I Love Prospects, I Hate Prospects!
It goes without saying that a good knowledge of prospects is mandatory for long-term success in dynasty leagues. No matter how good your team is right now you still need to plan for the future. If you can build up a solid core of the top prospects in baseball chances are your team is going to be good for a long time, right? That is true — but maybe not to the degree we all expect.
Let’s face it: prospecting is like rolling dice. Sometimes you get boxcars sometimes you get snake eyes. No matter how good you are at evaluating prospects you are going to be wrong a lot. You can study all the major Top 100 Prospects lists each offseason, watch tons of video and go to minor league games and still make the wrong decisions regarding which prospects to invest in.
Let’s take a look at the 21 players who appeared on one or more consensus top five overall prospects in baseball lists in the last five years (2011-2015). We will organize them into three groups depending on how they have fared since being ranked as uber-elite prospects:
These are the guys we dream about and hope to build our fantasy teams around. Superstar players we will own for years. Prospects of that elite status do not come cheaply very often. You probably paid a ton for these guys and it paid off in spades.
If you had any of these former elite prospects on your team you used to be very excited to have them. They probably cost you either an early draft pick, a big chunk of your auction budget, or maybe you traded a good player to get them. How is that expensive investment looking right now? Not so good. Some of these guys might still become good players but their value right now is much, much lower than it was when they were ranked as top 5 overall prospects.
Too Early to Decide
These guys still look like they will be good but haven’t proven it yet. Seager is probably the best of the bunch. Miller has been up and down but remains a hot property. If you have these guys you are still happy but may be getting a bit nervous about them living up to the price you paid to get them.
So that is 21 total players that appeared in the consensus top 5 prospects in the last five years. 11 have seen their stock drop way down due to poor performance or injury or both. Six have developed into legit star players. Four have seen their value stay the same. That means the failure rate is 52%, the success rate is 29% and the I-don’t-know rate is 19%. Is that what you hope for when you invest a ton of resources (draft, budget, trade) into a prospect? Are you thinking you have a one in three chance of getting a star and a 50/50 chance of a bust? I would bet most fantasy owners are more optimistic than that when they pull the trigger on that sexy prospect investment.
You might say, “Well Nick, prospecting can’t predict injuries. Taveras, Profar, Bundy and Moore would have been great if they hadn’t gotten hurt” and you would be absolutely correct. But they did get hurt. You invested big-time in players who failed to pay off for your team. It doesn’t matter why. Maybe they got hurt. Maybe they just sucked. What difference does it really make in the end? You get screwed either way. They may get hurt or they may fail to become star players but the result is the same: your team suffers.
We all know prospects can bust. We intuitively understand that prospecting is a risky endeavor. If you hit it big on the next Mike Trout you can win championships. If you miss out on the next Bryce Harper there are always going to be more chances. But let’s take a look at it from the other side. What about the superstar players who were never elite prospects or top prospects? What about the superstars who were never even prospects at all? There are a surprising number of stud fantasy players who you could have obtained absolutely free when they were nobodies in the minor leagues.
2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson never appeared on a single top 100 prospect list published by Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus. He appeared at #76 on the ESPN list waaaaay back in 2008 immediately after he was drafted but then dropped off completely in subsequent seasons. By the time of his rookie year in 2012 he was nowhere near the prospect map.
2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel never appeared on a single top 100 prospect list anywhere. Neither did 2014 winner Corey Kluber. Neither did 2012 winner R.A. Dickey. Sensing a trend?
2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta was last eligible for prospects lists in 2010 and was ranked #99 by BA, #70 by BP, #90 by ESPN and #73 by FanGraphs. So he did get ranked, but just barely.
Perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt never appeared on any top 100 prospects lists anywhere. In fact, let’s take a look at the best hitters in baseball and the best rank they ever got from Baseball America.
Top 15 hitters in 5×5 roto leagues last year:
|2015||Best Rank by Baseball America|
|2||Paul Goldschmidt||Never Ranked|
|3||Josh Donaldson||Never Ranked|
|4||AJ Pollock||Never Ranked|
|10||Nelson Cruz||Never Ranked|
|12||Jose Altuve||Never Ranked|
|13||Jose Bautista||Never Ranked|
|15||Lorenzo Cain||Never Ranked|
That’s amazing. Out of the 15 best hitters in baseball last year almost half (7 of 15) never appeared on a BA Top 100 Prospects list. Only two of them ever made the BA top 10. Only four of them ever made a BA top 25. The rest of them you could have gotten for nothing even after they made it to the major leagues.
