It occurred to me the other day in filling out my BP staff predictions ballot that I hadn’t written a #bold fantasy predictions column anywhere on the internet yet this spring. And that’s just a damn shame, because who doesn’t love #bold predictions! So with no further ado, and likely much ado about nothing, here are five things that are definitely going to happen.
Pedro Alvarez will lead the National League in home runs with a whiff rate under 22 percent
I’ve spent my fair share of time this offseason tooting Alvarez’s horn around these pages, and I’ll put my money where my mouth is by doubling down on Alvarez’s potential. Most of my googly-eyed rants about Alvarez to date have been focused on his value relative to his curiously low ADP this off-season, but it warrants mentioning that even irrespective of surplus value creation Alvarez is one of the better bets in the National League to make a run at the homerun crown if he stays on the field for north of 550 plate appearances. It was, after all, just the season before last that that he took down the crown with 36 bombs in 614 trips to the dish.
It will admittedly be a tightrope walk to get Alvarez that many plate appearances again this season, as Corey Hart appears perfectly poised to steal his playing time against southpaws. But the lost opportunities against southpaws shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative for a dude like El Toro. His .504 OPS and 28.4 percent whiff rate against same-handers last season certainly warrants some pine-riding, and it’s unlikely fantasy owners will miss his negative value in those at-bats. His first-half contact gains against right-handers were legitimately intriguing, though, and if he can continue to incorporate Pittsburgh’s opposite field, contact-oriented approach into his strong-side opportunities as he had been successfully doing last year before injury struck, it’s entirely conceivable that he can run into a career year without the benefit of full playing time.
Avisail Garcia will be a top 25 outfielder… in 2016
This is something of a cop-out pick, since I’m not projecting him to leap from the shadows into the fantasy spotlight this season. But Garcia has flashed enough of a well-rounded skillset through a barrage of injuries in his young career that I feel semi-confident in hoping for the first true signs of breakout to emerge this (healthy) season while his overall value remains depressed enough to position him as one of the best value plays in the game this time next spring. Everything for Garcia starts with health, of course, and that’s been a false start for him thus far. The shoulder injury that knocked him out for the overwhelming majority of last season was a particular bummer. He lost a year of development, and for a young player who’d been fast-tracked to the Major Leagues that’s a big deal. Recovery from shoulder labrum surgeries can also be a very long process, of course—one that saps strength and power production long after a player’s initial return to the field.
Couple the recovery timeline with the broader concerns about a raw, aggressive hitter with the first couple chapters of a book against him circulating around the league, and you’ve got a nice recipe for an up-and-down season. I wouldn’t want to be the guy banking on a breakout from Garcia to carry my OF3 production this year, but judging by ADP (he went 47th among OFers this spring) there are probably some deeper leagues in which managers find themselves in exactly that position. As a potential acquisition target for non-competitive teams this summer, however, I’ll toss Garcia’s name right up near the top of the list. 24 year-old hulking sluggers with the athleticism to steal double-digit bases don’t grow on trees, after all. Health permitting I like him to take a few uneven steps forward this season, and if he can show some incremental improvements in his pitch recognition and selectivity he’ll be a good bet to position himself for the breakout everyone hoped was coming last year in 2016.
Judging by his ADP, somewhere along the way people done forgot that Mike Napoli knows a thing or two about getting on base and hitting baseballs hard. Napoli went 242nd overall in NFBC drafts this spring as the 21st first baseman off the board, and there’s certainly some semblance of logic to that I guess. He’s 33 years old and coming off a down year power-wise, he has an arthritic condition in his hip, and he’s made it through 140 games exactly once in his entire career. Bad-bodied sluggers with that kind of résumé don’t exactly make for the sexiest of targets in the post-steroid era. But man, if he can stay on the field this year in that lineup…
The health issues that dogged him last season, chief among them sleep apnea, are behind him now. The long-term effects of a condition like sleep apnea over the long, grinding course of a baseball season should not be discounted even slightly when analyzing Napoli’s recent performance. It’s a bona fide Big Deal that he’s addressed the issue. Meanwhile on the field, he’ll hit sixth in a lineup that has potential to be one of the deepest of recent Major League vintage. Hitting cleanup for the 2013 version of the Sox offense he put up 171 R+RBI, which would’ve been good for fifth among AL first-sackers last season. I’m willing to bet that he can match that season’s 92 RBI output with the likes of Papi, Hanley, and Panda setting his table.
