Puig done with Dodgers, Mariners are October-bound, more bold predictions for 2017

2:13 | Major League Baseball
National League Predictions: Will Mets bounce back, dethrone Cubs?
Sunday April 2nd, 2017

Predictions are a necessary evil in this industry. Since coming to Sports Illustrated in 2012, I've made an annual tradition of launching the season's second half with a set of bold and occasionally outlandish ones. Traditionally, a handful of them have even come true, sometimes in short order; Drew Pomeranz was traded to the Red Sox the day after my AL set ran last year, and by the end of the month the Yankees' teardown and the Rangers' acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy had come to fruition as well. (As for the NL set…not as much luck there).

In the interest of accelerating the speed with which my in-season foolishness can be highlighted, SI has asked me to gaze into the crystal ball before Opening Day for some predictions that go beyond the standard awards and playoff team fare, not that my track record there is anything to write home about. Bookmark these so we can laugh about them later this year!

Jon Gray, Lance McCullers Jr. will enjoy breakout seasons

The 25-year-old Gray acquitted himself well as a rookie, becoming just the fifth Rockies pitcher under the age of 25 to post a qualifying season with an ERA+ of at least 100 (106, via a 4.61 ERA) and setting a team record for strikeout rate (9.9 per nine). Pitching half his games in Coors Field, he won't have an easy time keeping his ERA below 4.00, but as he gains confidence in his power curveball—a relatively new companion to his mid-90s heater—bet on him to continue showing everybody why the Rockies took him with the third pick of the 2013 draft.

McCullers, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick for the Astros, has sparkled at the big league level since breaking in back in May 2015. So far, he owns a 3.22 ERA with 10.6 strikeouts per nine, albeit in just 206 2/3 big league innings; he was limited to 81 last year due to elbow and shoulder issues but has tweaked both his mechanics (to alleviate stress on his arm) and his arsenal (adding a circle change to his own mid-90s fastball and power curve) and is good to go for the season. If he can stay healthy, he’ll pitch his way into the AL Cy Young conversation.

This will be Jurickson Profar's year

The game's top prospect heading into the 2013 season lost all of 2014 and '15 to shoulder injuries, and hit an uninspiring .239/.321/.338 in 307 plate appearances last year. Profar still doesn't have a full-time job with the Rangers, but the 24-year-old Curaçao native opened eyes while hitting .464/.516/.750 and manning centerfield—a position he had never played before, at least professionally—for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. Between the Rangers' unsettled leftfield situation and the fragility of centerfielder Carlos Gomez, designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo and third baseman Adrian Beltre, manager Jeff Banister should have ample opportunity to get Profar the regular playing time he needs to show off his vast potential.

This will be Yasiel Puig's year . . . to be traded

The brawny Cuban defector took the majors by storm in 2013 and '14, but injuries and immaturity have put him on a downward trajectory since then. Last year, Puig hit rock bottom by earning a demotion to Triple A and a reduction to a platoon role; he's hit just .256/.316/.394 in 469 PA against righties over the past two seasons. The 26-year-old rightfielder has cleaned up his act and worked hard to shore up the holes in his swing, but his mechanics aren't yet where the Dodgers want them to be. Meanwhile, an already crowded Dodgers outfield appears as though it will grow even more crowded once top prospects Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo—both entering their age-21 seasons—log enough time in Triple A to make them viable alternatives. Barring a rapid recovery of Puig’s former electricity, the bet here is that the team will showcase him to restore his value and then deal him in late July. At this point, a change of scenery could be just what he needs.

Robert Gsellman will outpitch Matt Harvey as Mets continue to let down their hair

At a time when their rotation was being pummeled by injuries to Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom, Gsellman—a 2011 13th-round pick who entered the season as the team’s 14th-best prospect according to Baseball America—arrived in the big leagues sporting deGrom-like hair and gave the team a performance worthy of those lengthy locks. Armed with the Warthen slider, he posted a 2.24 ERA and a 2.63 FIP with 8.5 strikeouts per nine over seven starts (plus a relief appearance), helping the Mets earn a wild card berth; granted, five of his seven turns came against the downtrodden Phillies and Braves, but the latter owned the league’s third-best record after his arrival. Having secured a rotation spot with a strong spring, he’ll not only outpitch Harvey, whose return from thoracic outlet surgery is likely to be uneven, but he’ll join the shaggy deGrom and Noah Syndergaard among the team’s most marketable players, inspiring other Mets to let down their hair as well.

Rays, Diamondbacks will be season's surprise teams thanks to rotation depth

Last year, Tampa Bay lost 94 games, its highest total since 2007. However, with Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi at the front of the rotation, full seasons from Blake Snell (who didn't come up for good until mid-June) and Alex Cobb (back from 2015 Tommy John surgery) and the eventual arrival of Jose De Leon (whose service clock is being gamed to avoid future Super Two status, as Snell's was last year), the Rays have a staff that could be on par with that of any division rival.

Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have Zack Greinke coming back from an uncharacteristically high 4.37 ERA and well-regarded options like Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Braden Shipley and Archie Bradley. Add in new arrival Taijuan Walker, who enjoyed a strong spring after December surgery to remove 10 bone spurs in his right foot, and this bunch—which to start the year will likely have Bradley in the bullpen and Shipley back at Triple A—is too talented to struggle the way last year's 93-loss club did. Aided by the return of Gold Glove centerfielder A.J. Pollock and the move from a poor pitch framer (Welington Castillo) to a good one, at least part-time (Jeff Mathis), Arizona should be much better at preventing runs than it was in 2016.

Kendrys Morales will be the winter's biggest free-agent bust

I already slammed the Rockies' Ian Desmond signing because of their plan to play him at first base, and given that he's out until late April after undergoing wrist surgery following a hit-by-pitch, so there's no need for piling on. Instead, we look north of the border to the Blue Jays, who signed Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal in early November, which all but shut the door on bringing back Edwin Encarnacion. Not only was that a tactical error—Encarnacion signed an affordable three-year, $60 million deal with Cleveland two months later—but it's an obvious step down for the Jays. Morales did bop 30 home runs for the Royals last year, but his .263/.327/.468 batting line amounted to just a 108 OPS+; with 138 games as a DH and just 12 in the field, the total value of his contributions came to 0.9 WAR, Over the past three seasons, he's delivered a net of 2.3 WAR, which is to say that he's unlikely to live up to his salary in 2017 or beyond while occupying the spot where Jose Bautista (-18 DRS over the past three years) should be parked.

Ivan Nova will rate as the winter's best bargain among pitchers

Nova spent the better part of six years tantalizing and tormenting Yankees fans; he was brilliant in limited doses in 2011 and '13, totaling a combined 7.0 WAR, and otherwise somewhere between barely serviceable and awful—at least when he wasn't injured. After scuffling to a 4.90 ERA/5.10 FIP with 1.8 homers and 2.3 walks per nine in the Bronx last year, he was dealt to the Pirates on Aug. 1 and quickly took his place among pitching coach Ray Searage's success stories. Adopting a more aggressive approach, Nova pitched to a 3.06 ERA with an eye-opening 52:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 2/3 innings. In a winter with a dearth of free agent starters, he stayed with Pittsburgh via a three-year, $26 million deal. Under Searage's watchful eye, the team may well recoup most of that cost in a single season.

Jason Castro will provide great hidden value for the Twins

In 2016, his final year in Houston, Castro hit just .210/.307/.377 for an 88 OPS+ with 0.9 WAR. Those numbers don't look like much, but they also don't show that Castro ranked third in the majors in pitch framing (+16 runs according to Baseball Prospectus) and was 11th in the majors in both 2014 and '15 as well. Meanwhile, the departed Kurt Suzuki was seven runs below average in framing last year for the Twins; over the past three seasons, the tallies are +37 for Castro and -32 for Suzuki—a gap of 23 runs per year, about 2.3 wins—with the rest of their contributions tilting slightly in Castro's favor as well. All of which is to say that the $24.5 million Minnesota committed to Castro will more than pay for itself, particularly by stealing strikes for a pitching staff that hasn't ranked higher than 13th in the league in strikeouts since 2010. That alone won’t make the Twins contenders, but it should certainly help them prevent runs.

Mariners will end their 15-year playoff drought thanks to Jerry Dipoto's moves

Seattle has not been to the postseason since 2001, when it tied the 1906 Cubs' major league record of 116 wins. The Mariners' 15-year drought is now the longest in the majors, two years longer than that of the Marlins. Since taking the reins as the team's GM in late September 2015, Dipoto has completed 39 deals totaling 100 players (assuming MLB's initial count from February was correct), and this past off-season alone he brought in shortstop Jean Segura, outfielders Jarod Dyson and Mitch Haniger, first baseman Danny Valencia and starters Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly (who alas will begin the year on the disabled list). Not all of those players are world-beaters, but they do shore up some trouble spots on last year's 86-win team. Aided by what will no doubt be another set of Dipoto-procured reinforcements in July, enough things are for once going to go right for the M's to return to October baseball.

Carlos Gonzalez, Bryan Price will sign 10-year deals with Rockies and Reds, respectively

I've lost count of the number of times I've proclaimed that the time was right for Colorado to deal Gonzalez, a three-time All-Star outfielder whose contract commitment (he's in the last year of a seven-year, $80 million deal) has long seemed out of step with the direction of the Rockies. Likewise for my semi-annual declarations that Price will be the next manager fired while the Reds work through another rough stretch; from afar at least, he's seemed to be over his head. At last I'm waving the white flag on both counts, because clearly, nobody can bear to part ways in either of these situations. Instead, I expect both teams to formalize their attachments to these individuals with long-term deals.

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