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February 24, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Building a Fantasy Farm System

by Jeff Erickson

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Rob Neyer recently wrote a piece for ESPN.com (Insider Account required) discussing whether a major league organization is better off being loaded with hitting prospects (like the Diamondbacks) or pitching prospects (like the Marlins or Red Sox). Without revealing too many of his reasons, he concluded that a team is better off being stacked with hitting prospects.

Is the same true of a fantasy farm system? I've always believed so, and my experiences in keeper leagues have only reinforced that point of view. Take the RotoWire Staff League as an example. We now have three years under our belt, in an 18-team league where each team starts the year with a 10-man minor league roster. In those three years, I've drafted 19 minor leaguers (because some of those draftees were retained, I didn't have the full complement of 10 picks each season) and traded for three others:

Hitters Drafted (year)    Pitchers Drafted (year)    Traded For (year)
Casey Kotchman ('03)      Bobby Basham ('03)         Chad Tracy ('04)
Khalil Greene ('03)       Dustin Moseley ('03)       Ryan Sweeney ('05)
Shin-Soo Choo ('03)       Seung Song ('03)           Josh Wilson ('05)
Gabe Gross ('03)          Dustin McGowan ('03)
Grady Sizemore ('03)      Josh Hall ('03)
Ian Stewart ('04)         Jeremy Sowers ('05)
Dioner Navarro ('04)
Eric Duncan ('04)
Alberto Callaspo ('04)
Rickie Weeks ('05)
Brad Snyder ('05)
Terry Tiffee ('05)
Tagg Bozied ('05)
There are two primary ways that a minor league pick in a fantasy draft can be classified as a successful one. He can develop enough that his owner uses him in his active fantasy lineup, or he can be traded for players that are used in his owner's lineup. Merely making it to that player's active fantasy roster is sufficient enough to be a success; what he does once he gets there is of less concern. That owner had a pool of major league free agents to choose from to fill a spot on his roster, but the free minor league alternative was superior. The player had to both improve while in the minors and stay healthy to get to that point in the first place.

For purposes of this evaluation, those who haven't made it to the majors yet are still worth retaining get an incomplete grade. They haven't served any useful purpose for their fantasy owners yet.

There are many ways a fantasy minor league pick can fail. The most common is that he simply never reaches the major leagues. Another is that he does make it, but that he's not good enough to use that first year he's up, nor is he worth keeping at the major league price the following year. Finally, he can get hurt, either derailing or significantly delaying his career.

I've clearly had more success with minor league hitters than pitchers. Three (Kotchman, Greene, Sizemore) of the 13 hitters I drafted are currently on my active roster, as is one (Tracy) of the three I've acquired in trades. Four others (Choo, Stewart, Navarro and Weeks) were traded for active major leaguers in the last calendar year. Three more (Callaspo, Duncan, Snyder) will remain on my minor league roster, as will one (Sweeney) that was acquired in a trade. That leaves Gabe Gross, Terry Tiffee, Tagg Bozied and Josh Wilson as my only minor league hitter failures. Gross still has a chance to amount to something, but he no longer qualifies as a minor leaguer for our league's purposes.

Of the six minor league pitchers I drafted, only Sowers can be considered a successful pick; I dealt him this past season in a package that netted me Livan Hernandez and Brad Penny. The other five were failures. Basham, Hall and McGowan all had arm trouble and eventually went under the knife. Moseley and Song just failed to make it.

Admittedly, this evaluation is by no means comprehensive or dispositive. There's a significant selection bias at work here, both in the number of pitchers drafted as well as the identity of those drafted (I drank the Kool-Aid on Reds pitching prospects in 2003). It's also a microanalysis--the sample size here isn't large enough, nor does it cover enough years. Also, not enough time has passed to rule with finality on some of these players. Nonetheless, it's colored my viewpoint at least a little.

To that end, I took a look at the top prospect lists for each of the last five seasons on both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America. Because BP's list was limited to the Top 40 from 2001-03 and Top 50 in 2004-05, I limited my examination of BA's lists to the same numbers, although they ranked their Top 100 each year. You can check out their full rankings here. Many players were ranked in multiple seasons by both publications. Baseball Prospectus ranked a total of 175 unique players over that span--108 hitters, 67 pitchers. Meanwhile, Baseball America during that span had 160 unique players fall within those ranks: 87 hitters, 73 pitchers (BA had more repeaters, and some who were in the list three or four times in that span).

