This is one of my favorite articles to write each year because, when all is said and done, I can go back to this article and pat myself on the back for the correct calls I made. And usually, I just ignore the misses and say “hey, who can really predict this stuff anyway?”
Last year, I made some good calls and some not-as-good calls. The two most notable picks were Miles Mikolas and Mike Clevinger. Mikolas threw 200.2 innings with a 2.83 ERA and 5.03 K/BB ratio after not throwing a major league pitch since 2014. Clevinger threw exactly 200 innings, setting career bests in ERA (3.02), K/BB ratio (3.09), WHIP (1.155), and FIP (3.52).
The worst part about my misses last year is that in my “other names to look out for” at the bottom of the article, I listed some then-20-year-old who hadn’t seen any MLB playing time. His name is Ronald Acuña. He won National League Rookie of the Year in 2018. Big whoops.
It is without further ado that I present my 2019 players to watch:
I don’t believe there is any such thing as a surefire prospect. Everyone else does, though, and I would argue that Vladito is probably as close to a surefire prospect as we will encounter for the foreseeable future. I don’t have much to say about him except that he’s a stud. He laid waste to the minors at just 19 years old, triple-slashing .381/.437/.636 with 20 HR and a 38:37 K:BB ratio in 90 games. The Blue Jays are going to keep him down in the minors to “work on his defense” and totally not to manipulate his service time so that they can gain an extra year of free agency. Regardless, he’ll mash once he gets to the big leagues. He’s good. Just wanted it on record so that I don’t get heat when we look back at this article next season. Next.
In the four years that I have done this article, I have included a relief pitcher I really like that I think will burst onto the scene. In 2016, it was Matt Bush, in 2017 it was Joe Jimenez, and last year I shouted out A.J. Minter. This year, I really like Poche, a 25-year-old reliever for the Rays. Last season, in 60 innings across Double and Triple A, Poche compiled a 0.82 ERA (yup, that’s not a typo), 0.788 WHIP, and 5.79 K/BB ratio. He struck out 45.6% of the batters he faced and walked just 7.9%. All of this is thanks to his fastball—he doesn’t light up the radar gun but he does an excellent job of keeping it hidden so that it appears much faster to hitters. Here’s a gif of Poche getting Martin Maldonado to swing straight through a fastball:
Given how the Rays manage their bullpen, I’m sure we will see a lot of Poche this year. Get pumped for Poche.
If I keep putting a player on the “guys to watch” list until he breaks out, does it still count when he actually breaks out? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Buxton looks like a changed man in Spring Training this year—he’s put on weight and simplified his swing. We’ve been tricked time and time again by Buxton’s tantalizing upside, especially after the second half of 2017 in which he triple-slashed .300/.347/.546 with 11 homers and 13 steals in just 57 games. Last season, Buxton was injured for most of the season so I wouldn’t necessarily consider this to be double-dipping, more that he delayed his breakout by getting hurt. I’m excited to watch Buxton this season, though, and even if the bat doesn’t come around, the 25-year-old will still be tons of fun to watch in the outfield.
Winker, like Buxton, had his season cut short due to injury after appearing on the “guys to watch” list. And if it were not for the ridiculous performances of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto, Winker may have gotten more love for Rookie of the Year in the National League—he triple-slashed .299/.405/.431 with seven long balls and more walks (49) than strikeouts (46) in 89 games. Joey Votto must have taught Winker a thing or two because this dude is just a machine at getting on base. Now, he’ll be fully healthy, hitting the ball hard, and exhibiting excellent patience at the dish. I’m looking forward to seeing what Winker has in store for us in 2019.
That throw is all you need to see to understand why I love Laureano. Anybody that knows me knows that I love to watch great defense—Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar, Billy Hamilton, and Ender Inciarte are among some of my favorite players to watch—and Laureano is the shiny new defensively-gifted centerfielder to make it to The Show. In addition to his excellent arm, though, Laureano isn’t too shabby with the wood. He triple-slashed .288/.358/.474 with five homers and seven swipes over 48 games in 2018. Laureano also hits the ball hard. His 39.8% hard-hit rate was 4.5% above MLB average last season and his 13.9% soft-hit rate was 4.2% below league average. In short, Laureano is good and he will continue to be good, so watch out for more plays like the above throw on SportsCenter this season.
