As we prepare for another baseball season, we all look at it through our own personal lenses. Whether you’re a casual fan, a fantasy team manager or someone who likes to place the odd wager, there’s something for everyone. Spring Training brings with it fresh hope for our favorite teams and players. Do we stand a chance at the division? Will that top prospect make the opening day roster or at least be called up later? Who will end up with this season’s awards hardware?
So much of a team’s fortunes can hang on that one star who either implodes or continues to shine. The criteria for this list is simple: each player had to be somebody who has put together at least one star-powered season and either let us down in 2016 or decided to show up in a spectacular way, some for the first time.
Last year, we had players like Justin Verlander, Ian Desmond, and Hanley Ramirez show up on the comeback trail while Jason Heyward, Derek Norris, and Ryan Zimmerman showed up for the duds team. They all had star power and either made us smile or curse.
I’m going to play the part of soothsayer and predict which side of the fence the following 15 players will land on in 2017. What will really be fun is going back to this list at the end of the season and seeing which projections were on and which completely missed the mark.
First on our list is…
15 Bounce Back - Bryce Harper
Harper was sixteen years old when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. They called him “The Chosen One” and we all waited to see if it could be true. This teenager was supposed to take over for Barry Bonds as the most dominant offensive force in the game. He’s done some amazing things and yet has somehow fell short of our expectations, despite collecting 121 Major League home runs at all of 24 years of age.
The Nationals outfielder would likely have even better career accomplishments, except he’s had his fair share of injuries. 2015 was the first year in which Harper played in at least 150 games. Not coincidentally this was by far his best season and finally, we had the chosen one. Psych! 2016 broke a lot of fantasy players' hearts as Harper underwhelmed in every way, due again to various injuries.
This year, the Nationals will still play in a great hitter’s park and Harper will still have plenty of protection in the lineup. I think that the key for Harper is really as simple as being healthy and getting his at-bats. Provided he gets his 500+ ABs we’ll see numbers that closely resemble his 2015 line of .330 (AVG.), .460 (OBP), .649 (Slugging), and 1.109 (OPS).
14 Crashing Down - Edwin Encarnacion
The Cleveland Indians first baseman was a huge signing for a team that put up a serious fight in the World Series. Encarnacion had put up monster numbers for a Blue Jays team that was full of home run hitters and played in a hitter-friendly ballpark. The Indians have their own bandbox and Edwin will “get his.” The lineup, however, is not on the same level as his Jays teams and this will hurt his overall numbers.
Early in Encarnacion’s career, the knock on the guy was always his ability to stay on the field. In fact, Edwin has managed to get to 500 at-bats in only 6 of the last 13 seasons. And he’s on the wrong side of 30. A change of venue, a change of supporting cast and the reasonable possibility that he’ due for another injury-shortened year will bump him off-track this season.
13 Bounce Back - Carlos Correa
When Carlos was drafted first overall in 2012 by the Houston Astros, there was a strong sense of surprise. He was not the consensus top pick. That was supposed to be Mark Appel or Byron Buxton. Once the pick was in, it was conjectured that this was a money-saving move by the cash-strapped Astros. After his call-up in 2015 we got to see what the ‘Stros scouts and front office saw in the young shortstop.
22 bombs in just 387 at-bats to go along with an .857 OPS, and there was much drooling. How should we project his stats over a full season? He seemed a lock to hit .300 and cover 30 home runs at least, and why not have him steal 30 bags as well? Well, the Major Leagues can be unfriendly to young players and Correa was not impervious to the Sophomore Slump. He’ll make the necessary adjustments and be well protected in a stacked lineup inside a great hitter’s park.
12 Crashing Down - Max Scherzer
The best players set themselves up to have the hardest falls. The stuff and mentality is there, but a stress fracture in his hand is already messing with his spring training. In the meantime, Scherzer has begun experimenting with a new three-fingered grip on his fastball. It remains to be seen if the new grip could be effective if he had to use it, and it might raise concern for his overall health. If the grip changes his delivery, there’s always the possibility that it could cause further injury and damper the hopes of a really strong team with playoff expectations.
