Reality to Fantasy (Prospect Lists)

While the start of baseball season is certainly the most wonderful time of the year, right now can aptly be described as wonderful time of the year.  It is that time of year when all of the big guns (mlb.com, BP, ESPN, etc.) release their top 100 or top 101 or top integer-near-100 prospect lists.  As fantasy baseball owners, we have been tracking our prospects and potential draft targets all year.  We know the numbers and what has been said about the prospects throughout the season, but these lists and their comments provide us with another level of insight via scouting takes and industry sources.  These lists are great, but the rankings are determined from an MLB front office perspective, not from a fantasy perspective.  Therefore, in order to fully understand the implications of these lists for fantasy purposes, we must know how their criteria differ from fantasy criteria.  If you do not want to get your hands dirty, there are now websites doing the translation from industry list to fantasy list for you (check out our very own top 100 list from Paul Hartman, as well as our consolidated top 50 list).  If you want to do some of the research on your own, make sure you take into account the following criteria when using non-fantasy prospect lists:

Defensethis is the most obvious, but is more intricate than most think.  While defense is a significant part of a prospect’s value to a major league team, it provides no value to a fantasy owner once a player is set at a position.  However, this does not mean that defense can be completely overlooked.  If a player simply cannot stick at a position, he can lose fantasy value by ending up in a less-scarce fantasy-wise position.  Eddie Rosario had (has) the potential to be a top-5 fantasy second baseman, but the more the chances increase that he ends up in the outfield, the less valuable he becomes.  Even if the prospect is only a sub-par defender, he runs the risk of being bumped off position by a more elite player.  Conversely, being an excellent defender, especially at a premium position, does carry some value in that it almost completely ensures that a prospect will not be moved off position because of the current roster construction.  I say “almost” because even solid defenders like Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar were moved off position because of excellent defensive shortstops already on their team’s respective rosters; however, these examples are more the exception than the rule.

CF/RF/LF Corollary for real baseball purposes, an ability to play center field is more valuable than an ability to play right field which is more valuable than an ability to play left field; thus, the outfield spots a prospect is able to handle will impact his non-fantasy value.  With the exception of leagues with LF, CF, and RF slots, where a prospect plays in the outfield has not fantasy impact.  So if you see a guy shoot up the lists for his ability to play an excellent center field, make sure you strip that out in your personal fantasy rankings.  Conversely, do not be fooled by a guy getting dinged on prospect lists for being a left field only outfielder (see: Clint Frazier).

Important note: do not go overboard with the below aspects, but do know that they can be impactful in the right situations.

MLB team’s roster construction the current talent on an MLB roster can also impact a prospect’s ultimate value.  This can be a dangerous game because sometimes these things work themselves out a la Nick Castellanos and third base.  Originally blocked at third baseby Miguel Cabrera, who could not be moved to first base or DH because of Prince Fielder and V-Mart, Castellanos looked to be transitioning to left field.  If you had sold low on Castellanos, you are kicking yourself because he is now in line to be back at third base after the Fielder/Kinsler trade.  Conversely, these things do not always work themselves out.  For example, it now appears that Manny Machado will spend the rest of his career at the hot corner rather than at short.  Having to move off position because of the current major league roster is not something considered in non-fantasy prospect lists.  As BP’s Jason Parks likes to say about prospects, “it’s all currency.”  Meaning that even though a major league regular SS might not be as valuable to the Red Sox with Bogaerts and Pedroia up the middle, that prospect would be valuable as a shortstop to many other teams (hi Jose Iglesias).  The impact of this, as seen above with Machado and Profar, is much different and can be quite negative for fantasy owners.

MLB home ballpark factor this factor is also born out of the “all currency” effect.  For non-fantasy lists, Byron Buxton would be the number one prospect regardless of what team owned him.  He would be the best prospect the Giants could have the same way he would be the best prospect the Rockies could have.  For fantasy though, he would be more valuable as a Rocky than he would be as a Giant because Coors’ is a hitters haven (thus more production in each category), whereas AT&T would suppress his fantasy production to some extent.  This effect should not be overstated, but can be used as a deciding factor between two very similar, value-wise, prospects.

Batting slot and surrounding lineup another factor born out of the “all currency” effect.  Batting slot and surrounding lineup are factors for fantasy, but not for non-fantasy lists.  For pitchers, these factors would be the supporting line up (for wins), team defense (wins and ratios), and bullpen (wins).  These are much bigger factors for keeper leagues where contracts expire than for dynasty leagues or similar leagues where players can be kept forever, where major league rosters go through many changes.

