Sleepers and Busts 2017

Welcome to the 2017 Season on MLB Sweet Spot! Opening Day is less than 2 weeks away, which means it is time to follow up my Bold Predictions from earlier in the off-season with a more statistical and factual based look at some names around the majors and how they stack up in 2017. As such, I have provided some of my sleepers and busts for this year. As always, feel free to comment with any thoughts, good or bad. That way, at the end of the season when I am correct (or incorrect), I (or you) can look back at this and taunt you (or me). Just a few notes before we begin:

1) Rookies/etc.: I tried exclude any players whom I believe have not accumulated enough of a track record in the MLB to get a true read on. For example, I did not bother mentioning how low I am on Yoan Moncada, as he is yet to play any significant amount of games above the AA level.

2) Sleepers: Sleepers are those players who I believe will exceed general consensus expectations in 2017. This does not mean that if I were to list  John Lackey as a Sleeper and Madison Bumgarner as a Bust that I believe Lackey will outperform Bumgarner. It simply means that I place more/less value on those players in comparison to other peoples’ valuations around the game (Neither of these players made the list, FYI).

3) Busts: The opposite of Sleepers, Busts will fail to meet general consensus expectations. Again, this is not a list of player ranks, it is simply a way to determine who is being over or undervalued heading into the season.

Lets begin with the Sleeper picks, and then we will move on to some Busts.

SLEEPERS:

SP Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks – Maybe not a true sleeper being such a big name, but seriously, there’s no way Greinke doesn’t improve on his 4.37 ERA in 2016. Consider that his FIP was a bit better at 4.12, and his career ERA and FIP sit at 3.42 and 3.47 respectively. He probably won’t be worth the $32+ million per season that Arizona paid for him, but he should be a number 1-2 starter on a competing team.

OF Seth Smith, Baltimore Orioles – While there are not really any peripheral numbers to support a top-notch season (his BABIP was a bit lower than normal but his HR/FB rate was a bit higher), I look at Smith’s move from Seattle to Baltimore as a major boon to his success. His last three teams; Oakland, San Diego and then Seattle, all housed pitcher-friendly ballparks. Baltimore, and the AL East in general, is known for having some of the most hitter-friendly venues in the game. Couple that with the strength of the Orioles’ lineup, and Smith should be in a for a productive season.

RF Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs – Honestly, how could Heyward not outperform his 2016 numbers and any subsequent expectations that have been placed on him in 2017? Across the board, his numbers were down. Heyward would not be the first player to suffer in his first stint with a new team after signing a large contract and then bounce back in year two, however. And looking at some of his peripheral numbers, such as a .266 BABIP (compared to a .302 career rate) and 4.8 HR/FB rate (11.6 career), this should be very doable. With a revamped swing and a lot to prove, look for Heyward to produce more like he did in 2015 than he did in 2016.

SP Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers – Going into the 2015-2016 offseason, Zimmermann was one of the more sought-after pitchers on the market, ultimately landing in Detroit on a 5-year pact. The 2016 season, however, was an abysmal one for Zimmermann, as he finished with a 4.87 ERA in just 105.1 IP while battling a slew of injuries that knocked 3 mph off of his average fastball velocity. Furthermore, his change-up remained about the same speed as it has always been, taking away Zimmermann’s ability to keep hitter’s off-balance and culminating in a career-low 5.64 K/9 rate. Assuming a clean bill of health entering the 2017 season, I expect Zimmerman’s K-rate to move back to the 7.00 K/9 range and his ERA to improve back to his career norms of the mid-to-high 3’s.

LF Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers – Upton put up the lowest full-season OPS of his career in 2016 (.775), and he still graded out above-average offensively. Playing at the age of 29 in the prime of his career, and after a second half of 2016 in which he put up a .260/.337/.579 batting line with 22 home runs in 242 at-bats, expect a big bounce-back in 2017.

