Written by: James Schiano (@FreePeteAlonso)
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
I said I was going to profile three hitters this week who aren’t garnering the type of attention they deserve (I already published a similar piece on ‘buzzless’ pitchers I love this season), but drafts are all over now and the season is upon us. Instead, I’m going to deliver some bold predictions for the 2019 season which include the hitters I would have discussed plus some other obscure baseball thoughts.
I hope you enjoy.
Brandon Nimmo will be a top-20 fantasy outfielder
Being a Mets fan I’ll admit I can be a tad biased, but I believe Brandon Nimmo is a budding superstar. He will finally have a bona fide starting role to begin a season, he will be hitting atop a vastly improved Mets lineup and he contributes in all categories. Not to mention, his eye is elite (15.9 O-Swing% and 15.0 BB%), and his power potential took a humungous step forward last season.
Nimmo poured on the XBH with 28 doubles, 8 triples and 17 home runs, good for an ISO of .219 in 2018. He never had an ISO that high during any full season in the minor leagues. On top of that, his wRC+ of 149 was good for sixth in all of baseball, sandwiched between MVP hopefuls Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman. This isn’t just the signs of a good player, but an extraordinary one.
If he can cut his K% from 26.2% into the low 20s, continue his barrage of pulled fly balls (32.5% in 2017, 44.7% in 2018), and maintain his 42% hard hit rate that made him so successful last season, Nimmo will be an absolute monster this season.
Josh Bell will be a top-10 first baseman
Many people seem to have given up on Bell after a disappointing 2018 campaign. A consensus top-50 prospect when he debuted in 2016, Bell astounded the following season with 26 homers, 90 RBIs, 58 total XBH and a walk rate over 10%.
While the counting stats fell off mightily last season (12 home runs and 62 RBIs), Bell’s skills actually improved across the board. His walk rate went up to 13.2%, strikeout rank sank below 18%, exit velocity increased and launch angle rose slightly. He hit less ground balls and more fly balls: the argument could be made there was true improvement across-the-board without the results to back them up.
Manager Clint Hurdle recently gave Bell a vote of confidence and affirmed he’d serve as the Pirates clean-up hitter this season. I’m chalking last season up to a statistical ‘sophomore slump’ exasperated by a July oblique strain that never seemed to fully heal. I believe in the talent here and think we see a revamped Josh Bell this year.
The Reds will finish higher than the Cubs in the NL Central
The NL Central is going to be an absolute dog fight. I think all five teams are legitimately good, but someone has to lose. The Cardinals and Brewers seem to be in a class above while the Pirates should to be the worst of the bunch, albeit with modest potential. That leaves two in the middle: the once vaunted Cubs and eternally dismal Reds.
A tale of two off-seasons would tell a different story, though. After opening their checkbooks wide and then collapsing in pitiful fashion last season, the Cubs sat on their hands this winter despite having a flawed active roster. Do you trust a rotation headed by Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels? What about a bullpen led by Carl Edwards, Pedro Strop and the oft injured Brandon Morrow? I sure don’t!
Then the Reds, seemingly devoid of game-breaking talent this time last season, had a fine second half after firing skipper Bryan Price early last season. Eugenio Suarez emerged as a potential All-Star, Jesse Winker was in the midst of a breakout before a shoulder injury ended his season, Jose Peraza quietly had a very nice season and Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani took legitimate steps forward. Optimism abounds.
Heading in to 2019, Yasiel Puig will undoubtedly give the lineup a jolt while Alex Wood, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark should prove to be steady, veteran arms, a luxury the Reds haven’t had in years. Furthermore, they’ve committed to a data-driven approach predicated on spin rate for developing pitchers spearheaded by Brewers defector and former Driveline employee Derek Johnson, their new pitching coach.
The Reds and Cubs are heading in different directions, and I think the former will surprise in 2019 while the Cubs disappoint.
Brent Honeywell wins 10 games and helps lead the Rays to the postseason
I freaking love this guy. If you’ve never heard any of his sound bites or read some of his quotes, do so right now. Here is an interview he gave with the Tampa Times in January.
The Rays really impressed last season. Many would say they were baseball’s greatest over-achievers and a true feel-good story. Honeywell agreed, but couldn’t get the idea of how much better they could have been if he were a part of it out of his mind. That’s a competitor.
Pitching is very demanding mentally. It’s true that getting batters out isn’t likely if you don’t truly believe you are better than your adversary. There’s no question Honeywell has this belief, and the skills match the moxie.
He can legitimately command five pitches, including (of course) a unicorn of a screwball and a changeup that sinks like a stone. The team will undoubtedly exercise caution bringing him back, but he’ll be 14 months clear of Tommy John surgery in May and chomping at the bit to compete at baseball’s highest level. Once Honeywell joins a rotation of Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and defending Cy Young winner Blake Snell, the Rays will prove their recent success is sustainable moving forward.
Zach Eflin will win 15 games and have 200 strikeouts
I said everything I could about Eflin last week. The guy is a serious talent and is ready to burst onto the scene this season.
