2018 Pittsburgh Pirates preview

2018 MLB preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

2017: 75-87 (fourth place in NL Central)

Last postseason appearance: 2015

Last World Series title: 1979

2017 Recap

From 2013-15, the Pirates were a nice story. They made the postseason in all three seasons and won over 90 games in 2013 and 2015. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for them to compete in the near future officially closed in 2017.

After winning just 78 games in 2016, Pittsburgh finished 2017 with a record of 75-87. They were one of the worst offensive teams in the league, ranking 26th in hits, 27th in batting average, 28th in runs, 29th in home runs and 30th in total bases.

McCutchen led the Pirates in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, batting average, walks, SLG and OPS. (Photo from SI.com)

Among the 15 NL teams, the Pirates pitching ranked seventh in ERA and 12th in hits and strikeouts. On the bright side, they did finish with the fourth fewest home runs surrendered in the MLB.

Andrew McCutchen, one of the top 15 Pirates of all time in regards to WAR, bounced back after a tough 2016 season. He silenced the doubters by slashing .279/.363/.486 with 28 home runs, 88 RBIs and 11 steals. The 2013 NL MVP led the Pirates in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, batting average, walks, SLG and OPS. Talk about carrying the load.

Josh Harrison was the lone Pirates member of the NL All-Star team. Harrison hit 10 home runs in the first half and ended the season with 16 long balls, 12 steals and a .272 batting average.

A big reason for the lack of offense was Starling Marte’s off-the-field decisions. Marte, who led Pittsburgh in WAR in 2015 and 2016, was suspended 80 games for PED use. In his 77 games, Marte hit seven home runs and stole 21 bases.

One of the feel-good stories of the year was Jameson Taillon, who underwent surgery for testicular cancer in May. He was able to return and make a total of 25 starts. The 26-year-old went 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA.

Felipe Rivero was absolutely fantastic out of the bullpen for the Pirates. He had 21 saves, and was the only pitcher in the MLB to throw at least 75 innings and post an ERA less than 1.70. Gerrit Cole wasn’t great, but he did strike out 196 batters over 203 innings.

2018: Around the Diamond

For the first time since 2008, the Pirates will enter the season without Andrew McCutchen, who was traded to the San Francisco Giants in January. Obviously, he has been the face of the franchise for quite some time and clearly did everything for this offense in 2017. 2018 will be a rebuilding year for the Pirates.

To help mirror the production of McCutchen, Pittsburgh traded for 2017 AL All-Star, Corey Dickerson. The OF/DH hit .282 with 27 home runs and will replace McCutchen in left field.

Joining him in the outfield will be Marte and Gregory Polanco. Last spring, Polanco dealt with shoulder issues, which must have had an effect on his game throughout the season. He only stole eight bases and posted a career-low .305 OBP.

2018 Pittsburgh Pirates preview

Bell hit 26 home runs in 2017. (Photo from Sporting News)

Pittsburgh will showcase one of the weaker infields in regards to production. Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz will split time behind the plate, while David Freese, who led the team with a .368 OBP, will battle Colin Moran for playing time at third. Moran, a former first-round pick, came over from Houston in the Cole trade and is off to a great start this spring. In 23 at-bats, Moran is hitting .304 with three runs scored.

Up the middle will again be Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. Josh Bell will play first base and is not only a fantasy baseball sleeper, but possibly Pittsburgh’s best offensive player for 2018. In 2017, Bell hit 26 home runs with 90 RBIs. He is only 25 years old and has potential to be a .280, 25 home run player in 2018.

The most likely candidate to start at DH, for when Pittsburgh travels to the American League, is Adam Frazier. He should see time at the middle infield positions also, along with Sean Rodriguez.

On the Bump

No more Gerrit Cole means Pittsburgh is need of an ace. Ivan Nova, who had the fourth-best BB/9 last season, has been named the Opening Day starter.

Following Nova will be Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams, who started 25 games for Pittsburgh in 2017 and went 7-9 with a 4.07 ERA. If you play fantasy baseball, stay away from anyone in this rotation, besides for Taillon, who could turn into a quality starter.

Keep in mind, Pittsburgh also has Tyler Glasnow, who they badly need to develop. It would not be fair to label Glasnow as a bust since he was a fifth-round pick, but he has been dreadful at the MLB level. In 85.1 career innings, Glasnow has a 6.75 ERA and 6.0 BB/9. He excels in the minors, going 9-2 with a 1.93 ERA in Triple-A during 2017, but needs to figure it out at the big-league level. So far this spring, Glasnow has made three starts and has an 11.74 ERA.

Rivero will remain in the closer role, while George Kontos, who came over from San Francisco last season, will most likely serve as the setup man. Kontos was great in his 14.2 innings of work with Pittsburgh in 2017, posting a 1.84 ERA with 15 strikeouts.

The Future

The Pirates have two pitchers, along with outfielder Austin Meadows, who cracked the Top 100 prospects list on MLB.com. Pittsburgh’s top prospect, Mitch Keller (No.15), was a second-round pick back in 2014. The 21-year-old pitched well between A+ and Double-A in 2017. Overall, the righty went 8-5 with a 3.03 ERA and 116 strikeouts over 116 innings of work. Keller hopes to make his MLB debut in 2018.

This Spring, Meadows is hitting .462 with two doubles, a triple, one home run, and 7 RBIs in just 14 plate appearances.(Pirates Prospects)

Pittsburgh’s best non-pitching prospect is outfielder Austin Meadows (No. 45). Last season, Meadows hit just .250 in Triple-A, but he was dealing with hamstring problems throughout the season. The ninth overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft is off to a scorching hot start this spring, hitting .462 with two doubles, a triple, one home run and seven RBIs in just 14 plate appearances.

Shane Baz (No. 67), was the 12th pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. The pitcher was drafted out of high school and is still just 18 years old. His fastball can get up to 98 mph, while his curveball has great movement. The Pirates seem to always develop pitchers, so Baz is in a great situation.

