O-Contact% (outside the zone contact percentage), and lowest Z-Contact% (inside the strike zone contact percentage), Salazar is poised for a huge year. If he can get to 180 innings this year, and that’s a big if, he is going to make some Cy Young noise.
4. BYRON BUXTON FINISHES IN THE TOP 5 IN MVP VOTING
Ok, so when we dove deeper into Salazar’s stats you decided I still wasn’t being bold enough. Fair enough. So how is this for a bold one. Buxton actually received some MVP votes last year, although down ballot, and finished 18th – although, I have no idea why (his 3.5 fWAR tied for 27th among hitters in the AL). He started to show flashes of superstardom, and we are going to finally see it completely put together this year. The defense is incredible, and he is must watch out there in centerfield, but it’s his offense that is going to be can’t miss TV this year. At times last year Buxton couldn’t hit water falling out of a boat, but in the second half he showed the power/speed combo that led to such high praise as he was coming through the minors. In 140 games last year, he hit 16 homers and stole 29 bases. A 20/20 season is easily within reach, but I am going to go one step further and say he goes at least 25/30 this year with 30/40 within reach. For perspective, the last 30 homer, 40 stolen base season occurred in 2012 by none other than The Mike Trout. Contact will still be a bit of an issue for Buxton as he continues to learn and grow at the major league level, but his other tools are so great that he will overcome those contact rates to hit at least .275. Combine the improved offensive numbers with the elite defense, and you are going to see Buxton near the top of MVP voting for a long, long time.
5. ASTROS WILL WIN 110 GAMES BUT WON’T REPEAT AS WORLD CHAMPIONS
The Astros won the World Series and used the offseason to get even better. I am trying to find a weakness for this team, and I can’t. Here is their most likely lineup with projected* slash lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). I’ve included their projected home run totals too just for fun:
George Springer CF .266/.360/.492 – 30 Home Runs
Alex Bregman 3B .271/.339/.461 – 20
Jose Altuve 2B .318/.375/.497 – 22
Carlos Correa SS .298/.378/.522 – 27
Yuli Gurriel 1B .277/.331/.477 – 19
Josh Reddick RF .279/.333/.445 – 15
Evan Gattis DH .255/.308/.479 – 22
Marwin Gonzalez LF .265/.323/.441 – 17
Brain McCann C .247/.325/.433 – 18
There is not an easy out in that entire lineup, and their biggest weaknesses (Gattis, Gonzalez, and McCann) hit a combined 53 homers in only 315 games last year. On top of that the Astros top prospect, Kyle Tucker (projected by ZiPs for 21 home runs in 124 games), will be joining the offense soon, and the guy can flat out hit.
For all their offense firepower, it may be the pitching staff that is the most impressive. Their starting rotation is projected to include Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, newly acquired flamethrower Gerrit Cole, hard throwing Lance McCullers who has one of the best curveballs in all of baseball, and the extremely underrated, hard throwing Charlie Morton. That rotation is going to rack up a lot of strikeouts and will keep that strong Astros offense in every game.
But finally, after touting their offensive prowess and their fireballing rotation, it is the Astros bullpen that continues to stand out. Giles (11.9 K/9 in 2017), Devenski (11.1), Harris (10.3), Hoyt (12.0) are going to rack up the strikeouts, and they added Hector Rondon (10.8) on top of that. Their rotation is so deep that Brad Peacock is going to be a long man out of the pen, and he had 13 wins, a 3.00 ERA, and a 11.0 K/9 rate last season in 34 games, 21 of them starts. This team is extremely talented and extremely deep. Combine that with 19 games against a weak Athletics team, and questionable Rangers, Mariners, and Angels teams, and you get a Houston team that is going to win a lot of games. The last team to win at least 110 games was the 2001 Seattle Mariners who tied for the Major League record in regular season wins with 116. The Mariners failed to even make it to the World Series that year, and as Cubs fans know all too well, it’s really hard to repeat.
Well, that’s it for part 1 of my bold predictions. Let me know if you disagree with anything 🙂 Part 2 coming soon…
*Projections courtesy of Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS which can be found over at Fangraphs.com