FANALYTICS: 9th Annual Longshot Caucus

Nobody expected Dee Gordon to steal 64 bases in 2014. That's because everyone came into last year with a set of preconceptions about the odds of a 26-year-old journeyman 2Bman finding a role and being given a perpetual green light on the base paths. Last year at this time, Gordon was ignored in virtually all redraft leagues.

That's where we run into trouble every year, grounding future expectations in past realities. And so, we are blindsided by the surprises. Last year becomes the starting point for this year, and everything that happens is grounded in 2014. But 2015 is not an extension of 2014. It's a new beginning.

If we look at each season as a blank slate, we immediately open up more possibilities. If we start the year completely fresh, unbiased by past history, then anything can happen. Ben Revere can hit 30 HRs. Billy Butler can steal 40 bases. The Twins and Phillies can meet in the World Series.

Of course, these possibilities are pretty far-fetched because there are certain realities that we still have to buy into. But, if we can manage to toss off some of the shackles of preconception, to consider more "what-ifs" and contingencies, then we can better prepare ourselves for the surprises.

For eight years up until 2003, my "Out on a Limb Projections" was a regular column at this time of year. It was so popular that I created the weekly Speculator column that Ray Murphy has so ably handled in the 12 years since then. But there are no limits to speculating at this time of year—heck, everyone has their "bold predictions" columns now—and so I wanted to give our other writers a chance to weigh in on some possibilities too. This Longshot Caucus has become a regular feature, now in its ninth year.

However, since BaseballHQ.com is all about intelligent analysis, this column comes with a HUGE RED CAVEAT: You should not take anything here to the bank; in fact, I often wait to compile this until after Opening Day. Ray's weekly disclaimer states that his speculations are about 20% percentage plays; these are probably less than that. That said, our caucusers tend to fare pretty well, routinely hitting on a few winners each year. Last year, we suggested that Zach Britton could move into the closer role in Baltimore, something that was on nobody's radar.

When I asked our writers for their ideas, they sent me tons of really interesting conditional speculations and contingencies. Here are the best ones from Andy Andres, Alex Beckey, Brian Brickley, Matt Cederholm, Jason Collette, Matt Dodge, Greg Fishwick, Neil FitzGerald, Phil Hertz, Ed Hubbard, Chris Lee, Frank Noto, Kris Olson, Josh Paley, Greg Pyron, Nick Richards, Brian Rudd, Vlad Sedler and Matthew St. Germain. And I tossed in a few of my own as well.

Nobody in the majors hits 40 home runs. Look at the top 5 projections. Chris Carter has contact and BA issues that could cost him playing time. Giancarlo Stanton had the most AB of his career in 2014 and still hit only 37. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are both post-peak and have reliability concerns. And while Mike Trout hit 36 last year, his small xPX jump didn't match his PX. Adjust your concept of what a power hitter is.

Except maybe Pedro Alvarez. The new Pirates' 1Bman has always had prodigious power, but injuries derailed his 2014 season. There were still good signs: the Pirates encouraged their hitters to use the opposite field more often, and that worked for Alvarez as his ct% rose (67%-72%) as did his bb% (8%-10%). Still, 52% of Alvarez's career fly balls to right field have left the park, so there's plenty of pull-side power here too. More health and less hot corner stress could add up to 35-40 HRs.

Brett Anderson wins 20 games. After making a total of just 19 starts in the three previous seasons, he thrives and stays healthy in his first season with the Dodgers. His ground ball rate remains elite, and with both his velocity and K/9 rebounding, he finally displays his upside over a full season.

Javier Baez has more strikeouts at the plate than any Cubs pitcher has off the mound.
- He struck out in 42% of his plate appearances last season
- A 20% reduction in his Ks still puts him at 35% and in the worst five strikeout rates in the league
- If he gets 500 PA, assuming a 35 K%, he strikes out 175 times; 550 PA puts him at 193 Ks
- The Cubs' biggest potential source of Ks is Jon Lester. While he struck out 220 last year, he averaged just 175 in the three years prior. But Lester's K/9 uptick last season came from a huge improvement in his curveball that got nearly the same amount of SwK as his change-up. While he gets to face pitchers now, he's also in a better division for hitting talent.

The Red Sox saves leader is Matt Barnes. Koji Uehara's late-season swoon signals an early exit for the 40-year-old. Boston muddles through for a while with past-their-prime retreads Edward Mujica and Alexi Ogando but ultimately cannot resist the allure of the top prospect who has been mowing down minor league hitters. Barnes becomes next in the line of starting pitcher prospects whose skills play up big in the bullpen, like Dellin Betances and Zach Britton before him.

Christian Colon posts a $20 season. Omar Infante's inflamed right elbow continues to sideline him, opening up 400+ ABs at 2B for Colon. The former first round pick utilizes his plus plate skills (over 90% contact and 1.00 Eye) to hit .300 while adding 10 HR and 15 SB.

Brandon Crawford hits 20 HR with 15 SB. His batted ball distance and FB% have been trending upward. An unfortunate 6% hr/f suppressed his power in 2014. He has good speed (127 Spd in 2014), but just needs to see the green light more often. If he can regain his prior ct% while maintaining the improved bb% he showed in 2014, there’s a chance he could move up a bit in the batting order. Such a move up from the bottom of the batting order could result in more chances to run.

