Our series of bold predictions continues with my piece. I felt that I was a little bolder than most of my colleagues last season, including the only recommendation I saw for Steven Wright's breakout campaign. I also touted Drew Storen as a top reliever for fantasy purposes. That one didn't work out so well.
This year, I have a blend of breakouts and busts for you to review. We'll find out if these predictions make me a champ or a chump at the end of the year.
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Rick Lucks' Bold Predictions for 2017
1. Chris Sale will finish with an ERA over 4.00
Boston's acquisition of the left-handed ace has many people drooling over what will happen when an elite arm is backed by an excellent supporting cast. I question both premises. First, Sale's K% declined from 32.1 percent in 2015 to 25.7 percent last year. His fastball velocity declined (94.5 mph in 2015, 93 last year), causing his change to fool far fewer batters (18.9 percent SwStr% in 2015, 11.3 percent last year). Sale claimed that he was trying to pitch longer into games, but no pitcher volunteers to be worse if they can help it.
Second, Boston is nowhere near as good as they were last year. Papi's 163 wRC+ is out of the lineup, and the combination of Mitch Moreland and Pablo Sandoval is unlikely to replace him. Jackie Bradley Jr. (90 wRC+) and Xander Bogaerts (92) were also exposed offensively in the second half. Bogaerts and Sandoval will join Hanley Ramirez in an atrocious defensive infield tandem, and I'll happily take the under on Dustin Pedroia's 12 DRS at age 34. Finally, how is a guy who pouted when a kid was barred from the locker room and cut up jerseys he didn't enjoy the aesthetics of going to handle the pressure cooker of Boston? Smells like a disaster waiting to happen.
2. 2016's HR/FB will prove to be a blip as it regresses toward its historical norm
There were more homers last year, and by now everyone is aware of it. The league average HR/FB is usually around 10 percent, but it spiked to 12.8 percent last year. One weird season, and already fantasy owners are paying more for steals because everyone and their brother will hit 20 HR.
If an individual player has a HR/FB surge, we try to figure out why. If the ball was juiced, analysis performed on foul balls would have revealed it. The ever increasing league K% suggests that pitchers did not all become terrible last year. It may have had something to do with warmer weather, but can we bank on that to repeat? Absent a logical explanation or additional data, I refuse to accept 2016 as the new normal. This regression will give elite sluggers like Mark Trumbo more fantasy value while leaving some rosters severely underpowered.
3. The Angels will win the AL West
The leading projection systems call for the Angels to win 84 games and be in the middle of the hunt for the second wild card, but most owners still see the team as Mike Trout and a whole lot of meh. Trout is the best building block you could hope for, and Albert Pujols can still hit. Additions like Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, and Luis Valbuena may not be sexy, but they add depth to a lineup that sorely needed it. Espinosa in particular should team with Andrelton Simmons to give the Angels staff an elite defense as well. Arms like Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs will post more Ws and a better WHIP than most believe as a result.
Winning the division will also require the Astros to slip, which they did just last year. Jose Altuve is great, but Carlos Correa is much more pedigree than production so far and George Springer is miscast as leadoff man. Their rotation also leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you never believed in Dallas Keuchel. This division is open for the taking, and the Angels and Seattle Mariners are both in a position to do so.
4. RA Dickey returns to fantasy relevance with a sub-3.50 ERA
The logical follow up to my Steven Wright prediction last year, I predict Dickey will fare much better after leaving the DH and Rogers Center behind. Dickey was much better on the road last year, posting a 3.56 ERA there against a 5.28 mark at home. We don't know how Atlanta's new park will play yet, but it has to allow fewer homers than Toronto's bandbox. Atlanta has a sneaky good offense, so the run support should be there for an improvement on last season's 10-15 record too.
Knuckleball guys defy advanced metrics consistently, so Dickey's 5.03 FIP does not concern me at all. I also see a 10.6 percent overall SwStr% that seems likely to support a better K% than last year's 17.3 percent rate. He still won't K a ton of guys, so he will be more streamable than an every week option. Still, he won the Cy Young the last time he pitched in the NL East and costs nothing to acquire.
5. Roman Quinn steals at least 40 bases
Quinn may not be on the roster for Opening Day, but he figures to be a cheap source of speed when he gets his chance. He stole 41 bases in 51 attempts across three levels last year, including 5-for-6 in 69 PAs at the MLB level. He flashed an excellent eye (11.6 percent BB%, 20.3 percent O-Swing%) and strong ground ball tendency (56.8 percent GB%), which together should do a pretty good job of getting him to first base. His .360 Double-A BABIP in 579 PAs suggests that he has all the tools required to hit at the top of an MLB lineup.
He'll have to crack the lineup first, but his principle competition is Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. If you look up replacement level veterans with no upside in the dictionary, you see a picture of those two. The Phillies are rebuilding, so giving someone like Quinn playing time makes much more sense than giving it to boring retreads.
