10 Players to Watch in 2016

The baseball season is set to begin this Sunday, and one thing that we all know is that every season is filled with surprises. One of my favorite things to watch each season is to see certain players, who have previously struggled or not received playing time, rise from obscurity and put up All Star numbers.

Here, I have listed ten players who are not considered mega stars, but are primed to break out this year. Note that although this is not a fantasy baseball article, I do highly recommend drafting or trading for everyone here if you are in a fantasy baseball league, since all of these guys have great potential.

Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks starting pitcher: OK, this one isn’t exactly the best-kept secret. ESPN included Corbin as one of its breakout pitchers for 2016. But I am also fully on-board. I am huge on pitchers who generate a high volume of strikeouts, and that always has been a good part of Corbin’s game. However, it is his low walk rate which really intrigues me. His 1.80 walks per nine innings last year would have placed him at tenth best of all pitchers had he qualified, just ahead of Chris Sale and just behind Jacob deGrom. He only pitched 85 innings last year, but his excellent numbers in strikeouts per nine innings and walks per nine innings should capture your interest. Pitchers who are strong in both categories over a large enough sample size of innings will usually be very effective.

Yordano Ventura, Royals starting pitcher: OK, this one is more of a boom or bust pick. He could totally flame out. But if he manages to put it all together, you are talking about a pitcher with as high of an upside as anybody. I think we will see some growth here, but the question is how much? His ERA was almost a half run higher than his FIP and xFIP, so that is very encouraging. He also throws one of the highest velocity fastballs in the game. If he can develop his secondary pitches further, we could be looking at a superstar. His growth just last year was huge. Eight of his last 11 starts were quality starts, and his K-rate jumped to over a batter per inning in that span. He still walks far too many hitters, so some slight improvements in his control could come a long way.

Joe Ross, Nationals starting pitcher: Tyson’s younger brother earned his promotion to the big leagues due to a fantastic performance in the minor leagues and some good fortune. The Nats’ rotation at first looked too deep for them to be able to hand out any innings to unproven rookies, but that changed when Stephen Strausburg and Doug Fister had numerous problems staying healthy. Then, last year in roughly 75 innings pitched, Ross proved himself enough to become a permanent part of the rotation plans. The drawback is that he may have an innings cap this year, similar to Strausburg in the past. However, he looks like he can be a very good pitcher if given time, with his fairly good strikeout rate and excellent breaking stuff.

Andrew Cashner, Padres starting pitcher: For the last of my pitchers, I will take a guy that has received some attention in the past. For years, fantasy owners have chased after Cashner, intrigued by his potential. His strikeout rate climbed after posting poor ones in 2013 and 2014. In addition to his FIP and xFIP being a half run better than his ERA, Cashner was unlucky in his left-on-base percentage, posting the lowest one of all qualified pitchers. Also, he still pitches in the friendly confines of Petco Park. Ignore the ERA and the 6-16 record. This is a guy is still one of the hardest throwers in baseball, and there were more positives to take away from last year than you would think.

Byung Ho Park, Twins first baseman/designated hitter: One thing is for sure, this guy has some huge power. I was at a Twins spring training game this year, and Park hit a massive home run over all of the outfield grass seats. Based on his profile from Korea, more power should be coming. Granted, with guys like this, the batting average is anyone’s guess. So actually, is this any different than Miguel Sano? Sano, who is on the radar of a lot of people, also has a huge power bat but poses a batting average risk. He and Park are in a similar mold. They might not be able to get on base enough to play every day. But if either of them can get on base, the huge power bats will make either one a player to watch.

Stephen Piscotty, Cardinals outfielder: I was impressed by the Cardinal in his first year. Although just a rookie, he looked like a professional hitter, spraying line drive base hits throughout the field. He was also a fairly tough out down the stretch for the Cardinals. He never showed great power in the minors, but he is working on his swing to make it a bigger part of his game. I predict he remains a fixture in the Cards’ outfield picture and has a solid career.

