Pre-season bold predictions lists are totally overdone these days. I mean, who even does those anyway. So lame. This, on the other hand, is where the real fun is. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the second annual installment of Bret’s bold predictions based on April’s small samples.
This type of exercise provides a different challenge than a standard March bold predictions piece. Not only does it take into account the players who you consider “your guys,” but you also have to maneuver through which April performances are sustainable and which are not. In other words, it’s time to separate the Chris Sheltons from the Cliff Lees.
1. Adam Wainwright will be a top-five starting pitcher
This was one of my pre-season predictions, but I'm doubling down here. That's how confident I am in Adam Wainwright. Like I’ve been saying for the past eight months, the 2012 version of Adam Wainwright was way more similar to the elite version than it appeared at first glance. All of the important underlying statistics were nearly identical. But so far this year, he’s taking it to another level. If the season ended today, Wainwright would set a new career best in the three areas I like to refer to as the holy trinity of pitching: strikeout rate (25.2 percent), walk rate (1.8 percent!) and ground-ball rate (56.6 percent). Love him, trade for him, just don’t say that he’s back because he never went anywhere.
2. Jean Segura will be a top-five shortstop
This is another carryover from my pre-season list, but I’m going even bolder now that the season has started and he’s been ridiculous during April. His .358/.408/.547 line with three homers and seven steals through 103 plate appearances is good enough to not only be the top fantasy shortstop so far this year, but to also be a top-20 overall player. So while this batting average (and to a lesser extent, the power) won’t continue at this pace all season, there is plenty of reason to believe that he’ll continue to be very valuable going forward. Consider that the two biggest risks that Segura carried coming into the season were that he might bring no power and hit eighth in the lineup. One month, a .200 ISO and a move up to the number-two spot in the order later, those risks appear to be things of the past.
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who predicted this type of jump in strikeout rate from these two veterans in their age-36 seasons. After all, neither guy has posted a double-digit K/9 at any point in his career, and they have combined for one season of 210 strikeouts or more (Burnett’s walk year of 2008). And it hasn’t been a mirage either, as both Burnett and Dempster are seeing big spikes in their swinging-strike rates. Dempster is doing it mostly with his slider, which he’s gotten 37 whiffs on alone (nearly double the pitch’s whiff rate from 2012). On the other hand, there’s no one answer for Burnett, as his improvements are taking place across the board.
Last year, Mike Trout had zero hits until the second-to-last day of April and went on to be the number-one player in fantasy for the season. Hanley Ramirez had zero hits until the last day of April, and while I'm not going to predict that he'll be the top player for fantasy at the end of the year (that's too bold even for this space), I think he'll perform like a top-10 guy the rest of the way and finish in the top-20 overall—all despite missing the first four weeks of the season. I've been all-in on Hanley since the preseason, as I was taking him among the top-20 players in the game in both mock and jellybean environments. The .300-plus batting average may never come back, but a hitter with a 20/20 floor (over a full season) who qualifies at shortstop and third base is an extremely valuable commodity. And whether you think it's a bunch of hooey or not, he came into this season happy and looking great.
5. Speaking of Mike Trout, he'll be fine
It’s a twisted world we live in when there is concern about a 21-year-old hitter who “only” hit .261 with two homers and four steals during the month of April. But this is a direct result of the expectations Mike Trout has set for himself after going all Mike Trout on us last season. Despite the non-ludicrous speed domination so far in 2013, Trout has quietly lowered his strikeout rate below 20 percent, which was a source of concern cited often in the pro-regression arguments. And while it’s very uncommon to see a .314 BABIP and immediately think that a player has gotten unlucky, that’s likely what is happening here. If, for some reason, the Trout owner in your league is getting a little shaky in the hands, reach out yours and tell him/her you can help.
6. Yu Darvish will be the first pitcher to top 300 strikeouts since 2002
It was just over a decade ago, when teammates Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) both topped the triple-century mark in strikeouts. In fact, they are the only two pitchers to accomplish that feat since Y2K wiped our pre-existing history from the record books. Right now, Yu Darvish has a 13.5 K/9, which would be the highest rate for an ERA-qualifying starter in baseball history. Yes, all of it. If he makes 33 starts at his current strikeout pace, Darvish will end the season with 319 punchouts. It seems like a ridiculous thought until you actually watch him pitch and realize that he’s using a real baseball with seams, not a scuffed wiffle ball. He’s the most fun pitcher to watch in the game right now, and frankly, it’s not particularly close.
7. Josh Donaldson will be a top-10 third baseman
Donaldson might seem like he’s come completely out of nowhere, but that’s just not true. From August 14 through the end of the 2012 season, Donaldson hit .290/.356/.489 with eight homers, 26 runs batted in, 29 runs, and three steals in 194 plate appearances. This coincided with the stint in the majors where his major-league strikeout rate finally moved closer to where his Triple-A strikeout rate was (18 percent versus 15 percent). This season, he’s taken it to another level, dropping that rate to 14 percent, and raising his walk rate into double digits as well. While he likely will not finish the season hitting over .300, that batting average could end up sitting in the .280-.290 range. Add 20-home-run pop and the ability to steal double-digit bases, and the entire package makes for a way more valuable player than his preseason value dictated.
8. Kris Medlen will finish outside the top-50 starting pitchers
Things haven't quite gone as well as the diminutive righty had planned so far this season, despite what his 3.26 ERA might imply—and even that number is a far cry from the 1.57 ERA he had in 2012. It may just be April, but sometimes it's not just some of the signs pointing south, it's ALL of them. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, his homers are up, his ground-ball rate is down, his contact rates are up, and his whiff rate is down. In fact, the only thing that's not worse than last season for Medlen is his velocity, which is just about identical (90.37 mph in 2012, 90.38 mph in 2013). One of two things are going to happen over the remainder of the season: Either his ERA will get in line with all of his other metrics, or all of his other skills will need to improve. In that battle, I will always bet on the former.
9. Edward Mujica will save 40 games
Yes, I've officially jumped overboard the U.S.S. Trevor Rosenthal. Mujica has been lights out since moving into the closer role in St Louis, and the only things I see getting in the way of him being one of the more unexpected relievers to record 40 saves are his health and the health of Jason Motte's elbow. I know there have been some positive rumblings about Motte feeling better while he's been throwing, but it seems like Tommy John surgery is about as much of a leap of faith with him as it was with Chad Billingsley.
10. Dexter Fowler will lead the Rockies in home runs
It was early March when I was talking to Jason Parks about prospects he was seeing in Arizona and he just started talking about how strong Dexter Fowler looked in camp. Needless to say, when Parks says something, it gets filed away in the back of your head. Flash forward to April and Fowler, who previously had a career high of 13 homers, is now sitting at eight—with five of them coming on the road. There’s sure to be a lot of talk that this is Fowler’s age-27 season and there’s some sort or sorcery that comes along with it, but when a player gets stronger, balls tend to go farther. It’s science. This prediction does mean that I think he’ll end the season with more bombs than Troy Tulowitzki, Michael Cuddyer, and Carlos Gonzalez, among others, and I think he’ll need at least 25 to get there. He can do this.