Players to Watch for in 2018

You can read the players I picked out to watch for in 2017 by clicking here.

That was an article full of successes and failures. I identified Cleveland infielder Jose Ramirez as a guy to look out for and he rewarded me by triple-slashing .318/.374/.583 with a career-high 29 HR, an MLB-leading 56 doubles, and a 3rd place finish in AL MVP voting. I picked out Eric Thames, who, after a month of baseball, was tied for the MLB lead in HR (he didn’t finish strong; final batting line was .247/.359/.518 with 31 HR which is good but the average could use some improvement). I highlighted Jon Gray who, in 20 starts, compiled a 3.67 ERA and 9.1 K/9, giving him the best ERA of any Rockies starter with at least 20 starts since Tyler Chatwood put up a 3.15 in 2013. And Marcus Stroman wasn’t too bad of a pick either.

I also picked out some failures, though. Greg Bird, one of my “guys to watch for” was anything but in 2017; he hit .100 in the first month of the season with 22 strikeouts in 72 PA before hitting the DL with an ankle injury. Bird had surgery and didn’t return until late August. He finished with a .190/.288/.422 triple-slash and 9 HR in 48 games after I predicted he would jack 35 HR in 2017. Whoops.

I don’t think anyone blew up quite as badly as Bird, but Michael Brantley who only played in 90 games, wasn’t a great call, and neither was Zack Wheeler, who compiled a 5.21 ERA in just 86.1 innings.

Hopefully, I have more hits than misses again this year. Without further ado (and in no particular order), my players to watch for in 2018:

Jose Martinez, 1B/LF/RF, St. Louis Cardinals

Martinez’s counting stats didn’t exactly jump off the page in his rookie campaign last season. The Venezuelan hit just 14 HR with 47 runs and 46 RBI in 106 games. Not bad for a part-time player, but nothing to get overly excited about.

When you look at his triple-slash and underlying stats, however, things start to get interesting.

Martinez triple-slashed .309/.379/.518 last season with a 10.4% walk rate and a 19.5% strikeout rate. The K rate could use some improvement, but with that walk rate and batting average, it is more than palatable. Martinez’s 37.2% hard-hit rate put him a couple of spots above some guys named George Springer, Gary Sanchez, and Joey Votto, just to name a few.

The best part of all these stats is that they seem very repeatable for the 29-year-old. Martinez’s 90.1 MPH average exit velocity last season was 34th among 540 players with at least 30 batted ball events (for those of you keeping track, that’s well inside the top 10% of all MLB hitters). Hard-hit balls tend to lead to better results, especially when those balls are not being hit on the ground. Martinez’s ground ball percentage of 42.1% was a few points below league average, so all things are looking up for the righty.

The biggest challenge Martinez will face in 2018, much like in 2017, is playing time. The Cards have Matt Carpenter penciled in as their everyday first baseman, Dexter Fowler as their right fielder, and newly-acquired Marcell Ozuna in left field. Fortunately for Martinez, Fowler is known to get banged up, so he should be the first name called if Fowler goes on the DL. Additionally, it might not matter whether Fowler ends up on the DL or not if Martinez gets a hot start out of the gate.

Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

It’s a good sign for the Cardinals that they have back-to-back players to start out this list. Wacha, after compiling a 3.21 ERA from 2013-2015, imploded in 2016 and never really bounced back. Since the beginning of 2016, the 26-year-old has pitched to a 4.56 ERA with 8.1 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. These are not terrible numbers, but they certainly do not bring to mind the Wacha of old.

Fortunately for Wacha, virtually everything he did last season points to some big improvements in 2018. For starters (hah), Wacha was ranked 7th among all MLB pitchers last season in ERA-FIP, meaning he got extremely unlucky. His 8.58 K/9 and 14.7 K-BB% were his highest marks since his rookie year in 2013 (9.05 and 17.7%, respectively). Wacha is also throwing harder than he ever has before; his 2017 average fastball velocity was the highest of any of his MLB seasons and in September of 2017, he averaged over 96 MPH on his fastball for the first month ever.