Gerardo Parra, Rockies outfielder: Several times over the years, I have heard people say that Parra is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. After being able to watch him a couple of times while also seeing his stat line, I really don’t get why people are saying that. Last year, he had a tough April and September, but was fantastic in between, with a .316 batting average in that span. Simply put, I know from watching him that this guy can hit, and he has the speed to turn hits into extra base hits. Now in hitter-friendly Coors Field and with a clear role as a starter, he should put up huge numbers. He has also long been known as a strong defensive outfielder. While the analytics say that he took a step back last year, he is still capable of making some excellent web-gem quality plays in the field.

Jonathan Schoop, Orioles second baseman: In just half of a season last year, Schoop showed some power that we hadn’t seen yet with 15 home runs in 321 at-bats. He has always been a pretty good hitter, but if he can keep up the power upswing over a full season, we are talking about a player with a lot of potential. The kind of numbers that he is capable of putting up are much more than you would expect from the second base position.

Trevor Story, Rockies shortstop: He has had an excellent spring training, allowing him to claim the Rockies’ starting shortstop job while Jose Reyes resolves some legal issues. This is a guy who first caught my eye while I was watching him play in Triple A Albuquerque. Granted, I know how Albuquerque is a ridiculous hitters park just like Coors Field. However, he caught my attention as someone who just looked like he could be a solid, professional hitter. Also the power was strong for the shortstop position. I am interested to see what he does with the opportunity that has opened up for him in Denver.

Travis Shaw, Red Sox former first baseman and now third baseman or maybe outfielder: This is another guy having a great spring who I am curious to see over a full season. However, unlike everyone else on this list, he does not clearly have a starting role, so playing time is a question. The Red Sox seem to be falling out of favor with Pablo Sandoval however, which makes it likely that Shaw will see time at third base. His dad, Jeff Shaw, was a major league reliever, so he has been around the clubhouses since he was young. Also, he managed to hit 13 home runs in a small amount of at-bats. If given playing time, all signs point to a guy with some good power who is not likely to kill you with his batting average either.

Official Selection Sunday Mock Bracket

I have made a full mock bracket while doing my best to adhere to rules such as no rematches. Here it is

Midwest

 

Des Moines

1 Kansas (#1 overall) vs 16 FGCU/Fairleigh Dickinson

8 Connecticut vs 9 Wichita St

 

Spokane

5 California vs 12 Hawaii

4 Indiana vs 13 Stephen F. Austin

 

St. Louis

6 Baylor vs 11 South Carolina/Syracuse

3 Xavier vs 14 Iona

 

St. Louis

7 Dayton vs 10 USC

2 Michigan St vs 15 Buffalo

 

West

 

Raleigh

1 North Carolina (#4 overall) vs 16 Hampton

8 Colorado vs 9 Providence

 

Denver

5 Iowa St vs 12 NC Wilmington

4 Maryland vs 13 South Dakota St

 

Des Moines

6 Texas vs 11 Valparaiso/St. Bonaventure

3 Kentucky vs 14 Middle Tennessee

 

7 Wisconsin vs 10 Pittsburgh

2 Oregon vs 15 Cal St Bakersfield

 

East

 

Raleigh

1 Virginia (#2 overall) vs 16 Austin Peay

8 Texas Tech vs 9 Cincinnati

 

Providence

5 Seton Hall vs 12 Yale

4 Purdue vs 13 Chattanooga

 

Denver

6 St. Joseph’s vs 11 Butler

3 Utah vs 14 Fresno St

 

Brooklyn

7 Notre Dame vs 10 St. Mary’s

2 West Virginia vs 15 NC Asheville

 

South

 

Brooklyn

1 Villanova (#3 overall) vs 16 Southern/Holy Cross

8 Oregon St vs 9 Gonzaga

 

Providence

5 Duke vs 12 Northern Iowa

4 Texas A&M vs 13 Stony Brook

 

Oklahoma City

6 Arizona vs 11 Little Rock

3 Miami vs 14 Green Bay

 

Oklahoma City

7 Iowa vs 10 VCU

2 Oklahoma vs 15 Weber State

My take on the 2016 Tournament Bubble

One of the most fascinating aspects of picking the teams that will be in the bracket is seeing which teams just barely made it. This year, I will do my best to pick the brains of the selection committee and see what they will do.

