- Dansby Swanson is not ranked among the top 20 SS in WAR.
Maybe it is because of his devilish good looks. Maybe it is because he was the number one overall pick. Maybe is because he has been marketed as the future face of a successful baseball franchise. Whatever the case, Dansby Swanson is being hugely overrated. If you take the most optimistic projection for each statistic from every major projection system, this would be Swanson’s projection for the 2017 season: .259/.323/.408 with an 91 WRC+, 8.5 Def, and 2.4 WAR. To add some context, if he finished with that same WAR last season, he would have ranked 15th, tied with Freddy Galvis. The caveat is that was the most favorable projection for Swanson meaning that if he lives up to the hype, he is still just slightly better than the likes of Jose Iglesias and Jordy Mercer.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Swanson is going to have a very bright future in the MLB, but this future is hyped due to intangible factors. In reality, Swanson is basically a league average hitter with solid defensive skills. New statistics are coming out every day that help give us a fuller picture about a player’s value, but unless a metric measuring perfect smiles or luscious hair is added to this equation before the year starts, there is little reason to believe that he is anything better than a league average shortstop.
- Christian Yelich finishes in the top 3 in NL MVP Voting
Christian Yelich is underrated for the same reasons that Dansby Swanson is overrated. I am not calling Yelich ugly, but his wiry frame, obscure market, and unintimidating name make him a player that is regularly overlooked when discussing the best players in the game. Over the last few seasons, Yelich has stayed under the enormous shadow (figuratively and literally) of Giancarlo Stanton en route to quietly becoming the top left fielder in the MLB. Coming off the World Baseball Classic where he batted third for a daunting US lineup, he is poised to take the next step forward into superstardom in 2017.
While Yelich has always possessed an advanced approach and great contact skills, in 2016, he started to drive the ball with more authority. His 21 home runs in 2016 were a career high and a closer look at his peripheral stats indicate this was no fluke. Yelich lowered his GB% from 62.5% to 56.5% and increased his hard hit rate to a career high 38.1%. Using Statcast data, this trend is evident as well. Yelich had an average exit velocity of 93.3 mph in 2016, which ranked in the top 20 in baseball. Yelich also finished 2nd in Gold Glove voting last year and has rated as an above average baserunner the past three seasons. Add all this to the fact that Dee Gordon will be back hitting in front of him and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton will provide him with lineup protection and you have a guy who is poised for MVP consideration in 2017.
- Corey Seager ranks second in WAR… at his own Thanksgiving dinner table.
Jeff Seager must be a proud father. First his son Kyle established himself as one of the top 3Bs in the game and then his son Corey absolutely took the league by storm and earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2016. It probably doesn’t hurt that when it’s all said and done they will combine to make upwards of forty million dollars a year.
While Corey Seager is coming off one of the most prodigious rookie seasons in history and is likely to continue that dominance into 2017, I think his older brother will finish the season with a higher WAR. First off, Kyle won the gold glove in 2016 and is one of the finer fielders at his position in the league. While Corey is serviceable at SS, his large stature for a SS leads many scouts to believe that he will eventually be forced to join his brother at the hot corner. Secondly, despite having nearly identical Hard-Hit%, Corey had a BABIP nearly 60 points higher in 2016. There are other considerations other than Hard% when projecting BABIP, such as the fact that Corey has only hit three infield fly balls over the course of 800 career plate appearances, but overall Kyle has been very unlucky compared to his younger brother when it comes to their batted ball profiles. Thirdly, Kyle has the added benefit of hitting right behind Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, while Corey’s lineup protection is not quite as solid with a Justin Turner and an aging Adrian Gonzalez. This is the year that older bro steals back the spotlight from his phenom brother.
- The Seattle Mariners end the longest playoff drought in professional sports.
I admit it. I am absolutely bullish on the Mariners this season. After a dizzyingly hectic offseason in which GM Jerry Dipoto executed more trades than hours he slept, the Mariners roster is revamped and looks ready to finally make the playoffs for the first time since they tied the MLB record for wins back in 2001.