RP Ken Giles, Houston Astros – Without a single game having been played in the 2017 season, I am already chalking Giles’ season up to a 2.50 ERA and 40 saves. At first glance, a 4.11 ERA through the 2016 season leaves much to be desired. But upon further analysis, you would see that Giles’ 13.98 K/9 rate was intact, while his BABIP and HR/FB rates of .349 and 14.5% respectively were well-above career norms. The result, a 2.86 FIP to go along with a career rate of 2.20. Now entrenched as the closer for a Houston team looking to make a run, expect a big year from the 26-year old.

3B Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers – Anybody who didn’t know much about Justin Turner last season likely learned of his value when he signed a 4-year $64 million contract with the Dodgers this winter. Even this, however, may have been a team friendly deal based on what I am about to hit you with:

Seager+

The above table should not need much explanation; Turner has clearly been one of the best, if not the best, third baseman over the past three seasons from the above group. Yes, I am a fan of Justin Turner; a big fan.

OF Michael Conforto, New York Mets – The biggest question with Conforto in 2017 will be playing time. If he gets enough of it, he has the power to threaten the 30 HR threshold, evident by his 21 dingers in just 478 career at-bats. The other question, however, is if Conforto can manage a strikeout rate that climbed to 25.6% in 2016 after posting a 20.1% rate in a smaller sample size the year before. If Conforto can cut-down a bit on the strikeouts while keeping up his 10% walk rate, then a natural improvement over his .267 BABIP from 2016 should put him in the range of a .250/.330/.450 slash line.

RF/DH Matt Holliday, New York Yankees – Injuries plagued Matt Holliday in 2016, which is unfortunate considering he was entering an option-year in his contract that the Cardinal’s ended up declining. Being signed by the Yankees on a one year prove it contract was probably the smartest decision Holliday could have made, however, as he can prove he can still mash in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league. Furthermore, getting a bulk of his playing time at DH should keep Holliday healthier than he was in 2016. I would not be at all surprised to see the 37-year-old put up an improved batting average to go along with 25 homeruns and a plus-.800 OPS in 2017.

1B/DH Chris Carter, New York Yankees – One thing that gets overlooked by advanced metrics, in my opinion, is the value of creating immediate runs through the use of Home Runs. Chris Carter excels only at hitting home runs, but that is all he needs to succeed in the big leagues. Bringing Carter to Yankees Stadium and the rest of the ballparks in the AL East could pay major dividends. Bold prediction: Chris Carter leads the Bronx Bombers with 50 Home Runs in 2017.

SP Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies – Nola was the 7th overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2014 Amateur Draft, making his major league debut only one year later at the age of 22. Nola was penciled into a starting spot for the Phillies in 2016, and performed well out of the gate. However, after running into trouble in June and July, Nola sustained an elbow injury and was forced to miss the remainder of the season. The final stat-line, a 6-9 record with a 4.78 ERA did not look pretty, but it overshadowed a 3.08 FIP that was supported by his 121 strikeouts and 4.17 K/BB rate in just 111 innings pitched. Nola’s arsenal includes three plus pitches and very good control, which is why I believe his ceiling and future performance is that of a number 2 starter.

SP Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals – I am less certain about this one than I am about many others on the list, but I tend to believe that, at the age of 30, Garcia should be able to return to the form he was at in 2015 rather than continue his decline of 2016. Garcia’s 2.99 BB% and 4.49 FIP were both worse than his career averages of 2.62 and 3.56 respectively. Simultaneously, his K% actually improved to 7.86 compared to a career average of 7.26. The major source of Garcia’s struggles seem to have stemmed from a large bump in home runs, allowing 26 bombs in just 171.2 innings, good for a 20.2% HR/FB rate. In the past, Garcia’s HR/FB rates have hovered around the league average of 10.5% (he has a career 11.5% after 2016 inflated this number). Using xFIP, had his long-ball issue not existed last season, then Garcia’s ERA should have been somewhere around 3.77. That is the number that I am targeting for Garcia in 2017.

