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Strategy Session: Avoid Over-Investing in Prospects

Prospects are a vital commodity in dynasty leagues. If you want a team that is built for the long haul you will need to continually refresh your team with an influx of new talent. One obvious way to do this is to cultivate a crop of minor leaguers. You sow a field full of blue chip prospects then wait for them to ripen so you can harvest a bounty of young stars. This sounds great in theory but it should not be the primary way you build your team. It feels very satisfying when your prized elite prospect graduates to the major leagues and becomes a star who leads your team to the championship. In reality though this rarely happens. If you are relying on prospects to carry the future of your team you are in trouble.

Prospecting should be an ancillary part of building your team, not the primary part. Prospects are way too unreliable to bet your team’s future on them. We all love prospects. In fact, the allure of finding the ‘Next Big Thing” is often the reason why so many of us gravitated to dynasty leagues in the first place. Prospects matter very little in re-draft leagues, but dynasty leagues are the perfect format to leverage your knowledge of the minor leagues and the future stars playing there. Knowledge of prospects is a critical part of success in dynasty leagues for sure, but you simply cannot invest too heavily in them. The best way to build a championship-caliber dynasty league team is by accumulating as many of the best major league stars as possible. The best way to get the best players has been, is and always will be to trade for them.

The Prospecting Approach

I have been playing this game longer than most, and I have seen a LOT of can’t miss prospects miss. I have seen a lot of team owners assemble some mighty impressive collections of elite prospects yet never actually field a winning team, much less win a championship. I see it often with owners who are new to dynasty leagues. Usually they have been playing redraft leagues for a number of years before trying their hand at a dynasty league. They come into a new league’s inaugural draft with the strategy of building a young team loaded with 25 year old or less studs and a whole bunch of elite prospects. They realize they might suffer through a tough first season, but then their elite prospects will start coming to the majors and their team will soon dominate the league for multiple seasons. Let’s call this “The Prospecting Approach” to the draft. There are several problems with that strategy however:

1. The first problem is that they will be further behind the league leaders than they expected, so when their elite prospects do finally reach the majors all they will do is bring their team up to the middle of the pack rather than the top of the pack. In order to get those elite prospects their owner had to draft them too early, when other owners were drafting proven major league stars. Every time you draft a prospect you are falling further behind the teams who select productive major leaguers. By the time you have a handful of good prospects you have dug yourself a deep hole that is going to take a long time to fill.

2. The second problem is that other teams are likely using the same strategy, meaning that the owners taking “the prospect approach” are all fighting over the best prospects, so no team is able to get enough of them to mount any sort of a serious threat to build a dominant minor league roster full of future stars. The prospecting approach could work if: A) you execute it well by identifying and drafting the right prospects; and B) you are the only one doing it. It is highly unlikely that you are going to be the only team owner who aggressively drafts prospects, so unless you are much, much better at identifying the right prospects than everyone else you are probably not going to end up with enough elite prospects to develop a championship-quality team.

3. The third problem with “The Prospecting Approach” is that prospecting is much more of a crapshoot than most people realize or care to admit. Even the best prospect analysts have whiffed at a high rate when it comes to predicting which players will become stars in the future. Go to Baseball America and look at their old Top 100 Prospect lists from prior seasons and you will see a lot of top 10 names who never became elite fantasy players or even good fantasy players. If you had been drafting in those years it would have taken an early round pick to snare those players, many of whom ended up as fantasy busts. Most elite prospects do not become Mike Trout. For every Trout there are dozens of players like Delmon Young, Travis Snyder, Colby Rasmus, Desmond Jennings, Brett Lawrie, Tim Beckham, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Brian Matusz, Domonic Brown, Jeremy Hellickson, Tommy Hanson, Cameron Maybin, Joba Chamberlain and Brandon Wood. All of those guys were top 10 overall prospects in baseball in the last few years. The chances are very strong that the elite prospect you are so excited about is not going to be a star fantasy player. You will be lucky if he is even worthy of being a starter on a good team.

