Last week, I looked at players the projection systems agree on and homes for remaining top free agents using ZiPS. To complete this troika of pieces reviewing some of the ZiPS projections, I’ve asked ZiPS for the players whose medium-term outlook has changed the most from last year’s projections to this year’s. There are a lot of ways to do it, but I went with the simple method of looking at 2024-2027 projections at this time last year and the 2024-2027 projections right now.
Let’s jump right into the projections.
I’m actually a little surprised that someone beat Ronald Acuña Jr. here. I liked Colorado’s pickup of Nolan Jones a lot – and nobody would claim I wear purple-and-black colored glasses – but he turned out even better than I or the projection system expected. Jones was a high-power, high-BABIP talent in the minors, both characteristics that served him well in Coors. Nobody’s confusing him with Kevin Kiermaier, but he turned out to be more competent defensively in the outfield than most expected, a not insignificant thing in a park with a very large outfield. Note that ZiPS doesn’t exclusively use Statcast’s OAA/RAA in its defensive estimations; it uses a mix that is mostly so, but still contains a bit of DRS and a dash of UZR. A .400 BABIP would be difficult to “keep” under any circumstances, so regression is expected, but Jones’ career is still on a lot more solid ground than a year ago.
The reason for the suspicions on Acuña are unsurprising and not a secret: He was recovering from a serious ACL injury and had a fairly run-of-the-mill return in 2022. I don’t necessarily think ZiPS was wrong to make this projection given the risk, though I’ll note that it “hated” him to the tune of having the seventh-best four-year WAR projection for a position player. Well, 2023 happened, and I doubt I have to explain the qualities of that campaign for him. He’s back on the previous track on dueling with Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez for best X-year projections.
None of the projection systems think Evan Carter will hit for as much average as he did during his first taste of the big leagues, but they all think he’s an above-average starter in the majors right now. There was promise in his profile entering 2023, but a lot more uncertainty because for as young as he was, he was still a relatively low-power prospect with a lot of walk value – not always a huge plus for a prospect becuase of the risk of Jeremy Hermida Syndrome – and hadn’t yet played above High-A ball. The majors turned out not to be so far away.
I said last year at this time that ZiPS needed another year to be sure about Masyn Winn, and that’s precisely what happened. Colt Keith, with a full healthy season after a shoulder injury, put himself into the top tier of prospects and earned an extension from the Tigers before he played a game. Chas McCormick is one of the oldest players on the list, and even if it took a long time until Dusty Baker noticed his improvement, the Astros were aware of it. Patrick Bailey turned out to be a truly dynamite defensive player in the majors.
The Henry Davis bump feels a little odd, but ZiPS was really down on him until his minor league performance in 2023, which featured a spicy 178 wRC+ at Double-A and Triple-A. Jake Burger did enough to upgrade him from a useful role player into a short-term league-average starter. Jordan Lawlar’s very short debut in the majors wasn’t impressive, but a 20-year-old shortstop with a 127 wRC+ in the high minors is someone on the verge of being in phenom territory, especially because he can actually play the position; he’s not a Danny Tartabull slugger shoehorned into a position he can’t play.
ZiPS Decliners – Hitters
Robert Hassell III missed most of the Arizona Fall League in 2022 with a broken hamate bone, and things got even worse when the calendar flipped; he hit .221/.324/.321 across two levels in 2023. Just to contextualize how troubling a line that is, ZiPS gets a translation of .201/.275/.274 for the year. It doesn’t end him as a prospect, but it isn’t encouraging to see such a lack of production from one of the two outfield prospects the Nationals received in the Soto trade. On the bright side for Washington, the other outfielder it picked up for Soto, James Wood, was the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball in our updated 2023 rankings and had a four WAR improvement in this exercise.
This wasn’t a great season for Royals hitting prospects. The trio of MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino were expected to provide some reinforcements to a punchless outlet, but two of the three (Melendez and Pratto) made this list. Even Pasquantino ranked 56th, but that’s more due to his missing more than three months with a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery; he’s performed considerably better than the other two in the majors. Melendez now finds himself with a limited path to a long career. His bat regressed massively, a major issue now that the Royals are using him as a DH and in the outfield instead of as a catcher because they didn’t trust his glove behind the plate. He now needs to either convince the Royals he can handle catching (and actually be able to do so) or make a huge step forward with the bat, both easier said than done. Pratto was promoted in late April and had a big May, but he basically stopped hitting after that, eventually getting demoted the minors. He didn’t hit there, either.
