You can’t help but drool after looking at top prospect lists, and you’re excited to draft the next Mike Trout or Jose Fernandez: a young player who busts out of the gate and immediately becomes a superstar. Hey, other players have done it, such as Pujols and Tulowitzki. But how often does it really happen? When you have a minors system on your fantasy team, how often does a top prospect become an average fantasy producer, let alone an elite player — and especially in the first year? Despite Paul’s love for everything prospect, I find myself on the other end of the spectrum. I will trade any prospect (especially ones below AA) if it nets me a solid improvement on my MLB team.
Self-Touting Time: In 2009, I traded Ryan Dempster and Brad Lincoln (4th pick overall in 2006 amateur draft) for Ryan Braun. It is the best trade I’ve ever made, and it was possible because the other manager loved first-round draft picks. As you may know (or maybe you don’t, because he’s not exciting at all), Lincoln has finally made it to the majors, and he’s managed an ERA under 4.00 the last two years — though he’s not starting anymore. Had I offered Dempster and a middle reliever (which is what Lincoln has become) for Braun, I would’ve been turned down. An unproven prospect got the deal done.
The league’s format does play a factor. If you get cheap, 5-year contracts for rookies, or if you don’t have to bring them up from the minors right after 130 AB or 50 IP, then you can be more patient than teams who must activate players after the rookie threshold has been reached (see Profar for a recent bad performance), or teams who simply keep a set amount of keepers with no major/minors/rookie divisions (in which case most managers are keeping proven, top MLB talent). But let’s say you have to promote a minor leaguer to the majors after his rookie AB are up. How long do you wait it out? How many seasons do you give a keeper slot (or a bench slot for dynasty leagues) to a player who theoretically has the ability but hasn’t proven it yet? Here’s an example. Player X was the #2 ranked prospect before a season, according to the source I used for my research, and he broke his rookie eligibility that year. Take a look at his stats for his first three seasons.
- Year One: .208/36/6/33/4 in 370 AB
- Year Two: 24 AB
- Year Three: 9 AB
This is the #2 prospect on the list! You just know he’s valuable, but his first stint is lacking, and then he doesn’t play in the MLB for the next two years. Do you dump him after his poor showing in year one? Do you see that he’s not getting promoted and throw him back after year two or year three, to free up bench space? Most teams would cut and run sometime in these first three years. The player? Brandon Phillips, a mainstay at the top of 2B rankings for the last eight years. You’d have been sad if you threw him back before year four, where he hit .276/65/17/75/25 in 536 AB. But most players don’t have that kind of patience, or they lack the roster size to hold onto someone who isn’t contributing at all. The moral of the story? Hitting upon a Pujols or Trout is great, but many players (let alone top prospects) don’t hit the ground running and require a year or two (or three or four) to perform at their projected potential value. With that in mind, let’s get into my analysis.
I proposed that there would be very few cases where a prospect excels right out the gate. I didn’t have an exact number in mind, but it seems reasonable that each year, only 2-3 hitters on the list of 100 prospects are going to get a lot of AB and put up amazing value. This was a process of discovery for me, and I’m writing this series after each year of performance — that is, I haven’t analyzed all the data ahead of time, and so I don’t already know which season is when the most prospects hit their stride. Maybe Paul’s right and there are more prospects on these lists that are immediate, above-average fantasy players. But I’ll bet him a Bogaerts rookie card that my view is closer to the truth.
I chose a yearly top-100 prospects list from a reputable source, starting with 2003 and ending with 2011. That gave me 9 seasons of top-100 lists, for a total of 900 rankings. Of the 900 prospects spots, 460 were hitters. Some players appeared multiple times over the years, but even so, a potential slot on the list is what I’m counting.
I then noted which hitters passed the rookie AB limit the year they were in the top-100 list, and I tracked their stats for the next several years of their careers (five for most, but only three for 2011 and four for 2010). However, this article focuses solely on the first year of production. Originally I was going to focus on hitters who had a half season or more of AB, in order to weed out the cups of coffee in September and the injury replacement stints. But that would also weed out the players who simply weren’t great in their rookie year — the very thing I wanted to highlight. Obviously if a prospect nets 500+ AB, it was because he performed well enough to stay in the lineup all season (or he was playing on the Astros or Cubs in recent years). Therefore you’ll see data on hitters ranging from the bare minimum to over 600 AB. There are success stories here. But note how many more were failures — and then tell me you’re confident going into 2014 with Castellanos, Wong, and Springer as starters on your team.
