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.
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