With nearly all of my drafts and auctions in the rear view mirror, it’s time to tally up the players who wound up on my rosters again and again. It’s also an opportunity to take note of which players I avoided like an approaching swarm of bees.
I’m carrying C.J. Cron, Franchy Cordero and Alex Claudio, among others, on several of my rosters, even though none was burning up the ADP rankings. What, exactly, are my best hopes for these late-round fliers? And what are my worst fears about the players I completely eschewed?
Well, that’s what Bold Predictions are for. Here are some possible, if not probable, scenarios for some players I felt strongly about on draft day.
Andrew Cashner will have more fantasy value than Orioles teammate Alex Cobb.
I’ve been fascinated with Cashner ever since he posted a 3.40 ERA (in the AL!) and finished as a top-70 starter last year, despite being arguably the most contact-friendly pitcher in the majors. While many have dismissed Cashner’s success with the Rangers as a product of mere luck, he had one of the best seasons in recent years in terms of limiting hard contact on flyballs.
If that’s a skill that Cashner carries over into 2018, then I like his chances for success with the Orioles better than those of fellow free agent signee Alex Cobb. The former Ray was also highly amenable to contact last season, and he struck out opponents at a mild 17.3 percent rate. While that was more than five percentage points higher than Cashner’s rate, Cobb was not very effective at curtailing hard flyball contact. Cashner was better at limiting the distance and exit velocity on flies, and his 22.4 percent hard contact rate on flyballs was 15.5 percent points lower than Cobb’s. It’s little wonder that Cashner was far better at avoiding extra-base hits (.118 Isolated Power allowed) than Cobb was (.152 Iso). Now that both pitchers are in a hitter-friendly park and a tough division, Cashner appears better poised to handle the new environment.
Miguel Castro will be the second-most valuable SPARP (starting pitcher as relief pitcher) in Head-to-Head points leagues.
Sticking with an Orioles theme, I had been rooting for Castro to win the team’s fifth starter job, but that competition effectively ended when they signed Cobb. (Castro has made the Orioles’ opening day roster and could still be a temporary fill-in for Cobb while he increases his innings.) Last season, as a 22-year-old, Castro was the ground ball version of Cashner. Though Castro’s ground ball rate of 49.3 percent was nothing special, he was the only pitcher in the majors last season who ranked in the top five for both soft contact rate and pull rate on grounders (min. 20 innings on ground balls). All of those soft, well-placed batted balls helped Castro to hold opponents to a .217 batting average, even though he struck them out at just a 13.9 percent rate.
Castro likely has some strikeout upside to exploit, but he could have value in points leagues even with a mediocre rate. He could serve as a swingman, pitching multiple-inning stints in the bullpen and filling in as a starter when needed. If all breaks right for him, maybe Castro can make close to 20 starts. In a season where there aren’t many attractive dual SP/RP options, it’s conceivable that Castro could be the best of them, perhaps aside from Joe Musgrove, who was impressive as a reliever for the Astros late last season.
C.J. Cron will hit 35 home runs.
It’s not generally advisable to expect a player to carry over a hot streak from the latter half of the previous season into the new season, but I’m getting a little irrationally exuberant about Cron. In the second half of his final season with the Angels, Cron started pulling the ball much more frequently, amassing a healthy 50.3 percent pull rate after the All-Star break. Perhaps not coincidentally, he clubbed 14 home runs in 24o plate appearances and recorded a .244 Iso. For some perspective, that was 10 points higher than Justin Smoak’s mark and 11 points above Wil Myers’ rate.
Cron should get much steadier playing time with the Rays, and frequent visits to Yankee Stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Rogers Center can’t hurt, either. If Cron gets 600 plate appearances and maintains his second-half homer pace, he will reach 35 homers in his first season in Tampa Bay.
Alex Claudio will keep the Rangers’ closer job wire-to-wire and finish with at least 30 saves.
No one seems to believe that Claudio will be one of the closers to keep the job all season … well, no one but me. Granted, he doesn’t have the role to himself to start the season, as manager Jeff Banister plans on employing a closer committee. Despite a relative lack of strikeouts (17.3 percent rate in 2017), no one in the Rangers’ bullpen had a lower xFIP or SIERA last year. Claudio’s ability to get grounders and chases on bad pitches will allow him to shut down the opposition in the ninth inning, even if he is doing it in a way that is not as attractive to fantasy owners. The lefty will be effective, and that’s ultimately what will matter to Banister. I don’t see him losing the job to Keone Kela, Matt Bush or anyone else.
Mitch Moreland will top 500 plate appearances and bat at least. 280 with 25 home runs.