The last 5 seasons have been accentuated with K totals of 231, 240, 252, 276, and 284 in 1,079 ⅓ innings of work. That’s a lot of wear and tear for anyone, even if you are 6-3 and 211 pounds. I think the stress fracture is going to contribute to some missed starts and diminish his effectiveness when he does pitch.
11 Bounce Back - A.J. Pollock
Pollock missed most of 2016 courtesy of a broken elbow and a groin injury (ouch), but 2015 was impressive. A.J. was a good all-around producer as he turned in 111 runs scored, a good on-base percentage (.367) to go with 39 stolen bases and a respectable 20 home runs.
Almost every hitter on this list plays their home games in an excellent park for hitters. A.J. is no different, and like others on the list, he is surrounded by a strong lineup so there should be no excuse to not perform, injuries aside. It may be too much to expect an improvement on his 2015 numbers but I think it well within reason for A.J. to re-establish himself with a similar offensive season.
10 Crashing Down - Brian Dozier
One of the few to play in a less than desirable location and within a less than desirable lineup. Dozier, who hadn’t put up more than 28 home runs in a season before his incredible 2016, went for a moonwalk last year and stroked 42 taters. He’ll still give good production as a 2nd baseman but he has to come back down to earth.
2016 was Dozier’s Genie In A Bottle and boy, did he rub it the right way. Now, it wouldn’t be the first time a player performed way beyond expectations this explosively and this far into their career, just look at Jose Bautista. But the park and his teammates will do him no favors. Chalk 2016 up as that one season Brian will be able to look back at and say, that was some year.
9 Bounce Back - Chris Sale
The first Red Sox pitcher mentioned in this list. It’s hard to imagine Sale making a big jump in production since he’s been one of the top 5 or so pitchers for the last 5 seasons. He moves to a similarly offense-friendly ballpark but inherits both a superior defense and offense. As long as the boys in the lineup can give him some run support, he’ll win 20+ games and his ERA will drop a full run from his 2016 numbers.
More than a good defense and a chance for good run support, Chris has the kind of bulldog mentality that is worshipped in Fenway Park. As long as his jersey-cutting days are behind him, there’s no reason to think that he would be in any danger of missing starts. I think there’s a no-hitter in the stars for Sale this year en route to an American League Cy Young Award.
8 Crashing Down - Daniel Murphy
Here’s another 2nd baseman that performed well above average, except it wasn’t limited to home runs. He outpaced almost every offensive statistic he has ever put up. Granted, he’s batting in an impressive Nationals lineup, but I just don’t see him outpacing his career OPS by 200 points again. He batted .347 last year! He’d never batted above .300 in a full season before 2016.
Like Brian Dozier, I expect 2016 to have been a career year for Murphy. He’ll be drafted way earlier than he should be by fantasy players in hopes that he can turn into a modern-day Rogers Hornsby, but that’s not happening.
Look for his batting line to look something like this: A .290 average, an on-base percentage of around .340, slugging of .465, and an OPS of .805. A good season, to be sure, but not the out-of-this-world experience of 2016.
7 Bounce Back - Ian Desmond
Of all the hitter-friendly parks in the Majors, Coors Field has to be at the top of the list. The offense is turbocharged and Ian is going to be surrounded by professional hitters. Desmond has been a perennial 20-25 home run guy in Washington and Texas, albeit with a relatively low batting average. To compensate, Ian steals a few bags. You can count on him for 20 SBs.
This is the year that everything clicks for Ian and I believe that we’ll be talking about his 2017 season the same way that we’re talking about Brian Dozier and Daniel Murphy’s 2016. It would not surprise me at all to see a .320 batting average and 30+ home runs. He’ll be a major reason that the Rockies see the postseason this year. If you happened to draft Desmond for your fantasy team this year, make sure you give him some time before seriously considering trade offers for him.
6 Crashing Down - Rick Porcello
Rick had his signature season last year. Everything lined up for him to maximize on his performances as his offense made sure he racked up wins. Porcello ran away with what was by far the greatest run support in the game. There will be some regression there - by way of Big Papi retiring and numbers falling back to the means - and coupled with a return to career norms in ERA and innings pitched, I can easily see his win total being cut in half. As a Red Sox fan, I hope he proves me wrong.