Before delving into the success of these rankings, let's be clear that we're doing this exercise to evaluate hitters vs. pitchers in building a fantasy farm club, and not comparing between BA and BP to see who did a better job of ranking prospects. While they may take different approaches, both do an excellent job and expend no small amount of effort to produce the rankings. We're using both as a way of broadening the pool, and because these are probably two of the top sources your competition will use for their drafts. This also helps eliminate most of the selection bias seen in the microanalysis above.

Defining the success of these rankings is also a difficult task, especially because we're now dealing with the players in more of an abstract nature, rather than how they did or didn't help an individual team. I ended up creating four categories--"star," "success," "failure," and "incomplete." I defined a "star" as one worthy of being picked in the first three rounds of a 12-team fantasy league draft in any given year since arriving in the majors. A "success" is a player worthy of using and/or drafting onto the active roster of a standard 12-team mixed league fantasy roster within a year of him making it to the majors. The "one year" aspect of the definition applies because that's the normal amount of time an owner will usually have to decide whether to keep him at a major league salary, rather than for free as a minor leaguer on his farm system. The definitions for "failure" and "incomplete" remain the same as above.

When grading out these players, in assigning them to a given year, I used the year they first appeared in that publication's rankings. For failures, the letter next to their name indicates the reason for their classification--injury (I), never made it to the majors (N), or too slow to develop at the major league level (S), or made it to the majors but failed there. Note that some of the grades on these players might change according to their present value (e.g., Sean Burroughs), but they're graded for when they originally came up. Conversely, a player like Felipe Lopez or John Patterson will also be considered "failures" because by the time they were valuable, their original owners probably had to toss them back in the player pool. The line between success and failure between players can be fairly thin--compare, for example, Hee Seop Choi and Carlos Pena. One could make the argument that they belong in the opposite classifications--I understand there will be some quibbling with the end results.

2001 Rankings - Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters (3): Ichiro Suzuki; Jimmy Rollins; Albert Pujols

Successful Hitters (14): Sean Burroughs; Corey Patterson; Vernon Wells; Nick Johnson; Carlos Pena; Joe Crede; Kevin Mench; Adam Dunn; Austin Kearns; Brad Wilkerson; Craig Wilson; Luis Rivas; Marcus Giles; Michael Cuddyer

Failed Hitters (10): Jose Ortiz (S); Antonio Perez (S); Josh Hamilton (I/N); Hee Seop Choi (S); J.R. House (I); Alex Escobar (N); D'Angelo Jimenez (S); Keith Ginter (S); Wilson Betemit (S); Jack Cust (S)

Star Pitchers (2): Roy Oswalt; Ben Sheets

Successful Pitchers (2): C.C. Sabathia; Brian Lawrence

Failed Pitchers (9): Ryan Anderson (I); Jon Rauch (S); Bobby Bradley (I); Chris George (S); Bud Smith (I); Luke Prokopec (I); Adrian Hernandez (N); Mike Bynum (N); Nick Neugebauer (I)

2001 Rankings - Baseball America

Star Hitters (3): Ichiro Suzuki; Alfonso Soriano; Jimmy Rollins

Successful Hitters (9): Corey Patterson; Sean Burroughs; Nick Johnson; Carlos Pena; Vernon Wells; Austin Kearns; Adam Dunn; Brad Wilkerson; Joe Crede;

Failed Hitters (11): Josh Hamilton (I/N); Drew Henson (N); Antonio Perez (S); Alex Escobar (N); J.R. House (I); Hee Seop Choi (S); Joe Borchard (N); Wilson Betemit (S); Felipe Lopez (S); Jose Ortiz (S); Jack Cust (S)

Star Pitchers (3): Ben Sheets; Roy Oswalt; Jake Peavy

Successful Pitchers (3): Josh Beckett; C.C. Sabathia; Jerome Williams;

Failed Pitchers (11): Jon Rauch (S); Ryan Anderson (I); Chin-Hui Tsao (I); Juan Cruz (S); Bobby Bradley (I); Chris George (S); Donnie Bridges (N); Matt Belisle (S); Kurt Ainsworth (I); Ben Christensen (I); Bud Smith (I)

2002 Rankings - Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters (2): Mark Teixeira; Carl Crawford

Successful Hitters (8): Hank Blalock; Marlon Byrd; Angel Berroa; Josh Phelps; Orlando Hudson; Justin Morneau; Morgan Ensberg; Ken Harvey