Compared to recent years, it looks like there will be less of a consensus than normal as to which of the teams that find themselves on the bubble will be included. Last year, most mock brackets only differed by about one or two teams, but today I could see mine being different from others by three or four teams.

These are the teams that I see as being closest to the bubble.

South Carolina IN and Vanderbilt OUT: The SEC will be sending Texas A&M and Kentucky to the dance as we all know. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. Florida and Alabama blew their chances with awful ends to their regular seasons. Georgia has zero RPI Top 50 wins. LSU has the talent of an NCAA Tournament team, but from either watching them play or just looking at their resume, you can see that they are not even close. The teams that were positioned best prior to the SEC Tournament were Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Of course, both would lose their first game to make things difficult for bracketologists; that seems to be how things work this year.

The SEC was weak this year, but it hard to justify just picking two teams when just weeks ago, people were considering 4-5 SEC teams. South Carolina deserves a spot on the strength of their 8-5 record against the RPI Top 100, but I could definitely see the committee snubbing them. The nonconference schedule was very weak, but it did allow them to be one the last undefeated teams in college basketball. I believe only SMU went longer without losing. If only they didn’t have to play Georgia, who they went 0-3 against.

Vanderbilt sunk their chances by losing in the SEC Tournament to a team far worse than Georgia in Tennessee. They needed to avoid the bad loss because now, like the Gamecocks, they have three to teams with an RPI below 100. Now, I just see them as a team that had a good stretch in February that included beating Texas A&M and Kentucky. Both before that and after that, they have not proven enough and managed to accumulate 13 losses. They have more talent than their record suggests, but they had too many chances and blew it.

Michigan OUT: Like Vanderbilt, they had ample opportunities to prove their worth as an NCAA Tournament team. However, they went an ugly 4-12 against the RPI Top 100. However, if you also account for the fact that they had no losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100, then this becomes an interesting case.

However, I also do not favor inclusion of teams that have come up short repeatedly against other quality teams. Additionally, we have to account for the injury to their leading scorer Caris LeVert. He hasn’t played since December and will not be available for the NCAA Tournament.

Syracuse IN: I think the committee will let the Orange in. They have a weak record against the RPI Top 100 (8-10). However, it compares favorably to other high-major bubble teams. And I really like their best wins, which were road/neutral site wins against Duke and Texas A&M. They also beat a fellow bubble team, St. Bonaventure, convincingly. There are three bad losses, but the good outweighs the bad, barely.

The committee also has discussed the Boeheim effect. Whether you agree with the logic or not, they are going to take into account the fact that they were without a Hall of Fame coach for one of their worst stretches, and that he is back now. When you consider all factors, it looks like the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense will be seen in the NCAA Tournament.

St. Bonaventure IN: They are right now my last team in, so if Memphis defeats UConn today, the bubble will shrink by one. I will likely remove the Bonnies in that case, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Before the Atlantic 10 Tournament, I considered them probably 50-50 as to whether or not they would get in. After they lost in overtime to a decent Davidson team, my opinion of them hasn’t changed much. If you blindly at RPI and nothing else, then they are safely in. But I dig deeper and find that they didn’t do anything to convince me that they are a tournament team in nonconference play and that they have several bad losses. The 7-5 record against the RPI Top 100 will end up just being barely enough to get them in.

Temple OUT: I had them in because as AAC Regular Season Champions, they had to be my projected automatic bid. But after UConn beat them easily, this is not the case anymore. They now find themselves on the outside looking in. It is close, but sweeping UConn and Cincinnati is not enough.

They compare pretty closely to Syracuse actually. They had almost the same record against the RPI Top 100 and two bad losses. But that Boeheim effect will be taken into account and that will separate Syracuse from Temple. The Owls did not do a good enough job of taking advantage of opportunities in nonconference.