What Rick still has is an excellent defense behind him and a career habit of inducing ground balls. The offense remains potent, even with David Ortiz retiring but I don’t see all of the areas that worked for him in 2016 coming together again quite so harmoniously. Expect an ERA around 4.00, with 180 innings, and 10 to 12 wins.
5 Bounce Back - Buster Posey
This catcher makes his hay in a pitcher’s haven. It’s right there with such offensive deathtraps as Safeco or Petco. AT&T park definitely sides with the men on the mound. Even with such a handicap Buster has made himself the consensus top catcher in the game for the last few seasons
Here is where I get a little corny and tell you that Buster’s numbers will improve because they have to. He’s the leader of the Giants and they need him to be an offensive force. He’ll do it because team leaders do what they have to do. His best season came in 2012 when he hit .336 with 24 home runs and drove in 103 runs. The average is probably a little high but the power is coming back as well as RBI above the century mark. The Giants are due for another World Series visit and Posey is going to lead the way.
4 Crashing Down - Andrew Miller
123 strikeouts in 74 ⅓ innings. An ERA that starts with a 1, 10 wins, and 12 saves in 70 appearances. He’s been dealing for awhile, too. This guy was arguably the most valuable relief arm in the Majors in 2016. This is the guy the Yankees traded for Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, two guys who could very well make their way onto a list like this in the next few years.
Miller has been so dominant that it feels like he can’t possibly keep up this production with as many innings as he worked, including the postseason. Maybe he is just that good and I only have him facing a downturn because I want my team to have a chance against him. Then again, it is wonderful to see really good pitching in action. For now, I say that overuse in 2016 will impact him somewhat and the ERA shows a pitcher that is more hittable. Let’s say somewhere around 2.50. Still pretty good.
3 Bounce Back - Jose Abreu
The best Cuban power hitter we’ve seen so far. Jose is an interesting case; each year, he adds to his number of games and at bats, as his production goes down. Is it just coincidence or are we seeing results that suggest he may do better with more rest? He’s gone from 36 home runs in 2014 to 30 in 2015, down to 25 home runs in 2016. And he hasn’t made up for it in other areas. Doubles are about the same every year and the average went from .317 in his first year to .293 last year.
Maybe we’re seeing a natural regression due to his age, along with more complete scouting reports on his hitting for the pitchers opposing him. We know he has it in him to put up 90 runs, 30-40 doubles and 30-40 home runs while knocking in 100+ runs. This will be his last big year before we see him returning to good, but not great production (at least for first basemen.)
2 Crashing Down - Nelson Cruz
Nelson used to be one of those fantasy guys you loved to hate. He would put up great numbers for about three quarters of a season and then get injured. His production was the type that was hard to replace. The last three years, however, have seen great consistency from the outfielder. 40+ home runs and at least 589 at bats will go a long way towards getting your fantasy team into the playoffs.
Cruz is too good a player to see his numbers fade quickly, even at age 36, due to anything apart from missing time. He has a history of doing so, so I’m going to bet that this is one of those years where his body betrays him for at least a quarter of the year. Safeco, to this point, hasn’t been able to rein in Nelson’s prodigious power, but there’s always a small piece in the back of your mind that thinks it might be robbing him of a few dingers at least. He’s a fun player to watch hit; hopefully he can keep it up in 2017.
1 Bounce Back - Clayton Kershaw
No one establishes high expectations like Clayton Kershaw does. In 2015, the man struck out 301 batters. The last time someone did that was in 2002 when Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson both hit the mark. He’s thrown a lot of innings since he burst onto the scene in 2008 and that may have shown up last year. He made 21 starts and threw about 80 less innings than he’s used to. The way he pitches, it may have cost him 10 wins.
This was really the only limitation on Kershaw’s production as his ERA on the season and his WHIP were both career lows. As long as Kershaw is healthy and pitches his customary innings he will be considered the top pitcher in the Major Leagues. The best part? He’s been pitching for nine seasons and is still only 28 years old. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see him pitch for another nine or ten years and be able to say that we watched one of the best pitchers of all time.