Projections are hardly guarantees, but they do provide an interesting lens through which to view the upcoming season.
So with a few wintry weeks still to go before clubs descend on Arizona and Florida for Spring Training -- and with nearly all of the major free agents signed -- it’s a good time to check in on how things are shaping up for 2020.
1) Mike Trout is in his own world
No, this isn’t exactly news. Trout is coming off his third American League MVP Award and seventh top-two finish out of his eight full seasons. But even if you know Trout is the undisputed No. 1 player in the game, it’s worth noting the gap between him and everyone else, based off his nearly decade-long run of consistent greatness.
2) 50 homers for Stanton!
Last season, Giancarlo Stanton tied Zack Greinke, among others, for 402nd in the Majors in home runs (three). Of course, he played only 18 games, while battling biceps and knee injuries. Steamer is undeterred, though, projecting the Yankees slugger for 143 games, a .268/.355/.590 line, a 143 wRC+ (sixth in MLB) and a whopping 50 homers. That would be six more than Trout and Pete Alonso for the MLB lead. It’s quite a number for Stanton, who, aside from his 59-homer MVP campaign in 2017, has never hit more than 38 in a season. Now imagine that production in a Yankees lineup that was one of MLB’s best last year, even without him.
3) All rise for ... Luis Arraez
If you weren’t following the Twins closely in 2019, you might have missed the arrival of Arraez, a 22-year-old left-handed hitter with impressive contact ability who had MLB’s lowest strikeout rate (7.9%) while finishing with the third-highest batting average (.334) among those with 300 plate appearances. Steamer is buying Arraez as a batting title contender over a full season in 2020, projecting him to post the game’s highest average (.312) with only 46 strikeouts in 544 plate appearances.
4) Baseball's best bullpen duo resides in ... Queens?
The Mets’ bullpen endured a disastrous 2019, one reason the club fell three games short of a playoff spot. But things are looking up for this group, which projects as the best in the NL. Two big reasons for the turnaround: one pitcher who struggled mightily last season, and one who barely pitched at all. Steamer sees big rebounds for both Edwin Díaz (5.59 ERA in 2019) and the newly signed Dellin Betances (limited to one game by injuries), with both projecting to be among the top four MLB pitchers in ERA, FIP and K/9 rate. Such a scenario would effectively shut down the late innings for opponents.
5) Meet Lamet
Don’t sleep on the Padres’ Dinelson Lamet. The righty’s intriguing 2017 debut was followed by a season and a half lost to Tommy John surgery, but Lamet came back strong last summer, with a 33.6% K-rate that would have ranked fourth in MLB with enough innings to qualify. Steamer has Lamet and his bat-missing breaking stuff finishing in the top 25 in the Majors in strikeouts (204), with a 3.74 ERA and 3.3 WAR. Between that performance, and a similarly strong projection for the often-injured Garrett Richards, things could be looking up for San Diego’s rotation.
6) The hot corner is absolutely stacked
The projections have third base accounting for nine of the top 20 spots in WAR among position players, all at 4.6 or higher. The list, from the top: Bregman, Rendon, Matt Chapman, the recently signed Josh Donaldson, Jose Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Rafael Devers and Manny Machado. That doesn’t even include last year’s MLB home run title runner-up (Eugenio Suárez), breakout star Yoán Moncada, hard-hitting veteran Justin Turner or high-ceiling 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr., each of whom is also around 3 WAR or above.
7) The White Sox now have an enormous edge
Chicago has been perhaps the busiest team this winter, in an attempt to snap an 11-season playoff drought. The biggest move was the signing of catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year deal. At a time when quality two-way catching is in short supply, Grandal is a legitimate star, and like Trout does overall, he stands above the crowd at his position. While J.T. Realmuto is a worthy foil in the NL, Grandal’s projected 5.0 WAR is nearly double that of any other AL catcher, with Boston’s Christian Vázquez next at 2.8. That’s quite an advantage for an up-and-coming team.
8) The Braves’ ace might not be who you think
Mike Soroka was the toast of the Atlanta staff in 2019, going 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts, while finishing as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up and sixth in the Cy Young race. At age 22, one might expect Soroka to just keep trending upward. But Steamer is skeptical, as Soroka doesn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts and had a large gap between his ERA and FIP (3.45). For 2020, the projections have lefty Max Fried as the Braves’ No. 1 pitcher instead, with an ERA roughly half a run lower than Soroka (3.60 vs. 4.12) and down quite a bit from his 4.02 mark in ‘19. Perhaps Soroka will defy the projections and maintain his spectacular run prevention, but this also could be Fried’s time to shine.
9) The Blue Jays are catching up
The focus tends to be on Toronto’s young, ultra-talented infield, but what they have behind the plate might be overlooked. Former top-100 prospect Danny Jansen had a strong 2019 defensively, being named an AL Gold Glove finalist and finishing fifth among MLB catchers in Defensive Runs Saved (12). The 24-year-old’s bat was a different story (.207/.279/.360), but Statcast shows that Jansen had one of the largest gaps between his expected and actual numbers, based on quality of contact. The projections forecast a rebound to a league-average .249/.326/.431 line, which in a thin catching pool would put Jansen seventh in WAR at his position in only 72 games. With equal playing time, he would be tied with Realmuto for second behind Grandal. Between Jansen and 24-year-old counterpart Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays may have one of the game’s best behind-the-plate situations.
10) Two-way Shohei is back
If the Angels are going to get Trout to the postseason, he needs as much help as possible. And having two good players in one package certainly qualifies. Shohei Ohtani has only pitched 51 2/3 innings in two Major League seasons, but he is returning from Tommy John surgery and appears poised to contribute on the mound and at the plate in 2020 (The Angels are hoping he can pitch once a week and hit three to five times a week, possibly including on days he pitches, although he might not be ready to take the mound in the Majors on Opening Day). Steamer is bullish on both pursuits, pegging Ohtani the hitter for a line of .280/.353/.524 with 29 homers, and Ohtani the starter for a top-10 K/9 rate (11.0) and 3.74 ERA. While it’s highly unlikely he will actually combine 19 starts on the mound with 555 plate appearances, it will be fascinating to see Ohtani in both roles as much as possible.