Should We Be Concerned About Kyle Hendricks’ Slow Start?

Now I know more than most that early-season struggles doesn’t necessarily translate to a season’s worth of frusturation. This time last season Anthony Rizzo was barely hitting over .200 and I couldn’t help but be alarmed. It didn’t matter that he was still hitting homers, driving in runs and getting on base, all I cared about was that batting average. Of course, Rizzo would find his stroke in June and go on to finish 4th in MVP voting, solidifying his spot as one of the most reliable position players in all of baseball.

Now we switch to Kyle Hendricks. The right hander enjoyed a breakout season last year, going 16-8 with a league-leading 2.13 ERA. However, so far this season he’s been anything but stellar. In three games he’s 1-1 with a rather repulsive 6.19 ERA, 1.375 WHIP and four home runs already given up. He’s on pace for 70 walks, which would vault past his career high. Frankly, he’s been awful. Unlike Rizzo, Hendricks hadn’t been a star player prior to his big 2016, though he was a viable back-of-the-rotation starter. With that being said, it’s difficult to tell whether or not last season was an outlier or the start of something great. We’ll be looking at some of the problems Hendricks has had this season and determine if it’s cause for legitimate concern.

 

High ERA

While ERA isn’t a perfect stat, having a high one certainly isn’t good. Hendricks ranks among the top 25 in worst ERA among pitchers with 10 or more IP. In the three games he’s pitched he’s given up 11 ER in only 16 IP while only reaching the 6th inning once. What’s surprising is over half of the earned runs he’s given up so far have come via a home run, which is something Hendricks excelled at preventing last season. However, it’s only a three game sample, and pitching poorly in your first couple starts will make your ERA very high, so expect Hendricks to bring it down as he gets more innings under his belt.

Verdict: Not concerned

Allowing Hard Contact

Hendricks isn’t going to blow you away with high velocity pitches. He’s a finesse pitcher who tries to paint the corners and induce soft contact. He wants hitters to put it in play, but the rub is they won’t be able to hit it very far. While he’s been able to cause soft contact at a similar rate than last year so far, opposing hitters are squaring up the ball at a much more higher rate. Last season Hendricks induced hard contact only 25.8 percent of the time, which ranked 4th in all of baseball last year. This season he’s giving it up 15 points higher at 40.8 percent, which can explain his high ERA and homer numbers. Furthermore, hitters are making contact on Hendricks’ pitches more frequently. Check out his contact heat map this season compared to last season, courtesy of Fangraphs:

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That’s a whole lot of red this season. Albeit last season’s chart is a MUCH larger sample, it’s interesting nonetheless to look at how hitters are hitting Hendricks differently. So far hitters are making contact over 90 percent of the time on all corners of the plate, and even in areas outside the strike zone. This combined with hitters barreling the ball more and Hendricks’ decreased velocity to start the season translates to more frequent hard-hit balls, which is never a good thing for any pitcher. Hendricks recently told the Chicago Tribune that he’s always been a slow starter and that he’s expecting his fastball to creep back up to where it usually sits (87-89 MPH), though a few miles faster might not make that big of a difference if hitters keep pounding his pitches.

Verdict: Concerned

High Walk Totals

Last season Hendricks walked only 43 batters, tied for 10th among qualifying starters. This season he’s already given seven free passes, including four in 5 IP in his last outing against Milwaukee. What’s worse is that three of the seven opposing hitters whom he walked came around to score. With walks come more pitches, and Hendricks has thrown more pitches in his first three starts than he did last season… in two fewer innings. For someone who gets compared to Hall of Famer Greg Maddox, throwing 90+ pitches in five innings is certainly not Maddox-esque. Hendricks is throwing more balls too: 18 more than last season’s first three starts. For a pitcher who relies on throwing to the corners, perhaps he’s jsut not getting the calls. Or maybe it’s his admitted slow start syndrome acting up in the form of loss of control? It’s probably some combination of both, but we don’t expect it to last much longer.