James Paxton implodes in New York
Paxton is one of those guys I’ve always tried to avoid in fantasy. He can boast elite stuff and has been a monster when healthy, but he’s never amassed 30 starts in a season. Injuries are incredibly frustrating for fantasy players, but you know what you’re getting when you select a player with Paxton’s injury history.
However, his issues may stretch far deeper than injuries in 2019. His peripheral stats took a nosedive in 2018. He gave up a hard-hit rate of 42.1% and his opponents enjoyed an exit velocity of 89.4 mph, both near the very bottom amongst qualified starters. Of course, it’s easy to get away with mistakes and the occasional moon-shot (he’s struggled with both these metrics in years past) when you’re striking out nearly one-third of the batters you face, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those days are over.
Paxton’s velocity has dropped each of the last two seasons, touching 100 mph with regularity in 2017 while averaging 95 mph last season and reports out of Spring Training show him only topping out there and sitting at 93 mph. Of course, ST results need to be taken with a grain of salt as it takes some time for guys to stretch their arms out, but diminished stuff coupled with a HR/FB rate that ballooned from 7.8% to 14.4% over the last two seasons would not bode well. Did I mention he’s going to be pitching his home games in Yankee Stadium? Yikes. Too much can go wrong here to trust Paxton.
Yes, I saw his start on Saturday. Calling this bold prediction wrong (or foolish) after an outing against the Orioles is awfully cute.
Jameson Taillon will win the NL Cy Young
I’ve written on Taillon before, but holy cow do I love this dude. It means a lot to see a pitcher committed to his craft, and Taillon has managed to take positive steps forward each season since debuting in the big leagues. Last year’s introduction of a slider means his second half surge was no joke, and sustained good health is the only thing standing in Taillon’s path towards legitimate stardom.
The AL Central will be (very) competitive
The Indians, a perennial World Series contender the past three seasons, might be the most talented team in the AL Central, but the gap is not as wide this season compared to recent memory.
For starters, Francisco Lindor is starting the year in the IL after suffering an ‘acute’ ankle sprain during a minor league Spring Training game (while rehabbing a calf injury). There is no timetable for his return to Cleveland. The rotation is still dominant, but the bullpen is weak along with a gigantic portion of their lineup. A lackluster second half last season and consecutive abysmal postseasons do not instill much confidence.
Additionally, I’d contend the Twins had one of the best offseasons in all of baseball. They signed Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathon Schoop and C.J. Cron to very team-friendly deals. Newcomers Martin Perez and Michael Pineda are both displaying increased velocity this spring and will follow Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson in an underrated rotation. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are still only 25-years-old, and the former showed some positive signs during Spring Training (again, take it with a grain of salt).
The White Sox should be much improved this season as well. There’s always a chance Yoan Moncada learns to lay off a high fastball and becomes the All-Star we all thought he would be (very early returns are certainly encouraging). Eloy Jimenez has arrived, Reynaldo Lopez’s stuff seems to be legit and Lucas Giolito has increased velocity after a mechanical tweak this spring. Bottom line, this division will not be the same cakewalk it was last season. Without a trade or two, the Indians’ assumed divisional monopoly might come to an end soon.
The Blue Jays Staff impresses people this year
Most of what you’re about to read was inspired by Eno Sarris’s update on Spring Training velocity. The gist is that Ryan Borucki and Matt Shoemaker, two starters who’d generally be considered afterthoughts, are sitting at 97 mph this spring. That is astronomical and an outlier of the duo’s velocity in recent seasons.
Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, who were once two of the most impressive young pitchers in the game, are finally both healthy again. I’ve never been too high on Stroman, but Sanchez still possesses the stuff to be great. Even amidst a dismal 2018, he had one of the highest average spin rates on his curveball in the league.
If either Stroman or Sanchez returns to fantasy relevance, the emergence of Borucki and Shoemaker would make the Jays’ perceived weakness could soon be viewed as a strength.
Kike Hernández is the next Dodger to come out of nowhere and be great
I’m not entirely sure how but the Dodgers seem to create a marquee player out of thin air every season. Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, and Max Muncy all exploded relatively deep into their careers, and Hernández is next in line this season.
Hernández’s plate appearances have steadily risen each of the past three seasons, and the results have climbed with them. He set career-highs last season with a .214 ISO, 21 home runs, .342 wOBA and 118 wRC+ to go along with a career low 16.9 K% in 462 plate appearances. The 27-year-old attributed his improvements to both the increase in playing time along with the reworking of his swing to add a little toe-tap during his load. He claims it increased his power, and the results back it up.
Hernández accumulated 3.2 WAR in 2018, and the Dodgers are finally rewarding him with a shot at the keystone full time. I’d bet he returns starting second baseman numbers this season, and there’s a decent chance he’s currently a free agent in your fantasy league.
Some of these predictions are focused on fantasy baseball, others are oriented for real life. Regardless, this is truly the best time of the year.
Follow P365 staff writer James Schiano on Twitter! @FreePeteAlonso
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas and USA Today Sports