2018 Prediction: 72-90

It’s a rebuilding year for Pittsburgh after trading away its best pitcher and hitter to help plan for the future. They realized they did not have what it takes to get over the hump, so now it will be a tough couple of years for Pirates fans. Hopefully Taillon and Glasnow can develop into big-time arms, while the growth of Josh Bell will be fun to watch this season.

 

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NL Central face of the franchise

The current face of every NL Central team

One conversation that will never get old is talking about who the cornerstone player of every franchise is. Some teams have an obvious representative, others not so much. Here is a look into the face of the franchise for every team in the NL Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell

If we were to have this conversation two weeks ago, then there would be a much more obvious answer for the Bucs. However, the Pirates’ front office thought it was time to do some shuffling. Even though Pittsburgh fans are upset about giving up Andrew McCutchen, who has been an icon in the Steel City for some time, it was a good move to show concern for the future. It just looks especially bad because of what the Marlins have been doing this offseason as well.

NL Central face of the franchise

Josh Bell represents a changing of the guard in Pittsburgh. (Photo from Rumbunter.com)

Some may be wondering why Starling Marte is not in this spot. His 80-game suspension does not help his cause here. He also is an All-Star and two-time gold glove winner who can steal bases with the best of them. However, he does not represent the future for the Pirates. He is 29 years old, and the Pirates are not going to be contending anytime soon.

Josh Bell just finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. If it were any other year, Bell would have had a much better chance of bringing home the award. With Cody Bellinger breaking out in LA though, the race was much more clear cut. Bell has the chance to be a prototypical slugger in Pittsburgh for a while, as he is only 25 years old.

In the future, Bell could be a force in the middle of the lineup with 30 home run potential. He provides more pop than Marte does, and is already a threat in the middle of the lineup. His young age coupled with his power is the reason why he has the opportunity to take the place of Cutch in Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto

No argument here. If you were to argue faces of the franchise around baseball, this may be one of the easiest.

Joey Votto has been a fixture at first base for the Reds for over a decade. He has won the NL MVP and made it to the All-Star game five times. Not to mention, there may not be anybody better at getting on base than Votto.

Votto also has a set of intangibles that would make any manager salivate. He is the kind of guy that can lead a young group of guys into the big leagues, and that is what he is doing now as the Reds have a wave of young players coming up. His baseball smarts along with his excellent talent make him one of the best hitters in the league.

Another thing about Votto is that he is not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon. He is heading into his age-34 season and coming off a year where he could have easily won the MVP. Yes, Giancarlo Stanton had the power numbers that make anybody go nuts. However, if you are looking at the full package, Votto is much more valuable.

If Votto keeps up the pace he is at for another couple of years, there is a solid chance he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he is eligible.

Chicago Cubs: Theo Epstein

NL Central face of the franchise

Theo led the charge to break the curse in Chicago. (Photo by John Arguello)

Chicago is still fresh off a World Series title in 2016. It is still crazy to say considering many Chicagoans went a lifetime without seeing their lovable losers make it all the way.

Epstein made his way to the Windy City in 2011, and from the start there were many who were certain that it was their time because of it. After he masterminded the destruction of the Boston curse, this seemed like a doable task for the 44-year-old president of the Cubs.

With apologies to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Epstein is a favorable choice for this title. He is the one who orchestrated the revival of success in Wrigley, and many knew that as they chanted, “In Theo we trust.”

While Rizzo has become a poster boy for the Cubs, and Bryant has won an MVP at third base, it is impossible to not credit Epstein with the Cubs’ success.

As a baseball executive, there is no doubt that Epstein has already earned himself a spot in Cooperstown.

St. Louis Cardinals: Yadier Molina

NL Central face of the franchise

Yadier Molina has been the most important face in St. Louis since the departure of Albert Pujols (Photo by Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Ever since the departure of Albert Pujols, Molina has done an excellent job of stepping into the role of leading this storied franchise. While Molina may not be the best player in the league by a long shot, there are things that he does that put him above most.

He has those intangibles that his NL Central counterpart Joey Votto has. Molina’s ability to call a game is second to none, while he also knows exactly how to make a young ballplayer feel comfortable on the mound.

Yadi doesn’t have those offensive stats that pop out on the box score, but Tony La Russa made it clear when he was manager of the Cardinals that it didn’t matter. La Russa once stated that even if Molina hit .000, he would still have a spot in the lineup. Now that says something about a player.

While it is not clear if Molina will make it to Cooperstown, he will certainly be remembered as one of the greats to wear the Cardinals uniform. He stated earlier this offseason that he will not play after his contract with the Cardinals expires in 2020. These three years we have left with him will be pivotal in determining his place among the greats.

Milwaukee Brewers: Bob Uecker

The Brewers have made big moves this offseason for Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. They also have their eyes set on locking up Yu Darvish in a long-term contract. As a result, the name on this list may be different in a few years. Despite a great year from Travis Shaw and Jimmy Nelson, it doesn’t come close to the reputation that Bob Uecker has set for himself.

Uecker is getting close to Vin Scully territory with his broadcasting. He is being held back from that status though as he is not in a place like Los Angeles, and also spent a decade playing professional ball in the 50s and 60s. Shortly after his playing days, he joined the Brewers broadcasting booth in 1971.

After many successful years in the booth, Uecker earned an iconic role as the broadcaster in the Major League movie franchise. Many don’t realize that you can still tune into his legendary broadcasts to this day. He also won the Ford C. Frick award in 2003 in recognition for his broadcasting, cementing himself among the legends in the game.

While the Brewers are making moves to compete on the field, Uecker always makes it entertaining to tune into the game. It will be a sad day when the 84 year old will have to hang up the mic and retire from the booth.

 

Featured image by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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NL Central division

New Year’s Resolutions for NL Central teams

2018 is upon us, and that means it is time to look forward to the year ahead. The NL Central division proved to be one of the most lackluster divisions in 2017, with the Cubs not quite hitting their stride until September, and the Cardinals floating around .500.

With that being said, here are New Year’s resolutions for the five teams in the NL Central to make it a more exciting year.