Verdict: Not concerned

Last season Hendricks’ April didn’t fare well on the surface. The righty pitched to a tune of a 3.91 ERA, but the rest of his stats – namely his 1.09 WHIP and sparkling 4.75 strikeout per walk rate – were fantastic. This year it’s been a different story, and while his contact rate against and dip in velocity is cause for concern, everything else seems to be just early season struggles that, with adjustments, can be easily fixed. We know Hendricks is a studious guy so he’s no doubt aware of what’s going wrong. Expect him to find his groove sometime soon.

*All stats via Fangraphs

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

So Far, Kyle Schwarber Has Been Nothing but Stellar in the Leadoff Spot

I know I know, it’s only been two games. However, it’s hard not to notice how comfortable Kyle Schwarber has been hitting leadoff so far this season. And no, his success hasn’t come from any leadoff home runs or anything like that. It’s come from his ability to work the pitcher and get on base.

Even though it’s only been two games, Schwarber is among the league leaders in pitches seen and pitchers per plate appearance. In nine plate appearances he’s seen a total of 44 pitches, good for an average of 4.89 pitches per PA, both sixth in the league. Of course part of that stems from him getting more at-bats because he’s No.1 in the order, but it’s something to highlight nonetheless. His patience led him to two walks (one intentional) in last night’s game against St. Louis, and it would’ve been three if not for an incorrect strike three call that was outside of the plate (which was a seven-pitch at-bat by the way). His leadoff walk in that game was a testament to his ability to foul off pitches while also taking close balls. Take a look at that at-bat’s pitch chart, courtesy of MLB.com:

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After getting down 1-2, Schwarber fouled off a tough curve, took a borderline ball, fouled off another pitch before finally taking another borderline pitch, this one a fastball that was moving away from the plate, to earn the walk. While he did end up being stranded at 1st base, that eight-pitch base on balls set the tone for the game by allowing the hitters coming after him to get a good look at St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright. The right-hander threw three of the four different pitches he threw that at-bat at least two times, which can go a long way in helping future hitters figure out how the pitcher’s throwing that day.

Another at-bat worth mentioning was Schwarber’s second AB of the Sunday night game. Facing Carlos Martinez, whom Schwarber singled off to start the game, Schwarber took three borderline balls, two of which that spent the majority of their flight in the strikezone before barely missing the lower half of the plate.

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After missing outside with the first pitch, Martinez tried to bury him low for the rest of the at-bat, mostly with two-seam fastballs. However, Schwarber took one 96 MPH on the fifth pitch and roped it into the right center gap for a double. Again the Cubs couldn’t cash in, but the fact that Schwarber collected two hits in three tries against a pitcher who was arguably throwing one of the best games of his young career shows the poise and patience that Schwarber posseses.

Detractors before the season said Schwarber was too slow to be an adequate leadoff hitter. He’s putting those naysayers to rest by reaching base safely five times in nine tries, and while he doesn’t have any runs yet, once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo inevitably get going it’s going to be hard to say Schwarber doesn’t belong hitting in the No.1 spot.

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

Season Preview: The Bullpen

Coming into 2016, the bullpen looked strong. Swingmen Adam Warren and Clayton Richard appeared poised to have great seasons, but then it all came crashing down. Poor performances by both led them to be off the team after the trade deadline, where the Cubs swung for the fences by trading top prospect Gleyber Torres for flamethrowing reliever Aroldis Chapman. The risky move worked, as Chapman and the Cubs won the World Series, even with former closer Hector Rondon and set up man Pedro Strop falling off a cliff performance-wise. Nonetheless, what was a question mark last year is now poised to be a strength, with many situational-specific spots up for grabs.

Even with so many open spots, closer is all but held down. Wade Davis was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for once-promising OF Jorge Soler, and even though it looks to be only a one-year rental, Davis is among the game’s best closers. With a 1.18 ERA in the last three seasons (tops in the league), he can essentially replace Chapman as the team’s dominant closer. However, a flexor bundle strain sent him to the DL last season, where he wasn’t quite the same after. A staggering 14.40 ERA in Spring Training may be cause for concern, but Joe Maddon said that as long as he looks healthy then the numbers will come back down to normal. If he does stay healthy, Davis should enjoy an easy 30+ save season.

