I did an article like this last year for my school newspaper. I would have published it elsewhere, but I didn’t have a blog, so all the loyal readers of The Observer sports section were the ones who got to read it. Like I did last time, I want to make a few things clear at the start of the article: each player on this list is on it because I think they’re interesting, going to outperform expectations, or for some other reason. In short, it’s not necessarily a list of “sleepers,” but just guys I think need to be recognized.
Without further ado, my top 10 (plus a few) MLB players to watch for in 2017.
Joe Jimenez, RHP, Detroit Tigers
I started off last year’s “Players to Watch” article with a relief pitcher who began the year in the minor leagues. He had a troubled past and was drafted as a shortstop. He spent time in jail. His name is Matt Bush, and he’s currently the Texas Rangers’ set-up man. Bush, over 61.2 MLB innings in 2016, pitched to a 2.63 ERA and 8.9 K/9. Not too shabby for a criminal. I’m not saying I know more than anybody else, or can more readily predict who will break out than anyone else, but perhaps Bush’s case will give you a reason to read on.
That brings me to Joe Jimenez. Jimenez, unlike Bush, was not drafted at all, and has played impeccably since turning professional. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tigers in 2013, and has done nothing but dominate since. He was named the Tigers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in both 2015 and 2016. He has a career 1.59 ERA and 13.0 K/9 in 141.1 minor league IP (across four levels). Jimenez does look to be slowing down a bit though, in AAA in 2016, he posted the lowest K/9 at any stop of his career: 9.2. And that’s still spectacular.
Francisco Rodriguez, who sits fourth all-time on the career saves list, is the current closer in Detroit, but I expect him to be moved sooner rather than later based on the the Tigers’ roster construction. They need to retool, and they have a closer waiting in the wings in the minor leagues (Jimenez was just optioned to the minors on March 26th). I’m not saying to grab Jimenez in any of your fantasy leagues, but he’s definitely a guy to look out for this season. And who knows? He could end up with the closer job when all is said and done.
Jose Ramirez, 3B/OF, Cleveland Indians
The Indians recently inked Ramirez to a five-year, $26MM extension. I don’t know how that’s supposed to affect his playing (it probably will have a minimal effect), but at least he can now rest easy knowing that he’ll be making guaranteed money for the next five years.
Ramirez, in his third full season in the majors (he got only 14 PA in 2013), triple-slashed a robust .312/.363/.462, while striking out at a mere 10.0% clip (good for fifth-best among qualified hitters). His 2016 was a great season, he even received a few MVP votes, but Ramirez still doesn’t get enough love. The thing about 2016 for Ramirez was that it wasn’t a fluke: his walk and strikeout rates were fantastic, he was 22nd-best (among 146 qualified hitters) at limiting soft contact, and he finished in the top 25% of all qualified hitters in line drive%. Ramirez was good in 2016, expect him to stay good in 2017 and beyond.
Greg Bird, 1B, New York Yankees
Bird is the word. Seriously.
The 6’3″ first baseman made his MLB debut in 2015, where he mashed 11 taters in 178 PA. If you extrapolate that out over to a 600 PA season, Bird would end up with around 35-38 HR. That’s pretty good. And I’d imagine he won’t have too much trouble reaching 35 HR this season considering his home ballpark is one of the most friendly to lefties in the bigs, and also the fact that he’ll play a handful of games at hitter’s paradises like Fenway and Camden.
Why didn’t we see any of Bird in 2016? Unfortunately for him (and anyone who loves to watch big guys clobber some baseballs), he tore his labrum in the 2015-2016 offseason, which meant he had to sit out the entirety of the 2016 season. No matter for Bird though, because he is back with a vengeance: 7 HR in 49 spring training at bats. I know spring training doesn’t mean much, but Trevor Story hit 6 HR in 53 AB in 2016 spring training and we see what he did in 2016. Just saying…
Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Tampa Bay Rays
I could sing Kiermaier’s praises for days. I mean, just look at his eyes! He’s a good looking dude.
It doesn’t stop there with Kiermaier, though. The Rays signed Kiermaier to a 6-year, $53.5MM contract extension this past offseason, and despite the fact that Kiermaier hasn’t even played a single inning under his new contract, it’s already a bargain. The centerfielder has compiled at least 3.8 fWAR in each of his first three full seasons in the bigs, and seeing as a 1-WAR player is worth about $8MM in free agency, Kiermaier’s deal looks to be one of the most team-friendly in the big leagues.
In 2016, Kiermaier slashed an uninspiring .246/.331/.410, but that .331 OBP marked a career-high in that category. Obviously the BA needs to come up, but considering that his BABIP was 20 points below his career mark, I think his average is due for some positive regression in 2017. Couple that with his near-elite defense, increased plate discipline (posted a career-high 9.7 BB% in 2016), and prowess on the basepaths (21 in ’16), and you have the makings of a budding franchise player.
Tommy Joseph, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies
In a lot of ways, Tommy Joseph and Greg Bird are similar. The main difference is that Joseph didn’t have to sit out an entire season due to injury.
