- Will Stephen Strasburg be the best fantasy pitcher in 2018? Will Gregory Polanco hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases? We offer some bold fantasy predictions for 2018.
The MLB season is right around the corner, and fantasy drafts and auctions are now a thing of the past. There’s just one more box to check before we start the season. It’s time for bold predictions. As always, these are guaranteed to be 100% correct, if we all understand the guarantee to apply only to the ones that ultimately go well.
Gregory Polanco pushes the 30-30 club
Forget about last season. Gregory Polanco was playing with a shoulder injury all year, and was dogged by a hamstring injury beginning in May. The former robbed him of his emerging power, while the latter curbed his aggressiveness on the basepaths. He enters this season with a clean bill of health after spending the offseason in one of the most ambitious workout regimens in recent memory. He’s set to continue the trajectory he was on two years ago, when he hit .258/.323/.463 with 22 homers and 17 steals. Polanco will prove to be one of this season’s biggest bargains.
Raisel Iglesias is a top-five closer
The boldest side of my bold side wants to say Raisel Iglesias will be the No. 1 closer, but chances are the Reds won’t give him enough save opportunities to get there. So, in addition to calling him a top-five closer, which we can easily quantify at season’s end, I’ll also say that Iglesias leads all closers in WAR. There’s no doubting his stuff. Iglesias features a fastball that sits in the high-90s, a wipeout slider and a changeup that is good enough to be a weapon against lefties. Given that he never really threw it before last season, that pitch could get better, too. His team may cap him at 30 saves, but he’ll strike out 100 batters and give his owners elite ratios across about 80 innings.
Stephen Strasburg is fantasy’s top pitcher
You can have Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, too. For my money, Stephen Strasburg is the best per-game pitcher in the majors. When Strasburg wins the NL Cy Young at the end of the year, we’ll look back at his Game 5 NLDS start against the Cubs last season as when everything clicked for him, turning him into a true big-game hurler. Health is always going to be a question for Strasburg, but it’s the only question. This isn’t simply about value, either. Yes, Strasburg was cheaper on draft day than any of those four, but this call takes everything at the surface level. Strasburg will outproduce Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale Kluber, and the rest of the league, to be fantasy’s top starting pitcher.
Andrew Benintendi is not a top-20 outfielder
Andrew Benintendi’s average draft position made him the ninth outfielder off the board in a typical draft, sandwiched between George Springer and Marcell Ozuna. That assumes the 20-20 season he put up last season is a floor for him, but I think it’s closer to being his ceiling. Benintendi has a great hit tool, but his .271/.352/.424 line and .301 BABIP were perfectly fair based on his batted-ball profile. The 23-year-old has a ton of growth in his future, but there’s a real chance he’s a better real life player in than he is in fantasy. I think 15-15 is a whole lot more realistic than 20-20, and outfield is as deep as it gets. Outfielders outside the top 20 in ADP who I believe outproduce him include Polanco, Adam Eaton, Yoenis Cespedes and Ronald Acuña. More on those last two a bit later.
Matt Olson outperforms Rhys Hoskins
Way back when we were still writing position primers, I asked why I’d draft Rhys Hoskins inside the top 50 when I can have the exact same player about 80 picks later. Now, I’m ready to say that store-brand Hoskins will be better than the luxury model at face value. Matt Olson smashed 24 homers in 218 plate appearances last season, after powering his way to the majors by hitting 23 jacks in 343 trips to the plate at Triple-A Nashville. Olson was the 47th overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, mashed at every level of the minors, and delivered that power in his first real opportunity with the A’s. Hoskins struck out less and walked more than Olson, but that was the only practical difference between the two over their respective professional careers to this point. I can’t understand why one is a top-50 pick and the other barely cracks the top 120, but that’s not really the point here. Olson will hit 40 homers and drive in 100 runs for the surprising A’s, while Hoskins will fall short of both of those marks for the disappointing Phillies.
Kyle Schwarber is a top-50 player
Kyle Schwarber has spent 1.5 seasons in the majors. The half-season came when he was one year removed from college, and the full season occurred after he spent the entire offseason rehabbing a torn ACL. In other words, this will be the first full season of his career in which he had a normal offseason. Oh, and he’s 25 years old. Oh, right, and he has 46 homers, a 12.6% walk rate and 24.1% HR/FB ratio in 764 career plate appearances. Schwarber is going to show this season why one of the savviest front offices in baseball refused to even consider trading him in recent years, despite the Cubs being awash in position players and thin on starting pitching. The call on his line: .275/.360/.530, 35 homers, 90 RBI.
James Paxton is a top-10 starter
Like Strasburg, the only question for Paxton is health. He has been on the cusp of a full breakout since his rookie year of 2014, but has been limited to 13, 20 and 24 starts the last three seasons because of injuries. Paxton was headed for the leap last year, but was derailed once again, this time because of a forearm injury in May. He spent another month on the DL across August and September because of a pectoral strain. Still, he was magnificent in his 24 starts, totaling a 2.98 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 3.25 xFIP, 1.10 WHIP and 156 strikeouts in 136 innings. I’ll bet this is the year he makes 30 starts and rewards those who believed in him with a top-10 campaign.
Corey Knebel is out of the closer’s chair by June
This is another drum I’ve beat for most of the offseason. There is good reason to fade Corey Knebel based on a gaudy strikeout rate that simply does not track with his underlying stats. Knebel ranked fourth among relievers with a 40.8% strikeout rate last year. We should expect any pitcher who racks up strikeouts to get more than his fair share of whiffs and swings on pitches outside the strike zone, as measured by o-swing rate. A pitcher who strikes out more than two-fifths of the batters he faces should be elite in both categories. Among the top-30 relievers in strikeout rate, Knebel ranked 19th in whiff rate and 25th in o-swing rate. Not only is he not going to match last year’s strikeout rate, he’s not going to come close. As more balls get put in play, he won’t be quite so successful at pitching around his control issues. Knebel has a 10.8% walk rate for his career, and it was up at 12.9% last season. He’ll be one of this season’s biggest busts.
Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña keep the surprising Braves in the playoff hunt
Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña are two of the most exciting young players in baseball. Any successful team needs a lot of factors to break in its favor, but it’s not hard to see Albies and Acuña as the two best players on a World Series team in the not-too-distant future. They’ll start realizing that potential this year, and their ascent will keep the Braves realistically in the Wild Card chase deep into the summer. What does that translate to in fantasy terms? I’ll say Albies hits .285/.340/.440 with 15 homers and 40 steals, while Acuña gives the Braves and his fantasy owners a 25-20 season, complete with a .270/.330/.470 slash line.
Yoenis Cespedes is a top-10 outfielder
The only reason Yoenis Cespedes wasn’t a top-20 outfielder by ADP during draft season was his injury history. That was a fair reason for him to slide down draft boards some, but not nearly as far as he fell. For all the leg issues Cespedes has dealt with in his career, 2017 was the first season in which he played fewer than 129 games. Missing more than a month of the season is nothing to wave away and he is in his age-32 season, which makes it more likely that he spends some time on the DL. Still, 129 games of Cespedes would be better than 162 games of a lot of players who had higher ADPs than he did. For what it’s worth, he was as good as ever in his 81 games last year, hitting .292/.352/.540 with 17 homers, 42 RBI and 46 runs. Even if he gives his owners just 130 games, he’ll likely leave the yard 30 times and drive in close to 100 runs, all while providing plus rates, no matter if your league uses batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, or some combination of the four.