While at times this offseason, it looked like Dipoto was making trades simply to make trades, every move reflected a clear organizational philosophy towards getting better on defense and adding speed. This strategy won the Kansas City Royals a World Series and it will take the M’s back to October. As it currently stands, the Mariners outfield of Mitch Haniger, Jarrod Dyson, and Leonys Martin looks to cover more ground than any outfield in the MLB. They couple an outfield full of center fielders with an infield that has two gold glove winners in Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
This elite defense will surely help a pitching staff that also has enormous potential. After a down year in 2016, King Felix looks ready to reclaim his crown in 2017 as his fastball velocity is up and the bite on his off-speed stuff looked reminiscent of his old self in the WBC. Left-hander James Paxton comes into 2017 with high expectations as well as a change in arm angle midway through last season raised his average fastball velocity by nearly 3 mph, making him one of the hardest throwing lefties in the game. Consistent veteran Hisashi Iwakuma and newly acquired bounce back candidate Drew Smyly are also featured in a rotation that appears to be much improved going into the 2017 season.
Going this far into a post about the Mariners without talking about the fact that they have perhaps the best 3-4-5 hitters in the American League (Cano, Cruz, Seager) is a testament to how excited I am about this team. This powerful middle of the order finally has some guys who has set the table for them as newly acquired Jarrod Dyson and Jean Segura look to occupy the top two spots in the lineup. Adding the National League hits leader in Segura to hit in front of the two killer C’s by itself a scary thought, but the move to acquire Segura becomes especially promising when you consider that Mariners shortstops last year ranked 29th in the MLB in wRC+ with an offensive output that was 36% below the league average. If all this wasn’t enough to convince you that the Mariners are going back to the playoffs in 2016, they also have a full season of flame throwing closer Edwin Diaz, who I will discuss later.
- The San Diego Padres lose 110 games.
Sometimes when I look at the San Diego Padres starting rotation, I actually laugh out loud. Other times my basic human compassion kicks in and I feel a deep sympathy for fans who will have to sit through 162 games of this severe dearth of talent. On the San Diego Padres current depth chart on mlb.com, Jered Weaver is slated to be their number two starter. You know, that guy whose average fastball velocity sits around 80 mph and gave up more HRs than any pitcher in baseball? I hate to be critical of the Padres. To be honest, I am actually grateful for the Padres because they allow former D3 pitchers like myself to dream about themselves retiring MLB hitters with mid-80s fastballs.
Jokes aside, the San Diego Padres have one of the worst teams in recent memory. Sure, Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot are top prospects that show some promise, but even if both players progress quicker than expected and breakout, it will not be enough to overcome the team’s inevitable offensive woes. Add this to the fact that the Padres play in a division with the Dodgers, Giants, a much improved Colorado Rockies team, and a D’backs team that can’t be worse than they were last year, and you get a team that is a good bet for the worst record in baseball.To elucidate just how little hope there is for the Padres, even if every player on the San Diego Padres roster performed in the top quartile of their projections, which is nearly impossible, they would still miss the playoffs. Rough.
- The New York Yankees win 90+ games.
Usually, I would never bring up Spring Training as a reason for optimism. For the most part, games played before April are overhyped and mean absolutely nothing in predicting regular season performance. However, this does come with a small caveat. Spring Training is important for evaluating prospects and players coming off injury, which is why the Yankees success in Spring Training may be somewhat significant. First baseman Greg Bird, who missed all of 2016 with an injured right shoulder, is tearing the cover off the ball in the Grapefruit League. The same goes catching phenom Gary Sanchez and top prospect Gleyber Torres. If a few of these promising prospects can break out alongside steady output from veterans such as Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Brett Gardner, the Yankees project to have an above league average offense.
The biggest question for the Yankees has to be the consistency of their starting rotation. Headlined by injury-prone Masahiro Tanaka, there isn’t a single Yankees starter who doesn’t have question marks. However, Tanaka has been able to stay healthy in spite of discouraging medical reports before and in a contract year, he could once again defy health experts. Next in the starting rotation is perennial underperformer Michael Pineda. At some point, Pineda’s consistently encouraging peripheral stats have to result in a lower ERA and more wins, that’s just how math works. Following Pineda is CC Sabathia, who underwent alcohol rehabilitation late last year in the midst of an encouraging comeback on the mound. The rotation becomes even more uncertain after Sabathia as some combination of Luis Severino, Brian Mitchell, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Adam Warren will round out the rotation’s back half. Severino possesses the most upside of this group and has shown signs of turning around his abysmal 2016 campaign while the other guys competing for rotation spots are perfectly capable of being at least serviceable. Brian Cashman could also add another SP at the deadline if the Yankees are in contention. The Yankees starting pitching is not a strength, but if they can do enough to hand the ball over to a bullpen that features the most dominant set-up / closer combo in the game with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, the Yanks could end up having a lower team ERA than most experts project.
