TDG Roundtable: What to do with prospects who struggle initially
Every week on Fridays, our writers here at The Dynasty Guru will be bringing you some quick hit musings about a particular topic so you, the reader, can get a blast of info from a bunch of different writers with some passionate opinions. This week, our staff discusses what to do when “Top Prospects” struggle initially in the major leagues.
Adjust Your Expectations, but Stay the Course
If you have a top prospect, your fantasy team is no doubt invested in his individual success. Maybe you traded for him in your league, or you drafted him and waited 2-3 years for him to get the call, no doubt turning down numerous trade offers in that time. If you’ve done this, you need to give the prospect time. The perceived value of a prospect in the industry is so influenced by what a player has done lately, that it’s very important not to overreact to it. Not every prospect is going to come up and have immediate success. For 100+ years in baseball, teams were hesitant to call up prospects, not because they wanted to gain an extra year of control of the player, but because there was fear the player would not be able to handle the constant top-level competition. Not all players are going to be All Stars from game one. The Juan Sotos Mike Trouts, Albert Pujols’ are the exception, not the expectation. Ken Griffey Jr. struggled with the bat in his first taste of the majors by today’s standards. Of course, at the time fans were amazed at what he was able to do at 19, but today 16 home runs in 500+ plate appearances would be seen as disappointing for a generational talent. Similarly at the time, Gary Sheffield struggled and was traded out of Milwaukee,Sammy Sosa, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Craig Biggio all had Hall of Fame or comparable careers around that time but took several years to develop.
But why do we expect so much more out of prospects today? Is it because we’re excited to see them play? Have we read too many glowing reports that make them sound like superheroes? Did we in fact get spoiled by the early success of Soto, Tatis, and Acuna? Let me point out those three players are probably considered to be the three best players in dynasty leagues and won’t easily be brushed aside. I like to think that prospects are simply being overvalued compared to other young players in the game. That in most cases, the expectations for both their timeline to production, and their top end productivity, are inflated before they play a major league game. Teams who are rebuilding should be more realistic with their window to success. If today you feel 50% of your best prospects will be promoted in two years or less, your team is probably at least 3 years from being competitive, let alone winning the league. But what do we do with these top prospects if we are competing? Most winning teams have a deep bench, and can’t sit productive players, in favor of a struggling rookie. I say watch the games! See if the rookie’s getting fooled badly out of the zone, or popping out on meatball pitches. Is he hitting the ball hard and adjusting to breaking balls? I love statcast data as much as the next person, but in a small sample it’s still important to see and believe what’s going on in front of you.
See, this is why we can’t have nice things
So the Jarred Kelenic experiment is over. He’s back in the minors after slashing .096/.185/.193 across 92 plate appearances including an 0 for 39 stretch to close out his short stay in the majors. So I guess that’s it, right? I guess talent evaluators across both baseball and the fantasy industry got it wrong on this one. I really hope the thick layer of sarcasm is coming through here and you haven’t stopped reading this piece. The overreactions in a situation such as this can be deafening, so it’s very important to filter out the noise, remain calm, and refrain from doing anything rash.
Look, baseball is tough at any level. On one side you’re trying to use a round bat to hit a round ball that is traveling at a high velocity with movement. On the other, you’re trying to throw that ball at a high velocity and create movement by repeatedly put your arm through all sort of stresses and strains in an unnatural motion. So when a top prospect gets the call to “The Show” and faceplants, well that’s going to happen probably more often than not. The guys who are already at that level are there for a reason and know and understand how to succeed at that level even if their raw talent may not be as high. I’m sure even the off field stuff can take getting used to such as different travel arrangements, a new city, the media, etc. Stadiums themselves are larger with much larger crowd sizes that can likely effect even a top prospect. And think, these are additional factors on top of the pure level of skill and talent you are now facing in every batter in a lineup and every pitcher on the mound.
It personally does not bother me at all to see a prospect get called up and given the chance to “sink or float.” You have to temper expectations with young prospects as they are expected to struggle initially. Look at any of the major projection systems and you will find very moderate expected stats even for top tier prospects. Also, sometimes the best way to better yourself and learn is to fail the first time. This will tell you a lot about a player’s character to see how they handle and work through struggles and even a potential demotion back to the minors. Give me the guy who struggles at the bigs and goes back down to the minors to work harder than ever on the areas of weakness identified in order to earn his next shot, and make it a permanent promotion.
I will leave you with the following stat line: 163/.213/.279. That was Mike Trout’s slash line in his first 14 games with the Angels in 2011 before being demoted to Triple-A.
We’ve been Spoiled, haven’t we?