The primary set up man as of now looks to be newcomer Koji Uehara, though that may change if injuries occur. A flyball reliever, Uehara ranked No.1 among relievers with at least 40 IP in FB percent while also staying middle-of-the-pack in home run per flyball rate, a good combination. Though he could reduce his hard contact percentage a bit to further limit opportunities for home runs/extra-base hits, his sub-one WHIP leaves him as a reliable set up man to start the season. The duo of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop could challenge Uehara down the line, but for now they look to be middle-to-low leverage options, especially Rondon, who has struggled mightily since late last year. Carl Edwards Jr. is a high strikeout guy who’s shoddy walk rate should decrease as he matures. He might replace Travis Wood as the team’s most used arm in the pen.

The team’s middle relievers are above average. Justin Grimm has an impressive 11.11 K/9 IP rate, though he’s among the league leaders in BB/9 IP at 3.93. His 4.10 ERA isn’t indictave of how good he was last year, so expect better numbers in 2017. Mike Montgomery was slated to be the team’s 5th starter, however Brett Anderson locked that up, leaving Montgomery as the main lefty out of the pen. He may start some, especially if Maddon uses a six-man rotation later in the summer, but seeing as how his walk rate was an abysmal 4.70 it may be best to wait and see if he can bring that number down. Like Grimm, his curveball remains his best pitch, so if he can keep the pitch down then expect a sizeable workload and better-than-average results.

One of the biggest questions for the bullpen heading into the 2017 season is if they can survive another season of gaudy walk rates. The pen was sixth in the league with 3.81 free passes per nine IP, and still the team’s historic defense defense allowed them to put up an above average left on base percentage. If the team can once again hover near the bottom of the league in hits and runs given up, the team will win a bunch of games again in 2017.

Our 2017 season predictions: 26-19, 3.65 ERA, 490 K

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

Season Preview: The Starting Pitchers

For as many mashers as the Cubs had last season, their starting pitching was more impressive. Led by their ‘Big 3′ in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, the staff led baseball in ERA and placed among the top five in a multitude of other categories. Only Jason Hammel doesn’t return, and Brett Anderson will be called upon to take his place. A bit of a concern lies in the future of the rotation, as the only guaranteed returning players after this season will be Lester and Hendricks. However, 2017 should be another great season for Cubs’ starting pitching, and barring injury, they should again be among the league’s very best.

Speaking of injury, the staff was remarkably healthy throughout the season, with only John Lackey missing extended amount of time. Nonetheless, the starting staff logged 989 innings last season, 2nd most in the majors. Couple that with their pitching well into October and the wear and tear could rear its ugly head, though Joe Maddon has stated he may use a six man rotation at some points in the season to give the main starters some rest, which should bode well for the inevitable playoff push, especially to the older pitchers.

Speaking of old, Lackey has been remarkably consistent as he continues into the twilight of his career. The 38-year-old has averaged 12 wins, a 3.94 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP since turning 30, and has been a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs. He enjoyed a good season last year, but the numbers indicate he wasn’t as dominant as his numbers suggest. Lackey benefited from the team’s historically great defense, and, courtesy of Fangraphs, his contact rate showed it:

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While Lackey did induce softer contact at a higher rate than his career average, he also gave up the hardest contact of his career at 34.4%, which was 11th in the league among qualified pitchers. When Lackey wasn’t fooling hitters they were squaring up the ball more, and that could pose a problem considering hitters are swinging at his pitches 48.6 percent of the time, 12th in the league among qualifying pitchers. If the Cubs’ defense isn’t incredibly efficient once again in 2017, regression is inevitable for Lackey.

The other established veteran on the staff, Jon Lester, has been even more consistent than Lackey. Starting over 30 games every year since 2008, the southpaw has been worth every penny of his six-year, $155 million deal he signed two winters ago. He gave up the least amount of hits in his career, and part of the reason is because his cutter is so effective. Lester’s cutter ranked No.1 in baseball according to Fangraphs in wCT, which measures how many runs better his cutter is than the average cutter. His curveball also ranks among the top wCB in the league as well, and with those two pitches he’s baffled hitters to a tune of a .211 BA and a hard contact percent of only 26.8, 6th in the majors. Though he did walk more and strikeout less hitters per 9 IP it wasn’t by much, so expect another brilliant year from Lester, even if the ERA goes up a little.

