Boring is Beautiful: The Case for Zach Lee
One of the most exciting things in baseball (or really any sport) is the rookie who comes up to the big leagues and dominates right out of the gate. The Mike Trouts, the Stephen Strasburg’s, the Yasiel Puig’s, the Jose Fernandez’s…elite talents that burst onto the scene and impact the game right away through sheer force of talent and will. These guys pay immediate dividends for their teams (and their fantasy baseball owners) by going zero to top-fifty-player in a month’s time. But while hitting on one or two of those players a year is a big part of dynasty league success, so too is finding the most value possible outside the spotlight’s glare.
Prospects typically have high attrition rates and take years of development from the time you hear about them to the time they become complete, valuable fantasy players. There is no such thing as a sure thing prospect, and this means being smart about targeting “high floor” guys in addition to the potential superstars is important to the long-term success of your team. Finding lower ceiling prospects who are more likely to make good on their potential is a solid way to find value and build up your organizational depth, and it is a strategy that all too often gets overlooked in the hunt for the next big thing. This last point is key; because the higher floor/higher probability prospects don’t benefit from “shiny new object” syndrome they can often be had on the cheap on draft day or in trades, particularly as throw-in tails to larger deals.
Zach Lee is a case-in-point prospect in this mold. For dynasty leagues I’d estimate his value begins somewhere around 12+ team, 3+ prospect leagues. There’s a fairly high probability relative to other comparable pitching prospects that he becomes a solid #3 starter on the sooner side of later, and particularly in leagues with longer player control a starter with that projection is highly valuable. But he doesn’t throw 96, he hasn’t struck out more than 8 batters in a start all season, and he doesn’t seem to command a ton of hype. So what gives?
As background, Lee was taken 28th overall out of high school (TX) by the Dodgers in 2010. Scouted as a highly athletic physical specimen coming out of high school he was also courted heavily to play college football. He was seen as very polished for his age with projection as a front-of-the-rotation Major League starter. He performed well in his rookie season in the Midwest League in 2011 but he didn’t overwhelm, and reports of his stuff were similarly of a good but not dominating package. He was knocked a peg or two down, but continued to be viewed as a potential top-line guy. In 2012 he went to Rancho Cucamonga, one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the hitter-friendly Cal League. He posted excellent ratios, but his composite stats suffered the context to the tune of a 4.55 ERA over 12 starts. He was promoted to AA, and while he saw his ERA dip into the threes his K/9 and K:BB ratios sunk, and the consensus of reports continued to indicate good but not dominating stuff. After year two of the same his projection was scaled back to mid-rotation guy and the hype on him moved along.
He entered this season as BA’s #62 prospect, a modest jump from #89 the year prior. As a 21 year-old for the AA Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League he’s posted a 3.18 ERA (3.16 FIP, 111 ERA+). His component ratios are stellar as well: a 3.7 K:BB, an 8.2 K/9, and less than a hit an inning. He’s been good for a solid 1.18 WHIP and is on pace to throw about 150 innings this season.
So taking in the full package to date, we’re looking at a 1st round draft pick who’s been solid, not spectacular in his minor league career. He’s been promoted aggressively since signing out of high school and been young for his level at every stop. Scouting reports indicate the potential for elite command of solid average-to-plus stuff. And all he’s done for the most part is get batters out and post strong peripherals at every stop. And he’ll enter spring training as the team’s top pitching prospect with a shot to win the #5 slot in the Dodgers rotation. At worst (and injury excluded) he’s likely to begin 2014 as #6 or #7 on the LA starting pitcher depth chart. In other words, he’s bound to get several starts in at a minimum along the way, and if he pitches well there would presumably be an opportunity for him to take a spot in the rotation and run with it. He’s in line for a jump to around 180 innings next year, so there is moderate risk of a September shutdown. But his workload progression through the minors has been linear to date, and by 2015 he’s a very reasonable candidate to be in 200+ inning territory.
Yet despite a pretty straightforward and quite positive profile I wouldn’t anticipate Lee jumps higher than high-20’s at the most optimistic end of the various prospect rankings for 2014, and he more likely settles into the 40’s for most evaluators. That means potential value in shallower league drafts or deeper league trades with owners bored by his lack of press clippings to date. Lee brings an awful lot of short- and long-term upside as the kind of mid-range prospect dynasty owners should target heading into next year.
Stats & scouting courtesy of fangraphs.com, milb.com, and baseballprospectnation.com