Cincinnati Reds: Get extended work from young starters

The Reds finished in last place with a 68-94 record. That would make you think they are an all around bad team right? Well, not exactly.

The Reds had a pretty good offense. Joey Votto may have won the MVP if the Reds had more wins, and Scooter Gennett had a breakout year at the plate. They ranked 14th in runs and still have the potential to be one of baseball’s better teams.

What the Reds struggled with was pitching. They were second to last in ERA and could not get much of anything from anybody. However, 2018 is the year where many of their young pitchers should be getting a full season worth of work. Their young core is highlighted by Brandon Finnegan, Luis Castillo and Robert Stephenson.

If these three guys can start to put together a full season worth of solid work, the Reds may be closer to competing than most think.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Plan for the future

NL Central division

Andrew McCutchen may be in his final year in Pittsburgh (Photo from Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports).

Andrew McCutchen is entering the final year of his six-year, $51.5 million contract. He finished 2017 with a respectable .279/.363/.486 slash line, along with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs. Those are stats that can help any team in the majors. The reason I say that is because the Pirates ought to seriously consider moving him before he hits free agency next winter.

The Pirates have a couple good players coming up through their system, such as Austin Meadows, who is the the ninth best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. Josh Bell also had a great rookie year, and Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte add to a solid outfield.

The only problem is that this team does not seem to be getting anywhere. Pittsburgh finished at 75-87 and fourth in the Central. Marte being suspended for half the year may have had something to do with that, but his presence for a full season alone won’t help them compete for the NL Central crown.

There have already been intense discussions about Gerrit Cole moving to New York. The move does not seem as serious as it once did, but just the fact that there are credible talks out there speaks as to what the Pirates think they can accomplish in 2018. With some of the young talent they have, this is a good opportunity for them to build up for 2019-21.

This coming year looks to be more of a year in limbo for Pittsburgh, so it would be best to get what they can for McCutchen and Cole.

St. Louis Cardinals: Add another bat and a reliever before the regular season

NL Central division

The Ozuna trade shows how serious the Cardinals are about winning now (Photo from Walsh Sports Analytics)

The Cardinals have been the center of multiple rumors this offseason. They were able to land Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins for a fairly reasonable price, so they have that to be happy about. They also signed a pitcher from from the NPB not named Shohei Ohtani in Miles Mikolas. Both acquisitions should make an immediate impact on the ball club.

With Trevor Rosenthal released from the team, the Cardinals are in search for a closer. There are still plenty of names available. Alex Colome has been brought up in multiple trade rumors with the Cardinals, and Greg Holland and Wade Davis are still on the market as well. Any of these three guys would bolster the back of a bullpen that does not have a closer at the moment.

St. Louis should also be in search for one more impact bat. Adding Ozuna was nice, but the front office knows that there is more work to be done.

With the outfield in a comfortable position at the moment, the Cardinals ought to be looking for corner infielders. Ideally, they would like to have Matt Carpenter move around the infield and have Jedd Gyorko as a utility man. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are two free agents that come to mind that fit the mold. The only problem is that these two do not provide any extra pop that the Cardinals don’t already have. It would just clutter the infield more.

The Cardinals are still looking for a team to trade with. Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson are both on their radar, but it seems they won’t be traded at least until the All-Star break.

The Cardinals may have to wait until 2018 free agency to add one of these guys, but that should not stop them for looking for a bat this offseason. They are not that far off from competing with the Cubs for the NL Central title in 2018.

Milwaukee Brewers: Build off 2017 success

NL Central division

Travis Shaw was a first time All-Star in 2017 (Photo from Pintrest)

Even though they did not make the playoffs, the Brewers were a pleasant surprise in 2017. Travis Shaw and Eric Thames emerged as above average hitters and made the Brewers a threatening lineup. Jimmy Nelson also broke out as a potential ace in the rotation. They were able to give the Cubs fits and were neck and neck with them until the end.

The organization knows that this is not the time to take any steps back. The Brewers have real potential to make the playoffs, so they are doing what they can to ensure they play at the same type of level they did last year. They have not landed any big name free agents, but the signings of Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo show they are serious about improving their rotation and doing what it takes to stay in the thick of things.

Although it is unlikely, signing an arm like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvsih would be tremendously helpful. The Brewers had the lowest payroll in 2017, so that says a lot about what they were able to accomplish in the NL Central. If they were able to spend a little more money, who knows what they might be able to do.

Chicago Cubs: Stay separated from the rest of the pack

After the Cubs broke their legendary drought in 2016, it looked as if it would be impossible to dethrone the Cubs for the years to come. After 2017, it is evident that is not the case. Kyle Schwarber struggled at the plate greatly and Jason Heyward is not playing up to his contract. Now that Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis have hit free agency, the Cubs look vulnerable.

It is still important to remember the Cubs have the best pieces out of anyone in the Central. There is no reason they can’t make 2018 the fourth consecutive year they make the NLCS. However, the Cardinals look like they have a decent shot at making things more difficult for the Cubs. The Brewers also may be even better next year.

The Cubs have had some solid signings thus far. They signed Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow, who are two excellent pickups for their rotation.

What the Cubs are hoping for is continued growth from the 2016 MVP, Kris Bryant. He still had a great 2017, but he has the potential to be a perennial MVP contender. Along with Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have a lot of pieces in place for success. They just need to make sure it is enough to fend off the Brewers and Cardinals.

Either way, this should be an exciting year in the Central and could lay ground for what happens in the future as well.

 

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Starling Marte 2018

Starling Marte’s outlook for the 2018 MLB season

After quite a controversial 2017 season, let’s assess Starling Marte’s outlook heading into the 2018 MLB season.

Background

Starling Marte 2018

In his 2013 rookie campaign, Marte was impressive, batting .280 with 12 home runs and 41 stolen bases in 135 games. (Photo by USA Today)

In 2007, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed a then 18-year-old Starling Marte for $85,000. He spent two seasons playing in the Dominican Summer League, improving his batting average from .220 to .290 during that timespan. Marte played the majority of his next two seasons in the South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues, batting .312 and .315 respectively with a total of 50 stolen bases in 114 games.

