Over the last few weeks, a number of top prospects–including Edwin Encarnacion of the Reds, Scott Olsen of the Marlins, and Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks of the Brewers–have been called up by their organizations. In most cases the promotions were designed to get the players’ feet wet in the majors, and begin the process of breaking them into the lineup. The best young players have a way of dictating their own timetables, though. While in theory Fielder was only called up to get some DH at bats during inter-league play, for instance, Saturday’s pinch-hit home run might have been the first step in making his current address more permanent.
If you’re in a keeper league, there isn’t a whole lot of thinking involved when it comes to prospects like these. If they’re available, and you have a roster spot free, you snap them up. Even if you’re in the title hunt it’s worthwhile picking up good prospects, as they can make useful trading chips if they aren’t making an immediate contribution. In any league where you can carry players over from one year to the next, the value of prospects lies as much in their future potential as it does in their present major league production.
But what if your league is strictly year-to-year, with no player carry-over? Fielder could go on to have a Hall of Fame career, but if he starts it off the way Reggie Jackson started his resume (.178/.269/.305 with one home run in 118 at bats in ’67) he isn’t going to be any use to you at all. How do you determine whether it’s worth taking a chance on an unproven youngster with a high ceiling?
Rule 1: Determine Your Own Needs
By definition, you’re taking a gamble when picking up a prospect, no matter how highly touted he is. So your first decision should be to figure out whether this particular prospect is a gamble you need to take.
Scenario One: You’re in an NL-only league. You have Derrek Lee at first base, just got Scott Rolen back at third base, have David Wright as your corner man and Lyle Overbay currently holding down the fort at your utility spot.
What possible use could you have for someone like Encarnacion or Fielder, no matter how well they hit over the next three months?
Scenario Two: Same league. Your first baseman was Phil Nevin; now it’s Tony Clark, with Nevin on the DL. Mike Lowell is still slumping at third base, your corner man Nick Johnson limped off the field early on Sunday, and Pedro Feliz was doing a fine job as your utility player until Austin Kearns got demoted, at which point you moved Feliz to the outfield and picked up Wes Helms.
Suddenly, having to rely on a proven mediocrity and several question marks makes taking a risk with an unproven rookie that much more palatable.
Of course you’ll rarely be in a position where the decision is that easy. But examining the strengths and weaknesses of your roster with an objective eye should give you an idea of how good the prospect is going to have to be (in Scenario One, he’d have to be better than Overbay; in Scenario Two, better than Helms, Clark, or whoever you’re forced to use if Johnson is indeed due for his 200 at-bat overhaul) to be of any use to you.
The other need to take into account is your place in the standings. In a rotisserie-style league, the prospect might be able to provide help in categories where you are languishing (stolen bases, wins and saves are the usual suspects here.) In any league, though, you should determine just how much of a risk you’re willing to take to make a move in the standings. If you’re already in first place, a prospect’s upside may not be worth rocking the boat on a key roster spot. But if you’re in third place, and feel that you are one power hitter short of mounting a serious challenge for first, trying to get lucky with a prospect like Fielder might be a preferable option to trying to put together a trade for that power bat.
Rule 2: Determine the Prospect’s Prospects
Once you measure how high the bar is set for a young player to contribute to your team, you need to get an idea of how likely the player is to clear that bar. There’s no sure way to do this, of course, but there are some clues to help you figure it out.
The biggest factor is not what the numbers say. Checking a prospect’s PECOTA projections, and translating their minor league numbers into major league equivalencies, is useful information to be sure. But the crucial factor in a prospect’s worth is not what they should logically produce in an orderly universe, it’s what their team thinks they can do in this messy universe.
Take a look at what the team’s manager has to say in the daily papers, or on the team’s official Web site. Does it sound like the kid is going to get a fair chance for playing time, or does it sound like a bus ticket back to the minors has already been purchased? Could this be an audition forced upon the manager by the front office, or did the youngster make a good impression on the manager in spring training? What’s the manager’s track record with rookies? (In other words, scratch any Cubs off your wish list right now.) Is there a clear opening in the starting lineup for the prospect? Are there trade rumors surrounding the player blocking the rookie if there isn’t a clear opening?
You get the idea. Accumulate as much information as you can on the prospect and where he might fit into his team’s immediate plans. Once you have a sense of whether the prospect is more likely to see 20 at-bats or 200 between now and September, only then is it worthwhile to go to the numbers to figure out what he might do with those 200 at bats.
Rule 3: Disregard Rules 1 and 2 for Pitchers
If there is one thing consistent between fantasy baseball and ‘real’ baseball, it’s that everybody needs pitching. You need it, your competition needs it, and you can be sure the club that just called up one of their golden arms did so because they need it. And regardless of what the manager and GM might say about not pushing the kid, if he gets major league hitters out he will be given every opportunity to prove he can keep getting them out.
The classic example of this phenomenon from recent years is the way the Marlins handled Dontrelle Willis in 2003. Willis had just six starts at Double-A under his belt (six great starts, mind you) when Florida brought him up to plug a hole in the rotation. Despite his inexperience though, it didn’t take him long to establish himself as a permanent member of the staff even after the reason for his call-up (Mark Redman‘s broken thumb) was gone.
The chances of any pitcher having a rookie season like Willis’ is slim, but a prospect doesn’t have to be the next D-Train (or Francisco Rodriguez, or even Brandon Webb) to make a contribution. They just have to be better than the worst guy on your staff, and usually that’s something any decent middle reliever or slightly below league average starter can pull off.
Rule 4: Check Your Exits
One other factor to consider before you make a play for a prospect is to think about the worst-case scenario. If you pick up this player and he doesn’t pan out, either through poor performance or lack of opportunity, what kind of options are available to you to replace him? If you have some kind of reserve list in your league, you can simply bench the player you’re replacing while you audition a kid, but often that won’t be an option. Instead you’ll be forced to go back to the free-agent pool if you give up on the rookie, and sift through the bargain bin for a substitute. If there are free agents of similar quality to your current player floating around, there’s little downside in trying to cash in on a prospect’s upside–you might even be able to get your original player back again if it comes to that. But if the free-agent pickings are slim, you need to balance the potential gains from the prospect against the potential losses if he doesn’t pan out.
You should also try to determine who else was interested in the prospect, if you do manage to get your guy. Most leagues with a FAAB bidding system will publish the losing bids, but if your league uses a different system for free agent pick-ups, a bragging post or two on your league message board should quickly flush out other owners who are jealous of your shiny new acquisition. Identifying those owners will let you know who you can trade the prospect to, if they get off to a hot start that (for whatever reason) you don’t think will last. Often, a prospect will be and should be merely a stepping stone towards the upgrade you really want. No matter how well a prospect comes out of the gate, in one-year leagues it’s never a bad idea to flip him for an established player if you can. That was a lesson I learned well in 1993, when two good weeks from David McCarty after his May call-up made him the centerpiece of a deal that got me Ken Griffey Jr., and eventually a league title.
Even in one-year leagues, it’s easy to get blinded by the halo of optimism that surrounds top prospects. Every five-tool center fielder is the next Willie Mays; every power-pitching righty is the next Roger Clemens. Using that aura to your advantage is the best way to minimize your risk, and maximize your reward.