Have we been spoiled by the quick successes of Acuna Jr, Tatis Jr and Soto? Absolutely. Do we all want our prospects to become the next Trout? Most definitely. Do we all want to get rich quick? Of course. Why do I keep asking these rhetorical questions and then answering them? Not sure, but stay with me here. Collecting baseball cards was something I enjoyed in my youth and grew in popularity exponentially during Covid. With extra money to spend that many of us could not spend on travel or eating or drinking out, I bought some cards. If you look at any collector’s bio on twitter, what does seemingly every collector PC (personally collect, as in, not for selling)? Acuna Jr., Tatis Jr. and Soto are easily the top three found in most bios. So yes, we have been spoiled by the Big Three, and now every collector wants to hit on the next big prospect. Jarred Kelenic and Blaze Jordan and Dylan Carlson (among many, many others) are all huge sellers. In fact, many of their cards sell for much more than established vets or even hall of famers. Being a dynasty player first and foremost, I avoided all of these prospects when buying, knowing that almost all of them will not pan out (except Wander. He is so dreamy with his low strikeout rates).
In my first go around with baseball cards I went heavy into my favorite team’s prospects, the Cubs. Back in the early 2000s there was not near the amount of information on prospects, so I went with the guys MLB.com told me were great, outfielders Corey Patterson and Felix Pie. They had future stardom written all over them, or so the hype machine told me. In fact, my first piece of baseball writing was about how Felix Pie was a future star (for Associated Content, if anyone remembers that website before Yahoo! bought them out). Well, they both did not become great, but both made the majors, and Pie saw action in 462 career games over six seasons (with a forgettable -1.6 WAR), and Patterson had a 12-year career (with a better than Pie 9.7 career WAR).
When I recently re-entered the collecting market I went back and looked through my original collection I had so many rookie cards and autographed cards and graded cards of each of them, and they are all basically worthless in today’s market. So as a dynasty baseball player first and foremost, I see all the collecting of these prospects’ baseball cards as mainly a ticket to get rich quick, and see that many don’t realize that most of these prospects do not pan out, or even if they do, they wind up having good but not great careers. And that’s ok! Baseball is not easy.
I am reminded of two players from my youth, Gregg Jefferies and Juan Gonzalez. Both players were much hyped prospects with expensive rookie cards back in the early nineties. Juan Gone won two MVPs and four silver sluggers, made three all-star games, hit 493 homers with a career .295 batting average over a 17-year career, and he won’t be in the hall of fame. If I told you (and Mariner fans) that Julio Rodriguez would have that career they would be ecstatic (or at least they should be). Not at that same level, but Jefferies had a 14-year MLB career, two-time all-star, and career batting average of .289, which is not too shabby either. Did they not “pan out?” Of course they did, they just were not some of the greatest players the sport has ever seen, and few are.
Last season I wrote a piece on trading prospects for established major leaguers and quit hoping on hitting the next Acuna Jr. or Soto or Tatis Jr. The take away was that more than likely the guy you have been holding for years won’t make the majors, and if they do, they won’t be a super-duper star. Trade them, either when they first drafted or are tearing up the minors and climbing prospect lists, for established vets that have done this before. Even Wander Franco may “just” become the next Jose Ramirez (and if so, that would be great!). These vets are not as sexy as the next big thing, but since everyone is trying to get rich quick, that will leave a lot of bag holders (or prospect holders, if you will). Play to win, and if you miss out on a “great” prospect, so be it; you traded him to a prospector in your league for Manny Machado or Jose Ramirez, and won the league.
You can’t always get what you want
The Rolling Stones let us in on a secret we forget. Sometimes it is easy to get burned in hopes and expectations. I know we just got deep for fantasy baseball. The truth still stands. You can’t always get what you want. What you want may be too unrealistic.
This is the heart of the matter. We get unrealistic expectations in fantasy baseball. Every prospect is a risk. Let’s state the obvious. Even first overall picks aren’t guaranteed success. We know this. Jacob DeGrom was drafted 8 rounds after Syndergaard. In 2011 Mookie Betts was taken in the fifth round while Bubba Starling was taken fifth overall. In 2013 Clint Frazier was fifth overall and Cody Bellinger was drafted at 124 (round 4). On and on I could go here.
How do I handle top prospects when they struggle with their first taste of mlb action? I stay on board the hype train. I either go down with the ship or I watch them rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.
This is all dependent on whether I still viewed them as a top prospect. I have moved on from prospects that were highly touted in someone else’s opinion. Sometimes you evaluate wrong and the prospect you believed in never has the career you hoped for. Sometimes they do way more than you could have ever thought or imagined.
If I believe in a guy up until his promotion then nine times out of ten I am sticking with the guy whatever the outcome. You can’t always find the diamond in the rough. Lastly, the diamond in the rough might not look like a diamond just yet. I would rather get burned waiting on greatness that never comes than give greatness away because I was too impatient for that greatness to come. Like Michael Scott once quoted from the great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”