Wacha also did a good job inducing ground balls and limiting hard contact. His 48.0 GB% was a career-best as was his 28.0 hard-hit rate (lower is better for hard-hit rate). For reference, the league average GB% in 2017 was 44.2% and the league average hard-hit rate was 31.8%. Wacha had one of the quietest 3-WAR seasons in all of baseball in 2017, and at just 26 years of age (feels like he’s much older, doesn’t it?) he should be able to improve upon that mark in the upcoming campaign.

A.J. Minter, RP, Atlanta Braves

Minter was nothing short of dominant in his 2017 cup of coffee. The 24-year-old righty threw just 15 innings but his numbers were stellar: a 3.00 ERA, 1.2 BB/9, 15.6 K/9, 13.00 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP, and 0.96 FIP. Doesn’t that look pretty?

Minter is expected to begin the year as the #2 in the Braves bullpen behind Arodys Vizcaino who, while solid, has not quite been dominant during his tenure as closer. Vizcaino has compiled an ERA just barely lower than Minter’s since joining the Braves in 2015 (2.98), but his other stats do not look nearly as nice (4.2 K/9, 10.5 K/9, 2.52 K/BB, 1.28 WHIP, and 3.38 FIP). Vizcaino throws harder than Minter and throws more pitches, but the Braves have not had a reliever this dominant in their bullpen since Craig Kimbrel.

It wouldn’t shock me to see Minter stay in the set-up role this season, especially because saves are rewarded handsomely in arbitration, so giving Minter save opportunities would increase his cost for the Braves down the line. With that being said, having him in a set-up role will allow him to pitch more innings in a fireman-type role, which will showcase his abilities far more than being confined to the ninth inning.

Nicholas Castellanos, 3B/LF, Detroit Tigers

Let me begin with a 2017 player comparison for you:

Player A: 85 games, .248/.313/.433, 10 HR, 95 wRC+

Player B: 72 games, .299/.329/.553, 16 HR, 129 wRC+

It’s clear that Player B is better, right? They’re both Nick Castellanos, but Player A is his first half and Player B is his second half. What changed between the two to make him such a better hitter?

In short, Castellanos started making more contact. He swung a little more (1.5 increase in swing rate from the first half to the second), but made contact at a much higher clip in the second half: 77.3% as opposed to his 71.8% first-half contact rate. Everyone already knew that Castellanos could hit the ball hard; Castellanos ranked in the top-70 of MLB hitters in barrels/batted ball events in 2017 (a barrel is basically a well-hit ball, more here) and 19th overall in 2016. If Castellanos’ trend of hitting the ball more continues in 2018, he could put up the first 2-WAR season of his career and then some.

Castellanos’ walk rate and strikeout rate decreased in the second half of 2017, but that is going to happen with a large bump in contact rate. He’s not going to win AL MVP, but he might end up being the only reason to watch the Tigers this season.

Jesse Winker, RF, Cincinnati Reds

Prospect growth is not linear, and Winker is exhibit A. He has slowly descended (read: been ranked worse) on the MLB Pipeline top 100 prospects list over each of the past three seasons, and after further inspection, the reason for that is not exactly clear. One thing is clear, though, Jesse Winker has a great shot at being one of the biggest breakout candidates of 2018.

In 137 MLB PA in 2017 (an admittedly small sample), Winker hit .298/.375/.529 with 7 HR. Extrapolated out to 600 PA, which is a number Winker should come close to in 2018 provided he stays healthy, that’s 30 HR. The lefty also great plate discipline, especially for a 24-year-old; he walked 10.9% of the time in 2017 and struck out 17.5% of the time. All of Winker’s numbers point to him having a good 2017 and if you’re the sports betting type, throwing a couple of bucks on Winker to win NL Rookie of the Year might be a wise investment.

Dominic Leone, RP, St. Louis Cardinals

How about these Cardinals? Leone joins Martinez and Wacha as players to watch in 2018. Leone had by far the best season of his career in 2017, and the Cardinals decided that they liked what they saw in him so they sent two players to the Blue Jays for the 26-year-old. Leone is already in the mix for saves for the Cardinals which, statistically, does not mean a whole lot, but it is a testament to how good the Cards think he is.

In 2017, Leone threw 70.1 innings of 2.56 ERA ball with a 1.052 WHIP and a 10.4 K/9. None of those numbers are eye-popping for relievers, but they are quite good. Leone will look to take the next step forward in 2018 by proving to the Cardinals that he can close out games, thereby increasing his arbitration salary for next season and the seasons beyond.

