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I Firmly Believe: Colin Moran will return the most value among Astros third basemen

Through the season’s first 13 games, the Astros third basemen are hitting .186/.250/.237. The division of labor is roughly two-thirds Luis Valbuena, one-third Marwin Gonzalez, and a dusting of Matt Duffy. As the primary incumbent and strong side of the platoon, Valbuena holds the keys to whether this prediction has any chance of coming to fruition.

Valbuena’s 25 dingers last season helped offset an otherwise poor performance at the plate, in both fantasy and real-life contexts. His .224 batting average sapped most of the pickup from the home run total, and Valbuena delivered a modest $6 return in a standard mixed league and double that in AL-only formats. Valbuena did manage a 10.1 percent walk rate, which got his on-base percentage all the way up to .310, a bottom-third mark among third basemen who registered 300 or more plate appearances. If your preferred metric is TAv, Valbuena’s .267 mark was enough to garner an above-average descriptor. Keeping that tag is reliant on another hefty home run total if Valbuena continues to struggle to get on base.

About that: Valbuena’s 16.7 percent HR:FB rate in 2015 was 7.5 percentage points higher than his previous career high. Valbuena does hit the ball hard and his batted-ball distance jumped in 2015, but I’m not optimistic about his ability to hold the gains. Meanwhile, he swung more and made less contact than he had in any season since 2011. With a deteriorating approach and a batted-ball mix that’s led to a career BABIP of .262, his margin of error for providing an acceptable OBP is slim.

Enough about Valbuena. If you read my three-year rankings of third basemen, you might recall that I’m the high guy on Moran. I saw him quite a bit as a college player at UNC, where he hit .346/.451/.530 over three seasons. He’s slashed .301/.368/.428 across four minor-league levels since being drafted sixth overall in 2013. You don’t need me to tell you to take spring training stats with a mountain of salt, but maybe it’s instructive to know that Moran hit .349/.417/.628 in 47 Grapefruit League plate appearances. He’s off to a .301/.360/.428 start in the first nine games of his 2016 season. Get the point yet? Moran has hit everywhere. He’s going to hit when he gets to Houston.

The conversation on Moran almost always focuses on what he can’t do. No, he doesn’t have ideal power for the hot corner. No, he’s not a good fielder. (Digression: Valbuena is terrible on the dirt. His -4.4 FRAA in 2015 was closer to Pablo Sandoval that it was to league average.) Houston doesn’t need Moran to do everything well to provide value and neither do you. Luis Valbuena is proof of that.

Moran will displace Valbuena by mid-summer and he’ll hit, even if he does nothing else. At a time when you should be placing more of a premium on batting average than ever before, Moran is a free, quality stash who is close to being a productive major leaguer.

I Firmly Believe: Andrew Benintendi will be relevant in AL-only leagues in 2016

Betting on a prospect who starts in High-A to have an impact in the majors comes with long odds no matter how advanced the player is, but let’s just see if I can come up with a path:

Opening Day through May, High-A: 45 games, .283/.350/.462

June through July, Double-A: 45 games, .312/.396/.503

If that looks familiar, it’s because that’s roughly the timeline Michael Conforto followed last year, and those were his triple-slash lines at the same levels. After destroying short season and Low-A ball in his draft year, Benintendi is off to a quick start in High-A this season, hitting .319/.396/.617 through 12 games. 12 games is obviously a small sample. Then again, so is 45 or any number that earns a prospect a quick promotion. Benintendi could cool off considerably and still have an argument for a jump to Double-A by early summer. The Red Sox Double-A affiliate doesn’t have any true prospects whose development the organization would be worried about stalling by bumping Benintendi.

Whether or not he will hit at Double-A, especially to the extent that Conforto did, is an open question. And the long shot nature of this prediction is underscored by the fact that hitting in Double-A would be the easy part. To have an impact in fantasy, he’ll need to produce at the major league level, not just get there. Conforto earned $7 in NL-only leagues last season primarily because he bopped nine long balls in 194 plate appearances. Benintendi does have surprising pop for his size but he doesn’t possess the kind of raw power to equal Conforto’s home run output over a third of a season. What Benintendi does have is speed and enough on-base ability to allow it to play. It’s not difficult to imagine 6-8 steals if he gets 50 games, and I’m presuming he wouldn’t be a zero elsewhere, given the strong contact skills, enough thump to yank a few past Pesky’s pole, and favorable offensive context.

Predicting major immediate major league success is a pretty tall hurdle to clear on its own, but we also need to find him a path to Boston. I don’t think that’s as hard as it sounds, especially for a guy who has the ability to play center field.

In an absurd 25-game stretch from August 9th to September 7th, Jackie Bradley Jr. hit .446/.489/.952. In the other 49 games he slashed .130/.250/.225. His OPS in more than 400 plate appearances in 2015 was .531. The possibility of a prolonged slump so deep that his glove can’t compensate certainly exists. Brock Holt and Chris Young is a fine platoon in left field, but assuming it stays in place all season doesn’t allow for the possibility that the Sox have to employ Holt’s versatility to cover for an injury or poor performance somewhere else on the diamond. Chris Young as an every day left fielder doesn’t fly. Rusney Castillo is the next man up, but he has a long ways to go to prove that he can be a first division regular.