4. The fourth problem is that even if those top prospects do eventually develop into star players it will take much longer than their owners bargained for. Very few young players are worthy of using in a fantasy starting lineup when they first break into the major leagues. Most rookies are poor options for a good fantasy team. The majority of young players take at least one or two years to adjust to the majors before they can actually be considered above average players. This means prospects will sit on their owners’ minor league rosters for 1-3 years before they reach the major leagues. Then they will have to be carried on the major league bench for a year or two, using a valuable roster slot for a player who is not helping his team accumulate points. Drafting a prospect is not likely to pay off this year or next year or even the year after that. When you draft that elite, can’t miss prospect it will probably take him 3-5 years before he is ready to help you win a championship. That is a long time. Do you really want to wait that long for your draft pick to earn you a return on your investment?  Your league may not even last that long. Or you may get tired of losing and drop out before your prospect can help you.

5. The fifth problem is that there is a new crop of elite prospects every year. The teams who select elite prospects in their league’s inaugural draft are really only getting a temporary advantage on their minor league rosters. The other teams will be able to fill out their minor league rosters with subsequent crops of elite minor leaguers in future drafts each season, and since those teams drafted a good major league player in the round that teams using “The Prospect Approach” took a prospect they do not have a hole in their starting lineup that they need to fill with a prospect any time soon. For example, if I take Byron Buxton in the 5th round this year and you take Adrian Gonzalez, you will get 2-4 productive seasons from AGon before you need to replace him. That gives you plenty of time to acquire a replacement via trade, free agent or a future minor league draft pick while I wait for my original draft pick to finally start contributing, which may or may not ever happen.

My Advice to You

Your goal for your prospects should be to use them to replace retiring or injured players on your team. You can also use them to trade for good, proven major league stars to fill holes in your starting lineup. What you should NOT be doing is counting on them to grow into stars and provide the foundation of your team in a couple of years.

In almost all cases, the most value a prospect will ever have comes the day of his promotion to the major leagues, especially if he is a hyped prospect who gets promoted during the early or middle parts of a season. Will Yasiel Puig or Gregory Polanco ever again have as much value as they did on the first day of their major league careers? Probably not. They were tremendously valuable at that moment because the excitement they engendered had reached a fever pitch. Their owners were thrilled that their investment was finally on the verge of paying off. The people who didn’t own them were jealously hoping for the opportunity to acquire them in a trade.

So my advice is to spend your best draft picks (or most of your auction dollars) on established major leaguers, even if they are 30-33 years old. Do not consider drafting prospects until all of your starting lineup slots are filled. When you do acquire some good prospects you should trade them while their value is high rather than wait for them to become good fantasy players. This accomplishes two things: it fills a hole with an upgrade to your starting lineup, and it creates an empty slot in your minor league roster for you to grab a new prospect and repeat the process. If you hold onto a minor leaguer he will block that roster slot for years before finally earning you some value (maybe), whereas you could churn that slot repeatedly and receive multiple payouts in the same period of time.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nick Doran also writes for Fake Teams and Redleg Nation. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @BlazingFastba11.

The Author

Nick Doran

Nick Doran

14 Comments

  1. Nuke Laloosh
    April 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    I think there is a lot of truth to this however I inherited a dynasty team that keeps 15 every year with no penalty and it was brutal to say the least. Kris Bryant was the only high draft pick I used on a prospect. I drafted Joey Gallo with a 15th round pick. I traded away a good chunk of aging players for younger proven talent. I also managed to aquire Addison Russell, Jesse Winker and Jose Berrios through free agency. I have also traded some lesser prospects for mlb ready players. I’ve gone from 11th to 5th in a year and a half with most of my prospects not yet ready. I do agree that drafting them all would have pushed me back quite a bit.

    • April 4, 2015 at 6:42 pm

      Good job Nuke. Acquiring prospects is a good thing to do if you can get them at a low price. Trading them for productive major leaguers is also key. If you can only keep 15 players it makes prospects even less valuable than in dynasty leagues.

  2. Hunter
    April 4, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Would this strategy be more favorable in a league where players prices rise $2/player for MLB players each year? (Minor league salaries are frozen)

    • April 4, 2015 at 6:43 pm

      I don’t think it affects the value too much. It might increase the trade value of the prospects a fair amount because they are cheap to keep.

  3. Anchovies
    April 4, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    So in the inaugural draft of a fairly standard 15 team league with 23 starters, you wouldn’t draft Buxton or Correa if they were there for the 320th pick since all your starting slots haven’t been filled? Maybe your leagues overvalue prospects and they’re gone by the 4th round, but let’s avoid the blanket statements.

    • April 4, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      Do you think Buxton or Correa are going to be available with the 320th pick in an inaugural dynasty draft? Of course not. That is a totally unrealistic scenario.

