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Rays Roundtable: Bold Predictions for the 2018 season

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MLB: Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays
From 2016: Then shortstop Matt Duffy (5), traded third baseman Evan Longoria (3), then first baseman Brad Miller (13) and traded second baseman Tim Beckham (1) ponder life’s existence and what the future would hold
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a new feature at DRaysBay. Throughout the season, we will be gathering the DRB minds-that-be together for brief chats about the Rays. These might be light-hearted or more analytical, but they will (hopefully) always be entertaining. Part of the beauty of baseball is the variety of opinions it draws out, and this is a good chance to see some of those differing opinions right next to each other in short, digestible segments. Today’s topic: Bold predictions for the upcoming season.

Bradley Neveu: Kevin Kiermaier cements himself as the clear-cut second-best center fielder in baseball with an 8.0+ fWAR season.

No one is denying Mike Trout’s well-defined top tier unto himself as a lock for 8.0+ fWAR every season. Kevin Kiermaier’s elite defense has always given him an absolute floor of an average major league center fielder, and now his offense is becoming a legitimate threat and in doing so, the bat is adding a ton of value to the total package. If we split up his four major league seasons into two halves, his 8.5% walk rate over the last two seasons is a massive improvement over his 5.0% walk rate from his first two seasons. He has improved on his hard contact rate every year since breaking into the majors, and his speed adds more than half a win from base running each and every season. The only issue with Kiermaier is health. He’s never stayed on the field for a full season, and that is the biggest reason why he hasn’t had an absolute monster year yet. His career average is almost exactly 1.0 fWAR per 100 PA, so getting to 8 fWAR in a full season of 700 PA is hardly considered bold as it’s just 14% better than what he’s been doing all along. Staying healthy for a full season is the bold prediction that will unlock his potential.

Darby Robinson: Matt Duffy will have a higher WAR than Evan Longoria

This is a prediction betting on health. (Yes, on Matt Duffy’s health. Stop laughing.) Evan Longoria is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. Since 2013 (the first year where Longo’s plantar fasciitis was reported), he has posted a wRC+ of 105, 109, 123, and 96, and his power has settled down in the low 20 home run range. A move to San Fran’s spacious AT&T Park doesn’t make matters any easier. Plantar fasciitis was the same nagging foot issue that seemed to be behind the precipitous fall of Albert Pujols, sapping his power from demi-god to mere mortal.

This is not just a prediction based on Longo’s health, but Duffy finally being healthy himself. Matt Duffy is a very gifted defender at the hot corner, posting 12 Defensive Runs Saved in 2015 and 11 DRS in 2016. His slick glove at third base gives him a strong base that won’t require much at the plate to put up a good season in the WAR category.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Duff Man
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to his bat, Matt Duffy is no slugger, and the right-handed power suppressing Tropicana Field won’t have much power to suppress. What Duffy does do well is make contact, drive some pitches into gaps, and hit to all fields. In 2015, when Duffy posted a very achievable 113 wRC+ (a touch above where Longo has currently settled in since 2013), he was able to post nearly a 5.0 fWAR season.

A healthy Matt Duffy is a player poised for a huge comeback season. Nobody can best Longo in our heart, but in 2018, Duffy WILL best Longoria on the field.

John Ford: The “bullpen day” experiment actually works.

Yonny/Yarby/Andriese/Pruitt “start” about 30 games combined, relieve another 70 or so, and average somewhere around 80.0 innings a piece. Their FIPs are all under three.

Of the three, Yonny Chirinos is the clear star of the pack. Only going through the order once allow his stuff to play up well, boosting his K/9 over nine while still playing to command strengths. He is the fifth “starter” by late-August, though he still gets the early hook.

Danny Russell: Nate Eovaldi survives the season with a fully functional right arm.

The list of players who have become returned to the majors as starting pitchers after a second Tommy John surgery is 11 names long. The list of players who made 10 starts or more is only six names long. More than fifteen? Two names:

  • Chris Capuano (109 starts)
  • Tyler Chatwood (52 and counting)

The good news is that Eovaldi has beaten some seriously grim odds to return to form. His final start of Spring Training was March 26th, and he was still pumping 98 miles per hour in the sixth inning. What makes Eovaldi different?

Part of it may be his diligent training regimen (which has been lauded by the other starters), part of it may be the Rays killer training staff preparing that plan for him, and part of it might just be luck.

Eovaldi could have been ready late last season if the Rays had been in contention, but the team shut his reliever prep down to allow him to pursue the long path back to starting — following the player’s wishes (despite a few million of relief incentives in his contract). This extended his rehabilitation, but his patience has thus far paid off.

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers
Eovaldi
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The best news in camp is that Eovaldi appears to be who he was, with a “slow curve” added to his arsenal. His first start will be against his former team in New York for Game 4 of the 2018 season. My bold prediction is that Eovaldi will make more than ten starts, and more than fifteen. He will join that list of two above. Eovaldi will beat the odds and start for the Rays all season, and it will warm the heart to see.

Mat Germain: The Rays will have the best second-half record in the AL East.

While I can’t begin to predict what will happen between now and July, due to major questions all over the field, I feel very confident in the Rays’ ability to reverse last year’s second-half implosion. Most of that faith comes from having a strong young pitching core that should allow for a great rotation, as well as a very deep group of arms in the pen.

Add in some of the best prospects in the game that will be ready to jump in before the All-Star break (Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Christian Arroyo), and you have a very young energy-filled lineup that will be tougher to navigate than most people expect. I also believe that a few impact outfielders, such as Justin Williams and Joe McCarthy, could also chip in if/and when needed.

Now, where that lends the Rays in the final standings is a major question mark, but with the likeliness of the Jays (and O’s) winding up sellers, I’ll also add in that the Rays will NOT finish last in the AL East because they will be adding talent to the roster all season long instead of taking theirs away.

Jim Turvey: Brad Miller combines the best of 2016 and 2017 to have an All-Star season.

Brad Miller hit 30 home runs in 2016. Brad Miller sported a 15.5 percent walk rate in 2017. Want to guess how many players hit at least 30 home runs with at least a 15 percent walk rate in 2017? Only five: Aaron Judge, Edwin Encarnacion, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and Josh Donaldson.

Now that Miller (and Rays fans) no longer have to worry about his... well, less-than-stellar defensive work up the middle, Miller can focus entirely on the bat. As Bill James has said: Once a player displays a skill, he owns that skill. And if he can somehow combine the best of both worlds in 2018, he’ll be one of the most valuable hitters in baseball for the upcoming season.

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Sanford: Jonny Venters will become a high leverage reliever once again

Jonny Venters and his story are amazing.

So, my bold prediction will be that when the Rays promote Venters at some point during the season, he’ll quickly claim one of the late inning roles, that he’ll pitch in high leverage spots in the backend of the bullpen, and may possibly even become the team’s best reliever.

Bonus Round:

Quickly, here are some cuts that didn’t make it above:

  • Blake Snell finishes in the top three in the AL Cy Young (I’ve already harped on a Snell breakout enough that I’m beginning to fear jinxing it)
  • Carlos Gomez finishes with more WAR than Steven Souza (he’s already hurt)
  • Willy Adames wins American League Rookie of the Year (honestly, not bold enough)
  • Jose Alvarado leads the AL in saves (I’m worried the clock is ticking on Colome)
  • Denard Span will be good (now we’re cooking with heat!)

So those are the bold predictions from the DRB staff, what are your bold predictions for 2018? Leave them in the comment section below.