- Total number of prospect hitters who reached rookie eligibility: 140
- Number of prospects who reached 400+ AB: 51
- Number of prospects who had 10+ HR: 59
- Number of prospects who had 10+ SB: 35
- Number of prospects who had .270+ BA: 57
From the total pool, it looks like prospects score a decent mark in HR or BA about 40% of the time. I was surprised that SB were so hard to come by (25%), because I didn’t think that 10 SB was a high mark, but remember that a lot of these players don’t get a full season of playing time, and let’s be honest: most premium prospects are going to offer more power than speed. The lack of playing time is evident by only 36% getting anything near two-thirds of a season. There were 25 prospects in the 300-399 AB range, so if you’re looking for a half-season as your benchmark, the odds improve to 54%.
Best of the Full Season
When it came time to select the best seasons, I wanted to focus on the 400+ AB group, because if you’re promoting a top prospect, you’re hoping for solid production right away. I subjectively looked at the 51 qualifying players’ stat lines and saw 20 that I personally really liked and considered above-average fantasy players. However, because I wanted to avoid bias, I opted for the following filter: a player must have 400+ AB and two of the three criteria:
- .270+ BA
- 10+ HR
- 10+ SB
That filter resulted in 31 hitters out of the 140 that surpassed the 130 AB rookie eligibility limit, or 22.1%. That’s an average of 4 prospect hitters per year who put up a mostly full season of okay production. It’s higher than the 2-3 hitters I’d expected, but only by one.
Best of the Partial Season
I realize that some players get fewer than 400 AB, but it’s not because they’re bad; it’s because their call-up was simply later in the season. Let’s take a look at all prospects who meet two of my BA/HR/SB criteria, regardless of AB total. Thirteen players out of 140 rookies (8.6%) reached my benchmark with fewer than 400 AB. That gives us 44 hitters, or 31.4%, who surpassed rookie eligibility and did pretty well; the average is 5.5 prospects per year. (Fun Fact: The hitter to reach the criteria in the fewest AB is Julio Borbon in 2009, with a .312 BA and 19 SB in 157 AB. Bear in mind, though, that a high BA in so few AB doesn’t warrant as much weight in roto leagues.) Here’s the entire list.
|Player||Rookie Year||Rookie Stats|
|Eric Hosmer||2011||.293/66/19/78/11 in 523 AB|
|Desmond Jennings||2011||.259/44/10/25/20 in 247 AB|
|Freddie Freeman||2011||.282/67/21/76/4 in 571 AB|
|Dee Gordon||2011||.304/34/0/11/24 in 224 AB|
|Danny Espinosa||2011||.236/72/21/66/17 in 573 AB|
|Jose Tabata||2010||.299/61/4/35/19 in 405 AB|
|Jason Heyward||2010||.277/83/18/72/11 in 520 AB|
|Buster Posey||2010||.305/58/18/67/0 in 406 AB|
|Starlin Castro||2010||.300/53/3/41/10 in 463 AB|
|Austin Jackson||2010||.293/103/4/41/27 in 618 AB|
|Julio Borbon||2009||.312/30/4/20/19 in 157 AB|
|Gordon Beckham||2009||.270/58/14/63/7 in 378 AB|
|Andrew McCutchen||2009||.286/74/12/54/22 in 433 AB|
|Evan Longoria||2008||.272/67/27/85/7 in 448 AB|
|Jacoby Ellsbury||2008||.280/98/9/47/50 in 554 AB|
|Kosuke Fukudome||2008||.257/79/10/58/12 in 501 AB|
|Joey Votto||2008||.297/69/24/84/7 in 526 AB|
|Geovany Soto||2008||.285/66/23/86/0 in 494 AB|
|Delmon Young||2007||.288/65/13/93/10 in 645 AB|
|Alex Gordon||2007||.247/60/15/60/14 in 543 AB|
|Troy Tulowitzki||2007||.291/104/24/99/7 in 609 AB|
|Chris Young||2007||.237/85/32/68/27 in 569 AB|
|Ryan Braun||2007||.324/91/34/97/15 in 451 AB|
|Hunter Pence||2007||.322/57/17/69/11 in 456 AB|
|James Loney||2007||.331/41/15/67/0 in 344 AB|
|Kevin Kouzmanoff||2007||.275/57/18/74/1 in 484 AB|
|Prince Fielder||2006||.271/82/28/81/7 in 569 AB|
|Conor Jackson||2006||.291/75/15/79/1 in 485 AB|
|Nick Markakis||2006||.291/72/16/62/2 in 491 AB|
|Ryan Zimmerman||2006||.287/84/20/110/11 in 614 AB|
|Hanley Ramirez||2006||.292/119/17/59/51 in 633 AB|
|Russell Matin||2006||.282/65/10/65/10 in 415 AB|
|Kenji Johjima||2006||.291/61/18/76/3 in 506 AB|