Mike Clevinger, SP, Cleveland Indians

The 27-year-old righty showed out in his 121.2 innings pitched in 2017. Over his 27 appearances (21 of them starts), Clevinger compiled a 3.11 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and 1.249 WHIP. His 4.4 BB/9 could use some improvement, but it is already a bit better than his 2016 BB/9, and when Clevinger is allowing just 6.8 H/9, the 4.4 BB/9 is more manageable.

Clevinger is a four-pitch pitcher; he throws a fastball around 94-95 MPH, a changeup, a slider, and a sinker. This mix allowed him to keep hitters off balance. In 2017, Clevinger struck out 27.1% of the batters he faced, good for 18th-best among all starting pitchers with at least 90 innings thrown. He finished sandwiched between two guys named Yu Darvish and Zack Greinke in strikeout percentage.

The key for Clevinger in 2018 will be limiting the free passes. If he can begin to command and control his pitches just a tad better, he could challenge Carlos Carrasco for the #2 spot on the Indians pitching staff.

Miles Mikolas, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

Miles “Lizard King” Mikolas owns a career 5.32 ERA over 91.1 MLB innings. He last pitched in the big leagues in 2014. This past offseason, the Cardinals signed Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5MM deal on the heels of his dominant performance in Japan.

Mikolas was clearly not succeeded in the big leagues so he went to Japan for three seasons (2015-2017) and transformed himself into one of the premier starters in Nippon Professional Baseball. During his tenure there, the 29-year-old righty pitched 424.2 innings of 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP ball. He also added 378 strikeouts and kept his walk rate below two batters per nine innings.

The above numbers are very impressive but the transition back to MLB will likely not result in numbers as pristine. That being said, Mikolas gained valuable experience as a starter in Japan and he should be able to outperform his ~$8MM salary in 2018. And in the best case scenario, Mikolas will continue the dominance he demonstrated during his time in Japan and transform into one of the league’s top starters.

Nick Senzel, 3B, Cincinnati Reds

I usually shy away from including prospects (and players with no MLB time in general) on this list, but Senzel is too interesting to pass over.

Senzel is currently ranked a consensus top-10 prospect league-wide and for good reason. Since being drafted in 2016, the University of Tennessee product has triple-slashed .315/.393/.514 with 21 HR, 32 SB, and a 10.9% walk rate. Senzel is just 22 years old and his power is still a work in progress but it is trending in the right direction; after just 11 HR through his first 562 professional PA, he hit 10 HR in 235 PA in AA. More power against tougher competition is a very promising sign for the youngster.

Senzel has managed to work his way up from rookie ball to AA in just two seasons, and will likely see significant time in the majors this year. The Reds re-assigned the third baseman to minor league camp earlier this week, prompting the question of how long he will be there. If he continues performing like he has been throughout his career, we should see Senzel in Cincinnati in late April or early May.

Tim Lincecum, SP/RP, Texas Rangers

Big Time Timmy Jim is attempting an MLB comeback after taking 2017 off. The 5’11” right-hander won back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, performed well in 2010 and 2011, and then his fall from grace was precipitous. From 2012-2016, The Freak compiled a 4.94 ERA, 8.4 K/9, and 4.0 BB/9 in 654 innings pitched, all far cries from his prime in which he was a perennial Cy Young candidate.

Lincecum’s contract is structured in such a way that he will probably be coming out of the bullpen if he gets called up from the minor leagues. He has incentive clauses in his contract for appearances (north of 50), and games finished. Lincecum has never pitched appeared substantially in a relief role (only 8 of his career 278 appearances have come out of the bullpen), so if nothing else, it will be interesting to watch how the former Cy Young winner bounces back from a few years of poor starting pitching.

Other names to look out for: Amed Rosario (SS, NYM), Randal Grichuk (RF, Tor), Matt Chapman (3B, Oak), Tanner Roark (SP, Wsh), Trevor Williams (SP, Pit), Lewis Brinson (OF, Mia), Magneuris Sierra (OF, Mia), Austin Barnes (C/2B, LAD), Ronald Acuna (RF, Atl), Keone Kela (RP, Tex), Lucas Giolito (SP, CWS), Tyler Chatwood (SP, ChC)

(Image Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

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