Bieber, like Laureano and Winker, was a rookie in 2018. Unlike those two, though, Bieber did not show out during his time in the big leagues. His first four starts were encouraging—he threw 24.1 innings with a 2.22 ERA, 27 strikeouts, and 4 walks—but it went downhill from there. Bieber gave up four or more runs in four of his five July starts, and he allowed three runs in the lone remaining start. When all was said and done, Bieber finished the season with a 4.55 ERA and 1.334 WHIP, but there are many reasons to be encouraged.
For starters (pun somewhat intended), Bieber had a 9.3 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9, meaning that he was not doing any damage to himself. Those marks in addition to his 3.23 FIP and 3.30 xFIP indicate that he was the victim of some bad luck last year. I’m fairly confident that he will be able to turn that around so long as he stops getting so much plate with his pitches—opponents made hard contact on 43.9% of batted balls against Bieber last year. That particular stat is not encouraging, but I think Shane will be able to figure it out for all of his Beliebers.
I like Pivetta for a lot of the same reasons I like Bieber. His 2018 ERA of 4.77 leaves a lot to be desired but his K/9 of 10.3 and BB/9 of 2.8 are both excellent marks. The problem in 2018 for the 27-year-old righty was not hard contact but rather the long ball. In just 164 innings, Pivetta surrendered 24 dingers. That works out to a 1.32 HR/9, a mark that far exceeded the MLB average of 1.16 in 2018. Still, Pivetta’s FIP (3.80) and xFIP (3.42) both point to positive regression to the mean in 2019, and I’m buying that he’ll turn things around.
Devers didn’t exactly have a season to write home about in 2018—he triple-slashed .240/.298/.433 with 21 homers. The third baseman had trouble with lefties, triple-slashing .229/.272/.347 against them over 125 PA. The good news for Red Sox fans and Devers fans alike is that he’s still young. Devers set the world on fire in his debut in the summer of 2017 and people are quick to write him off after a lackluster 2018, but most critics fail to account for his age—Devers couldn’t even drink when he made his MLB debut in 2017. He’ll be 22 on Opening Day and there are some reasons to believe a bounce-back is possible: his zone contact rate, hard hit rate, and fly ball rate were all right in line with his 2017 breakout. Given that a handful of players on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list are older than Devers and that Devers has 179 MLB contests under his belt, I’ll bank on a return to positive production for the young Dominican in 2019.
Dowdy was the Mets’ Rule 5 draft pick this past offseason and the reason he is so interesting is that his velocity has ticked up since the start of 2018. Dowdy entered the pro baseball ranks equipped with a fastball that sat low 90s and could touch 94 or 95 if he really reached back. Then, suddenly, he started throwing in the upper 90s in 2018. He doesn’t know where it came from—after reading about him it doesn’t seem like anybody truly understands where the uptick came from—but that’s the reason the Mets picked him in the Rule 5 draft. Reports out of camp are that he’s impressed so far and though there still is no guarantee that he makes the MLB roster, he’s certainly a guy to look for this upcoming season.
Is it cheating to pick out a guy who is in the twilight of his career and won a World Series 10 years ago? Probably, but Happ doesn’t get enough credit for his stellar pitching, probably in part because he’s 36 years old. Over the past four seasons, Happ has lodged a cumulative ERA well under 4 as well as an ERA under 4 in each of those individual seasons. He has yet to throw over 200 innings but has seen his strikeout numbers tick up in the past two seasons. That’s not to say I’m predicting a “breakout,” because I don’t think that an established 36-year-old hurler can break out, but Happ deserves more love than he’s getting.
Other names to look out for: Corbin Burnes (P, Mil), Pete Alonso (1B, NYM), Garrett Hampson (2B, Col), Nick Senzel (3B/OF, Cin), Tyler Glasnow (SP, TB), Ray Black (RP, SF), Kiké Hernandez (UTIL, LAD), Harrison Bader (CF, StL).
(Image Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
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