Adam Ronis 2019 MLB Preseason Pro Picks
AL Offensive Sleeper: Max Kepler (OF, MIN)
On the surface, it was a disappointing season for Kepler last season. Kepler had a slash line of .224/.319/.408 with 80 runs, 20 home runs, 58 RBIs and four stolen bases. The approach at the plate improved for Kepler. He went from a strikeout rate over 20 percent in his first two seasons to 15.7 percent in 2018. He increased the walk rate from 8.3 percent to 11.6 percent. The home runs could see a big jump this season as Kepler went from a 39.5 percent fly ball rate in 2017 to 46.2 percent last season in addition to an increase in his average fly ball by 11 feet. The hard-hit rate was a career best 37.1 percent. Kepler had a 9.9 percent HR/FB rate, which was below his career average of 11.8 percent, so expect more home runs from the developing 26-year-old. Kepler was more patient and swung at more pitches in the strike zone and improved against left-handed pitching.
NL Offensive Sleeper: Paul DeJong (SS, STL)
There's a good chance DeJong bats third in a good Cardinals lineup. DeJong had a slash line of .241/.313/.433 with 68 runs, 19 home runs, 68 RBIs in 436 at-bats last season. DeJong was batting .260 with an .824 OPS before a fractured hand cost him time. When he returned from the injury, he struggled batting .217 with one home run and seven RBIs in 83 at-bats. In the final 66 games, DeJong had 11 home runs and 49 RBIs. DeJong had a 42.9 percent fly ball rate in 2017 and 44 percent last year. He hits a lot of line drives and had a hard hit rate of 38.7 percent last season. There's big power here and the counting stats will be excellent.
AL Offensive Bust: Mallex Smith (OF, SEA)
There's an increased appetite for spending on stolen bases since few players pile them up. Smith had 40 stolen bases last season and moves up drafts boards. With less steals across the league, you don't need as many. If you're going to invest in a player for stolen bases, make sure they're well-rounded and help in other categories. Smith has no power -- seven home runs in 925 career at-bats -- and doesn't help in RBIs. He batted .296 last season and is a career .277 hitter with a .730 OPS. If he has any time of leg injury, he won't run as much.
NL Offensive Bust: Ozzie Albies (2B, ATL)
Albies had a good season last year for a 21-year-old and while there's still potential for improvement, he's being overvalued in drafts. Albies had a slash line of .293/.341/.647 with 12 doubles, one triple, 29 runs, nine home runs, 20 RBIs and three stolen bases in the first month of the season. He finished at .261/.305/.452 with 105 runs, 24 home runs, 72 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 639 at-bats. Albies didn't show a lot of power in the minor leagues, so it wasn't surprising to see the power diminish as the season went on. Albies is 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds and unlikely to be a source of power and was near the bottom of the league in exit velocity. The other issue is he's unlikely to hit at the top of the order like last season, which will hurt his counting stats. Albies had an .834 OPS in the first half compared to .624 in the second half as pitchers adjusted to him and threw fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches.
AL Pitching Sleeper: Collin McHugh (HOU)
McHugh has had success as a starter before and pitched all of his 58 games out of the bullpen last season. He will move back into the starting rotation and the Astros have done a really good job with starting pitchers the last couple of seasons. From 2014-16 as a starter, McHugh had a 3.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and an 8.4 K/9. He made 12 starts in 2017 before moving to the bullpen last season. McHugh has a good curveball, added a slider and doesn't allow a lot of hard contact. Investing in Astros starting pitching has been a great investment.
NL Pitching Sleeper: Joe Musgrove (PIT)
Musgrove has all the ingredients to breakout. He has a really good slider, an improved changeup and pounds the strike zone with a 68.3 percent first-pitch strike rate last season. Injuries limited him to 115.1 innings and he had a 20.6 percent strikeout rate and 4.7 percent walk rate. The 4.06 ERA will decrease and he had a 1.18 WHIP. The swinging strike rate of 11.4 percent indicates he could increase the strikeouts.
AL Pitching Bust: James Paxton (NYY)
There's no doubt Paxton has an elite arm. Unfortunately, he doesn't pitch often. Paxton has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. Last season, he had a left forearm contusion and back stiffness. He pitched 160.1 innings and that was a career high. He's now 30 and pitching in New York. Paxton allowed 23 home runs in 160.1 innings last season and allowed a career-high 41.1 percent fly ball rate. More concerning, is he allowed a lot of hard hit balls last season and the home runs should continue at Yankee Stadium. Paxton used to be cheap and he's usually going in round four. That's too costly.
NL Pitching Bust: Stephen Strasburg (WAS)
People talk themselves into Strasburg every season. Sure, the talent is there and if he ever stays healthy and pitches 200 innings, you will be happy. He has topped 200 innings once and averages 151 innings per season. He hasn't reached 150 innings in three of the last four seasons and he turns 31 in July. Injuries usually don't get better with age. The right-hander has an ERA below three once in his career. Over the last three seasons, Strasburg has had elbow injuries, shoulder inflammation, an upper back injury, oblique injury and a neck strain. Strasburg went 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate and seven percent walk rate. The velocity on his fastball was slightly down and he threw fewer first-pitch strikes last season. Strasburg can still be good in limited innings, but the cost is too high in drafts as he consistently goes in the first four rounds of drafts.
AL Stash and Cash: Jesus Luzardo (SP, OAK)
The A's need pitching badly and there's a chance he begins the season in the starting rotation. Even if he doesn't, he will be up quickly. He throw's in the mid-90s and has an excellent changeup and an above average curve. He pitched at three levels last season and had a 2.88 ERA with a 129:30 K:BB ratio over 109 innings.
NL Stash and Cash: Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, SD)
Tatis had a good season in Double-A last year at age 19. He had a slash line of .286/.355/.507 with 16 home runs and 16 stolen bases before his season was cut short by a thumb injury. He has good raw power and the Padres could be aggressive and bring him up early in the season.