In 2011, Marte received the call-up to double-A Altoona, where he batted .332 with 12 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 129 games. He then went on to play 30 games in the Dominican Winter League, where he would continue to rake, batting .328.

Marte was first called to the majors in 2012 after a 99 game stint with triple-A Indianapolis, where he batted .286 with 12 home runs and 21 stolen bases. In his first major league action, Marte was fairly mediocre, batting just .257 in his first 47 games. He returned to the Dominican Winter League in 2012-13, where he once again found his stroke, batting .304 in 29 games.

In his 2013 rookie campaign, Marte was impressive, batting .280 with 12 home runs and 41 stolen bases in 135 games. His 2014 season was very similar, as he played an identical 135 games and batted .291 with 13 home runs and stole 30 bases. He continued to find success at the major league level in 2015 when he hit .287 with 19 home runs and stole 30 bases. Marte exemplified his .300 average, 20 home run and 40 stolen base potential.

In 2016, Marte batted .311, hit nine home runs and stole 47 bases in only 129 games. He won his second consecutive Gold Glove while also being voted an All-Star for the first time, showing that if healthy, he is capable of being an MVP candidate.

2017 Season

Starling Marte 2018

Marte’s 2017 campaign got off to a rocky start, as he was suspended 80 games in mid-April after testing positive for Nandrolone. (Photo by USA Today)

Marte’s 2017 campaign got off to a rocky start, as he was suspended 80 games in mid-April after testing positive for Nandrolone, a performance enhancing drug on Major League Baseball’s banned substance list.

Marte then released the following statement:

“I have been informed that I have tested positive in one of the tests that are regularly done in my job. In this very difficult moment I apologize to my family, the Pittsburgh Pirates, my teammates, my fans, and baseball in general. Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake with the high price to pay of being away from the field that I enjoy and love so much. With much embarrassment and helplessness, I ask for forgiveness for unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work and have supported me so much. I promise to learn the lesson that this ordeal has left me. God bless you.”  

Marte returned to action after the All-Star break on July 18. He would go on to bat .282 with five home runs and 19 stolen bases the rest of the way, putting him on a 162-game pace to hit 13 home runs and steal 50 bases.

2018 Outlook

Starling Marte 2018

In fantasy terms, Marte could be a top-10 player in the majority of formats. (Photo by USA TODAY Sports)

The Pirates may be well out of contention this season, but with their core of Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison, they promise to be a productive offense heading into 2018. Marte will bat at the top half of the lineup next season, either leading off or batting second, which bodes well for fantasy value. He will be 29 years old at the start of next season, placing him within his prime. Marte will be a threat to bat .300 with double-digit home runs, triple-digit runs and fifty stolen bases.

In fantasy terms, Marte could be a top-10 player in the majority of formats, specifically ESPN standard formats, as they tend to value steals heavier than most. Keep your eye on Marte heading into next season, as his price could be discounted on draft day due to his suspension and the Pirates 2017 struggles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Featured Image by USA Today

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Rookie

The Rookies under the Judge-Bellinger shadow

Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger have been in the limelight this season. On its face, one might think that Judge and Bellinger are the only ones doing anything this year in the world of the rookie. In reality, that is not the case. Names like Paul DeJong, Andrew Benintendi and Josh Bell have been lost in the shadow of the young studs out of New York and Los Angeles. Here is a closer look into those names that might be getting lost.

Andrew Benintendi

Rookie

Photo courtesy of masslive.com

Benintendi has been one of the focal points of a Boston team that has been surging as of late. He has managed to rack up 18 home runs along with a .279/.358/.450 slash line. He also has a 2.0 WAR which ranks 6th among rookies in the MLB.

The Red Sox are not a power hitting club by any means. However, it is still impressive that Benintendi has been able to get himself tied in home runs with his teammates Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez. His slugging ability bodes well for the future of Boston. He also rounds out a club that has had a lot of solid young talent come up recently, including Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts.

Benintendi especially falls victim to being overshadowed by the other sensations in the league, due to the fact he is in the same division as Aaron Judge. Now that Judge is on a cold stretch since the All-Star break, names like Benintendi’s have been coming out of the woodwork more often. Another AL East rookie has been having a heck of a year, but you rarely hear his name.

Trey Mancini

Rookie

Photo courtesy of mlb.com

Mancini has also been having a great year and has been hitting at a similar level as Benintendi, however you hear his name even less than the rookie from Boston. Mancini has racked up 22 home runs along with a slash line of .282/.333/.503. His name would also be in the mix for Rookie of the Year if this was any other year than 2017.

One aspect of Mancini’s game that is somewhat alarming is his strikeout to walk ratio. Mancini has struck out 103 times and only walked on 26 plate appearances. This demonstrates how Mancini needs to work on his plate discipline as well as his batters eye. If he does not cut down on the strikeouts then major league pitchers will figure him out quickly. This is apparent because he is only hitting .223 since the All-Star break, although he has been able to keep up his home run pace with seven in the past month.

Josh Bell

Rookie

Photo courtesy of ESPN

The power numbers for the Pittsburgh first baseman have been there all year. Josh Bell has 21 home runs along with 72 RBIs. His slash line is a respectable .261/.340/.493 along with a WAR of 2.0.

Bell has been progressively better for the Pirates as time has moved on though. Before the All-Star break his batting average was a lowly .239. Since the break, he has been hitting a more impressive .316. His bat has been complimenting the return of Starling Marte in a great manner, as he is a big reason that Pittsburgh has been able to stay in the race for the NL Central, despite the fact that some teams are starting to make their move to separate themselves.

Among qualified rookies, Bell ranks second behind Benintendi in BB/K rate at a .59. He has not fallen as victim to the typical strikeout problem that happens to many rookies. He has definitely started to figure things out at the big league level though, and really adds a big bat to an already solid Pirates lineup.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong has been one of the biggest surprises for an otherwise mediocre Cardinals season. DeJong has 20 home runs and 48 RBIs along with a .299/.330/.580 slash line. He also sports a 2.0 WAR despite only playing in 71 games this season.

