January 6, 2014
What is a Minor League Pick Worth?
Every fantasy league has different rules, but in many carryover leagues you are allowed to keep minor league players from season to season in a farm system. Additionally, some leagues allow trading of minor league draft picks for future seasons.
Leagues have their own wrinkles on this rule, but in many non-dynasty keeper leagues there is a limit on how many farm players you may keep from season to season. Keeper leagues I have played in use four to five minor leaguers as the limit, but some leagues use more. Some leagues also limit the number of years you can keep a minor leaguer to avoid taking a very young player like Miguel Sano out of the player pool before his 18th birthday.
In leagues where you can trade for farm players or minor league picks, one of the more challenging aspects of the game is determining how much value you should place on these picks. For a current major leaguer, it’s easy to look at statistics from the previous season and/or a season or two before that and make a reasonable guess as to what he will be worth in 2014 or a season or two beyond.
Minor leaguers are far more challenging to forecast. Despite this, fantasy teams often trade significant value for minor league players. In dynasty leagues where you can keep Byron Buxton or Xander Bogaerts forever, this makes sense. However, in a Rotisserie-style league where the meter starts running on player contracts the moment a player graces your active roster, it is important to have an idea of how much value a player will potentially produce for your team before he becomes a free agent 3-5 seasons down the line.
Table 1: 10 Best Baseball Prospectus Hitting Prospects 2009-2011
Table 1 lists the top 10 hitters from the Baseball Prospectus prospect lists from 2009-2011. Note that since the Baseball Prospectus lists combine hitters and pitchers that there are hitters here who rank below no. 10 overall. There is also duplication due to younger hitters appearing on the list across multiple seasons. In these cases, I used the most recent ranking on the table. 2012 and 2013 are not included because there most of the players ranked in the Top 10 for these years haven’t made their mark (yet).
There is a lot of data to look at here, and a number of different ways to sort the data. I initially sorted by earnings, but this makes it appear like a success-oriented sort. Instead, I sorted by how the prospects were ranked by Kevin Goldstein to see how they were perceived versus how they actually did. We spend our high draft picks—and our treasure in trade—on the players we think are most likely to succeed, not on the best players with the benefit of hindsight.
At a glance, this looks like a mostly successful group of hitters. Yes, there are a few busts. If you made a big trade for Beckham or Lars Anderson, my apologies; your team probably felt the sting of giving up current major-league talent for nothing. But a lot of the hitters here were very successful for at least one of the years that are listed on the chart and more than a few had multiple seasons with double digit earnings.
However, this is where the difference between dynasty and Rotisserie formats rears its head. In dynasty, waiting patiently for Alvarez’s power is all well and good. In Roto, those two years of average/negative performance for Alvarez come with the ticking of a contract clock. If you had Alvarez at a $10 salary and the option of giving him a contract extension coming off of a season where he earned negative one dollar, would you have extended him? I probably would have kept him without the additional contract/years and lost him after his 2012 season.
An owner in my AL home league was in this position with Moustakas entering 2013. He could have given him a contract extension, but decided instead to simply keep him in 2013 and let him go back into the free agent pool at the conclusion of the season. This looks like a wise decision in retrospect, but it also means that he didn’t get much out of Moustakas in the three years that he had him.
One plus for all of these hitters is that farm players typically start out with a cheaper salary than established veterans. Trading Robinson Cano for Carlos Santana in April 2010 sounds like a terrible play. Trading a Cano with a $30 salary for a Santana who would eventually come with a $10 salary turned out to be a good deal for the Santana owner.
The top pitching prospects are somewhat less predictable, yet there is still good value to be had here.
Table 2: Ten Best Baseball Prospectus Pitching Prospects 2009-2011
If you flipped a major-league player for Price in a dump deal you walked out of the deal smiling, as you received instant gratification from Price in 2010 (his first full season) and probably gave him a contract at the end of 2011. There are other success stories here as well (Bumgarner, Sale) that show that pitching prospects can be just as lucrative to grab in trade as hitting prospects.
However, there are far more prospects on the hitting side who don’t make it—or haven’t made it yet. Even more frustrating are the pitchers like Britton and Drabek who were taken in minor league drafts in most Roto-style formats and haven’t made a dent yet—and might never do so. If you burned a minor-league pick on one of these guys and lost out, you might look at it like a gamble that didn’t work and move on from there. However, if you traded a major-league player for one of these pitchers, you are probably filled with unquenchable anger. The success stories on the pitching side shine just as brightly as the hitters, but there are far more failures or non-entities.
There are a significant number of variables when it comes to trading for a prospect, many having to do with the rules in your league. These wrinkles include but are not limited to:
Minor leaguers who develop into big-time talents are the keys to your fantasy kingdom. However, don’t spend big to get them in trade unless you are truly getting a top prospect. For every Trout, there are multiple versions of Travis Snider that don’t work out and are costly if you flip actual major-league talent for them. You are not only getting stuck with a washout like Snider but also losing out on statistics you could have accrued from the player that you traded. If you are giving up more than one major-league keeper for a farm player in a Roto-style format, there is an excellent chance that you will come out on the short end of the deal.