While most believe that 2017 is still a rebuilding year for the Bronx Bombers, they are failing to consider that the word “rebuild” is not in the Yankee vocabulary. No matter how the team looks on paper, there is something special about putting on the pinstripes that transforms players into winners. Maybe it’s the pressure of the city that pushes players, maybe it is the honor that comes with suiting up in the same uniform as some of the game’s all-time greats, or maybe it’s the fear that George Steinbrenner may still storm into the clubhouse and verbally eviscerate your manhood if you do not play well. Whatever the case, the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1995 and with all the young talent coming up their ranks, there is reason to believe that this streak will continue. With a blend of promising youngsters and solid veterans, the Yankees will outperform expectations in 2017 and secure a wildcard spot in the AL.
- The St. Louis Cardinals will miss the playoffs again.
The St. Louis Cardinals are picked by most to be a lead contender for the wild card in the National League. Coming off a disappointing 2016 season, the Cards acquired leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler in the offseason and bolstered their bullpen with the addition of southpaw Brett Cecil. While on the surface, these acquisition look like they could give the Cardinals the slight boost needed to elevate their win total from 86 to somewhere in the 88-90 range, I am more skeptical.
While some applaud the Cardinals for their balanced roster that features no starter projected for less than 2.2 WAR, I think the fact that they also have no player projected for a WAR above 3.1 wins is more concerning. This type of roster construction merely elevates the floor of the team, without boosting it into playoff territory.
Especially of concern is the Cardinals starting rotation. After a season ending injury to top pitching prospect Alex Reyes, their rotation appears very thin. After Carlos Martinez, the rotation is filled with guys who are all more likely to have ERAs in the 4.00-4.25 range than in the mid-3.00s. The lack of strikeout pitchers is also a hindrance to the Cardinals as they lack quality defenders. Adding Fowler will help, but Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha all possess GB% over 50%, which means the real area of their defense that needed improvement was their infield. GM Tom Mozeliak believes that a full season of Kolten Wong could help in this area, but lead-footed veteran Jhonny Peralta and defensively inept Aledmys Diaz will eliminate any gains that come from Wong’s presence. Overall, the Cardinals are more likely to win roughly 85 games again, which is good, but probably not enough to secure a playoff berth.
- Billy Hamilton steals more bases than any player in the last 30 years.
Billy Hamilton will never be a great hitter, but due to his otherworldly speed, he doesn’t need to be in order to be a very special player. During the first half of 2016, Hamilton looked like the anemic hitter he had been over the course of his first three MLB seasons. But then something changed. After the All-Star break, Hamilton hit .293 with a .369 OBP. Obviously, more time on the base paths means more stolen base opportunities for Hamilton as he swiped 36 bases the final 45 games of the season. Adjust this pace to a full season and Hamilton would steal 130 bases. Of course, this incredible pace is probably not sustainable, but it is not unrealistic to think that if he manages to get on base at .320 – .330 clip, he will create enough stolen base opportunities to significantly approve upon his career high 58 steals in 2016.
In order to accomplish the totally arbitrary honor of stealing more bases than any player in the last three decades, he will need to steal 93 bases. This gaudy SB total is more achievable when you consider that Hamilton is slated to lead off this season. Not only does this mean that Hamilton will get more PAs, it also means that at least once a game he will have nobody ahead of him clogging the base paths.
Understandably, there are several more factors that must be included in this equation. First off, Hamilton will need to stay healthy. Hamilton’s aggressive style of play is not always compatible with perfect health as he has played just 114 and 119 games the last two season respectively. Secondly, his improved hitting will need to continue both in order to keep his spot atop the lineup and to reach base enough in order to get stolen base opportunities. With his BB% increasing by roughly one percent each season since his rookie season, there is evidence that Hamilton is finally practicing a more patient approach and with a higher spot in the lineup, he will Hamilton encouraged to continue improving his plate discipline.