DeJong has been cemented at the shortstop position for St. Louis despite the fact he was primarily a third baseman when he was coming up through the system. Not only that, but he has been batting in the three-hole for the Cardinals due to their lack of a big bat. DeJong is the first Cardinals rookie to bat in the three-spot since Albert Pujols.

DeJong would be slightly behind the home run pace of Cody Bellinger if he had as much time in the big leagues. However, he is also a victim to the strikeout. He has been struck out 87 times and has only been walked on 11 occasions, which does not give much hope for the future. It would lead one to believe that major league pitchers will catch up with him, and thus he may not be as dominant down the road. In the meantime though, he has been a huge bright spot for his team.

Rookie of the Year

At this point, it is pretty clear-cut that Cody Bellinger in the National League. Bellinger has been able to keep up his spectacular year since the break, however Judge has been sluggish in the past month.

Judge set the record for most consecutive games with a strikeout. He is also hitting .169 since the All-Star break. The Yankees and Judge are hoping that he will be able to break out of this slump because the Red Sox are starting to pull away with the East. At the moment, Judge has the Rookie of the Year most likely. There is more baseball to be played though. If he does not turn things around then he will get people talking about players like Benintendi and Mancini for Rookie of the Year.

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Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates playoffs 2017: Can the Pirates be contenders?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been on a run as of late. They have won 12 of their last 14 games and stand three games back of the Brewers. There has been talk as to whether or not the Pirates will be sellers at the trade deadline. With how they have been playing lately though, they have to look at why they may be able to make a push for the postseason.

Here are some reasons why the Pirates may find their way to October.

Starling Marte is back

Pittsburgh Pirates playoffs 2017

Marte’s return has ignited a spark in Pittsburgh (Yahoo Sports)

The Pirates found out at the beginning of the season that their best player from a year ago would be serving an 80-game suspension. This was a major blow to the team, and it seemed there would be little hope for them to compete with the world champion Cubs. What was needed was for the team to battle through adversity and try to stay afloat until Marte returned.

Pittsburgh has done a pretty good job of staying in the hunt. They have been lucky with how mediocre the division has been, but they are in the thick of things. With Marte back, they should expect to get a lot production from their outfield.

Last season, Marte led the team with a 4.0 WAR and a .311 batting average. He also has plus speed and was able to swipe 47 bases which was third in all of baseball. His presence complimented by McCutchen’s is one of the most dangerous duos in the National League.

Andrew McCutchen has been on fire

Pittsburgh Pirates playoffs 2017

Cutch may be the best hitter in baseball since June 1st (Sports Illustrated)

Over the past couple years, it appeared that Andrew McCutchen had lost his edge. Last year, he had a career-worst slash line of .256/.336/.430.

The Pirates might have been thinking that they missed their opportunity to get a good return on the center fielder. His first couple months of the season were not evident of the All-Star of the past either. In the months of April and May, he posted a batting average that floated around the Mendoza line and was only had a OBP floating around .300.

In June, McCutchen caught fire. He caught enough fire to make him perhaps the best all-around hitter in the league. He finished with a slash line of .411/.505/.689 in the month. He has not slowed down much in July either, with his batting average still around .400 since the start of June.

Cutch has been almost unstoppable, so right now would be the perfect time to trade him, right? Neal Huntington, the Pirates GM, has to consider the future before trading away the best player the Pirates have seen in a long time. When we talk about the near future, we have to talk about how good the Cubs will be in the coming years.

There is a chance that the Cubs may not be as good as we thought. More than likely though, this is a fluke year and the Cubs may return to their 2016 prestige. With that being the case, Pittsburgh may have to take advantage of the year at hand. They have a chance to take a weak division, so it may be in their best interest to hold on to what they have and see if they can make a run for it with their stellar outfield.

The NL Central is wide open

As I mentioned before, the Cubs are struggling in 2017. They have been showing life since the All-Star break though, recording six consecutive wins. However, the Pirates have been able to keep pace with them during this time. With how weak the division has been, it has been very competitive, and there are four teams that are vying for the division crown.

The Brewers are starting to slide as many people expected. Pittsburgh is the one beating up on them, sweeping Milwaukee in a four-game series. This will probably convince Neal Huntington that this roster has enough to take over first place in the division.

Especially with their recent success against NL Central opponents, the Pirates should be feeling good about where they are right now. Look for Pittsburgh to possibly makes some moves to bolster their rotation at the deadline.

Will Pittsburgh win the division?

Pittsburgh Pirates playoffs 2017

Marte came back at the right time, as the Pirates swept the Brewers in four games (Rum Bunter)

Pittsburgh has been able to deal with a lot of adversity this season. Starling Marte was suspended for 80 games, Andrew McCutchen struggled mightily the first two months of the season and James Tallion had to fight cancer.

The Tallion story is rather inspiring, seeing he had to go under the knife to treat his cancer and then still make it back out on the field not long after.

This is perhaps representative of what the Pirates season may be.

Their ace, Gerrit Cole, also seems to be back on track this season. Since June 8, each start has been a quality one besides one blemish on June 30 in which he gave up seven runs.

With their ace back on track and their stellar outfield back to what the Pirates hoped it would be, there is a good chance that they will be competing for first place in the Central until the last day of the regular season.

Pittsburgh has a real chance to ruffle some feathers in the National League. Even the Dodgers, who seem unstoppable right now, should not take a game for granted against the Pirates. Expect Pittsburgh to be a tough competitor for the rest of the season.

Will what they have be enough to win the Central? Well, that largely depends on whether or not the Cubs have found their stride as many expected. It will be tough to keep pace with Chicago if they are back to their 2016 status. The Pirates may just have a shot if they keep doing what their doing though.

 

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MLB Spring Training Battles

Biggest disappointments of the 2017 MLB season

Fantasy baseball is always full of disappointments. Below are five players who were expected to have big years, but have fallen well short of their expectations.

