Bleacher Report's MLB Experts Make Key 2019 Spring Training Predictions

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2019

Bleacher Report's MLB Experts Make Key 2019 Spring Training Predictions

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The long, cold winter is almost over. In no time, pitchers and catchers will begin reporting to sunny Arizona and Florida for the start of spring training.

    We're still a few weeks from Grapefruit and Cactus League games, but in the meantime, we've tried our hand at predicting odds and ends surrounding 2019 spring training.

    The following five B/R MLB experts made up our panel of prognosticators:

    We tackled a list of 15 questions, ranging from landing spots for remaining free agents to position battles to breakout performers to which teams will surprise or disappoint.

    Opening Day is right around the corner, folks! Now if only Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would make up their minds. Speaking of which...

Where Will Bryce Harper Sign and for How Much?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Knobler: Washington Nationals for 10 years and $300 million

    Miller: Philadelphia Phillies for eight years and $240 million

    Reuter: Nationals for 10 years and $310 million

    Rymer: Phillies for eight years and $256 million

    Shafer: Phillies for six years and $225 million

Where Will Manny Machado Sign and for How Much?

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Knobler: Philadelphia Phillies for 10 years and $300 million

    Miller: Chicago White Sox for seven years and $175 million

    Reuter: White Sox for eight years and $240 million

    Rymer: White Sox for one year and $35 million

    Shafer: White Sox for two years (with opt-out) and $70 million

Where Will Dallas Keuchel Sign and for How Much?

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Knobler: Houston Astros for four years and $80 million

    Miller: Philadelphia Phillies for two years and $40 million

    Reuter: Phillies for three years and $54 million

    Rymer: Los Angeles Angels for four years and $80 million

    Shafer: Angels for four years and $75 million

Where Will Craig Kimbrel Sign and for How Much?

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Knobler: Atlanta Braves for three years and $55 million

    Miller: Braves for two years and $30 million

    Reuter: Philadelphia Phillies for three years and $48 million

    Rymer: Boston Red Sox for one year and $17 million

    Shafer: Red Sox for three years and $40 million

Who Will Be the Best Free Agent Still Looking for Work on Opening Day?

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    Adam Jones
    Adam JonesMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Knobler: Adam Jones

    He shouldn't be, because he could help a lot of teams. But the numbers haven't been working in his favor.

       

    Miller: Adam Jones

    That we're on the eve of spring training and Jones remains unsigned is embarrassing. He's just 33 and, granted, may be past his prime, but he still has plenty to offer. Here's a guy with playoff experience, a guy who starred for Team USA's first championship in the World Baseball Classic, a terrific African American role model in a game with dwindling African American numbershe checks every box.

       

    Reuter: Tyler Clippard

    Foolishly perhaps, I think one of several outfielder-needy teams will come to its senses and sign Adam Jones before the season starts. So we'll go with Clippard—a once-great, still-good reliever who has generated little buzz in a reliever market that's been picked clean behind Craig Kimbrel. The 33-year-old had a 3.67 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings with seven saves and 15 holds in 73 games for the Toronto Blue Jays last season. He's likely holding out for an MLB deal, and that could extend things.

       

    Rymer: Adam Jones

    He's about as good a veteran presence as any team could ask for. Trouble is, it's awfully hard to ignore his poor defensive metrics and offensive struggles.

       

    Shafer: Adam Jones

    Bryce Harper has stalled the outfielder market, and Jones is the prototype of a player looking to get paid for what he has done and not what he will do.

Who Will Be the Best Player Moved in a Trade Before Opening Day?

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    Jacoby Ellsbury
    Jacoby EllsburyJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Knobler: Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees

    I have no idea how Brian Cashman is going to make it work financially, but there's no place for Ellsbury with the Yankees.

       

    Miller: Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees

    His contract isn't an easy fit for many clubs, but Ellsbury has very little use anymore to the Yankees, especially the way Aaron Hicks established himself last summer. Their outfield is crowded enough with Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner. Ellsbury never has been a good fit in the Bronx, and he didn't play at all in 2018 and posted just 112 games in 2017. It's only a matter of time.

       

    Reuter: Justin Smoak, Toronto Blue Jays

    All it will take is one key injury in spring training for Smoak to become a hot commodity. Prospect Rowdy Tellez turned some heads with a strong September, and Smoak will be a free agent next offseason, so the rebuilding Blue Jays should be motivated to deal.