Also of note is a philosophical change that Hamilton may have made last season. When closely analyzing Hamilton’s batted ball profile, I realized that Hamilton increased his GB% by nearly 6% percent in 2016. Usually, an increase in GB% is a negative trend for a hitter, but in Hamilton’s case, it allows him to use his blazing speed to beat out infield hits and put pressure on defenders.The Reds are in full rebuild mode and have nothing to lose by giving Hamilton the opportunity to hit leadoff as well as the green light to freely wreak havoc on the bases with his track star speed.
9. Edwin Diaz has more Ks than any SP for the San Diego Padres
Just a year ago, Edwin Diaz was toiling in Double-A, straddling the line between being a useful starter and a high-ceiling reliever. Usually, teams will only relegate top pitching prospects to the bullpen when they have repeatedly proven that they can’t cut it as a starter. Rarely, do teams send pitching prospects to the bullpen when they are excelling as a starting pitcher. However, this is exactly what the Mariners decided to do with Diaz in the middle of 2016, and boy are they glad they did.
Diaz was perhaps the best reliever in baseball from when he was called up in June. Featuring a fastball that regularly reaches triple digits on the radar gun and a wipeout slider, Diaz is about as unhittable as they come. In just 51 ⅔ innings, Diaz struck out 88 batters, good for a videogame-like 15.33 K/9. If we assume that Diaz stays healthy and throws roughly 80 innings and maintains his K/9, he will strikeout 138 batters in 2017. With the San Diego Padres rolling out no starting pitcher who eclipsed 119 Ks last season and several of their SPs entering the twilight of their career, it is very possible that Diaz strikes out more batters than any pitcher in their rotation. If writing this article has revealed anything about my personal biases, it is that I am eternally hopeful about the Mariners and am pretty pessimistic about the Padres. This prediction is the perfect intersection of these two predispositions.
10. The Houston Astros will win their first World Series.
The Astros feature perhaps the most dominant lineup in the American League with MVP candidates Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa to go along with All-Star center fielder George Springer and immensely talented Alex Bregman for a full season. The additions of left handed bats Josh Reddick and Brian McCann, as well as switch hitting outfielder Carlos Beltran give the ‘Stros lineup the balance they desperately needed in 2016. Finally, Cuban import Yulieski Gurriel has the potential to be an above average regular at 1B and Nori Aoki is the perfect 9-hole hitter, essentially serving as a second leadoff hitter to set the table the second, third, and fourth time through the lineup. The Astros bench features the powerful Evan Gattis, and defensive specialist Jake Marisnick, and with a seemingly endless supply of reinforcements available in the high minors, the Astros have solid contingency plans at almost every position.
The Astros starting rotation is the biggest question mark for the club. A potential World Series run is largely incumbent upon Dallas Keuchel regaining the form that made him the 2015 AL Cy Young winner. Behind Keuchel is future ace Lance McCullers, who possesses perhaps the filthiest right handed curveball in the AL. After McCullers are serviceable righties Colin McHugh, Charlie Morton, and Mike Fiers. While none of these guys are special, they don’t need to be with the Astros dominant lineup and bullpen. Another candidate for the starting rotation is righty Joe Musgrove, who pairs his fastball with a sharp slider that generates plenty of swings-and-misses. Waiting in Triple-A is Francis Martes, a righthander whose high octane fastball and curveball combination make him one of the Top 20 prospects in the MLB. If Keuchel, McCullers, Musgrove, or Martes fulfill their potential this season, the Astros could have one of the best rotations in the MLB. If they don’t, the Astros still have enough low floor starters that can limit damage just enough for Houston to win games with their offense.
The Astros bullpen looks like one of the deepest and most talented in the game. This unit is lead by Ken Giles, an electric righty with a bulldog mentality that makes him one of the tougher ABs in the game. Setting the stage for Giles is Luke Gregerson, who dominated in the closer role for team USA in the WBC despite Andrew Miller, Sam Dyson, and Mark Melancon being on the roster. Will Harris and Tony Sipp are probably overqualified to be 6th and 7th inning guys, but that’s the luxury you have when you have as many quality arms as the Astros do. The X-factor in this bullpen is hybrid starter / reliever Chris Devenski, who quietly put together a season in which he trailed only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez in FIP over the course of 108 ⅓ IP.
The Astros currently have the top end talent to win the World Series and the organizational depth to have contingency plans in case of injuries. Houston also has the luxury of possessing top prospects to use as trade chips if they need to make any midseason roster improvements. All in all, everything is in place for the Astros to bring their first ever World Series title to Houston.