Friday, January 20, 2017

17 To Watch in 2017

After breaking out in 2016, is Sanchez headed for a sophomore slump? (CBS Sports)
Some players performed far below their standards last year, while others will look to build on unprecedented success. Here are 17 worth following in 2017.

1. Byron Buxton
The second overall pick of the 2012 draft has struggled at the plate, batting .220/.274/.398 in 138 big league games thus far. The 23-year-old was demoted last summer but showed promise after returning to the majors in September, smacking nine home runs and flashing a 1.022 OPS over the season's final month. The toolsy center fielder is already worth watching for his ridiculous range, but if he starts hitting he'll become a star.

2. Gary Sanchez
Sanchez set the world on fire as a 23-year-old rookie last summer, smashing 20 home runs in just 201 official at-bats. The most he ever hit during a minor league season was 18 (twice), so it will be interesting to see how his power numbers shake out, especially since his 40% HR/FB ratio was the highest of any player with at least 50 plate appearances. He probably won't keep hitting like Babe Ruth, but he should be good for 30 homers in a full slate of games.

3. Julio Urias
Urias held his own after debuting at the tender age of 19 last year, compiling a 3.39 ERA, a 3.17 FIP and a 9.8 K/9 rate across 77 innings. His command (3.6 BB/9) could use some polish, but he's already one of the game's best young moundsmen.

4. Andrew McCutchen
Few players saw their stock tumble as much in 2016 as McCutchen, who went from one of the NL's best batsmen in 2015 to a barely league average hitter last year. The former MVP appeared to be pressing too much to dig out from a slow start, but ultimately finished strong and may be poised for a big bounce back in his age-30 season.

5. Jason Heyward
Heyward cratered after signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs last offseason, looking completely and utterly lost as he slashed .230/.306/.325 with a career-low seven homers. He's in the heart of his prime at 27 and had a career .768 OPS prior to last season, so the smart money's on him bouncing back, although it remains to be seen how he'll fare with his re-tooled swing.

6. Pablo Sandoval
Kung Fu Panda's been a huge bust since signing a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston two winters ago, and is coming off a season in which he lost his starting job and played three games before requiring surgery. The 30-year-old is still young enough to replicate his San Francisco success, which may happen now that he appears to be in great shape. The Red Sox are counting on him to produce (in what will be a pivotal year for him) after trading Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada during the offseason.

7. Bryce Harper
His OPS dropped nearly 300 points from 2015 as his production returned to his pre-MVP levels. It's widely assumed that Harper was playing through a shoulder injury last year, which may explain why he fell off after a hot start. Still just 24, can he recapture the Ted Williams-like greatness he displayed two seasons ago?

8. Yasiel Puig
What happened to this guy? Once one of the game's brightest talents and a budding superstar, his OPS has decreased every year since he debuted in 2013. The Dodgers seemed to give up on him last year, putting him on waivers after demoting him in August. That seemed to light a fire under Puig, who tore up Triple-A and returned to LA with a vengeance in September. He could bounce back at 26...if he stops coasting on his natural tools and shows the focus required to succeed over 162 games.
Are Brad Miller's and Daniel Murphy's revamped power strokes legit? (ESPN)
 9. Brad Miller
Miller came out of nowhere to slug 30 homers last year, nearly tripling his previous career high of 11. While his 20.4% HR/FB rate was almost double his previous best, exceeding the likes of noted power hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Todd Frazier, there are several indications his power surge was legitimate. He pulled the ball more than ever before and appeared to sell out more often, striking out at the highest clip of his career. When he did make contact, however, he inflicted more damage, as improved exit velocity resulted in the best hard-hit rate and average batted ball distance of his career. Only one player in Rays history has produced consecutive 30-homer seasons (Carlos Pena); could Miller be the second?

10. Jose Bautista
Bautista made waves last winter by announcing his desire for a five-year, $150 million contract, but he didn't get anything close to that on the heels of his worst season this decade. He drew little interest after batting .234/.366/.452 with 22 homers in 116 games last year, leading him to return to Toronto on a one-year deal. Back in familiar confines north of the border, the 36-year-old will try to reverse two straight seasons of decline.

11. David Price
Price had his worst season since his rookie year after signing the largest contract ever for a pitcher last winter. He pitched better after a slow start, but just didn't look like himself for most of the year( except for July and August, his ERA was over four every month). His velocity was down, which explains why his strikeout rate declined and how he allowed the most hits in the majors. His walk rate also went up, which spoke to how uncomfortable/easily frustrated he appeared at times, which led to a lot of bad innings. It usually takes players a year to get used to Boston, even aces like him (see Josh Beckett and John Lackey), but the stats indicate his best days may already be behind him.

12. Rich Hill
Hill pitched like a Cy Young contender last year when healthy, but recurring blisters limited him to just 20 starts. He's exceeded that number only once -- all the way back in 2007 -- and it's hard to see him suddenly becoming a workhorse at age 37. Still, he's in a prime position to succeed with Los Angeles (one of the friendliest pitching environments in the majors -- just ask Zack Greinke) and could be a great sidekick for Clayton Kershaw.

13. Daniel Murphy
Murphy carried over his Ruthian postseason performance in 2015 into the '16 regular season, emerging as one of the National League's top hitters. In addition to pacing the senior circuit with 47 doubles, a .595 slugging and a .985 OPS, he batted .347 and socked 25 homers with 104 RBIs. Can he approach similar numbers in his age 32 season? Or will he regress into the .288/.331/.424 hitter he was before last year?

14. Matt Harvey
Harvey's 2016 was utterly disastrous, as he went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA before being shut down for thoracic outlet surgery. Gotham's Dark Knight is expected to be fully recovered and will try to get re-establish himself as one of baseball's premier hurlers.

15. Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw continued to be the best pitcher on the planet last year, producing mind-boggling numbers such as a 1.69 ERA, a 1.80 FIP, a 0.73 WHIP, a 0.7 BB/9, and a 15.64 (!!!) K/BB ratio. Were it not for a back injury that caused him to miss about a dozen starts, he would have cruised to a fourth Cy Young and possibly another MVP. He's never been better as he prepares to enter his age-29 season.

16. Adrian Beltre
Last year Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th big leaguer with 3,000 hits. This year, Beltre becomes the 31st. He's only 58 knocks away from the magic number, which he could reach by Memorial Day. He's also on the cusp of several other round numbers, including 450 homers (five away), 600 doubles (nine away), 1,600 RBIs (29 away), 5,000 total bases (60 away), and 1,500 runs (72 away). Only three players have eclipsed all those milestones; Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski. You're in pretty good company, Mr. Beltre.

17. Mike Trout
2017 will be Trout's age-25 season, meaning he's entering what is traditionally considered a player's prime. Good luck, AL pitchers. You're gonna need it.

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