SP Tyson Ross, Texas Rangers – I’m not sure if it’s because he played in San Diego or if it’s because scouts are way too down on the guy, but where did the Tyson Ross hype go? From 2013 through 2015, Ross averaged a yearly ERA of just over 3.00 and a strikeout rate of about one K per inning. After missing the entire 2016 season because of a shoulder injury that he sustained on opening day, however, the Padres cut him (ill-advised in my opinion) and he managed to receive only a $6 million guarantee in free agency. I fully expect that, come this time next year, a 30-year-old Ross will be back to being a number 2-3 starter on the rotation of a playoff-hopeful.

BUSTS:

SP Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles– Even before a shoulder injury sidelined him for a few weeks, I was down on Tillman because of peripheral numbers that do not live up to his 2016 performance. While he has a history of pitching to a mid-to-high 3s ERA, he also has a career 4.45 FIP and 2.10 K/BB rate. Those numbers caught up to him in 2015 (4.99 ERA) after three consecutive seasons of pitching as a number 2-3 starter, and I would not be the least bit surprised if Tillman’s peripherals caught up with him again in 2017. In reality, on a team hoping to be a playoff contender, Tillman fits the bill as more of a number 4-5 starter.

CF Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox – It pains me to put him on this list, but the first half of 2016 for Jackie Bradley Jr., the one that included a 29-game hitting streak, has the potential to be the best half of of Bradley’s career.

2016 1st Half: .296/.378/.548, 301 AB, 51 R, 55 RBI, 10.2% K%, 20.3% BB%, .342 BABIP
2016 2nd Half: .233/.315/.412, 257 AB, 43 R, 32 RBI, 9.6% K%, 25.0% BB%, .274 BABIP

To go along with the above, it is also important to note that Bradley saw a decline in both extra-base hits (42 to 21) and hard contact rate (38.2% to 33.3%) from the first to second half of last season. I’m not saying that you should expect the JBJ of 2013-2014, but something along the lines of a .250/.330/.425 stat-line seems reasonable.

C Sandy Leon, Boston Red Sox – For anybody who doesn’t know, I am a Boston sports fan. I am not, however, a fan of Red Sox’s Manager John Farrell. According to Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe, Leon will enter spring training as the Red Sox’s primary catcher in 2017. While Leon is fantastic behind the plate, 26-year old  Christian Vazquez is even better. Furthermore, Leon’s monster season at the plate was largely an anomaly. His batting average, OPS, and slugging percentage, and BABIP all declined in each of the last 4 months of the season in 2016, while his K-rate increased over that same span. His September BABIP was .302, roughly league average, but resulted in a September stat-line for Leon of .213/.286/.253, which mostly resembles his career numbers. If the Red Sox want a catcher who can hit, then they should go with the younger (24) and more athletic Blake Swihart, with the defense-oriented Vazquez as backup. Either way, expect a major decline from Leon, one that is bound to leave fans wishing they had gone in another direction at the catcher position.

SP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs – I do not like having to put Hendricks on this list; just last season, I was taking him over Sonny Gray in my fantasy leagues. Unfortunately for me (and fortunately for everyone else), Hendricks put together a career year in 2016, and no longer fits the hidden gem label that I was so fond of placing on him in years prior. The fact of the matter is, while Hendricks is good, he is not this good. A 16-8 record and 2.12 ERA is unheard of coming from a guy without nasty stuff or a fastball that sits consistently in the upper 90s. Instead, Hendricks relies on pitch selection and command, something that former Cub Greg Maddux specialized in during the turn of the century. Even Maddux, however, finished his career with a 3.16 ERA. With a 3.20 FIP in 2016 and a 3.29 career FIP, expect notable regression from Hendricks in 2017.