Jake Arrieta started off 2016 incredibly the same way he ended 2015. In his first 15 starts he had a sub-2.00 ERA with three HR given up and a 11-2 record. However, Arrieta came crashing down after that, posting a 4.36 ERA with 13 HR given up and a 7-6 record. The righthander at stretches lost command, throwing at least three walks in six of those 16 final games. In fact, Arrieta’s walk total rose 37 percent to the tune of 3.5 per nine innings. His pitches have a lot of movement so it’s not surprising for him to walk a few batters, but too many times last year he just couldn’t find the strikezone. Hitter’s still swung and missed at his pitches 10.5 percent of the time, only down .06 from his historic 2015, so the stuff is still there. Although it’s looking more and more like his 2015 second half surge was a clear outlier, Arrieta is still a nasty pitcher with ace stuff. If he can cut down on his walks than he should have another excellent season.

Kyle Hendricks finally had his breakout season. The then-26-year-old posted career highs across the board and led the league in ERA and ERA+, finishing 3rd in the Cy Young for his efforts. Always a finesse pitcher, Hendricks baffled hitters with pinpoint control, giving up soft contact at the highest rate of anybody in the league while limiting hard contact at the 4th lowest rate in the majors. When you have that kind of combination you’re not going to give up many runs, and Hendricks did just that, allowing only 45 ER, tops in the majors and the only pitcher in the 40s. A big reason for his success has been his changeup, which has become one of the best individual pitches in the league.Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 3.03.54 PM.png

Above are his pitch percent and AVG/P charts for his changeup, courtesy of Fangraphs. The righthander is effectively throwing his changeup at the bottom of the zone while yielding only six total hits on the season, good for a miniscule 0.018 BA. His changeup easily ranked No.1 in the league in wCH with over 21 runs above average. Hendricks is a good bet to maintain his control given that his walk rate is trending downwards, and even if his BABIP makes the almost-inevitable leap from his 4th-best .250 last season, he should once again induce soft contact at a high rate and avoid extra-base hits.

Brett Anderson is coming off an injury-riddled season and is penciled in as the Cubs’ No.4 starter to begin the season. An extreme groundball pitcher, Anderson ranked No.1 in the league in groundball percent in 2015, his last full season. He also was lowest in the league in flyball percent, though when hitters did get the ball in the air it went out for a home run 17 percent of the time, 3rd in the league. Anderson really couldn’t have landed in a better position, as the Cubs’ infield defense is among the very best and should allow him to settle into games. His 2015 BABIP of .310 is almost assured to go down as a result meaning that, health permitting, he should have a good chance to replicate Jason Hammel’s 2016 production this year. Given the circumstances, the Cubs’ couldn’t ask for more.

The starting staff is once again poised to be one of the best in the league. While they did enjoy one of the greatest defenses of all time last year, this year’s squad might be even better, meaning health is really the only concern Cubs’ fans should have surrounding this year’s starting pitching.

Our 2017 season predictions (combined): 72-45, 3.40 ERA, 890 K

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

Season Preview: The Bench

All Spring Training it looked like the Cubs were going to carry four bench players: Miguel Montero, Javier Baez, Jon Jay and either Matt Szczur or Tommy La Stella. However, an injury to reliever Brian Duensing forced Joe Maddon to carry all five, meaning the Cubs will start the season with multiple backups in the IF and OF. However, being that we’ve already discussed Baez extensively, here we’re only focusing on the other four, and this year the bench is poised to be even better than last year.

Last year’s bench was an inconsistent affair, with Jorge Soler, David Ross, Chris Coghlan and the aforementioned La Stella, Szczur and Albert Almora Jr. rounding it out. However, with the first three gone via trade, retirement and free agency respectively, this year’s squad is primed to be more consistent, both in appearances and performance. The good thing about a bench is that they don’t necessarily have to play at a high rate in order to be effective, but this year’s addition is the exception. Out of the previously mentioned four, Montero and Jay are everyday big leaguers while Szczur and La Stella are fringe starters – that’s depth that any team wishes they had, and it in turn gives Maddon the luxury of subbing out regulars when they need rest and rarely missing a beat with the fill-ins.