       

    Rymer: Edwin Encarnacion, Seattle Mariners

    There's a limited number of places he could go, but there's no way he actually opens the season with Seattle.

       

    Shafer: Edwin Encarnacion, Seattle Mariners

    As dealin' Jerry Dipoto rebuilds the Mariners roster, it's impossible to imagine he will hang on to an expensive veteran such as Encarnacion, though he may have to eat some salary and/or accept a minimal prospect return.

Which 2018 Star Is Primed for Regression?

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    Javier Baez
    Javier BaezAndrew Weber/Getty Images

    Knobler: Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays

    Still think he's going to have a very good career but could see a step back this year.

       

    Miller: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    Not that I don't love deGrom and think he can pitch the Mets to a surprising season this summer if he ever gets some doggone run support. But c'mon, his 2018 was historical. To ask him to repeat his 1.70 ERA in 2019 would be absurd, like asking Jake Arrieta to repeat his sensational 2015 for the Cubs (1.77 ERA). You simply can't expect it.

       

    Reuter: Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

    Freeland has a chance to be a long-term rotation piece for a Rockies staff on the rise. However, the odds he can match his 2.85 ERA from a year ago are not good. A 3.67 FIP and 4.35 SIERA paint him more as a No. 2-3 starter type. German Marquez looks like the better bet to lead the staff going forward.

       

    Rymer: Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

    It's an absolute delight to watch him play baseball, but it's hard to trust a guy with Sandovalian swing and chase rates.

       

    Shafer: James Paxton, New York Yankees

    He might stretch the definition of "star," but Paxton was ace-like in stretches in 2018 with Seattle. A move to the hitter-happy confines of Yankee Stadium could send his numbers tumbling.

Which 2018 Bust Is Poised to Rebound?

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    Carlos Correa
    Carlos CorreaRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Knobler: Bryce Harper

    He's just too talented to have a first half like he did last year, and he won't have free agency hanging over him.

       

    Miller: Bryce Harper

    Maybe you don't call 34 homers and 100 RBI a bust. Maybe I'm grading too hard, like your most hated teacher in high school. But when one of the game's marquee players is limping along with a .219 batting average midway through the season, and when he finishes with a .249 average and fails to lead an incredibly talented Nationals team to the postseason, I'm calling it a bust. I know, I know, there was the .393 on-base percentage and plenty of highlight moments, but there never was anything approaching his 2015 National League MVP Award performance. I think he's still got another MVP in him. Stay tuned.

       

    Reuter: Brian Dozier, Washington Nationals

    Dozier averaged 38 home runs and racked up 10.8 WAR in 2016 and 2017. If he had been a free agent last offseason, he might have cashed in. Instead, he hit just .215 with an 88 OPS+ in his walk year and settled for a one-year, $9 million pillow contract from the Nationals. His strong track record and a woeful .240 BABIP that was fifth-lowest among qualified hitters make him a strong candidate to rebound.

       

    Rymer: Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs

    He can only go up from 2018. And when he's healthy, he generally dominates.

       

    Shafer: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

    Correa's stats dropped across the board last season, but he's simply too talented not to rebound in a dangerous Astros lineup as he enters his age-24 season.

Which Prospect Will Steal the Show in Spring Training?

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    Fernando Tatis Jr.
    Fernando Tatis Jr.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Knobler: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

    Plenty of hype coming in, and those who have seen him the most say it's justified.

       

    Miller: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

    Coming off a great winter ball session in the Dominican Republic and even being named as the game's No. 1 overall prospect by some, Tatis is shooting up the charts like a bullet. He's a sensational fielder as well as a fearsome hitter—just wait until you see him disappear deep into the hole between short and third to swallow up a ball and then reappear with a Derek Jeter-like jump throw to first from the outfield grass.

       

    Reuter: Forrest Whitley, Houston Astros

    Plenty of eyes will be on Tatis, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, but don't be surprised if Whitley looks like the prospect most ready to take the game by storm. The 6'7" right-hander is baseball's top pitching prospect for a reason, and an electric four-pitch repertoire and good command should land him in the Houston rotation by midseason.

       

    Rymer: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

    Juan Soto had a better season as a teenager in 2018, but a .381/.437/.636 batting line across four minor league levels (including Triple-A) is flat-out absurd for a 19-year-old. The dude rakes and will continue to rake.

       

    Shafer: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

    It's an obvious pick, but the son of Vlad has the hype and eye-opening pop to be a spring sensation and become the annual Guy Who Doesn't Make the Big Club Solely Because of Service Time.