CF Tyler Naquin, Cleveland Indians – This is another one that is just too easy. I was actually a fan of Naquin as he came up through the minors, but his performance in 2016 was not a good representation of who he truly is as a player. Take a look at his MLB.com Scouting Report from August, 2015:

naquin-prospect

Naquin has always been known as a line-drive hitter who can maintain a high AVG and OBP; not the type of player who slugs 20+ home runs in a full season. He never hit more than 15 long-balls in any one year in minors. Given his 13 homers, .411 BABIP, and 30.7% K rate in only 321 at-bats in 2016, it is a pretty safe to bet on decline from Naquin in his sophomore season.

SP Dan Staily, Miami Marlins – Anybody who knows me knows that I am perpetually disgusted by the Miami Marlins’ front office (I wrote this before the reported agreement to sell the franchise). Their trade for Straily does not change my opinion. As sad as it is to say, the team will be going nowhere this year without former ace Jose Fernandez, so giving up arguably your best pitching prospect for a fringe number 4-5 starter would not be considered wise. In fact, I think that it was moronic. Straily has posted a 4.78 career FIP to go along with a 4.88 rate in 2016. His 3.76 ERA last season looks to be a major fluke, especially considering his pedestrian 2.22 K/BB rate.

C Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees – Lets just call Sanchez an extreme positional version of Michael Fulmer. If Fulmer exceeded his 2016 expectations, then Gary Sanchez crushed them into a ball and lit them on fire. In just 201 at-bats, Sanchez finished with an insane 1.032 OPS and 20 home runs last season. That was after hitting only 10 home runs in AAA through 284 at-bats during the same year. The same point could be made for every prior year of Sanchez’s minor league career:

2015: 18 HR in 365 AB
2014: 13 HR in 429 AB
2013: 15 HR in 454 AB
2012: 18 HR in 435 AB
2011: 17 HR in 301 AB
2010: 8 HR in 173 AB

Sanchez has talent; If he didn’t then he would never have been a top prospect in the first place, but the fact of the matter is that there is nowhere for him to go but down in 2017.

SS Jean Segura, Seattle Mariners – Segura put up career numbers in 2016, setting numerous career highs and dragging his career WAR from 3.8 to 8.8. Its no fun picking apart a guy who finally seemed to put it all together at the age of 26, but there is no hiding the fact that Segura benefitted a bit from both his home ballpark and luck last season. The Diamondbacks, who play in hitter-friendly Chase Field, took advantage of Segura’s performance and shipped him out to the Mariners early in the offseason for a sizable return. In Seattle, Segura will be playing in pitcher friendly Safeco Field while likely simultanously having his peripheral numbers return to career normal levels (a .353 BABIP and 13.5% HR/FB rate were both career highs by a considerable amount). The stolen bases and runs should still be there at the top of Seattle’s lineup, but don’t count on a .319 BA with 20 HR again.

SP Marco Estrada, Toronto Blue Jays – 2015 and 2016 have been major outliers in terms of ERA and FIP. Take a look at the images below and refer to the previous paragraph about Tanner Roark:

SP Tanner Roark, Washington Nationals – In 2013, Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giant’s finally saw his peripheral numbers catch up with him. For 6 straight season’s, Cain had managed to accumulate ERA’s that bested his FIP by very large margins (2.89 versus 3.89 in 2009). For so long, it seemed that he was just a player who performed better than advanced metrics would indicate. What happened after that is well documented. Fast-forward to Tanner Roark. For the first 4 seasons and 573.1 innings of Roark’s career, he has had the same benefit, running a career ERA of 3.01 despite an FIP and xFIP of 3.73 and 3.96 respectively. Correction has to be coming at some point doesn’t it? If Roark does finally post an ERA closer to his peripherals, then he will likely still be a slightly above average starter, but that is a far cry from what the Nationals appeared to have in 2016.

Honorable Mentions:

Aka, gut feelings that I was unable to find significant supporting evidence for…

Sleepers: RF Andrew McCutchen (PIT), CF Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY)

Busts: SP Danny Duffy (KCR), 2B Daniel Murphy (WAS)

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