|Ian Kinsler||2006||.286/65/14/55/11 in 423 AB|
|Josh Barfield||2006||.280/72/13/58/21 in 539 AB|
|Ryan Howard||2005||.288/52/22/63/0 in 312 AB|
|Dan Johnson||2005||.275/54/15/58/0 in 375 AB|
|Jeff Francoeur||2005||.300/41/14/45/3 in 257 AB|
|Justin Morneau||2004||.271/39/19/58/0 in 280 AB|
|Alex Rios||2004||.286/55/1/28/15 in 426 AB|
|David Wright||2004||.293/41/14/40/6 in 263 AB|
|Khalil Greene||2004||.273/67/15/65/4 in 484 AB|
|Jason Bay||2004||.282/61/26/82/4 in 411 AB|
|Adam LaRoche||2004||.278/45/13/45/0 in 324 AB|
I pushed to find as many “decent performance” prospects as I could. I dropped the AB limit. And yes, a few players may have just missed the cutoff (Chris Coghlan was one: .321/84/9/47/8 in 504 AB), but I had to set the line somewhere. But even if you want to add a few more here and there, you may get the percentage up to 35% of prospect batters who net a respectable return their first season, which would be 49 hitters. Certainly it wouldn’t be over 40%.
And that sounds like a good number, doesn’t it? Say it’s 35% of the rookie prospects, which is as generous as I would possibly make it. Obviously the math is still in favor of the players who are at replacement level or worse, with 65%. What’s more, we’re simply talking about the small pool of prospects who did net enough AB to qualify as a rookie season. Let’s not forget that there were 460 prospect slots for hitters over the period I analyzed. So 49 hitters out of a possible 460 is only 10.7%.
When it comes to prospects, I’m much more inclined to draft players as close to the majors as possible. Delmon Young was near the top of the prospect rankings for several years, and yes, he was pretty good out of the gate. But does grabbing a player that requires a four-year wait before he contributes anything sound like a good investment? It may be required in deep dynasty leagues. Even so, prospects are a risky gamble — especially in the first year of their MLB careers. Your keeper league requirements do affect the value of prospects. If it’s a contract deal, where they’re kept cheaply or under a different set of keepers than your MLB keepers, it’s perhaps more palatable. But even then, it’s clear that in the first year, you have to get very lucky to have an immediate star. In leagues where you simply keep X number of MLB players, and the prospects who are now rookies are lumped in with the veterans, the odds of the prospect being keeper worthy is even lower; only the Pujols and Trout types will be kept. With only 3-5 solid hitting prospects in their first year, it’s a long shot — and bear in mind that other teams have these players as well. With 12-15 teams in most leagues, one in four teams may get lucky with a good prospect each year. If you can trade a top prospect (especially one a bit further away from the majors) to acquire an improvement on your MLB veteran keepers, I strongly suggest you do so.
In redraft leagues, I’m not very inclined to grab a top prospect late in the draft. First, there’s a good chance the player doesn’t net a lot of AB, so it’s a roster spot I essentially lose for most of the year. Second, a lot of top prospects struggle in their first season. Even if you target prospects who are projected to be starters from Opening Day, you’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Some players will take the risks with late picks because they can always drop failed players for the waiver wire. Me, I’d rather have decent producers, even if the ceiling is lower.
Everyone’s taste is different. Some people will look at the big successes on the list I provide and continue to hope each year that their young minors players become studs. Me? I’ll keep trading prospects away because I know that even when they finally reach the majors, there’s a very high chance they won’t produce well in the first year anyway. I’d perhaps target some high-upside players for trade after their first year — find managers who are disappointed and buy low. Will that pay off in year two? Find out in the next installment of Prospect Performance.