San Diego St OUT: People who were watching Fresno St upset the Aztecs last night were wondering if this would cost any bubble team their spot. But I believe that the only team that this will cost is San Diego State. They mostly dominated the Mountain West, but it was weak this year. Their conference RPI, according to CBSSports, is worse than the MAC, Colonial and Summit. If you want to talk about a Mountain West at-large, then you need to explore the possibility of an at-large team from each of those conferences too.

A big strength is the nonconference schedule. The Aztecs played California, Kansas, West Virginia, Utah and Little Rock. However, they only succeeded against Cal. Yes, I like to see a nice schedule, but it is more important that you actually win those games. San Diego St was 5-6 in nonconference and 3-7 against the RPI Top 100. I would prefer picking a mid-major who may have had fewer opportunities but also had a better record against the RPI Top 100. An example of this would be Valpo.

Valparaiso IN and Monmouth OUT: Both teams are in a similar boat. Each has looked impressive in games against top teams but suffered too many bad losses. It is tough when you play in their conferences.

Monmouth falls short however. Their wins against Notre Dame and USC are still nice but lost some credibility because both teams slumped late in the season. But even more importantly, being from Monmouth County, NJ, I have seen this team play more than any of the other bubble teams. And for me, they do NOT pass the eye test.

It is true that they have accumulated a lot of wins, but not all wins are created equal. Everyone likes to point out their 17 road/neutral wins, but their road results against MAAC teams do not convince me that they can handle the NCAA Tournament. They were down 14 to Rider with 4 minutes left before pulling off the comeback and they needed overtime to beat St. Peter’s. Also, in their two losses to Iona, the Gaels have looked like the far superior team.

It appears that Valparaiso should be the small conference team being given the chance to prove themselves in the dance instead of Monmouth. They went to Oregon State and won, and somehow played a close game on the road against the Oregon Ducks. They also proved themselves further in nonconference play by beating other good mid-majors in Iona and IPFW. They have also been convincing in Horizon League play, with a string of mostly blowout wins. The committee might give the Crusaders a second chance.

Early Selection Sunday Update

This will be my first of two bracket updates today. The second will come after the conclusion of tomorrow’s five games, all of which can affect seedings.

I’ll talk about the top line right now, and at some point tomorrow, I’ll address why I did what I did when handling the bubble teams. But addressing the 1 seed line is paramount right now because there was a lot of movement there today.

Let’s start with the good news. Oregon and North Carolina, who were on the two line previously, were phenomenal today. Oregon blasted Utah by 31 points to complete a three game sweep. Meanwhile, North Carolina erased any doubts that I had about ability to play against top teams. They came into the ACC Tournament lacking solid wins against RPI Top 50 teams, but it doesn’t matter so much anymore now that we saw them absolutely whip Notre Dame and then follow-up with a victory over one of the most dominant teams in basketball in Virginia. If they didn’t perform so well, my job would be much easier and they can remain on the two line.

Villanova, once a safe bet to be a one seed, suffered a tough loss to Seton Hall in the Big East finals. The Pirates knocked off previous one seed contender Xavier as well. With the impressive performances by other contenders, today was probably a worst case scenario for them.

This leaves us with a great debate. Here is my take:

#1 overall: Kansas- This is easy. They have been in this position for about a month now, since they haven’t lost since January. They are unstoppable at home but also solid on the road. There is not a single weakness on their resume.

#2: Virginia- In a surprise, I moved Virginia up a spot even after losing today. The loss in a strong performance against UNC doesn’t change the fact that they have the best collection of high-end wins of anybody besides maybe Kansas. They have beaten Villanova, UNC, swept Miami and Louisville, and beat West Virginia and California. They did not win regular season title or conference tournament, but this resume is as good as it gets.

#3: Villanova- They remain a one seed because their unfortunate loss today shouldn’t undo the fact that their regular season performance was one of the best of any team. It is a little concerning though, that their best wins besides Xavier and their two wins over Seton Hall, are against 8/9 seed types like Providence and St. Joseph’s. The 10 road and 4 neutral wins shows that this team will be ready for the tournament conditions.

