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With Opening Day rapidly approaching, our experienced writers will be offering their most daring predictions for the 2018 fantasy baseball season.

Many of my predictions over the years have been laughable at season’s end, but there have been several success stories, as well. Regardless, all predictions are based in trends and patterns, with just a hint of gut feeling sprinkled in.

Let’s get to it.

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Bold Predictions for 2018

1. Masahiro Tanaka is a top-three AL SP

Lost in the madness of Tanaka’s 4.74 ERA and 35 home runs allowed was a sneakily strong season otherwise. His  20.3 percent K-BB%, 3.44 xFIP and 3.52 SIERA were all top-15 marks among qualified pitchers. Tanaka also boasted baseball’s best chase rate (37.8 percent) and third-best swinging strike rate (15.1 percent). If he can lower his absurd 21.2 percent HR/FB -- which was, after all, the highest mark of any qualified pitcher since batted ball data started being collected in 2002 -- Tanaka has a real shot at finishing 2018 as one of the top 10 fantasy starters, perhaps behind only Corey Kluber and Chris Sale in the American League.

2. Danny Salazar leads the majors in strikeout rate

Salazar endured a disappointing 2017 campaign, but at 28 years old, maintains the stuff to be an ace. His 4.28 ERA isn’t pretty, but the 3.21 xFIP was the seventh-best mark in baseball (min. 100 IP), better than those of Carlos Carrasco, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Had he qualified, Salazar would have finished in the top five in both K% and K-BB%. And get this-- his swinging strike rate? The best of any starting pitcher at 16.4 percent. Salazar isn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day so I can’t say that he’ll pace all pitchers in total strikeouts, but once he returns, he should once again be a dominant force for the Indians. Given the injury, he can be had well outside the top 150, but has a chance to return value as a top-25 SP.

3. Joakim Soria is a top-10 relief pitcher

Soria was once among the game’s elite closers, but he’s recorded just two saves over the last two years. Heading into 2018, however, he sits firmly in the race for the White Sox’s closer role. Last season, Soria finished in the top 15 in both FIP and xFIP. He was also one of just three relievers -- alongside Felipe Rivero and Ryan Madson -- to post a FIP below 2.50 while striking out at least 20 percent of hitters and inducing ground balls at a 50 percent clip.

While the White Sox aren’t expected to win many games, every team in baseball had at least 40 save opportunities last season. Soria shouldn’t have trouble beating out Juan Minaya, who owns a 4.50 ERA, 4.45 FIP and 4.84 xFIP across 54 frames for his career and walks more than four batters per nine innings.

4. Trevor Hildenberger records 20 saves for Twins

Hildenberger is probably not on many fantasy radars at this point, but that could change soon. Like Soria, he posted a ground ball rate north of 50 percent while striking out more than 25 percent of the hitters he faced. He has a great feel for his fastball and changeup, and has been working on his slider.

With a fastball that sits just around 90 mph, Hildenberger isn’t a prototypical closer, but you do see it sometimes. Alex Claudio and Tyler Lyons are two other pitchers with middling velocity who are in line for saves this season. Hildenberger has proven his ability to retire batters at any level, having posted a 1.57 ERA across parts of four years in the minors and a 3.21 ERA in 42 innings as a rookie last season.

5. Christian Yelich returns first-round value

Yelich had a somewhat “down” 2017 campaign, slashing .282/.369/.439 with 18 HR, 100 R, 81 RBI and 16 SB. Those numbers are still very strong, but he is capable of more. The 26-year-old is moving to one of the more hitter-friendly parks in baseball, playing for a team with a loaded lineup and a manager that loves to run-- seven players with double-digit steals last year.

Yelich has been slowly cutting down on the ground balls, improving his fly ball rate from 15 percent to 25 percent over the last two years. He has the perfect makeup of a quality hitter-- swings at good pitches (25.0 percent chase rate), hits pitches in the zone (88.4 percent), hits the ball hard (35.2 percent) and gets on base when he puts the ball in play (.336 BABIP). Yes, this might be an oversimplification, but the point remains that Yelich is a tremendous hitter who has been very productive for years and is moving to a better situation right as he should be hitting his prime. A 25/20 season with increased run and RBI totals is well within reach.