Avisail Garcia goes 20-20-.300. The formerly 6-4, 240 lb. Garcia has lost "significant" weight following an injury-plagued 2014. He responded by hitting .312 in Venezuela this winter. Now under the coaching of former burner Vince Coleman, his stolen base output should also increase.

Odubel Herrera steals 30 bases. The Phillies' Rule 5 pick ends up as the primary left fielder after Grady Sizemore hits the DL again. It starts as a platoon with right-handed hitting Darin Ruf but Herrera's speed (25 SB/year over last four seasons) and .294 career BA make him more valuable as part of a 1-2 tandem with Ben Revere at the top of the batting order for a club that is short on speed.

Garrett Jones hits 30 HRs. When Alex Rodriguez proves he can no longer hit for power and Carlos Beltran’s balky elbow sends him back to the DL, Jones backs into 500 AB. He takes advantage of the short porch in Yankee Stadium and turns a 40% fly ball rate and 15% HR/F into a 30 HR season.

Mark Melancon saves 50 games after finally being given the opportunity to start the year as closer. He has allowed just 3 HR over the last two seasons and saw an uptick in SwK (from 12% to 14%) while maintaining impeccable Ctl (1.1). The Pirates' durable rotation and talented offense will keep them ahead in close games, providing Melancon with more save opportunities than any other team in baseball.

Eury Perez steals 30 bases. Melvin Upton's sesamoiditis is no sure thing to clear up after his walking boot comes off, and should the bone not heal, he'll need foot surgery. Eury Perez's main knock has been little power and little patience. However, he still possesses plus speed, good contact rates (84% Ct%, .305/.360/.384 over 2596 MiLB AB), an increasing LD-oriented stroke (9%, 15%, 15%, 21%) and the ability to play all three outfield positions. In 23 MLB at-bats, Perez has but 4 hits and no walks, but he's scored 6 runs and has stolen 5 bases.

Anthony Rendon goes 30-30. His 10% hr/f last year was below the 10th percentile, based on his xPX. Had he just performed at the median for someone with a 146 xPX, he would have hit 33 HRs. His 121 Spd score and 85% SB% merit more than a 12% SBO%. With just a few more green lights, all that's left is 600 AB.

Matt Reynolds goes 10-15-.280. After watching Wilmer Flores misplay yet another ground ball, the Mets turn to the rookie Reynolds. He shows that his 2014 minor league performance—.343 BA, .859 OPS with 20 SBs, mostly at Triple-A—was no fluke.

Luis Valbuena hits 30 HRs. Houston has begun to tire of Matt Dominguez, the only thing standing in the way of full-time ABs for the newly acquired Valbuena. A platoon is not likely, because Valbuena’s career OPS exceeds Dominguez from both sides of the plate, and at .681/.687 show no strong tendency if given the chance against LHPs. Add in the 29-year-old’s improving peripherals and the fact that Minute Maid Park is 21% more favorable to left-handed power than Wrigley Field, and the stage is set for another step up.

Kennys Vargas hits 30 home runs. His power was never in question, but with an MLB batting eye of just 0.19, opportunities might be limited. Playing in Puerto Rico this winter, Vargas worked to improve this ratio to 0.90 in 37 games by leading the league in walks and ranking second in the league in home runs, pointing to better plate discipline in 2015.

Will Venable repeats his 2013 season. Nobody even remotely expects another 22 HR, 22 SB, .268 campaign. But he’s a better fielding option at CF than anointed regulars Matt Kemp, Justin Upton or Wil Myers. He bats left-handed, unlike Upton, Kemp, Myers, or subs Quentin and Maybin, and PETCO favors LHB (+7% HR for LHB vs. -24% for RHB). While everyone is just inking in the names Kemp/Upton/Myers, two thirds of that trio have a history of injuries. There will be at-bats and there could be a lot of them.

Or if not, then Matt Kemp goes 35-100-.300. It's not like he hasn't done it before. His pro-rated 2nd half yields a 34-116-.298 line. He just needs to stay healthy. PETCO is not an issue.

Eric Young Jr. steals 50 bases. Though he was signed as a minor league free agent and brought in to be a reserve outfielder, a strong spring earns him the role of primary left fielder in a platoon with Jonny Gomes. Given the Braves lack of a leadoff hitter, Young finds himself in that spot when he’s in the lineup. Steals come easy - he's averaged 30 SBs in each of the past three years in just 330 AB/year.

The Braves surprise most everyone and grab a wild-card berth. They won 79 games in 2014 despite having the 29th ranked offense in MLB. Sure, they traded away nearly all of their power, but they also rid themselves of a large number of strikeouts while adding more contact hitters and speed. The new focus on manufacturing runs helps offset the huge loss of power and allows them to have a slightly better offense than they did a year ago. The pitching remains strong and keeps them in games to where the offense doesn't have to do a great deal.

The Cubs meet the Astros in the World Series. Players and teams don't necessarily progress linearly or show gradual improvement over time. Sometimes things just click, which is how we are constantly blindsided by surprises and breakouts. We all acknowledge that the Cubs and Astros have been doing good things and are run by some very progressive thinkers. You can't just say, "they are one year away" or "they just need one more pitcher to be taken seriously." You can already see the talent and even the tradable pieces that could fill the few holes. And when expectations are low, players play looser. Watch.

Remember: Blank slate. Anything can happen.
 

 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.