SPECULATOR: Longshot leaders, 2021

The time has come!

It's an annual tradition here at the Speculator, where we spend Opening Day Eve putting a bow on our draft season coverage with some longshot league leaders and award winners. In this space we're digging deep—it's not at all interesting to predict a Fernando Tatis Jr. MVP or another Jacob deGrom Cy Young Award—so while "longshot" in the title is a loose term; we'll keep this list to anybody going outside the Top 200 picks in NFBC Main Event drafts.

And don't worry, these out-on-a-limb predictions shouldn't have influenced your draft day plans anyway. Most (if not all) have already received some Speculator pub at some point. Thanks for following along and leaving comments here throughout draft season; hopefully some of our 20% plays help lead you to the promised land come September!

We'll be back next week with some Opening Weekend musings, but for now, one final round of speculatin'.


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HR leaders

National League: Before we go with our actual pick, a quick shout for C.J. Cron (1B, COL). This feels like a "We knew him when…" moment—we highlighted Cron as a premier power play back in early February at his 300 ADP. Cron's all grown up now with a Top 150 ADP since signing with (and starting for) COL, so congrats if you were able to pounce on him early.

For our actual pick, let's go with Kyle Schwarber (OF, WAS). Everything seems to be in place for Schwarber to put up a career-high HR total this year: his career power skills (141/134 PX/xPX, 23% HR/F) are stout, he's in a better park (Nationals Park has a +12% LHB HR park factor; Wrigley Field is -12%), and he's primed to play every day in a sparse WAS outfield. It wouldn't surprise us one bit if Schwarber hit 40+ HR this season.

American League: We'll cheat a bit here and go with teammates Rowdy Tellez (1B, TOR) and Randal Grichuk (OF, TOR). TOR's busy offseason blurs their playing time paths, but with ADPs north of 300, it's an ideal "buy skills, not roles" situation as both earned "UP:" grades in this year's Baseball Forecaster. Neither Tellez nor Grichuk has 70% playing time projections on our TOR Depth Chart right now, but an oblique injury to George Springer is an early reminder that these crowded situations often sort themselves out. These are the types of profiles you speculate on later in drafts.

SB leaders

AL: We wouldn't normally pick a counting stat winner on the platoon-happy Rays, but Manuel Margot (OF, TAM; pictured above) has the raw speed (143 career Spd) and SB prowess (32-for-40 since 2019) to get it done. If 2020 is any indication, Margot has a full green light with TAM (38% SBO%), and he's parlayed an excellent postseason into a strong spring (7 BB:11 K, 1.008 OPS in 35 AB), which should give him some leash from a playing time standpoint. With a modicum of raw power, Margot could lead the end game in steals without being too much of a liability in other categories.

NL: He may not be a starter, but Jon Berti (3B, MIA) is our kinda guy outside the Top 300. He has an elite SB track record (career 27-for-32), he runs on a team with one of the greener lights this spring, and he's an injury away from regular playing time at a handful of positions. Like Margot, Berti isn't quite a one-trick pony either; we'll concede there's little power here, but a career 36% h% should buoy his BA and he'll get on base enough for some run-scoring opportunities. An everyday Berti could be a major boon to those all-important and increasingly-scarce stolen bases.

Batting champions

AL: Recency bias rebound alert: Yulieski Gurriel (1B, HOU) is coming off a .232 BA dud in 2020, but a career-low 24% h% is to blame rather than any type of skill decline. Gurriel makes contact at an elite rate (88% career ct%; 87% in 2020), he's hit .290+ every year from 2017-19, and he showed plus pop (career-high 123 xPX) in 2020. In an end game littered with low-BA, high-HR hitters, Gurriel is a unicorn who hits in a good lineup, has a short LF porch, and is as good a bet as anybody to flirt with .300 this season.

NL: Justin Turner (3B, LA) is one of the better hitters in the game who perennially goes outside the first 10 rounds—this year is no different. Turner is the only hitter with an 80%+ ct% and 140+ HctX in each of the last three seasons (nobody else has even done it twice). The rub with Turner, of course, is playing time, as he hasn't reached 500+ AB since 2016 and enters his age-36 season, but he should be near the top of the BA leaderboard if he racks up enough AB to qualify for a batting title. A history of plus power (career 118 xPX) and a juicy LA lineup make Turner an undervalued four-category stud.

ERA leaders

AL: "Check the radar guns next spring", we said in the Forecaster... and they look pretty good. James Paxton (LHP, SEA) has snapped right back to the mid-90s in spring training; the results have been there too, with 17 strikeouts and one ER in 8.1 innings. Betting on a recency bias rebound from Paxton, who posted a 3.60 ERA and 1.19 WHIP from 2016-19, should pay off handsomely if regains his previous form in Seattle.

NL: The trick to a nice ERA? Throw strikes, don't give up walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Dustin May (RHP, LA) checked all those boxes last year—he was one of two pitchers (min. 30 IP) with a 33% Ball%, 8% walk rate, and 55% GB% (the other was Sixto Sánchez). There are some warts—we're not sure if LA will let May qualify for the ERA title and he hasn't missed many bats despite elite velocity and movement—but he's breaking camp as the team's fifth starter and has a Kyle Hendricks-like set of tools that should lead to excellent ratios once more.

Strikeout leaders

AL: 2020 was a full-blown disaster for Matt Boyd (LHP, DET), but there are several promising signs in his quest for a rebound: Boyd admitted to pitching hurt in 2020 (hamstring, plantar fasciitis), which altered his delivery, the whiffs were still there (13.2% SwK), he flashed a new change-up that could be a major strikeout weapon with a slight change in pitch mix, and his FB% profile seems ideal for potentially deadened baseball. As long as the ratios are tolerable, Boyd will have plenty of opportunities to rack up innings atop DET's rotation—the Ks should follow suit.  

NL: Freddy Peralta (RHP, MIL) picked up some velocity and crafted a wipeout slider (21% swinging-strike rate) in 2020, which led to an absurd 47 strikeouts in 29 innings. Peralta has carried that momentum into this spring with a 23/3 K/BB in 13.2 innings—good enough for him to earn a rotation spot out of camp. With an "UP: 3.25 ERA" in this year's Forecaster, Peralta could have also qualified on our ERA leaderboard, but confidence is high that he'll rack up the Ks with ease.

 

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open reader's eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.


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