While Jay will be in a platoon in CF with Almora, the latter looks to get more starts so we’ll discuss Jay’s upcoming season a bit here. One of the best defensive OF in the league, Jay’s compiled a .995 fielding percentage in the OF since 2010, tied for the highest in the league over that span. There may not be any questons with his defense, but his offense has a few. While his average and OBP are a respectable .291 and .339, his walk rate and strikeout rate were both the lowest and highest of his career last year. His .371 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is bound to regress, so it’s imperative that he cut down his strikeouts while also taking more walks if he wants success in the lineup.

Montero took his spot on the bench with grace, though it wasn’t always like that. The veteran catcher expressed discontent over his usage throughout last season, and though it seems he and Maddon have buried the hatchet, Montero’s a proud player who wants to impact the team. However, Maddon had his reasons as to why Montero received 119 less plate appearances last season compared to 2015. A mixture of dwindling offensive performance combined with Willson Contreras’ emergence made Montero the odd man out, though he can still help the team in 2017.

While Montero declines offensively, his pitch framing behind the plate remains elite-tier. Check out the stats, courtesy of StatCorner:

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As you can see, Montero ranked in the top five in all the important framing statistics, while ranking No.1 in the league in balls called for strikes rate and calls/game. He’s an invaluable piece to the pitching staff, though his paltry offensive numbers – .216/.327/.357 with only eight HR – may keep him out of the lineup more than he’d like, especially if Contreras takes the next step into becoming an everyday catcher.

Szczur and La Stella were supposed to be battling it out for the final roster spot, but as previously mentioned, an injury landed both a spot on the opening day roster. La Stella holds the advantage in most categories you want a reserve to excel at (BA, BB%, BABIP), though Szczur is the more versatile player, able to play every OF spot. However, La Stella is the more advanced hitter, as showen via his contact rate:

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La Stella squares up the ball more while limiting soft contact, whereas Szczur hits the ball softly more than 1/4th of the time. While Szczur is an excellent defender, defense off the bench will likely come from Ben Zobrist or Kris Bryant, who’ll move to the OF to accommodate Baez at 2nd or 3rd. Furthermore, Szczur’s name has come up in trade rumors, with the Braves lurking as a potential candidate. Whatever happens with Szczur, both he and La Stella are fine players off the bench who should be extremely helpful to the Cubs this season.

You know you have a loaded team when your bench is among the very best in baseball. It’s filled with capable, dependable players, each allowing Maddon the enviable advantage of having (for now) 13 guys who are versatile enough to accommodate any injury. That’s the textbook definition of a good bench.

Our 2017 season predictions (combined) – 17 HR, 70 RBI, 70 runs

 

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Season Preview: Ben Zobrist

In a lineup full of youngsters, Ben Zobrist is slated to be the only starting position player over 30 for the majority of the season. However, any sings of deterioration hasn’t happened yet, as the soon-to-be-36-year-old batted .272/.386/.446 with 18 HR and 76 RBI last season. More importantly, Zobrist once again was Joe Maddon’s swiss army knife, appearing in 20+ games at 2B, LF and RF, while even logging some time at 1B and SS. An invaluable part of the team, Zobrist will be counted on to provide veteran leadership as well as production from the cleanup spot, which he is poised to do now that he’ll be hitting there for most of the season.

Zobrist may not be your typical 4-hole hitter, but his placement there makes sense. He protects Anthony Rizzo by being a reliable hitter, keeping pitcher’s earnest when facing Rizzo. He also provides a consistent on-base presence in the middle of the lineup, which should bode well for players such as Addison Russell and Willson Contreras hitting behind him. He walks more than he strikes out, and his patient approach at the plate is among the game’s best. Check out his key plate discipline stats, courtesy of Fangraphs.

