Longshot Lounge: Optimism for Padres, Twins, others

Although I am certain the scope of this article will be misunderstood by some, it’s important to make the assignment clear from the jump. The idea of this piece is to locate plausible long-shot plays; specifically, to identify future events that I see as more likely than the market sees.

I’m looking for overlays. I’m looking for market inefficiencies. I’m looking for buying opportunities.

It’s not that anything on this list will happen, or is likely to happen. I just think these calls are more likely to happen than the market thinks. Easy, peasy.

Let’s jack up some 40-footers — maybe a couple will splash through.

The Padres win the NL West

This is a good example of what this piece is all about. No, if my mortgage depended on it, I would not pick the Padres to win the division. But at +1000, you’re getting juicy odds. Maybe the Dodgers have an injury season from hell. I never know if the Rockies will be good year-in and year-out.

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San Diego isn’t afraid to spend money; they’ve made that clear. The farm system is loaded with percolating prospects; maybe some of that group impacts this season. The rotation doesn’t have many sure things but it has a bunch of guys I’m interested in drafting. And if the Padres can get into the race, I’d expect this team would be proactive in adding helpful pieces, midseason.

And while I’m in San Diego, let’s double down . . .

Kirby Yates leads the majors in saves

There doesn’t have to be a “This Year’s” anything, but if forced to pick a This Year’s Treinen, Yates makes sense. Yates is just another struggling starter who reinvented himself as a knockout reliever, and when Brad Hand was shipped out of town last year, Yates received all the San Diego saves from that point forward. Petco figures to keep the winning margins in a tidy area; Yates can make this production come true even if the team is merely around .500.

Andrew McCutchen scores 130 runs

It’s funny to check out McCutchen’s runs-scored column, as it’s a little lighter than what you’d expect from a durable, borderline Hall of Famer. He scored 107 runs in 2012, and that’s the only time he crossed into three digits. This speaks to the Pittsburgh teams he toiled on, and where he batted in the lineup, I suppose. And last year’s Giants offense was allergic to home plate.

Philadelphia Phillies new outfielder Andrew McCutchen accompanied by his son Steel speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. McCutchen and the Philadelphia Phillies finalized a back-loaded $50 million, three-year contract last week, a deal that includes a team option for 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Draft all of the McCutchens this year (AP/Matt Rourke)

McCutchen hasn’t lost his elite on-base skills — he was a .368 OBP man last year, including a silly .421 run with the Yankees — and now he’s at the top of a loaded Philadelphia lineup. McCutchen is one of the smartest players in the game, and he has his body in pristine shape. Throw in a reasonable fantasy price, and there’s never been a better time to get invested.

The Twins win the AL Central

I understand why the Indians are prohibitive AL Central favorites, not that anyone could ever play them at 2:9. But while Cleveland is overloaded on the mound, the offense is filled with dead spots — and the two elite bats in this lineup are mildly dinged already. Even if Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez hit the high end of their ranges, this could easily be a mediocre run-scoring club. I’m not fond of the bullpen depth, either.

The Twins look like the only viable challenger; Chicago would need to hit all green lights, and Kansas City and Detroit know they’re in lengthy rebuilds. And the Minnesota roster is littered with plausible-upside guys — lottery tickets like Byron Buxton, Michael Pineda, Jonathan Schoop. Maybe this is a breakout season for the fun Willians Astudillo. Perhaps this is the year Max Kepler puts it together.

I’ve seen Minnesota anywhere from +270 to +300 to take the division, and that’s too pessimistic. I say their true odds are about 35-40 percent. This team only needs a couple of things to go right to smash its over-under projection of 83.5 wins.

Jose Berrios wins the AL Cy Young Award

There’s all sorts of chalk on this board, and even the secondary chalk looks interesting — can you still get Justin Verlander at 16-1? And then there’s some of the sucker odds; I can’t imagine how anyone could talk themselves into James Paxton at 22-1 (the park, the physical history) or David Price at 20-1.

Berrios is a known commodity, but maybe not as famous as he should be — heck, half of the baseball world still pronounces his last name incorrectly. His improvement has been tidy and linear through three seasons, the division is filled with dead spots (even the Cleveland lineup looks mediocre), and we’re stepping into an age-25 season. I have Berrios on some of my teams; I wish it were all of my teams. This is going to be appointment viewing.