Rick Porcello, Starting Pitcher, Boston Red Sox

Biggest Disappointments 2017 MLB Season

Rick Porcello is having one of the worst campaigns after winning the AL Cy young just a year ago. (Masslive.com)

The 2016 American League Cy Young winner has been a serious disappointment in 2017. Just a year ago, Porcello had won a career-high 22 games while sporting a 3.15 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.

2017 has been quite the opposite for the 28-year-old, as he currently has a 4-10 record with a 5.06 ERA. His BABIP is about .100 points higher than it was in 2016, which has resulted in a batting average against of .312, which is about .080 points off of his 2016 marks.

Porcello’s struggles have been severe and imminent, as he is giving up 12 percent more hard contact than he did a year ago. Batters have adjusted, while Porcello has not, and if this were to continue, Porcello would be in line to have one of the worst seasons by a reigning Cy Young Winner since Bartolo Colon’s 2006 campaign.

Jonathan Villar, Second Base/Shortstop/Third Base, Milwaukee Brewers

Villar finished as a top-five fantasy player in standard ESPN formats in 2016. His 19 home runs and 62 steals along with a very respectable .285 average made him a top-40 selection in 2017.

So far this season, Villar is batting a mere .216 with eight home runs and 15 stolen bases. His strikeout rate has risen five percent while his walk rate has decreased by four percent, showing that the 26-year-old is trending in the wrong direction. He has fallen from playing an everyday role at the top of the lineup, to being a platoon mate with Eric Sogard and Orlando Arcia while batting at the bottom-half of the order.

Justin Verlander, Starting Pitcher, Detroit Tigers

Biggest Disappointments 2017 MLB Season

Justin Verlander may be a future Hall of Famer, but his 2017 campaign is far from Hall of Fame caliber. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The future Hall of Famer has taken a huge step back in 2017. His 2016 campaign ended with a runner-up finish in the American League Cy Young race, as he logged a 16-9 record with a 3.04 ERA and 10.04 K/9.

In 2017, Verlander’s performance has been quite abysmal. His ERA sits at 4.47 and WHIP sits at 1.45, which is due to his drastically increased walk rate that is currently at 4.18 per nine innings. He is allowing about 10 percent more hard contact than last season, which has caused his BAA to rise from .207 in 2016 to .253 this season. The 34-year-old can still be fantasy relevant, although up to this point, he has been a clear disappointment.

Starling Marte, Outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates

Marte finished the 2016 season as the 25th overall fantasy player in standard ESPN scoring formats. The expectations were high for the 28-year-old, as he had just hit nine home runs and stole 47 bases while batting .311 in only 129 games. With hopes of drafting a player who can bat over .300, hit 15 home runs and steal over 50 bases, Marte was being selected within the top-30 picks in all leagues.

He was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in April. Even in the 13 games in which he played this season, Marte’s strikeout rate has risen by 10 percent while his batting average has dropped .070 points from the season before. I understand this sample size is too small to matter, to it’s worth mentioning.

Marte’s suspension will end on July 18, so look for the star outfielder to return to the Pirates outfield sometime in late July.

Mark Melancon, Relief Pitcher, San Francisco Giants

Biggest Disappointments 2017 MLB Season

Mark Melancon was brought over to San Francisco to solidify their bullpen, although he has been quite the disappointment in 2017. (Keith Srakocic, Associated Press)

Melancon was an All-Star and finished the season with a 1.64 ERA and 47 saves while playing for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals in 2016. This offseason, Melancon signed a four-year deal with the Giants, who may be regretting their decision.

The 32-year-old currently has a 4.35 ERA and a BABIP of .355, which is a about .100 points higher than his previous season. Bad luck may be a big part of Melancon’s struggles, as his strikeout and walk rates have improved from 2016.

He is currently experiencing a right pronator strain, which he has received a PRP injection for. Since there is no structural damage, Melancon should return sooner rather than later, although the Giants have picked up struggling reliever Sam Dyson to fill the void for the time being.

 

Featured image by Sports Illustrated

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The Lackluster National League Central

Just a short two years ago the National League Central was the cream of the crop in baseball.  The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs all finished with 97 or more wins.  This gave them the top three records in baseball, which had never been done before.  The only other division to have three teams with more than 95 wins was the 1977 AL East.  So it would be easy to say the 2015 National League Central may be the best division in baseball history.

Two years can make a big difference in sports, which is evident in this division alone.  As of June 26th the Brewers sit in first place at an underwhelming 41-37.  Even the defending World Champion Cubs are a mediocre one game above .500.  On top of that, the Cardinals who always seem to be at the top of the league are struggling with a 34-40 record.

What could have possibly led to this steep decline?  Well when it comes down to it, the key players in the Central just aren’t performing up to expectations.  Other than Joey Votto and Zach Cozart, not a single qualifying hitter has above a .300 batting average in the division.  This is surprising considering the talent in the Central such as Kris Bryant, Andrew McCutchen and Matt Carpenter.

(Photo Courtesy of USA Today)

Chicago Cubs

Kyle Schwarber, one of the heroes for the Cubs last October, got sent down to Triple-A Iowa on Thursday.  He is supposed to be part of the core for the Cubs but he was not pulling his weight with his splits showing .171/.295/.378.  He is in a sense the poster boy for the failure of many players in the division this year.  If things don’t start to turn around soon, jobs will be on the line.

The Cubs are 14th in the National League in hitting at the moment, but that will turn around.  Jason Heyward is currently on the DL, but he showed signs of improvement from last year at the plate and is doing a decent job of filling the hole in outfield production left by Fowler.

Once the trade deadline comes, Theo and company could be going after Sonny Gray or Ervin Santana to bolster their struggling rotation.  At that point they could go steam-rolling like they were just one year ago.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are at a critical spot for their organization.  The next four weeks will determine what will happen in the coming years for them.  Whether that be sell some of their key players, or maybe even decide to push Mike Matheny out the door.  The bottom line is that John Mozeliak may have over-valued some of his pieces and put stock in the wrong players for the future.