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By looking at the numbers, we can see that not only is Zobrist not swinging at bad pitches at an elite rate, he’s also making contact at an elite rate as well. Furthermore, his SwStr percentage (the rate at which he swings and misses) is a miniscule 4.1 percent. Combine that with his 4.15 pitches seen per plate appearance and very rarely is he going to give the team a negative at-bat. That’s the type of cleanup hitter Maddon wants in his lineup, and Zobrist fits the bill perfectly.

Zobrist’s versatility has been his calling card, and he’ll once again be called upon to play multiple positions this season. Maddon stated this spring that he’ll keep a close eye on Zobrist’s usage throughout the season, and may rest him periodically. The 11-year veteran said that him and the coaching staff will “play it by ear.”

“Some of those will have to do with whether I’m a little tired and the matchup is right,” Zobrist told the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzalez about his potential days off. “Maybe they’ll choose to give me an off day on certain days, but there are other times I know last year where whether you’re tired or not, you’ve got to be in there because that’s the matchup that works best for the club.”

While Zobrist is a player you want in the lineup everyday, the toll of a 162-game season could hinder him come playoff time if he doesn’t receive proper rest, especially since he’ll be 36 for the majority of the season and he’s played in the last two World Series. It’s a good plan to have taken care of now rather than later, and it’s not like the Cubs will miss a beat, as Javier Baez can slide in and play an even better defensive 2B, although offensively the edge is to Zobrist.

Whether or not Zobrist receives an extensive amount of rest, he’ll be an important part of the Cubs’ success in 2017. Having averaged 149 games played since 2009, he’s as dependable as they come, and rest assured, even with limited playing time his impact on the season will be as pronounced as ever.

Our 2017 season projections: .270/.385/.435, 15 HR, 80 RBI, 90 runs

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

Season Preview: Albert Almora Jr.

Albert Almora Jr. was the first player drafted under Theo Epstein’s new regime, and coincidentally, the latest to debut. The 22-year-old came up in June last year and did about as good as you would expect a young prospect to do, hitting .277 with three HR and 14 RBI in 117 plate appearances. He surprised some when he made the postseason roster, seen somewhat as an defensive backup in case Jason Heyward’s nightmare season continued into the playoffs. While Almora did go 0-10 in the playoffs, his future still remains as bright as it was coming into his call-up last season, and fans should already be salivating at what he can do with the glove.

Almora is a special CF. His range, route running, awareness and quick first step is everything you want in an outfielder. Take this play for example, which saved the game for the Cubs:

Not only did he make a spectacular catch, he had the presence of mind to immediately get back up and fire to first, completing the double play and ending the inning. Almora is making these plays on a regular basis, and his fielding statistics show it.

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Once again we’re looking at UZR (ultimate zone rating), and thanks to Fangraphs, we can see that Almora ranked 18th among CF with at least 190 innings in UZR. That may not look like much, but take a gander at the innings column. Almora ranked inside the top 20 in UZR while only playing 193 innings. For comparison’s sake, Dexter Fowler, who had the best defensive season of his career last year, played 1027.1 innings and ranked 22nd. That’s the type of impact Almora has out there in the outfield, and with increased innings this season he should rank among the top CF defensively by year’s end.

Offensively is where Almora could breakout. He’s making contact on 79.5 percent of his swings, and his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is slightly higher than league average among qualifying hitters (.308) at .315. That along with his low strikeout totals means that his average should stay between .275-.300. However, he doesn’t walk a bunch either, as evident by his .308 OPB during his stint with the Cubs in 2016. If he can increase his walk totals then he ‘d be the perfect 9-hole hitter to complement the top of the lineup, not to mention he’s flashed the power (.455 SLG) to more than hold his own.

The only rookie that’ll be on the Cubs’ opening day roster, Almora will be in a platoon with Jon Jay. However, he should get enough at-bats to where we can adequately assess the type of player he’s on his way to becoming. Even if/when he falters throughout the season, he’ll still only be 23 years old for most of the 2017 season, so there’s room to grow. Let’s hope he makes enough improvements to seize the starting CF job in 2018.

Our 2017 season predictions: .280/.315/.450, 10 HR, 35 RBIs, 40 runs

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III