It’s entirely possible—probable, even—that the Red Sox would plug an obvious hole via trade before aggressively promoting a relatively green prospect. They’ll put their best team on the after the trade deadline, and if they haven’t made a move, I think that team includes Benintendi. If he’s in Boston and playing regularly, pure hitting ability and some speed will headline an overall game good enough to earn a few bucks. —Greg Wellemeyer

Forecasting the future is notoriously difficult. Just ask PECOTA. One of the most compelling reasons we watch baseball is that it serves as a daily reminder that reality is infinitely complex and nothing is ever certain. Mike Trout’s greatness is the lone constant in the baseball universe. This week at Baseball Prospectus, we're giving a new look and feel to the bold predictions pieces that generally are written in the second half of March. Yes, those are written to help you with drafts, but those drafts are ancient history at this point. What we're aiming at here is what we still believe to be true after two weeks of games are in the books. So, call them bold predictions if you will, but these are some things that we believe.

I Firmly Believe In: Dexter Fowler’s power surge

Through 60 plate appearances, Dexter Fowler has a .340 ISO, which includes five doubles, a triple, and three home runs. That’s an unprecedented level of power for the 30-year-old almost-Oriole-now Cub outfielder, and most people assume that level will eventually drop to his career norms.

I believe Fowler will post career-best power numbers in 2016. He hinted at it a year ago, clobbering 17 homers in his Cubs’ debut, which is four more homers than he’d ever hit in a single season before that point. There’s some evidence to suggest last year’s power spike was due to increased willingness to use his pull side. After five-consecutive years of a pulling the baseball under 40 percent of the time, that number jumped to 44.1 percent, a career high.

It could be a coincidence that Fowler hit the most homers of his career during the year in which he pulled the baseball more often than ever; however, it also makes logical sense that a hitter could access his in-game power if pulling the baseball more regularly. After all, his spray charts show that the vast majority of his homers come to straight-away right field, and he’s most often batting lefty.

This argument becomes a bit more convincing when we realize that Fowler is actually pulling the baseball even more this year. He’s now pulling the baseball 45.5 percent of the time. For me, it’s not surprising that he’s hitting for even more power.

The trick will be avoiding an over-reliance on his pull side, which would have deleterious effects to his batting average. But, regardless, I’ve come to believe the power numbers are real. I think he hits 20-plus homers in 2016.

I Firmly Believe: Brad Miller will swing his way to the bench

Brad Miller’s appeal has always been a decent combination of power and speed at the shortstop position, the ability to hit double-digit homers and swipe double-digit bags. The batting average has never been pretty in the big leagues; however, a power/speed threat at a premium infield position is difficult enough to obtain that the Tampa Bay Rays acquired him this past offseason.

Through 43 plate appearances, he’s hitting .128/.209/.256 with a career-high 25.6 percent strikeout rate. What’s more is that Miller is swinging at more pitches than ever before, and he’s swinging at more bad pitches than ever before. His 52.6 percent swing rate is a career high. His 39.2 percent swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone is also a career high by a wide margin.

It could be mere random fluctuation. I happen to think it mirrors an organizational trend. The Tampa Bay Rays have the highest swing rate of any team in the major leagues:

Team

Swing%

Rays

51.0

White Sox

49.5

Rockies

49.3

Reds

49.0

Phillies

48.3

Angels

48.2

To me, it seems the Tampa Bay Rays are either coaching their players to swing often or they’re seeking to acquire players with that approach at the plate. There was a significant shift two years ago. The Rays ranked near the bottom of the league in swing percentage in 2014 and shot up to sixth-highest in the league in 2015. The offseason between 2014 and 2015 also happens to be when Andrew Friedman left for Los Angeles and when Kevin Cash took over for Joe Maddon in the dugout.

I believe the new Tampa Bay Rays front office and/or manager have prioritized guys who swing often and are aggressive or they have begun to preach it. Whatever the case, Brad Miller has taken it to heart, and I believe Miller will swing himself to the bench by mid-summer.

I Firmly Believe: Matt Moore’s strikeout rate has finally arrived

Matt Moore, the guy who lit up radar guns in the minors and arrived in the majors with a crap-ton’s of hype, is finally striking guys out. His 28.4 percent whiff rate is light-years above his career 22.1 percent strikeout rate or his career-high 23.1 percent strikeout rate.

The bounce-back in velocity is nice. The improved command is brilliant. Mostly, though, I believe Moore may have finally “found it” due to the fact that he’s getting guys to swing at pitches outside the zone yet still getting guys to swing-and-miss at pitches in the strike zone. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. And his 76.7 percent contact rate at pitches in the strike zone ranks fifth-best among major-league starting pitchers. I dig that.

If Moore is able to rack up the strikeouts, he’s once again one of the most exciting young pitchers in all of baseball. He posted a 3.29 ERA in 150.1 innings back in 2013, striking out 22.3 percent of the batters he faced while walking 11.8 percent. If he can strike out nearly 30 percent this year with the improved command, he’s a potential top-30 starter. Not bad for a guy who was going 63rd overall in preseason drafts. —J.P. Breen

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BPKevin
4/20
I read that Alex Bregman's path to the majors might now be at 3B. Do you see him as roadblock to Colin Moran?
gregwellemeyer
4/21
Could be, especially if you're talking about 2017 and beyond. Bregman is tearing the cover off the ball and is definitively a better prospect than Moran. In the immediate near term, I can't see the Astros skipping over Moran, who has a track record of hitting in the upper minors, to get Bregman to Houston on a super aggressive timeline.
jonkk1
4/20
I think the opening paragraph is lodged about half way through, right above the Dexter Fowler section. Or, perhaps more likely, the second half of the article got put first.