Joseph debuted in 2016 when the Phillies had had enough of former MVP Ryan Howard (which makes sense; Howard was 17% worse than a league-average first baseman on offense) and he made his presence known from the start. The 25-year-old jacked 21 HR in only 347 PA, which, extrapolated out to a 600 PA pace comes out to between 35 and 38 HR. Coincidence? Yeah, probably, but Bird was on the same pace in his rookie year, albeit in many fewer PAs. It’s still too small of a sample size to make an extreme judgement on either player, but things are looking up for the young Phillies 1B.
Eric Thames, 1B/OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Here are Eric Thames’ career numbers in the majors: .250/.296/.431 triple-slash, 21 HR, 25.6 K%, 5.6 BB% in 685 PA. Absolutely nothing to love here. In his brief two-year stint in the big leagues, he spent time with the Mariners and Blue Jays and was never a world-beater. So why do we care about this guy?
Because he left the majors, went to Korea, and became a bonafide stud. This comes with a caveat: the KBO is roughly the equivalent talent level of AA. With that said, 124 HR over 3 seasons, including one 40-40 season (2015) is nothing to sneeze at. I’m not expecting him to put up a 40-40 year in the majors, especially considering that the pitchers he’ll be facing are exponentially better than the ones in Korea, but 30 HR and a .280 BA are definitely not out of the question. Maybe the second time is the charm for Eric Thames.
Delino DeShields Jr., LF/RF, Texas Rangers
DeShields is another one of those guys who broke out in 2015 and then had a down 2016. For Bird, it was an injury that sidelined him, and for Deshields, it was flat-out poor play.
The Rangers selected the speedster in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft, and it paid off in spades: he triple-slashed .261/.344/.374, which, admittedly, is not phenomenal, but also added 25 SBs in only 492 PA (75.8% success rate). He also boasted a 10.8% walk rate. Unfortunately for the Rangers, the success was not continued in 2016; he was sent down after only 30 games. Before being demoted, he hit a paltry .217/.294/.302 with 32 strikeouts in 121 PA. He didn’t do much better after being recalled in July, but after having a very solid spring training (.317 BA, 12 SB in 60 AB), he is in contention for the starting LF job in Arlington, and should he win the job, will likely wreak havoc on the basepaths in 2017.
Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians
Brantley missed nearly all of 2016 with an injury. Are you noticing a trend here?
Brantley had an outstanding 2015 (.310./379/.480 triple-slash, 20 HR, 23 SB, 10.1% walk rate, 8.6% strikeout rate), which resulted in a third-place finish for AL MVP. Obviously his 2016 was not nearly as good, he only played in 11 contests due to his plethora of injuries. The main question with Brantley is health; I can’t guarantee that he’ll play even 140 games, but if he does, he’ll certainly be a difference-maker. And he’s definitely a guy you want to be targeting in your fantasy drafts at his current ADP.
Jon Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
What? A pitcher who calls Coors Field his home park? Yes.
I’m not picking Gray to win the Cy Young, but I think he will be the first Colorado Rockies pitcher to get a Cy Young vote since Ubaldo Jimenez did it in 2010.
Gray comes with a very esteemed pedigree: he was drafted 3rd overall in 2013 out of University of Oklahoma. His repertoire features a fastball that sits around 95 MPH and is capable of hitting 99, a slider that sits around 88 MPH, and a curve that general checks in around 80 MPH. He struck out 9.9 hitters per nine innings in 2016, and actually had a better ERA at Coors than away. That’s what gives me hope that Gray can be a force in 2016. Every pitcher has trouble in Coors, but having the ability to limit the damage will be a key for Gray in the upcoming season.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
I’m only kidding, but wasn’t it nice to see Stroman lead our great nation to victory in the World Baseball Classic? (Hint: the answer is yes).
2016 was a tale of two Stromans. Coming off a torn ACL, he finished the first half of 2016 with a 4.89 ERA and a 2.52 K/BB rate in 116 IP. Following the all-star break, though, he pitched to a far more palatable 3.68 ERA and a 3.95 K/BB rate, albeit in only 88 IP. He also held opposing hitters to an OPS 50 points lower in the second half than in the first, and managed to overall improve as the season went on. If the trend continues, Stroman could be a dark horse candidate for the AL Cy Young.
Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
Injured in 2016, yada yada yada.
The thing about Wheeler is that he was also injured in 2015. He tore his UCL and has not been able to get back on the bump…until now. Wheeler hasn’t been stellar, or even good, in his brief spring training appearances (5.11 ERA in 12.1 IP), but the pedigree and former results are there. That’s obviously not a great indicator of future success, but since he’s a Met, I’m hopeful.
There’s also the fact that I’m not really convinced he still exists since he’s been out so long. Supposedly he is supposed to start for the Mets on April 7th, but I won’t believe it until I see it…
Other names to look out for: Keon Broxton (OF, Mil), Robert Gsellman (RHP, NYM), Jharel Cotton (RHP, Oak), Austin Hedges (C, SD), Byron Buxton (OF, Min), Mitch Haniger (OF, Sea), Joc Pederson (OF, LAD), Aaron Nola (RHP, Phi), Cam Bedrosian (RHP, LAA), Blake Treinen (RHP, Wsh).
(Image Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)