(Photo Courtesy of USA Today)

 

Over the course of the year the Cardinals have been streaky. It is a common struggle for a lot of teams when they can’t get their pitching and hitting to go on hot streaks at the same time, but it has been a glaring issue for them this year.  At this point, Carlos Martinez is the only starter that can be relied on and the middle of their lineup has been missing that spark to get them going.

The National League West has already pretty much determined the wild card race.  So the only thing giving the Cardinals hope is how lackluster the division has been.  If they don’t string together some wins in the coming weeks then we will possibly start to see some pieces moving elsewhere and the Cardinals will be planning for the coming years.

Milwaukee Brewers

There have been several instances where it appeared that the Cubs would take over the Brewers.  However, that day has yet to come.  Eric Thames has been a great surprise for Milwaukee thus far–powering the club with 20 home runs. Travis Shaw is also proving himself to be a legitimate threat in the lineup.  They don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, however, the question for Milwaukee is whether or not their pitching is going to hold up.

So far the Milwaukee has been serviceable but nothing special.  They do not have a bonafide ace but have been relying on Chase Anderson who has been pulling the rotation so far this season.  If he is able to keep this pace along with Jimmy Nelson then the Brewers may have a chance to hang in there come the race for October.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have the best hitter in the division in Joey Votto.  On top of that, Scott Schebler and Zach Cozart have been pushing the offense to be perhaps the best in the division.  The problem has been their lack of pitching.  They are just now getting some of their top pitchers back in Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan.  However, their 30th ranked pitching also doesn’t bode well despite their return.  So look to see the Reds possibly moving some pieces at the deadline.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh has been getting back into the mix of things thanks to the improvement of Andrew McCutchen.  Despite the rough start, he has comeback with a line of .380/.462/.671 in the month of June.  The suspension of Starling Marte has not helped however, as they have sorely missed his bat in the lineup.  The Pirates have showed some signs of life but they will also need some help from their pitching staff.  Their -33 run differential will not translate to any improvements.

Taking two of three games in St. Louis this past weekend could possibly give the Pirates a spark they needed.  Marte is also nearing the end of his suspension.  His bat being back in the lineup could also give them a boost in morale and keep them tight with the Brewers and Cubs.

What to look for in the coming months?

It is hard to see the Cubs not making any big moves at the deadline as they still have a lot of their pieces from their championship team.  So look for them to be aggressive.  Schwarber’s demotion should also serve as a notice to the rest of the team that they are under-performing.  It is doubtful to see the Cubs trailing the Brewers for much longer with all the talent they have.  If the Cubs do not start pulling away soon though, then the division is up for grabs for any of these teams.

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Where does Marte’s Suspension Leave the Pirates?

Starling Marte will be out 80 games for the Pirates this season after failing a PED test. This is a crushing blow for a franchise that has been struggling in the NL Central since the rise of the Chicago Cubs.

Losing Marte has a much bigger impact than just this season. A full season from Marte may have been just what the Pirates needed. Instead, they must fill the hole left by their star center fielder.

Who will Take his Place?

Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen will have the first shot at the center field job (Jim Mcisaac/Getty Images).

The two-time Gold Glover was making the transition to starting full-time in center field after playing the corner outfield spots for the majority of his career. That move was brought on in part by the decline of Andrew McCutchen last season.

The veteran may make a return to center field, given the lack of major league talent. Gregory Polanco is assumed to be the incumbent in center field, but he’s been out with a groin pull.

Even when Polanco comes back, it will leave an empty outfield spot. Former top prospect Josh Bell has been the presumed incumbent at first base for a while, but could return to his natural position. He played the corner outfield spots well in the minors and has flashed good pop.

Adam Frazier could also be in line for some playing time. The 25-year-old has 185 major league at bats and a .303 career average. Even with Bell and Frazier, the Pirates may be tempted to call on their farm system to fill the hole.

Austin Meadows is ranked as baseball’s sixth best prospect according to Baseball America. He is a natural center fielder with good range and solid power, but still raw at 21 years old. If Bell and Frazier can’t carry the load, he will surely see the major leagues.

Are the Pirates sellers?

Gerrit Cole could net the Pirates a treasure trove of talent in a trade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images).

The Pirates had a down 2016 season after making the playoffs three straight years from 2013-2015. The team went 78-83 last year and many wondered in the offseason if they would start rebuilding. This question will be brought to the forefront now with the loss of Marte for 80 games.

Marte is arguably the best player on the Pirates roster, and his loss may be too much for the Buccos to overcome. If the Pirates do enter sell mode, who do they move, and at what price?

The first choice would be McCutchen. The outfielder struggled in 2016 and was the talk of trade rumors in the offseason, so expect those to start ramping up again. He’s still a solid player and would be a valuable addition to a playoff contender.

Another trade chip in the Pirates’ possession is Gerrit Cole. The 26-year-old pitcher is one of the best young arms in the majors and would net a major haul for the Pirates if they moved him.

The Pirates very well could move both McCutchen and Cole, or neither one. The roster in Pittsburgh is talented, but the competition in the NL Central is fierce. With a roster devoid of Starling Marte for 80 games, it may be in the Pirates best interest to start moving towards a rebuild.

 

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Injury Update

Crying Tiers of Joy: 2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

I will begin my outfield rankings with one of the more intriguing positions in 2017: left field. This position hasn’t been this deep since the early and mid 2000s when we witnessed Manny Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Matt Holliday and Ryan Braun dominate fantasy as perennial top ten picks.

Many left fielders, young and old, have begun to emerge and make the position much deeper than many people originally anticipated.

The top 30 left fielders have been grouped into five tiers, with the top and bottom player of each tier profiled below.

Honorable mentions include: Alex Gordon (KC), Brandon Drury (ARI), Roman Quinn (PHI), and Matt Holliday (NYY).