What does this mean? It shows that even if you corner the market on prospects and stash ALL of the top 10 prospects on your team you are still not going to get most of the best hitters in baseball. We simply cannot tell with any degree of certainty how good a player is going to be in the future when they are still in the minor leagues. Some prospects will underperform and some will overperform. We feel we are very good at knowing in advance how good these players will be, but we really aren’t anywhere close to perfect. Ranked players have a much better chance than unranked players, so prospecting is definitely a vital key to success. Just keep in mind that it is an inexact science.
Here is the big takeaway from this column: 1) Most top prospects fail to become fantasy stars. 2) Most fantasy stars were never top prospects.
Even if today’s fantasy stars were in fact elite prospects in the minors, chances are they were not always elite prospects. The guy who is drafted #1 overall and stays an elite prospect throughout his minor league development time and quickly blossoms into an MLB superstar is exceedingly rare. The chase to find the next Ken Griffey Jr ensnares a lot of team owners, most of whom will be heavily investing in prospects year after year after year because they will never escape the dreaded rebuilding mode. Most of today’s fantasy stars started out their minor league careers in anonymity and only after a couple of years in the low minors did they become top prospects. That means they could have been obtained very cheaply if you managed to snare them before they hit the top of the prospect charts. Even Mike Trout wasn’t always MIKE TROUT. Trout was ranked #3 in 2012 and #2 in 2011, but before that he was ranked #85 in 2010. If you got him in 2010 you made out like a bandit. If you waited another year until 2011 then you paid through the nose to get him.
That is where the opportunity lies in prospecting. You must get these guys before everyone else wants them. If you have a good team (and you should if you read this site regularly) then you are never going to have the draft picks required to get the uber-elite prospects. If you wanted to draft Bryce Harper you had to be the worst team in the league with the first overall pick in your draft. TDG readers don’t get the first overall pick in their dynasty drafts. So how are you going to get the next uber-elite prospects? By stockpiling a bunch of the guys from the back half of the top 100 prospects lists. Avoid the guys in the back half who are 25 years old and on the verge of the majors. Those guys don’t have high ceilings. Aim for the youngest players on the list who are still in the low minors but have already opened some eyes in the prospect world. These are the potential breakout players who might populate the top 10 of the lists in a couple years. You can get these potential boomers for a dime a dozen compared to the elite top 10 studs. If they boom you cash in, if they bust you didn’t lose much.
Looking at last year’s lists you could find guys in the back half like Rafael Devers, Tim Anderson, Alex Reyes, Franklin Barreto, Michael Conforto, Raisel Iglesias, Willy Adames, Ozhaino Albies, Reynaldo Lopez, Greg Bird and others who will rank much higher this year. It is easy to see this in hindsight of course. It is a real challenge to identify the right guys early enough to snag them before your leaguemates beat you to it. Keep reading this website and the odds will be in your favor.
It is important to be intimately familiar with prospects and do your best to acquire them for your fantasy squads. But it is NOT the most important thing. If there is one mistake that I see fantasy owners make more than any other it is relying too heavily on prospects to build their teams, especially in a startup draft. It is fine to stockpile prospects if you are rebuilding a bad roster, but you should not take prospects early in startup drafts. You should build your original roster with proven major league studs. You will have plenty of time to stockpile youngsters later. One thing is certain — there is a new crop of prospects every year. If you have a good team at the beginning you really only need to add one or two future studs to your team each subsequent season to replace your aging veterans. If you start out in rebuilding mode from the very beginning you will need to be extraordinarily lucky/skillful with your prospect investments to maneuver your team into contention in the future.
Nothing is more satisfying than seeing that prospect you have been nurturing for years finally burst into stardom for your team. That is an awesome feeling. We chase that feeling constantly and rarely get to actually experience it. You know what feels even better? Winning the championship. If you want to experience the glory of winning the title you should be cautious when investing in prospects. Don’t overpay for the elite ones. We have seen how they don’t pay off very often. Consider trading your prospects for proven veterans around 25-27 years old. Replenish the prospect pipeline with less expensive, ultra-young prospects from the back half of the lists. When/if their value shoots up you can trade them off for more proven producers and repeat the cycle again.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Are there any other players you would like some advice on? Got any potential breakout prospects we should discuss?