And it’s easy to gloss over the fact that, even in his “down” year last season, he got on base at a .370 clip. As I’ve noted previously, he’s posted the sixth-best OBP of any first baseman over the past four seasons. I think he can tack on an additional 10-12 runs to his total of 79 from the ’13 season with the likes of The Xander Bogaerts Breakout Experience and Rusney Castillo* (*after Shane Victorino gets injured) hitting behind him. Toss in some health concerns about Miggy and Prince Albert, maybe the league passes a rule where Jose Abreu has to hit underwater or something… look, I’m not saying it’s likely, just that people are underrating Napoli’s counting stat potential and that there is, conceivably, a path to victory here.
Chris Hatcher will lead the Dodgers in saves
I started writing this prediction before Hatcher locked down the Opening Day W for the Boys in Blue on Monday, and now I get to update the tone to be all “I told you so!” style. I wrote up Hatcher in an Adjuster piece geared towards Holds leagues a while back, noting that his high-octane stuff stood on something of a pedestal in the “still-somehow-kind-of-a-mess-despite-a-$3.4-billion-payroll Dodger bullpen,” and nothing in the intervening weeks has really changed. The Dodgers ‘pen still lacks a standout option in the eighth inning, though Joel Peralta’s healthy-enough shoulder is a good sign to that end. But with Kenley Jansen on the shelf for the first month the opportunity is sitting there for literally anybody in that ‘pen to take the ball and run with it. In situations like that you should always bet on the dude with the best stuff, and that dude is Chris Hatcher.
Now, obviously this prediction will require more than just your run-of-the-mill seizing of opportunity. Sure, Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe that one time when the franchise quarterback got hurt, and we all know how that worked out. But Chris Hatcher is probably no Tom Brady. And Donnie Baseball is definitely no Bill Belichick. Relievers—even the most dominant and seemingly untouchable of them all —are prone to failure and wild swings of variant performance. We assume Kenley will roll off the re-assembly line as good as new, but we don’t know that.
Here’s a scenario: Hatcher gets the first crack at a Save opportunity on Opening Day (Editor’s Note: That happened!). He converts it (Editor’s Note: That also happened!). He gets the next opportunity too, and promptly converts that. Throughout April he goes on to convert seven of eight opportunities and looks pretty good doing it. Kenley comes back, struggles to get his delivery in synch. Maybe his velocity’s off a couple miles-an-hour. He blows a couple opportunities and hits the shelf again for a longer rehab. Chris Hatcher steps back in and saves the day! It’s not that far-fetched a scenario, is it? The point, as always, is that relievers are fungible assets, and we should never, ever be surprised when this or any similar scenario unfolds.
Zach McAllister will put up the best numbers in Cleveland’s rotation* (*Non-Kluber Division)
The Cuyahoga rotation was a hot topic over the offseason, with Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar seeing a fair share of internet ink spilled to extoll the virtues of their breakout potential. Even T.J. House got some late love after Gavin Floyd got hurt and Salazar’s struggles gave him an inside track to a rotation spot. And then there’s Mr. McAllister, who quietly put up a 3.47 FIP between 15 starts and seven relief appearances last season. He’s shown flashes of better-than-replacement-level performance for several years now, and his stint in the bullpen last summer resulted in an intriguing velocity boost of about three mph on his fastball. More intriguing still, he held that velocity gain upon his return to the rotation last September, and he held that velocity gain through the winter and into spring training this year as well.
Velocity is certainly not the be-all-end-all of pitching of course, but McAllister already had himself an interesting little mix of pitches (and velocity) before the spike. Both his curve and slider have featured double-plus vertical movement over his career, but neither has performed as a particularly valuable pitch on account of sloppier, less-consistent second-plane movement. It’s a small sample to be sure, but there appears to be some improvement on both counts at the higher velocity band, and that can really only be a good thing for McAllister’s prospects.
Breakouts for post-post-prospect types like McAllister are certainly hard to predict, but it’s also certainly necessary to try, as guys like him are the guys that can win you a league. Given the next-to-nothing acquisition cost to grab a guy like him—judging by roster number, it’s quite possible he’s still on your waiver wire—it’s well worth your time and energy to see if the velocity gains to end up correlating with positive results. I think they will in McAllister’s case, and he’ll be just the kind of breakout darling you’re looking for.
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