Likelihood to be traded home ballpark, batting slot, and surrounding team can be thrown out the window if a prospect is going to be traded.  Depending on the landing spot, being traded can be good or bad for a prospect’s fantasy value.  A pitcher who ends up in Oakland is in much better shape than one that ends up in Milwaukee with the opposite holding true for a hitter, but that is all a guessing game.  This becomes most critical in AL and NL only keeper leagues where a prospect is lost if traded to the other league.  As a result, a prospect can lose value in these formats if he is likely to be traded.  Teams with high payrolls that are in contention are most likely to trade their prospects, especially prospects blocked by current players on the roster.  This is what happened to Mike Olt with the Rangers.  He was a solid third base prospect who was never going to see the field sans an Adrian Beltre injury (maybe even sans a Beltre and a Profar injury).  The Rangers are known to be willing to make deals and they are not a small market team like the Rays or Pirates who cannot afford to trade away six years of controllable production.  As a result, the chances of Olt being dealt increased; thus, decreasing his fantasy value in an AL only.  What all of his AL only owners feared most came to be when he was traded to Cubs, where his worth became zero for those owners.  Current guys at risk to be traded: Any LAD prospect (especially Pederson), any NYY or PHI prospect, Odor, Sardinas, Betts, and Vogelbach.  Again, don’t overdo it with this variable, but it can be useful to take into account, especially as the situation becomes more and more obvious.

MLB team’s prospect development philosophy some teams, like the Marlins, Orioles, and Twins, like to challenge their top prospects, even at the major league level, and are unafraid to let them sink or swim.  This can be either an advantage or a disadvantage to a fantasy owner.  The sooner a prospect gets to the bigs, the sooner you can start returning profit on your investment, but if the prospect sinks, his prospect star can be dimmed, reducing his value.  Other teams, like the Rays and Astros, take a slower approach with their prospects, especially the Rays with pitchers.  This approach means that if you draft an 18-year-old Rays’ pitcher, you have almost zero chance of having him produce for your big league club until his age 22 season.  However, that same pitcher will be in good shape to produce immediately upon being called up.

Distance to peakthis is probably the most overlooked of the fantasy translation variables for prospects and it ties in with MLB teams’ prospect development philosophy.  The point being that if a prospect is not going to be an impact player upon call up, there will be some negative value (negative cash flows for you finance folk) until he reaches an impact level of performance.  The non-impact level prospect, such as Aaron Hicks last season, will either hurt your team’s performance or take up a valuable bench spot, unless you play in a league where bench spots are not very valuable.  This is even a bigger deal in keeper leagues (as opposed to dynasty leagues), where prospects’ contracts start to tick down once “activated.”  Catching prospects take the biggest fantasy hit from this variable, as they tend to develop slower, often producing their best fantasy seasons later in their careers.  This means that you could spend a valuable prospect roster spot on a player that will no longer be on your team (or will at least have hit free agency) once he reaches his peak seasons.

Floor valueobviously, the lower the floor, the less valuable the prospect for both MLB teams and fantasy teams.  That said, non-fantasy prospect lists put a good deal of weight on prospects that have decent floors.  A pitcher who is going to provide 180+ innings of solid, but unspectacular production for many years is an incredibly valuable product to a major league team.  That same pitcher is not a very valuable fantasy asset, especially not when it costs you a valuable minor league roster spot.  Low fantasy ceiling, high real floor players should be avoided despite their rankings on non-fantasy prospect lists.  Current examples: Erik Johnson, Jake Odorizzi.

When digging into your favorite prospect lists this year, make sure to make the proper adjustments to determine the prospects’ fantasy values.  Enjoy and good luck.

Jeff Quinton

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Born in 1988. Living and working in central Jersey. Proud Blue Hen (graduated 2010). Going for my MBA part-time. Fascinated by how people think and the decisions they make.

8 thoughts on “Reality to Fantasy (Prospect Lists)”

  1. Great piece, Jeff. I think your last two points are particularly important depending on league format. In some of my leagues, when minors hit the rookie AB/IP limit, they must be called up and contracts can run for a maximum of 5 years. For guys like Trout and Harper and Jose Fernandez, the first year is no problem and nets you a huge profit. However, so many young players don’t contribute much fantasy value in their first year or two or three, and they waste a roster spot. Some examples from my past: Jurickson Profar, Wilmer Flores, Garrett Richards, and even Desmond Jennings.

    1. Thanks Kevin. I think that is really the underlying point of all this, that we need to keep our league rules and constructs in mind when evaluating minor leaguers.

  2. Thought provoking piece as always Jeff. I like the organizational philosophy as well. Some teams just seem to be able to produce talent, either hitters or arms, while others always struggle.

    1. Thanks! While I usually look at this case by case (since such info exists) a deeper dig into team trends and outputs would be very interesting. Just like some companies are better at R&D and others are better and M&A, just like some colleges produce better engineers, it would make sense that some teams, pitching coaches, hitting coaches, etc., are better at developing different types of players.

      1. Nice job Jeff….yeah, a team by team analysis would be very interesting!
        While I love the industry lists (really, how can you match their resources?) they certainly aren’t made for fantasy baseball. For me it’s the info they provide, not the rankings. Like you said, each league has its own unique settings that can make some guys way more valuable than others. The best solution in my mind is to absorb as much good info as you can and then make your own conclusions based on your league. We’ll help here as best we can!

  3. I really enjoyed the piece, but I would like to point out that the Twins are very slow on developing prospects. Aaron Hicks last year really is the only exception and they generally have people spend one year at each level except for the fantastic talents, like Buxton. From Scott White’s Top 50 Prospects for 2014 article about Buxton “But because the Twins are notoriously slow to promote their prospects and won’t have any incentive to rush him…”

    1. I don’t know if that’s the case when you include Arcia too. That said, I could definitely see taking them off that list.

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