Rick Porcello is Boston’s best pitcher

Full disclosure, I’m a New England native and I don’t want this prediction to be correct — for it to hit, that means Chris Sale probably didn’t pitch a full season. But the Red Sox will probably be proactive with any Sale maintenance, and it’s not hard to come up with a scenario where Price is a disappointment.

We’ve seen the upside of Porcello — he’s just three years removed from stealing Verlander’s Cy Young. And maybe the bloated ERA in 2017 was more about the shape of baseball that year than anything Porcello did wrong. He’s often an underrated fantasy commodity because volume is misunderstood on the mound; in today’s game, with pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings, we need the 200-inning horse more than ever. And with projectable volume on Porcello’s side, we can feel better about his strikeout column. Heck, he was around a whiff per inning last year, anyway.

I have a bunch of Porcello this year, as WHIP tends to be an under-appraised asset. And while there’s some randomness to wins, they aren’t completely random, either. Give me a volume pitcher tied to a winning club.

Matthew Boyd is a Top 35 starter

It’s a tricky time for Detroit’s professional sports teams. The Red Wings are rebuilding, nowhere close to contention. The Lions are tied to Matt Patricia, a lemon if I’ve ever seen one. The Pistons might be in the worst position — a plucky playoff team but not with enough steam to seriously challenge. You need to get bad in the NBA before it can ever really get that good.

And then there’s the Tigers. Detroit just wants something to believe in. A healthy year from Miguel Cabrera would be a treat. Nick Castellanos is a dynamite hitter. Niko Goodrum is a fun, versatile guy. There’s not much else to rally behind.

Boyd quietly took a major step forward last season, polishing his slider and upping his strikeouts. His 4.39 ERA pushes many away, but again, listen to the whisper of the WHIP (1.16). He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; as the great Gene McCaffrey was first to promote, a pitcher with an extreme tilt in either direction is worth believing in. Detroit’s offense could be a pain in the neck all year, but at least Boyd works in the cushiest pitcher division in the majors.

Cole Hamels leads the NL in wins

Maybe this isn’t even a bold prediction. Hamels, after all, is a name pitcher on a good team. I’ve been in some rooms where he’s affordable and others where he isn’t — perhaps because I tipped my hand on him so long ago. No one can abuse you like your friends.

The key to understanding Hamels is throwing out his Texas resume. It’s a lousy place to pitch, an unfair place, and it leaves a mental scar. Hamels was lights-out upon arriving in Chicago, but he doesn’t need to be a sub-3-ERA guy to make us happy. The key to his value is the projectable amount of his innings, and the projectable strength of the Cubs offense.

Alex Gordon is mixed-league worthy all year

This must be a long shot, because he’s just two percent-owned in Yahoo at the moment. I get it; Gordon is 35 and coming off a .245/.324/.380 season. He was worse in 2017. This is what the fade-out usually looks like.

But the Royals are still going to open the year with Gordon batting third, and on volume alone, he’s likely to hit 12-15 home runs. And then there’s the stolen-base column; Gordon had 12 swipes last year, with most of them coming late in the season. Stolen bases are primary with a player who wants to do it, and the Royals don’t have anything else to hang their hat on this year. They’re going to be aggressive.

Gordon is an easier pill to swallow in OBP leagues, but even if you play 5x5, I imagine he’ll hit for an average that doesn’t sink you and provide reasonable category juice. He’s a good last-round pick, or first name to try when injuries hit your outfield. It’s an ugly volume play, but I’m just in it for the numbers.

Derek Holland is a Top 45 starter

I’ve had Holland mispriced all spring, not fully recognizing the solid comeback year he had with the Giants. Let’s fix that now.

I guess I wrote him off after that lost year with the White Sox. Holland is now three years removed from the scar-tissue experience in Texas. Holland’s strikeout rate approached 9.0 last year, and his home park (whatever they’re calling it this week) will mask a lot of mistakes. Come along for the ride; Holland is only rostered in five percent of Yahoo leagues.

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