Failed Hitters (8): Joe Borchard (N); Brandon Phillips (S); Adrian Gonzalez (S); Chris Snelling (I); Juan Rivera (S); Jason Lane (S); Bobby Hill (S); Esteban German (S)

Star Pitchers (2): Jake Peavy; Mark Prior

Successful Pitchers (1): Josh Beckett

Failed Pitchers (9): Juan Cruz (S); Dennis Tankersley (S); Carlos Hernandez (I); John Stephens (S); Rafael Soriano (I); Ty Howington (I); Corwin Malone (I); Kenny Baugh (I); Nate Cornejo (I/S)

2002 Rankings - Baseball America

Star Hitters (2): Mark Teixeira; Miguel Cabrera

Successful Hitters (9): Hank Blalock; Joe Mauer; Angel Berroa; Justin Morneau; Casey Kotchman; Marlon Byrd; Michael Cuddyer; Jose Reyes; Josh Phelps

Failed Hitters (3): Brandon Phillips (S); Adrian Gonzalez (S); Xavier Nady (S)

Star Pitchers (1): Mark Prior

Successful Pitchers (2): Brett Myers; Kaz Ishii

Failed Pitchers (8): Dennis Tankersley (S); Nick Neugebauer (I); Carlos Hernandez (I); Ty Howington (I); Boof Bonser (N); Rafael Soriano (I); Corwin Malone (I); Brandon Claussen (I)

2003 Rankings - Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters (2): Travis Hafner; Miguel Cabrera

Successful Hitters (7): Hideki Matsui; Jose Reyes; Victor Martinez; Joe Mauer, Casey Kotchman; Rocco Baldelli; Khalil Greene

Failed Hitters (5): Jason Stokes (I); Brendan Harris (S); Scott Hairston (S); Jayson Werth (S); Joe Thurston (N)

Incomplete Hitters (3): Shin-Soo Choo; Hanley Ramirez; Justin Huber

Star Pitchers (1): Francisco Rodriguez

Successful Pitchers (5): Jose Contreras; Jerome Williams; Rich Harden; Cliff Lee; Bobby Jenks

Failed Pitchers (6): Jesse Foppert (I/S); Aaron Heilman (S); Kurt Ainsworth (I); Jason Arnold (N); John Patterson (I); Clint Nageotte (S);

2003 Rankings - Baseball America

Star Hitters (0):

Successful Hitters (3): Rocco Baldelli; Hideki Matsui; Victor Martinez;

Failed Hitters (5): Jason Stokes (I); Scott Hairston (S); Michael Restovich (S); Jose Lopez (S); Chris Snelling (I);

Incomplete Hitters (5): Hanley Ramirez; B.J. Upton; Brad Nelson; James Loney; Andy Marte

Star Pitchers (1): Francisco Rodriguez

Successful Pitchers (5): Jose Contreras; Scott Kazmir; Jeremy Bonderman; Rich Harden; Cliff Lee

Failed Pitchers (7): Jesse Foppert (I/S); Gavin Floyd (S); John Van Benschoten (I); Sean Burnett (I); Colby Lewis (I); Jonathan Figueroa (I); Dustin McGowan (I)

Incomplete Pitchers (1): Adam Wainwright

2004 Rankings - Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters (3): David Wright; Grady Sizemore; Jason Bay

Successful Hitters (8): Jeremy Reed; Rickie Weeks; Bobby Crosby; J.J. Hardy; Alexis Rios; David DeJesus; Russ Adams; Jeremy Hermida

Failed Hitters (5): Kaz Matsui (S); Guillermo Quiroz (S); Dallas McPherson (I); Gabe Gross (S); J.J. Davis (N)

Incomplete Hitters (10): Andy Marte; Prince Fielder; B.J. Upton; Jeff Mathis; Franklin Gutierrez; James Loney; Dioner Navarro; Delmon Young; Josh Barfield; Edwin Encarnacion

Star Pitchers (0):

Successful Pitchers (3): Scott Kazmir; Ervin Santana; Joe Blanton;

Failed Pitchers (10): Edwin Jackson (S); Zack Greinke (S); Ryan Wagner (S); Dustin McGowan (I); Chin-Hui Tsao (I); Matt Riley (I/S); David Bush (S); Sean Burnett (I); Gavin Floyd (S); Charlie Zink (N)

Incomplete Pitchers (3): Cole Hamels; Greg Miller; Adam Wainwright

2004 Rankings - Baseball America

Star Hitters (2): Grady Sizemore; David Wright;