      I am currently in an inaugural dynasty draft with some FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus writers. Buxton went with the 72nd pick and Correa went with the 84th pick. That is actually pretty late for elite prospects to be drafted. I took Prince Fielder and Johnny Cueto in those rounds.

      The 320th pick was DJ Peterson. Big difference between him and Buxton/Correa.

      • Anchovies
        April 4, 2015 at 8:47 pm

        It’s not a completely unrealistic scenario if everyone followed your advice. That’s the point. Do you think the writers who took them made bad picks? If they had lasted another round or two, would you have considered drafting them?

  4. Pete
    April 4, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    I have acquired Tulowitzki, Desmond, Rio Ruiz, Carlos Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Carter, Jon Danks, Allen Craig for Geroge Springer, James Shields,Danny Santana, Christian Yelich, Eric Jagielo, Brandon Nimmo, Orlando Arcia, Willy Adames, Tim Anderson, Cam Bedrosian, CJ McElroy, Addison Russell, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan McMahon, Kevin Plawecki and Clint Frazier. ALWAYS trade the prospect for the established player.

    • April 5, 2015 at 1:07 am

      Looks like you are a very active trader. My kind of guy. To win in dynasty leagues you have to make a lot of trades. You can’t sit back and wait for players to fall in your lap.

  5. Mike
    April 7, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I especially agree with this when it comes to pitching prospects. I’d much rather target post-hype pitchers when they finally show signs that they are beginning to figure out how to be successful at the big league level, and so many times that coincides with when the owners who drafted them as prospects have lost patience with them taking up a roster spot and give up on them. Over the last few seasons between an 18 team dynasty (25 man rosters) and a 12 team dynasty (30 man rosters) I’ve been able to pick up off the waiver wire or trade for names like Corey Kluber, Alex Cobb, Sonny Gray, Tyson Ross, Phil Hughes, Jake Arrieta, and Carlos Carrasco as soon as I saw their K/BB and QS’s moving in the right direction. Surprisingly there is more competition in those leagues in chasing the next hot prospect than there is in snagging the next post-hype player who is on the verge of finally putting it together. I finished 1st in both of those leagues last year.

    • April 8, 2015 at 7:32 pm

      I agree Mike. Pitching prospects are even riskier than hitting prospects. I also agree that it is possible to snag unheralded rookie pitchers very cheaply just before they turn into stars. I missed out on Cobb, Gray and Ross, but I did get Kluber, Hughes, Arrieta, Carrasco, Shoemaker, McHugh and Keuchel in multiple leagues for very low cost.

  6. April 8, 2015 at 10:08 am

    […] colleague Nick Doran wrote an excellent piece over the weekend in which he explained that a prospect-heavy approach in dynasty formats is a flawed approach, which […]

  7. Ben
    April 8, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    I have a dynasty strategy question for you…
    I inherited a dynasty team in a 12-team league, and traded like crazy to get a squad I’m content (enough) with. Here’s my hitting:
    http://www.awesomescreenshot.com/image/53244/97fe1c046defd9dbe08e8b64d8b30c21
    And here’s my pitching:
    http://www.awesomescreenshot.com/image/53259/ced87fa7b6eda21f1a5f619cb68c71e3

    My farm system is decent for where I started, and I think I should be able to contend.

    The issue is that this is the top team in the league’s roster:
    Hitting- http://www.awesomescreenshot.com/image/53261/cd571c2e1ea82a0f2f6f93f1bfdfeae6
    Pitching- http://www.awesomescreenshot.com/image/53265/d02f50dba1ab90b2663f0b6836294f5e

    Not only is his MLB roster ridiculous, pretty sure he’s won every year for the past four years, but he also has crazy good prospects. My team is serviceable right now, but I don’t see how I could ever catch up to this guy. Do you have any advice? Thank you!

    • April 8, 2015 at 10:22 pm

      Hi Ben. Your roster is looking good. It should be good for a 3rd or 4th finish in a 12 team league. Keep working the trade market and I bet you will have it even better soon.

      I looked at the top team’s roster. It is good but I don’t think it is insurmountable by any means. His hitters have some age on them and the pitching staff is not dominant. Don’t worry about his roster. Things change faster than you think even in dynasty leagues. Just work on your roster, keep making savvy trades and you will pass that guy pretty soon. An active trader like yourself who reads this site on a regular basis will eventually build the best team in almost any league. Keep the faith.

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