New Red Sox manager Alex Cora plans on using Hanley Ramirez as his primary first baseman to start the year, but I don’t expect him to stay in the role. Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy and to produce consistently over recent seasons, and last season, Moreland was a better player offensively and defensively. In fact, he was much better than his .326 wOBA and .246/.326/.443 slash line would indicate. He made hard contact more often, and that was reflected in his .373 xOBA and his expected slash line of .282/.359/.533. Unless Ramirez has a dramatic bounceback season, over time, Moreland will steal playing time from him and put up the robust numbers he should have had last year.
Carlos Martinez will not be among the top 30 starting pitchers at season’s end.
We fantasy owners pay a premium for strikeouts and durability, yet a solid K-rate and 200 innings aren’t always enough to guarantee elite or near-elite status among starting pitchers. We witnessed that with Gerrit Cole last season. Despite a 23.1 percent strikeout rate and 203 innings, Cole ranked 36th among starters in Roto value. A 1.4 HR/9 ratio helped to balloon his ERA to a career-high 4.26. Martinez was even more amenable to allowing hard contact, and if he doesn’t improve in that regard, he could have a Cole-like season in 2018.
Last season, Martinez had the 35th-highest average flyball distance among the 183 pitchers who allowed at least 50 flyballs, and he finished with a career-high 1.2 HR/9. For three straight seasons, Martinez has seen his swing rate on pitches outside of the zone decrease, and without a reversal of the trend, he could see his walk rate grow and his strikeout rate regress. Though Martinez will probably be a better bat-misser than Cole was last year, increasing home run and walk rates could render him even less valuable than Cole was.
Jacob Faria will be a top-30 starting pitcher.
So, yes, I am boldly predicting Faria will be a top-30 starter while Martinez won’t be. I do fully expect that Martinez will pitch more innings, though 170-to-180 innings is not out of the question for the Rays’ 24-year-old. He may also not get under the 3.0 BB/9 threshold, but with a 12.0 percent swinging strike rate in his rookie season, Faria has shown some strong strikeout potential. The thing that could separate Faria from Martinez — in a good way — is that he could be far better at preventing extra-base hits. He was only slightly worse than Cashner at avoiding hard flyball contact (24.5 percent rate) and limiting flyball distances (3o6 feet on average), and he was even better than him at keeping batters from pulling flies (19.1 percent pull rate). Essentially, Faria was a version of Cashner who actually missed a lot of bats.
Manuel Margot will finish outside the top 50 Roto rankings for outfielders.
Heading into his second full season with the Padres, Margot has arrived as a fantasy fixture, ranking 32nd among outfielders in ADP in Fantrax leagues. Part of his appeal is his profile as a source of both steals and homers. After a rookie season in which he produced 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases over 126 games, it hardly seems like a reach to expect Margot to register a 15-20 season.
While 15 home runs might seem like a modest expectation in this era of big power, it is probably too optimistic. Margot was among the least powerful hitters last season, as he averaged a measly 299 feet on flyballs and posted a hard contact rate of just 25.4 percent. It’s not too hard to buy into his xHR of 8.6. With less power will come fewer run-producing opportunities, and his main appeal will be his 20-plus steals. Owners who are looking to him to be their No. 3 outfielder will need more than that.
Franchy Cordero will be a 20-15 player.
The Padre who might have the best chance to join Wil Myers as a 20-20 player is Cordero, even though he won’t be on the opening day roster. In a very limited sample of 99 plate appearances, Cordero ranked 11th in the majors in exit velocity on flyballs and line drives, showing that his power breakout at Triple-A El Paso (17 home runs, 21 doubles and 18 triples in 419 plate appearances) was no fluke. Cordero’s triples binge and 15 stolen bases show that he brings speed as well as power. A history of high strikeout rates limits Cordero’s batting average upside, but as long as he finds playing time, he could deliver 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases (if not 20). It’s not clear how he will force his way into the Padres’ outfield situation, but manager Andy Green will surely try to find a way to get Cordero’s potent bat into the lineup.
Ketel Marte will outearn Andrelton Simmons in Roto value.
This prediction is no knock on Simmons or his 2017 breakout season. He set a career high for hard contact rate (29.2 percent) and pulled the ball at his highest rate since his 17-homer campaign in 2013. Marte, however, made his own gains as a power hitter, as his 28.2 percent hard-contact rate and .135 Iso were career bests. Those improvements paled in comparison to the strides he made in plate discipline. Marte reduced his strikeout rate to 14.5 percent and boosted his walk rate to 11.4 percent. He deserved far better than his .260 batting average, and his expected slash line was .305/.384/.452. In his age-24 season, Marte could match or improve on that slash line while chipping in 10 or more steals, and those stats could enable him to leapfrog Simmons.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, ESPN.com, xStats.org.
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