6. The Colorado Rockies will finish top-15 in ERA
Coors Field is a terrible place to pitch, but the Rockies have assembled a strong pitching staff for the first time in franchise history. Jon Gray is a dominant arm whose 95-mph gas and wicked slider (24.1 percent SwStr%) will play anywhere. Tyler Anderson has figured out pitching at altitude, posting a 50.9 percent GB% without relying on a sinker or curve that does not behave as it is supposed to in thin air. His changeup's 19.8 percent SwStr% gives him K upside too. Tyler Chatwood's reliance on a sinker means you should bench him for homestands (6.12 ERA), but his 57.2 percent GB% and 1.69 road ERA still deserve fantasy attention. Adam Ottavino, Greg Holland, and Jake McGee also have the potential to give Colorado an elite bullpen.
The analysis above was originally to include Chad Bettis, who joined his teammate Anderson in producing a strong GB% (51.2 percent) without using a 2-seamer (9.8 percent usage) or curve (10.4 percent) as anything more than a show me pitch. His change (16.7 percent SwStr%), curve (16.1 percent), and slider (12.8 percent) also gave him K upside. Sadly, his testicular cancer has returned, forcing him out indefinitely as he undergoes treatment. Hopefully, he will return to the field with a clean bill of health at some point this season.
7. Travis Jankowski will steal at least 50 bases
Jankowski helped owners looking for speed on the wire last season, slashing .245/.332/.313 with 30 SB (12 CS) in only 383 PAs. That was just the opening act. Jankowski can hit, as evidenced by his .316/.395/.401 line in 321 Double-A PAs and .392/.464/.495 in 113 PAs at Triple-A. While his 26 percent LD% may not repeat, Jankowski's ground ball tendency (58.4 percent) and absolute refusal to pop-up (15.5 percent FB%, 2.9 percent IFFB%) figure to maintain most of last season's .343 BABIP. His 26.1 percent K% was way too high, but his SwStr% (7.4 percent) and O-Swing% (22.1 percent) both suggest that he knows the zone. His 39 percent Swing% suggests that he was just a little too passive at the plate to translate his roughly 12 percent minor league K% to the majors.
Like Roman Quinn, Jankowski is not currently assured of a slot in the Opening Day lineup. However, I still think he'll play. Top prospect Manuel Margot may not pan out right away, while youngsters Hunter Renfroe and Alex Dickerson may not pan out at all. The Padres need some excitement in their lineup, and Jankowski will be able to deliver it.
8. Ryan Braun fails to hit 20 homers
Braun's excellent 2016 (.305/.365/.538 with 30 HR, 16 SB) has owners drafting him as if he was still in his prime. He's not. Braun's ability to elevate the baseball has been trending downward for years, culminating in a 25.1 percent FB% last year. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2012's 38.1 percent FB% to find a strong fly ball rate in Braun's profile. His line did not reflect this last year thanks to a ridiculous 28.8 percent HR/FB, a number that will almost certainly not repeat at age 32 despite a bandbox for a home park. He pulls few of his flies (15.4 percent last year), so any potential trade would limit his power upside even more.
Braun has never been the most durable player, so I could win this prediction via injury too. I really don't think I'll need to, though. Miller Park produces most of Braun's power, but he needs to be traded for the counting stats that would make it worthwhile in fantasy. It's a no win situation.
9. Cuban OF Yoelkis Cespedes will defect to the United States
This one's really bananas, but I had to get something WBC-related in here. Yoelkis is the younger (age-19) half-brother of Mets superstar Yoenis Cespedes, who obviously defected himself a few years ago. The brothers are still in contact, with Yoenis wishing Yoelkis good luck in the WBC and even giving him some blue and orange gear to wear at the tournament. How can the subject of defection not have come up?
Dynasty league owners will want to acquire Yoelkis now, before everyone knows his name. The junior Cespedes has plus-plus footspeed that gives him defensive value (aka playing time) in addition to SB upside. His frame is also expected to fill out, giving him the power displayed by his older brother. Quite frankly, he would already be owned in your dynasty league if he was born anywhere other than Cuba. He'll never be cheaper than right now.
10. Hector Neris is the best RP in fantasy
Realistically, fantasy's top RP is whoever combines an elite strikeout rate with a bunch of saves. Previous selections like Edwin Diaz and Ken Giles were great choices by my colleagues, but I'm going with Neris. He is not a confirmed closer yet, but Jeanmar Gomez is kind of terrible while Joaquin Benoit is a fly ball reliever (39.2 percent FB%) in a bandbox park. Neris should have no problem getting the gig.
Neris posted a 2.58 ERA and 31.1 percent K% in 80.1 IP last year. His ERA would have been even better if he did not tire in September, while the strikeouts are supported by an elite splitter (21.3 percent SwStr%, 46 percent O-Swing%, 59.6 percent GB%, .155/.235/.261 line against) and well above average heater (12.7 percent SwStr%, 59.9 percent Zone%, .204/.264/.327). He even has room to improve, as the 24.6 percent LD% he allowed does not jive with the quality of his stuff. He is definitely the reliever to own in Philadelphia's pen.