ZiPS wasn’t a fan of Aaron Zavala, a second-round pick by the Rangers in 2021, but after this walk-heavy prospect hit the wall in Double-A (.194/.343/.285), it’s even less so. However, I wouldn’t completely write him off yet, because it’s hard for a projection system to deal with his injury setbacks; a spinal tumor and UCL surgery in consecutive years have presented major obstacles for him. He may be too patient as a hitter, but he also has had such little experience as a pro that he could still develop a more aggressive approach at the plate. Plate discipline is a means to an end, not an end to itself; if he doesn’t learn to punish pitchers when he get his pitch, he won’t make it as he moves up the minor league ladder.
Jake Cronenworth is a good bounceback candidate with the bat, but playing him at first always was going to take away a chunk of his value, especially as he turned out to be a rather unimpressive defensive player there. Addison Barger was a ZiPS favorite entering 2023, but an elbow injury cost him two months of the season and possibly contributed to his giant step backwards in the power department.
Brett Baty still has one of the best projections on this list, but a half-year of some really awful play in the majors ought to sap some of the exuberance about his output.
At the back of the list, Carlos Correa may have pleased the Twins in October, but it was one of his worst seasons as a pro. Because of his strong track record, ZiPS expects him to be much better moving forward than he was in 2023, but it can’t completely ignore such a down year. ZiPS also remains high on Anthony Volpe overall, but he didn’t show as much progress with the bat as ZiPS had hoped, and some of that superstar high-end has been whittled down a bit.
ZiPS Gainers – Pitchers
Some may believe that ZiPS isn’t as positive about Kyle Bradish’s 2023 as it should be, but he is the biggest positive mover among pitchers, going from a fringe fifth starter (in the opinion of ZiPS) to at least a legitimate number-two guy behind Corbin Burnes (!!!). I talked a bit about Brock Stewart in Projection Fight Club; he’s had a long injury history, but the anemic plate discipline numbers batters managed against him last season made ZiPS a believer, even with a relatively small sample size.
Eury Pérez amply demonstrated he was ready for the majors, and just in time to add some cover to a rotation that will be without Sandy Alcantara for 2024. Gregory Santos quickly figured out the whole command thing to go along with a fastball that can touch the century mark. I like to imagine I was correct about the Zach Eflin breakout, even if I was a few years early, but I don’t expect anyone to give me credit for that. He was fourth in the AL in WAR among pitchers, after all. Health seems to be the biggest boost here, because Eflin has been good for a while; he has now had four consecutive seasons with a FIP below four.
The Phillies no longer have Eflin, but they do have Cristopher Sánchez, who quickly worked his way into the rotation to give them a boost down the stretch. ZiPS thinks he’s for real. Same goes for Tanner Bibee, who showed he could finish off batters quite competently with both his slider and his changeup. Michael King consolidated his 2022 gains, and it’s completely unsurprising the Padres want to look at him as a starter if they can.
ZiPS Decliners – Pitchers
Alek Manoah’s 2023 represented such a turn of fate that William Hogarth could have painted it. After finishing third in the 2022 AL Cy Young race, he was demoted from the majors to the lowest level of the minors last June, returned after a month, and then was optioned again during the second week of August, this time to Triple-A, where he never pitched because of various ailments. No matter how much promise he has flashed in the past, ZiPS can’t ignore such a brutal decline. Carlos Rodón and Luis Severino were both injured and ineffective last year, two of the reasons the Yankees missed the playoffs. Noah Syndergaard demonstrated that it’s unlikely he can transition effectively from the power pitcher he once was into a finesse guy, and ZiPS jumped off the Shintaro Fujinami train, though I still have some hope for him as a full-time reliever. Kyle Wright and Brandon Woodruff both had significant injuries.
Note that the Ohtani decline here is as a pitcher only, and as mad as it makes me, it’s fair given he just had his second Tommy John surgery.
All told, the decliners for pitchers are much less interesting than the gainers or the hitter numbers, simply because elbows and shoulders change the expectations for pitchers more quickly. I think next year, I’ll filter out injured pitchers.
Coming up later this week: the first official ZiPS projected standings of 2024!