Successful Hitters (7): Rickie Weeks; Alexis Rios; J.J. Hardy; Jeremy Reed; Jeff Francoeur; Jeremy Hermida; Bobby Crosby

Failed Hitters (3): Kaz Matsui (S); Dallas McPherson (I); Guillermo Quiroz (S)

Incomplete Hitters (7): Delmon Young; Prince Fielder; Josh Barfield; Jeff Mathis; Franklin Gutierrez; Sergio Santos; Dioner Navarro

Star Pitchers (0):

Successful Pitchers (3): Ervin Santana; Felix Hernandez; Joe Blanton

Failed Pitchers (5): Edwin Jackson (S); Zack Greinke (S); Jeff Allison (I); Clint Nageotte (S); Ryan Wagner (S);

Incomplete Pitchers (8): Greg Miller; Adam Loewen; Cole Hamels; Angel Guzman; Kyle Sleeth; Merkin Valdez; Blake Hawksworth; Taylor Buchholz

2005 Rankings - Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters (0):

Successful Hitters (5): Nick Swisher; Jeff Francoeur; Curtis Granderson; Ryan Howard; Brian McCann

Failed Hitters (1): Chris Burke (S)

Incomplete Hitters (14): Ian Stewart; Joel Guzman; Daric Barton; Carlos Quentin; Eric Duncan; Michael Aubrey; Lastings Milledge; Ian Kinsler; Brian Anderson; Willy Aybar; Jason Kubel; Josh Willingham; Mitch Einertson; Dustin Pedroia

Star Pitchers (0):

Successful Pitchers (4): Felix Hernandez; Brandon McCarthy; Matt Cain; Jesse Crain

Failed Pitchers (1): Richie Gardner (I)

Incomplete Pitchers (9): Jeff Francis; Yusmeiro Petit; Jered Weaver; Chad Billingsley; Anthony Reyes; Dan Meyer; Adam Miller; Jose Capellan; Kyle Davies

2005 Rankings - Baseball America

Star Hitters (0):

Successful Hitters (3): Nick Swisher; Ryan Howard; Brian McCann

Failed Hitters (0):

Incomplete Hitters (15): Ian Stewart; Joel Guzman; Lastings Milledge; Jason Kubel; Brian Dopirak; Carlos Quentin; Chris Nelson; Felix Pie; Daric Barton; Eric Duncan; Brian Anderson; Erick Aybar; Conor Jackson; Michael Aubrey; Ryan Sweeney

Star Pitchers (0):

Successful Pitchers (3): Matt Cain; Zach Duke; Brandon McCarthy

Failed Pitchers (0):

Incomplete Pitchers (12): Adam Miller; Chad Billingsley; Jeff Niemann; Jeff Francis; Jose Capellan; Mike Hinckley; Scott Olsen; Dan Meyer; Yusmeiro Petit; Anthony Reyes; Homer Bailey; Philip Humber

Overall Totals

Baseball Prospectus:

Star Hitters: 10 Successful Hitters: 42 Failed Hitters: 29 Incomplete Hitters: 27

Star Pitchers: 5 Successful Pitchers: 15 Failed Pitchers: 35 Incomplete Pitchers: 12

Baseball America:

Star Hitters: 7 Successful Hitters: 31 Failed Hitters: 22 Incomplete Hitters: 27

Star Pitchers: 5 Successful Pitchers: 16 Failed Pitchers: 31 Incomplete Pitchers: 21

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have included the 2005 rankings, because of the vast number of "incompletes." Still, I think we can draw a few conclusions from this:

  • The success rate for hitters is clearly higher than pitchers, both because fewer of them suffer a traumatic injury that eliminates their keeper value, and because they more often are ready to contribute once they reach the major leagues.

  • While a couple of these pitchers most likely will move up from "successful" to "star" status (Felix Hernandez and Rich Harden are the two most likely at this point), this also underscores how difficult it is to have one of your pitching prospects reach that status early in his career.

  • Take a close look at how many of the "failed" pitchers were hurt. A good percentage of the incomplete pitchers have also suffered an arm injury of some sort (e.g. Adam Miller, Greg Miller).

Given the high attrition rate for pitchers, I still think that loading up your fantasy farm system with hitters is the best way to go. You might miss out on a cheap ace here and there, but you're just as likely to acquire those pitchers in the draft, in trades, or even on the free agent wire.

Jeff Erickson is the senior editor at Rotowire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus," heard every weekday at noon ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

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