Which Established MLB Player Is Headed for a Breakout?

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    Walker Buehler
    Walker BuehlerJae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Knobler: Michael Conforto, New York Mets

    Lingering effects from a shoulder injury led to a poor first half in 2018. Should be healthier and in a better situation this year.

       

    Miller: Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

    The only thing missing last season was consistency. Buehler was dominant in spots, and this summer he'll be dominant in more spots. He is the Dodgers' ace-in-waiting, and it will not be long before are more excited on the days Buehler starts than on the days when—gulp—Clayton Kershaw starts.

       

    Reuter: Nick Pivetta, Philadelphia Phillies

    I made my case for Pivetta as a breakout candidate last week. The bullet points included a FIP (3.80) that was nearly a run lower than his ERA (4.77), the swing-and-miss stuff that led to a quiet finish of eighth in the NL in strikeouts (188) and some intriguing similarities to Arizona Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray a year before his breakout.

       

    Rymer: German Marquez, Colorado Rockies

    Only Jacob deGrom was worth more fWAR among pitchers in the second half of 2018. It turns out a guy can conquer ever Coors Field if he has a fastball, slider and curveball that nobody can hit.

       

    Shafer: David Dahl, Colorado Rockies

    Health is the key for Dahl. If he can stay off the disabled list, he has a chance to take an offensive leap and become an All-Star.

What Is the Most Compelling AL Position Battle? Who Wins?

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    Blake Swihart
    Blake SwihartWinslow Townson/Associated Press

    Knobler: Boston Red Sox second base

    Dustin Pedroia wins because he might be able to make it through spring training healthy, and if he does, they'll want him in the lineup.

       

    Miller: Boston Red Sox catcher

    Yes, it will be entertaining to see whether Pedroia can bounce back from a knee injury, but the real battle in Boston will be behind the plate. Sandy Leon is the most experienced, Christian Vazquez is a leftover from the 2008 draft, and Blake Swihart (drafted in '11) has the most upside—for that reason, I'm going with him.

       

    Reuter: Cleveland Indians outfield

    It's mind-boggling that a contender projects to have Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin patrolling the outfield. Meanwhile, Adam Jones, Carlos Gonzalez, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez remain unsigned. Veterans Matt Joyce, Brandon Barnes and Trayce Thompson are in camp as non-roster invitees, and all three could conceivably play their way onto the roster. I'll say Joyce does just that, earning an Opening Day start alongside Martin and Naquin.

       

    Rymer: Boston Red Sox catcher

    Vazquez's contract pretty much guarantees him a job. Otherwise, Swihart's youth, versatility and upside will edge Leon's defensive know-how.

       

    Shafer: Boston Red Sox second base

    If a supposedly healthy Pedroia scuffles in spring training, the Red Sox may be forced to bench the fan favorite in favor of Eduardo Nunez or top prospect Michael Chavis, who should get reps at the keystone sack.

What Is the Most Compelling NL Position Battle? Who Wins?

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    Peter Alonso
    Peter AlonsoChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Knobler: New York Mets first base

    Todd Frazier wins, but Peter Alonso has a good enough spring that he'll be set for an early-season promotion.

       

    Miller: St. Louis Cardinals No. 4/5 starter

    Many clubs will have spirited battles for the bottom two-fifths of their rotations. Not every club will have a former ace like Adam Wainwright fighting to keep his career alive. Following three disappointing, playoff-less seasons, there is a new energy around this club following the offseason acquisition of slugger Paul Goldschmidt. Whether the Cards can return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 will depend on how well they pitch. Wainwright is the sentimental story, but even his curve likely won't be able to save him. I'm going with Michael Wacha and John Gant to break camp in the rotation.

       

    Reuter: Atlanta Braves No. 5 starter

    Assuming Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran and Sean Newcomb occupy the first four slots in the Atlanta rotation, a cavalcade of intriguing young arms will compete for the No. 5 spot. Touki Toussaint showed enough late last season to have a leg up on Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara, among others.

       

    Rymer: San Diego Padres outfield

    Wil Myers will get one of the two corner outfield spots on account of his contract. It'll be Franmil Reyes vs. Hunter Renfroe for the other corner, and Manuel Margot vs. Franchy Cordero for center field. Let's go with the large adult son (Reyes) and the healthier speedster (Margot).