Exceptions include: Ian Desmond (COL), who will miss six to eight weeks, approximately 50 games, after undergoing hand surgery, and Yasmany Tomas (ARI), who may start on DL with an oblique injury, and currently no time table for return.  

Tier 1

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Kris Bryant headlined a World Series roster for the Cubs (Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images).

  • Kris Bryant (CHC)  

Kris Bryant is the lone man in tier 1 of left fielders in 2017. He exploded onto the scene in 2015 to smash 26 home runs and drive in 99 RBIs. That was good enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Bryant continued to improve in 2016 with 39 home runs, 121 runs scored and 102 RBIs. That resulted in him winning the NL MVP award.

The 25-year-old is a career .284 hitter and has stolen 21 bases in two years. Bryant will be the first left fielder selected in 2017.

Tier 2

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Ryan Braun will look to continue his strong play in 2017. (Jeff Curry, US Presswire).

  • Yoenis Cespedes (NYM)
  • Ryan Braun (MIL)
  • Starling Marte (PIT)
  • Christian Yelich (MIA)

Yoenis Cespedes is once again an elite fantasy option in all formats heading into 2017. The three-time MVP candidate has been on pace for 100 RBIs per 162 games in four of his five MLB seasons.

The 31-year-old, who is batting .277 since 2014, remains an integral producer in the New York Mets lineup and is sure to be a top 25 overall hitter if healthy.

Christian Yelich had his first breakout year in 2016 with career highs of 21 home runs and 98 RBIs. The 25-year-old has a career .293 batting average and is averaging about 19 steals per 162 games.

Yelich is a perennial 20 home run and 20 steal candidate. He could be a menacing 30/30 threat for years to come should he continue to improve. The Marlins three hitter will be selected within the top 50 picks in 2017.

Tier 3

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Michael Brantley is poised for a bounce back in 2017. (Courtesy of TLA Worldwide)

  • Gregory Polanco (PIT)
  • Kyle Schwarber (CHC)
  • Justin Upton (DET)
  • Matt Kemp (ATL)
  • Khris Davis (OAK)
  • Michael Brantley (CLE)

Like Yelich, Gregory Polanco was another left fielder who broke out in 2016. The 24-year-old managed to reach career highs in home runs with 22 and RBIs with 86 in only 144 games.

Polanco has averaged 25 steals per 162 games, which shows his five-category potential. The 6-foot-5 230-pounder is also bound to increase his power numbers as he continues to grow into his frame. A 30/30 season isn’t out of the realm for Polanco, which warrants him as a top 60 pick in all formats.

Michael Brantley is arguably the most overlooked player in 2017. He is healthy and ready to bounce back. The 29-year-old has been battling a chronic shoulder injury since the end of 2015. He is now officially ready to go for opening day.

The third-place finisher in the AL MVP in 2014 will rejoin the most talented Cleveland Indians lineup since the late 1990s. With the emergence of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley should have no problem producing. He is currently being selected as the 140th player on ESPN according to fantasypros.com. I believe he is well worth a top 120 pick.

Tier 4

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Andrew Benintendi intends to take home the AL Rookie of the Year in 2017. (Photos via Getty Images)

  • Andrew Benintendi (BOS)
  • Jose Ramirez (CLE)
  • Willson Contreras (CHC)
  • Marcel Ozuna (MIA)
  • Carlos Gomez (TEX)
  • Adam Duval (CIN)
  • Ben Zobrist (CHC)
  • David Dahl (COL)
  • Nomar Mazara (TEX)

My selection for AL Rookie of the Year, Andrew Benintendi, has an uncertain potential. His MLB sample size is a mere 118 plate appearances. The former Golden Spikes award winner is a five-tool player who has batted .313, .312, and .295 in three seasons at five different levels, including the MLB.

The 22-year-old may begin the year at the bottom half of the order. However, he will find his way to the top in no time. Batting ahead or directly behind of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Hanley Ramirez will allow him to be an extremely productive player.

He is currently being selected as the 111th player on ESPN, and certainly warrants a pick this early.

Nomar Mazara has seen his draft stock fall as of late. Word of a possible platoon against lefties has concerned owners about his at bat totals in 2017. I’m a full believer in Mazara’s ability to be an everyday player in this league, He has continuously improved his batting average throughout his minor-league career.

The 21-year-old has shown he has the potential to be a .280 hitter with 20 or more home runs over a full season. If an injury or poor performance were to occur to his platoon partner, Mazara could take the everyday spot and run with it.

He is being selected as the 260th player on ESPN, which makes him a sleeper in the majority of leagues. I wouldn’t hesitate selecting him top 200, especially in keeper leagues and dynasty leagues.

Tier 5

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Corey Dickerson sheds 25 pounds in the offseason, is this a sign of good things to come? (Courtesy of Wikipedia.com)

  • Corey Dickerson (TB)
  • Jayson Werth (WSH)
  • Eric Thames (MIL)
  • Melky Cabrera (CWS)
  • Jorge Soler (KC)
  • Curtis Granderson (NYM)
  • Michael Saunders (PHI)
  • Rajai Davis (OAK)
  • Brett Gardner (NYY)
  • Jarrod Dyson (SEA)
  • Ender Enciarte (ATL)

People tend to forget about Corey Dickerson’s success in Colorado. He batted .312 and .304 in consecutive seasons. The 27-year-old has dropped 25 pounds in order to obtain the starting left field spot as opposed to being the designated hitter, which is where he spent the majority of his time in 2016.

Either way, Dickerson will be an everyday player for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and is a threat for 30 home runs and solid RBI production. His current ADP on ESPN is 276, which is very low for someone with .300/80/30/80 potential.

Ender Inciarte has quietly been a career .292 hitter while averaging about 24 steals per 162 games. Inciarte will be the leadoff hitter once again for a young but talented Atlanta Braves lineup that commonly goes under the radar.

Although there is a lack of power, it isn’t out of his realm to sport a stat line of .300 100/10/50/20. The 25-year-old is currently being selected as the 196th player on ESPN, putting him just outside the top 50 outfielders, which I believe he is.

 

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