2017 Players to Keep an Eye On – NL Central

Here we will predict which players will take a step forward in their performances in the 2017 season. The players in the following article will have either experienced poor 2016 seasons or shown improved numbers across the board. Regardless of the players 2016 situation, advanced statistics tell us that they are primed for quality 2017 seasons and sustained success for the future.

Today, we will analyze the National League Central, a division absolutely loaded with talent from all 5 teams regardless of their current situation in the major leagues. While the Cubs are clearly in a win-now mode and the Brewers are in the early stages of a rebuild, both clubs feature interesting players who may surprise during the 2017 season.

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Chicago Cubs – Javier Baez

By this point, everyone knows who he is. Puerto Rican phenom Javier Baez continued his rise to stardom during the 2017 WBC. However, the red flags cannot go unnoticed: lack of ability to work the count, low walk rate, and high strikeout rate. Despite these visible flaws in his game, he has made strides in the past few seasons, decreasing his strikeout rates from an unsightly 41.5% in 2014 to a more league average 24% last year. However, as his strikeouts rates have dropped, so have his walk rates, as low as 3.3% in 2016, three points lower than what was an already low 6% walk rate in 2014. However, a .336 BABIP seems sustainable given his improvement in his strikeout rates, but he should have a hard time maintaining an OBP over .300. The power is undeniable, and sustainable thanks to launch angles and exit velocities both above league average. IF, and that’s a big IF, Baez can continue the decrease in his swinging strike % from 19.2%-16.4%-14.4% over the last three seasons and begin to work better counts, he can make a huge lead in his offensive which still lags considerably behind his stellar defensive work.

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Cincinnati Reds – Jose Peraza

At the age of 22, it seems as if we have been talking for decades about the talented SS/2B who’s been traded from the Braves to the Dodgers and then from the Dodgers to the Reds. With Brandon Phillips out of the picture, Peraza has a clear route to 600+ at bats this season. Pedraza’s values lays in hit tool, which he showcased last year in the majors as he tallied a .324 batting average in 72 games with the major league club. He’s not much of a walker or homer threat, but he has shown improved ability in both of these facets throughout his minor league career. However, one of the biggest assets of his game is speed, and 200+ stolen bases while only being caught 50 times in the minor leagues show his ability to not only steal bases, but limit the amount of times he has been caught, an issue which has plagued his teammate, Billy Hamilton, in his time in the majors. It would behoove the Reds to bat Peraza near the bottom of the lineup, and allow him to work on his walk skills and pitch selection to continue his development as an overall hitter. An interesting idea would be to hit Peraza 9th in the lineup, allowing him impact the game with his bat while also facing better pitches as pitchers wouldn’t worry about facing the pitcher next. Peraza’s hitting and stealing ability are grade A tools, and continued improvement in other areas could give the Reds a 1-2 combo of Hamilton and Peraza quite similar to the Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo combination which guided the 2003 Marlins to their World Series title.

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Milwaukee Brewers – Neftali Feliz

Now, theres a myriad of players that fit the role as “player to watch” for the Milwaukee Brewers, but none of them are as crucial to this team as Neftali Feliz. After signing a 1 year, 6 million dollar pact with the Brewers, the fallout from a good 2017 would be enormous for both the Brewers and Feliz. Under pitching coach Ray Searage in Pittsburgh, Feliz rejuvenated his career by essentially becoming a two pitch pitcher, eliminating the changeup from his repertoire and throwing 70% fastballs and 26% sliders. An increase in velocity to an average of 96MPH last season showed signs of the Feliz of old, who won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011. His two pitch approach helped him produce a 3.5 BB/9 rate, the lowest of his career since his incredible 2011 season, and his 10.2 K/9 were a product of the highest swinging strike rate of his career at 52.5% compared to a 48% career mark. All in all, the improvements he made last year were legit and should carry well into his home in Miller Park. For the Brewers, a good first half from Feliz could help them increase his trade value as the trade deadline approaches. Through simple market analysis, this strengthens the $6 million dollar commitment to Feliz who could very easily net the team 1 or 2 top prospects at the deadline as teams have continuously overpaid for relief help in July. Therefore, given Feliz’s 2016 improvements, this is a player that can absolutely excel in 2017 and probably pitch meaningful innings down the stretch for another club while the Brewers would make a $6 million investment reward them with additional prospects or young talent as they continue to rebuild their franchise.

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Pittsburgh Pirates – Mitch Keller

The Pirates 2017 player to keep an eye on will not pitch a single inning in the major leagues this season and quite possibly the 2018 season as well, but that exactly is what makes him so interesting. The 6 foot 3, 20 year old Keller was plagued by control issues in his first two professional seasons, walking over a batter every two innings in addition to various forearm injuries. Then 2016 happened. He was healthy. He lowered his walk rates. The results?

24 G 130.1 IP 2.35 ERA 4 HR Allowed 19 WALKS and 138 Strikeouts

Walks are capitalized for a reason. Keller lowered his walk rate to a measly 1.3 BB/9 while maintaining a 9.5 K/9 rate, evidence that his control problems seem to be in the rear view mirror. Averaging 7 strikeouts per walk is elite and should have Pirates fans on the edge of their seats, as Keller has all the looks of a future ace. He will begin 2017 in A ball, but a move to Double-A Altoona should not be out of the question for Keller as he continues his development. If you’ve never checked minor league box scores before (very few of us do), you better start checking in every 5 days to see how this kid is performing.

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St. Louis Cardinals – Jedd Gyorko

At first glance, someone who hit 30 Homeruns and only drove in 59 runs while hitting .243 last year would raise many eyebrows, but actually, Gyorko last year didn’t even reach his full potential. His .244 BABIP shows that he was actually unlucky, and this gives him a favorable outlook in regards to improving his AVG and OBP. The science behind his power spike isn’t difficult to understand: he hit more fly balls and less ground balls than he ever had in his career and the results were immediate, as he tortured right handed pitching to a 30% HR/FB ratio. While this number is far too high and likely unsustainable as pitchers adjust to his approach, it’s not out of the question to see Gyorko crank another 20+ homers with a battering average around .260. This plays excellent for the Cardinals, who despite having Kolten Wong on the 25 man roster, should hand the majority of the at bats to Gyorko, who’s improved maturity at the plate evidenced by the highest walk rate of his career (8.4%) should translate well as he enters his age 29 season.

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