       

    Shafer: St. Louis Cardinals right field

    How much more patience will the Cards have for high-priced, fading clubhouse leader Dexter Fowler, who should be permanently supplanted by young Tyler O'Neill?

Which Team Will Look Better Than Advertised?

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    David Peralta and Ketel Marte
    David Peralta and Ketel MarteJennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Knobler: New York Mets

    It's so easy to run them down, but people will see those pitchers and remember how good they can be.

       

    Miller: Arizona Diamondbacks

    Most people pulled the plug on Arizona as soon as the club dealt franchise icon Paul Goldschmidt over the offseason. And Zack Greinke has seen better days. But manager Torey Lovullo insists his team can compete, and looking at Eduardo Escobar at third base, Taijuan Walker in the rotation and David Peralta in left, and sizing up how few NL West teams did much to improve...I'm not saying Arizona will win the division or anything, but I think it'll be better than expected.

       

    Reuter: Minnesota Twins

    No one is talking about a team that made the postseason in 2017. Big spring performances by Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton would significantly improve their outlook, as would strong debuts by Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop. Since the Indians have done nothing to improve, don't be surprised if the Twins this spring look capable of unseating them atop the AL Central.

       

    Rymer: Arizona Diamondbacks

    Even without Goldschmidt, they don't look that terrible. And while he's no German Marquez, keep an eye on breakout candidate Ketel Marte in center field.

       

    Shafer: San Diego Padres

    The Pads are at least a year or two from serious contention, but with so much young talent looking to impress, they could rack up a lot of meaningless Cactus League wins.

Which Team Will Look Worse Than Advertised?

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Knobler: San Francisco Giants

    They lost 98 games in 2017 and 89 last year, so the fall has already begun, but it's hard to see things getting better soon.

       

    Miller: San Francisco Giants

    You look at Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner, and you see Bruce Bochy in the manager's chair, and you figure San Francisco can't be as bad as it's been the past two seasons, right? Well, the rotation and bullpen remain questionable, and new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi didn't exactly make moves this offseason to improve things. Look for Bochy to ride off into the sunset when his contract expires at year's end and for the Giants to kick off a massive rebuild soon.

       

    Reuter: Oakland Athletics

    The A's have the right to be mentioned among the AL contenders after a 97-win season. However, it's hard not to be skeptical about a rotation that features Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Daniel Mengden, Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt. If that group can't hold down the fort, Oakland might dig itself an insurmountable hole before in-house reinforcements arrive in the form of Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk.

       

    Rymer: Cleveland Indians

    They can survive the AL Central, but all the depth they've lost this offseason will be noticeable early and often.

       

    Shafer: Cleveland Indians

    The Indians toil in baseball's weakest division and could win another AL Central title without adding any more pieces. But they haven't done enough this offseason to remain among the AL's elite, and it'll show.

Bonus Question: Who Will Lead the Spring Circuit in Home Runs?

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    Peter O'Brien
    Peter O'BrienMark Brown/Getty Images

    Knobler: Peter Alonso, New York Mets

    He had 36 homers in the minors last year plus a 415-foot shot in the Futures Game. And the Mets figure to give him plenty of at-bats this spring.

       

    Miller: Bobby Bradley, Cleveland Indians

    When looking at spring power, I like two things: a young phenom with more pop than Popeye, and the Cactus League, where the air is thinner than a curfew-busting teenager's excuse list. A lefty-swinging first baseman, Bradley hit 24 homers for Double-A Akron last year and has hit 106 over the past four seasons. Who knows if he'll get enough at-bats to lead the spring circuit in homers, but it's usually somebody like Bradley who comes out of nowhere to do it.

       

    Reuter: Peter O'Brien, Miami Marlins

    O'Brien has slugged 161 home runs in seven minor league seasons, and he is in a prime position to finally see extended action at the MLB level. The 28-year-old hit a solid .273/.338/.530 with four home runs in 74 plate appearances for the Marlins last year. With another 100-loss season on the horizon, what do they have to lose by giving him 400 plate appearances? A strong spring would at least solidify a bench spot, so he'll be motivated.

       

    Rymer: Dee Gordon, Seattle Mariners

    Don't let me down, Dee.

       

    Shafer: Chris Shaw, San Francisco Giants

    The San Francisco Giants outfield is a wide-open cluster-you-know-what (assuming they don't swoop in and sign Bryce Harper), and powerful lefty swinger Chris Shaw will get a long look for a roster spot...and lots of at-bats against opposing teams' fringe pitchers.

       

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.