#4: North Carolina- This is a three spot leap for the ACC regular season and conference tournament champions. They have five wins over RPI Top 50 teams, which is weak compared to one seed competitors. But as I said earlier, their recent dominant performances makes this almost irrelevant, since we know that they have the capability of handling anyone on their best days.

Here is the full list (to be updated next before Selection Sunday)

1 Kansas, Virginia, Villanova, North Carolina

2 Oregon, Michigan St, Oklahoma, West Virginia

3 Xavier, Miami, Texas A&M, Utah

4 Kentucky, Purdue, Indiana, Maryland

5 Iowa St, California, Duke, Arizona

6 Seton Hall, Baylor, Texas, Dayton

7 Notre Dame, Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut

8 Colorado, Texas Tech, Oregon St, St. Joseph’s

9 Cincinnati, Wichita St, Providence, Gonzaga

10 VCU, USC, Pittsburgh, St. Mary’s

11 Butler, South Carolina/St. Bonaventure, Valparaiso/Syracuse, Little Rock

12 Yale, Northern Iowa, Hawaii, NC Wilmington

13 South Dakota St, Chattanooga, Stephen F. Austin, Stony Brook

14 Fresno St, Iona, Middle Tennessee, Green Bay

15 Cal St Bakersfield, Buffalo, Weber State, NC Asheville

16 Hampton, Austin Peay, FGCU/Fairleigh Dickinson, Southern/Holy Cross

First five out: San Diego St, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Temple, Monmouth

3/12 Update

1 Kansas, Villanova, Virginia, Michigan St

2 Oregon, Oklahoma, North Carolina, West Virginia

3 Utah, Xavier, Miami, Indiana

4 Kentucky, Purdue, Texas A&M, Maryland

5 Iowa St, California, Duke, Arizona

6 Baylor, Texas, Dayton, Seton Hall

7 Notre Dame, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado

8 Texas Tech, Oregon St, Cincinnati, St. Joseph’s

9 Wichita St, Providence, Gonzaga, Connecticut

10 USC, Pittsburgh, VCU, St. Mary’s

11 Butler/South Carolina, San Diego St, Temple, Valparaiso/Syracuse

12 Little Rock, Yale, Northern Iowa, Hawaii

13 NC Wilmington, Akron, Stony Brook, South Dakota St

14 Chattanooga, Stephen F. Austin, Iona, Middle Tennessee

15 New Mexico St, Green Bay, Weber State, NC Asheville

16 Hampton, Austin Peay, FGCU/Fairleigh Dickinson, Jackson St/Holy Cross

First four out: St. Bonaventure, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Monmouth

3/11 Update

Later today, I will do a detailed bubble analysis to explain what I think teams need to do who are fighting for spots. For now, I will detail teams that are candidates to receive #1 seeds and what they need to do.

This year’s field is a contrast to last year, since the teams in-line for top seeds are generally not significantly better than teams lurking in the 2-4 seed range. Along with that, there is some uncertainty as to which teams will end up with the honor.

However, we can be reasonably certain that Kansas and Villanova will be on the one seed line. Their combination of schedule strength, quality wins and the eye test makes it clear that regardless of what happens going forward in the conference tournaments, they will remain worthy.

The way I see it, there are no other teams that this is true about, but I also believe Virginia should be feeling good. They have an equally impressive collection of quality wins against quality teams, and they have played some of their basketball lately (see their win against UNC and throttling of Louisville). Winning the ACC Tournament will guarantee them a #1, and falling short puts them in a decent spot depending on what else happens.

There is one (possibly two) spots up for grabs on the top line right now. Oklahoma is going to claim the spot if they win the Big 12 Tournament instead of Kansas, and they have a shot if they make the Big 12 Finals.

Michigan State will be tough to pass up if they win the Big Ten Tournament. Their inferior schedule numbers drag their profile down, but it is clear watching them how dangerous they can be.

Oregon and Xavier will be considered if they can win their conference tournaments, and then there is UNC. I am not as high on their chances as other people. I only count four wins against tournament-quality teams (Miami, Maryland, Duke, plus I’ll give them half a point for each win against Pitt), whereas other top line contenders have eight or nine. Of course, winning the ACC Tournament would add to that total. But I think winning it only gives them a chance; it is not a guarantee.