6. Matt Chapman is a top-10 third basemen

Chapman showed some serious pop in his first stint in the majors last season, crushing 14 homers across 290 at-bats. Had he qualified, his .238 ISO would have put him eighth among third basemen, as would his 36 percent hard hit rate. Even if his fly ball rate drops from an absurd 50.5 percent (would have been the third-highest in baseball), his HR/FB should still improve from 13.9 percent, and he certainly has enough power to break the 30-HR threshold, with an outside shot of sniffing 40. That should put him right in the mix to be one of the top 10 third basemen

7. Khris Davis leads majors in home runs

Apparently I’m really big on the A’s this year... with Matt Olson, they could have three guys with 35 or more dingers.

Davis has hit 40 in consecutive seasons without an insane HR/FB rate-- 26.9 percent, compared to 35.6 percent for Aaron Judge and 34.3 percent for Giancarlo Stanton. There’s no way you can expect a batting average boost from Davis -- he’s remarkably hit exactly .247 in each of the last three years -- but there’s actually reason to believe he could improve upon his home run total. Davis cut down on his swing rate last year and made more contact, specifically in the zone, than he had in previous years. And while he struck out at a career-high clip (29.2 percent), his swinging strike rate actually dropped to 14.7 percent. If he can continue to not chase pitches but swing more at strikes, he may actually see the ball clear the fence more often.

8. Jonathan Lucroy is a top-five catcher

Okay, this is getting a little crazy, right? I really, really like Oakland’s offense (I also think Jed Lowrie is undervalued and can be super useful in deeper leagues).

Don’t get me wrong, Lucroy was flat-out terrible for most of last year. His ground ball rate spiked while his hard hit rate plummeted, and he crawled his way through his worst season since his 2010 rookie campaign.

However, there are small hints of optimism. Lucroy’s plate discipline was impeccable-- he posted career-best marks in o-swing rate, o-contact rate, z-contact rate and swinging strike rate. He remains a patient hitter, sitting third among catchers in BB/K last season. Additionally, he was an entirely different player upon being traded to Colorado-- .310/.429/.437 slash line with two homers and a .369 wOBA across .175 plate appearances. Yes, I know it’s Colorado, but it’s encouraging to see his batted ball profile revert back to normal a bit. The 31-year-old Lucroy is  just one year removed from an all-star season in which he posted a .362 wOBA, and is capable to returning to top form in 2018.

9. Lance Lynn is less than 30 percent owned by midseason

Lynn had to settle for a one-year deal with the Twins, which was a bit surprising considering fellow free agents Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb got long-term deals despite also waiting until after Spring Training started to sign. But perhaps teams were smart to pass on Lynn, whose 3.43 ERA may look good on paper but peripherals are concerning--  he posted the worst ERA-FIP in baseball. Of the 50 pitchers (min. 100 IP) who posted an ERA below 4.00, Lynn managed the third-highest FIP (4.82), the lowest BABIP (.244), the fifth-lowest chase rate and the sixth-lowest K-BB%. Every player below him in any of those categories have an ADP outside the top 300. I’m staying away from Lynn at all costs.

10. Trey Mancini is also less than 30 percent owned by midseason

Mancini enjoyed a breakout season in 2017, mashing 24 homers with an .826 OPS, but there are several concerns going forward. His .352 BABIP is likely unsustainable considering his lack of speed and ground ball-heavy approach. With a fly ball rate under 20 percent, he’ll need to somehow improve his 19.8 HR/FB in order to safely surpass 20 homers, and that just won’t cut it at a first base position that saw 29 guys reach that mark last year. Plus, he doesn’t contribute in enough categories (65 runs, just one stolen base) to be all that useful as an outfielder. Entering his second season at age 26, Mancini is not a young kid trying to figure it out. His upside is limited and his floor is that of a guy on the waiver wire in most formats.

 

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