A few weeks ago we pooled our staff predictions into a one-stop shop, but writing a full “bold” predictions column is one of my favorite annual exercises, and that didn’t quench my thirst. So here, then, I present to you a half-dozen things that I foresee to be inevitable fantasy outcomes of the 2016 calendar year.
Delino DeShields, Jr. Will Be a Top-10 Outfielder
By last year’s standards my claim here would essentially mean I’m predicting DeShields to earn $27 this year, and roughly equal, in bulk value, the season that Mookie Betts—he of the 16th-best overall ADP this spring—just produced. That’s a tall mountain to climb, but hear me out. Last year DeShields sneakily earned $15 in less than 500 plate appearances, and he did it largely on the back of 25 steals (which was somehow good for 11th-most in the majors). In his prior three seasons in the minors he’d stolen over 200 bases. This is one of the fastest players in Major League Baseball, and last year’s total feels about as light as the laws of physics allow. He made some intriguing adjustments as the season wore on last summer, cutting his whiff rate by three percentage points in the second half and overcoming an early tendency to pop balls up on the infield. And then there’s the spray chart: Check out the line-drive distribution over the last three months of the 2015 season. He always got on base at a robust clip in his minor-league career, and that translated very well in his big-league debut. Elite speed, plus above-average on-base abilities, plus a batted-ball distribution favorable to maximizing that speed… yeah, I’m buying. Give him 40-50 steals and all of the Runs that come with leading off every day for a solid offense, and suddenly the earnings levels I’m talking about are there for the taking if he can coax a .270 average out of his bat.
Aaron Nola Will Be a Top-25 Starter
Nola acquitted himself well in his first 13 big-league starts last season, and he largely did it without his usual fastball. After scouting reports had touted 92-94 mph gas, he averaged just 90.6 on the sinker after debuting. That number has migrated north by two clicks this spring, while he’s added similar velocity and greater horizontal movement to his curveball. His groundball tendencies may be more of a liability than they should be in front of a Phillies’ defense that was the worst in baseball at converting worm-burners into outs last year, although uber-prospect J.P. Crawford has glove and will likely travel to Philadelphia at some point this summer. Regardless, Nola’s underlying skillset points to a strikeout rate somewhere around or north of league-average, along with the kind of solid-if-unspectacular ratios that play up over the course of 200-plus innings. Win karma can have maddening little to do with team quality, and if he can wrangle 12 or 13 wins for his troubles, there’s mid-teens earning potential built in here, and that puts him smack dab in the middle of the top-25 conversation.
Ian Desmond Will Be the Top-Earning Shortstop
No, Carlos Correa is not tied up in a basement somewhere, but he is entering his sophomore season, and even superheroes can be vulnerable to an off-season’s worth of advance scouting drill-downs. But we’re all of one season removed from Desmond posting a third consecutive 20/20 season and banking $25, and while he was admittedly atrocious in the first half last season, he rebounded to very quietly post a .262/.331/.446 second-half line with 12 homers and eight steals—numbers very much in line with his two previous full seasons. The park switch is a draw, while the lineup context (at least according to PECOTA’s projection) improves substantially. Desmond’s consistently poor line-drive profile and uncomfortably advancing whiff rate make him an ongoing batting average liability, but no trends in his batted ball profile of a year ago suggest his BABIP shouldn’t be able to rebound into the above-average range in which it had consistently sat for many years prior. An average somewhere in the .250 range with the counting stat production he’s shown four three-and-a-half of the past four seasons should be more than enough to get him back into the running for pole position at the six spot.
Yasiel Puig Will Stay Healthy, Will Still Be Just Okay
I’ve been on the Puig train since copping him in the last round of my home league’s prospect draft right after he defected, but there’s an awful lot of debris on the track these days. Puig’s approach cratered last year in between DL stints for what may just be chronic hamstring issues—he was about as valuable on the bases last year as Tuffy Gosewisch—as he offered at 13 percent more pitches than he had in 2014, including a significantly greater number of balls out of the zone. He made less contact on strikes, made more contact on bad balls, and continued to show just an absurd vulnerability to sliders down and away. The obvious talent remains, and he’s still just 25 of course. But there are a lot of simultaneous, on-the-fly adjustments he’s going to need to make in order to post another top-20 season among outfielders, as he did in 2014. Re-drafters paid for him as the 22nd outfielder off the board, so he’d basically need to kill all those birds with one stone in 2016 to generate a breakeven return on investment. I don’t think he does that; he’ll make some progress in addressing his approach issues, but I’ll wager on a finish outside the top 40 in outfielder earnings.
Mychal Givens Will Emerge As a Top-10 Reliever
I mentioned Givens in my short-form predictions earlier this offseason, but I figured I’d expand on him as a particularly bold offering. He’s relatively new to full-time pitching, having converted from shortstop after the 2012 season. His command wandered accordingly for the first couple years as he struggled to repeat to his weird arm slot, but the stuff was good enough that it didn’t much matter. And then last year suddenly he up and waked just 22 in 87 and a third innings between Double-A and the majors (while striking out 117). Givens’ aforementioned weird arm slot is weird in part because of how he releases the ball; despite throwing from basically a true sidearm position he twists his wrist up to where the movement he generates is something more akin to a three-quarter release. The effect is to create a devastatingly unique trajectory for both his fastball and slider, and hitters have struggled mightily to square him on the regular. He’s death on righties (.149/.220/.232 in 215 plate appearances last year), and if his changeup can take another step forward there’s room for improvement on his already-good numbers against lefties to boot. I’m banking on that happening, and I like him for a Betancesian breakout with triple-digit strikeouts and elite ratios.
Will Craig Will Be a Top-Five Pick In Dynasty Drafts This Summer
This might not be the boldest of predictions, given that as of this writing homeboy is hitting a cool .448/.573/.970 with almost as many homers (nine) as strikeouts (11) through his first 90 plate appearances for Wake Forest this spring. But at the same time it might be, because the first-base disconnect between real and fantasy prospect evaluation is still a thing. Well, it was until A.J. Reed came along and did what he did last year, anyway. The attrition rate of all-bat, big-bodied sluggers is not small, but Reed last year showed the danger of dismissing the profile outright. The search for “The Next A.J. Reed” may just be the new thing, and if that’s the case (and even if it’s not) dynasty leaguers will be wise to circle Craig on their draft boards. Here he is working a sweet 12-pitch walk on the Cape last summer against Kent State’s Eric Lauer (himself a likely Day One guy this June), and note the consistent barrel delivery and pitch recognition even in the small sample. The video game numbers he’s producing are not a fluke; this dude can hit. And if he keeps up his current pace this prediction won’t really look all that bold come your mid-summer draft.
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