Finally, West Virginia would at least give us something to think about if they win the Big 12 Tournament, since that would likely mean additional wins against Kansas and Oklahoma.

1 Kansas, Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma

2 Michigan St, Xavier, Oregon, North Carolina

3 West Virginia, Miami, Utah, Indiana

4 Kentucky, Texas A&M, Maryland, Iowa St

5 California, Purdue, Duke, Arizona

6 Baylor, Texas, Dayton, Notre Dame

7 Iowa, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Colorado

8 Texas Tech, Oregon St, Providence, Cincinnati

9 USC, St. Joseph’s, South Carolina, Pittsburgh

10 Wichita St, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Butler

11 Connecticut/VCU, Tulsa/St. Bonaventure, San Diego St, Temple

12 Little Rock, Yale, Northern Iowa, Hawaii

13 NC Wilmington, Akron, Stony Brook, South Dakota St

14 Chattanooga, Stephen F. Austin, Iona, Middle Tennessee

15 New Mexico St, Green Bay, Weber State, NC Asheville

16 Hampton, Austin Peay, FGCU/Texas Southern, Fairleigh Dickinson/Holy Cross

First four out: Valparaiso, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Monmouth

3/7 Update: Committee Has a Chance to Make Huge Mistake

This is likely the last to come until Friday due to this being exam week. But expect daily updates starting Friday as the madness is approaching.

On Saturday, we saw a result that has huge implications on the bubble, when Northern Iowa upset favorite Wichita State in the MVC semifinals. Many people, myself included, see the Shockers as a strong team that should get serious consideration for the field of 68 no matter what. However, a quick glance at their profile makes their case not so clear-cut.

Their only excellent win was a victory over Utah by 17 points at home. Their next best win was at Northern Iowa, but UNI took two of three games from the Shockers. They also have seven losses to teams in the RPI Top 100, but three of them came without star senior guard Fred Van Vleet, who is now healthy and playing well. Being in the MVC, they have obviously played a lot of games against weaker teams, but they have mostly smoked them. They only have one loss to a team with an RPI below 100, and most of their wins were blowouts.

But the most important reason to include the Shockers is their efficiency profile. Normally, I only take efficiency rankings on Ken Pomeroy’s website into account when there is a huge discrepancy or if I am having a tough time separating similar resumes. However, Wichita St is the 11th raked team in the entire country according to Mr. Pomeroy’s advanced metrics. They are higher than Xavier and Oregon, two teams that just about everyone has in line for two seeds.

Wichita State’s loss is frustrating because it gives the committee a chance to make a terrible mistake. Had they won the MVC Tournament, there would be no need to debate a team that should not even be close to the bubble. But based on their naked resume, they have to be considered a bubble team. I have faith that the committee will not screw up when evaluating the Shockers, but their underwhelming body of work against top teams limits their potential to earn a high seed.

You will see here how I handled the Shockers and other teams in line to make the Big Dance.

1 Kansas, Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma

2 Michigan St, Xavier, Oregon, North Carolina

3 West Virginia, Miami, Utah, Indiana

4 Kentucky, Texas A&M, Iowa St, Duke

5 Maryland, California, Purdue, Arizona

6 Texas, Iowa, Baylor, Dayton

7 Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Texas Tech, Colorado

8 Notre Dame, Oregon St, USC, Cincinnati

9 Vanderbilt, St. Joseph’s, South Carolina, Providence

10 St. Mary’s, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Wichita St

11 Butler/Connecticut, Valparaiso, VCU/Tulsa, San Diego St

12 Monmouth, Little Rock, Temple, Yale

13 Northern Iowa, Hawaii, Stony Brook, Hofstra

14 Chattanooga, Akron, Stephen F. Austin, UAB

15 IPFW, New Mexico St, Weber State, NC Asheville

16 Wagner, Hampton, Lehigh/Austin Peay, FGCU/Texas Southern

Just missed (in order): Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure, Florida, Florida St, Michigan