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There’s perhaps no worse feeling for a keeper league owner than the mix of frustration and dread that accompanies the struggles of a prized prospect. Watching a young stud, who you’d envisioned anchoring your squad for as long as your league rules allowed you to hold onto him, stagger in his first full MLB campaign can be a punch to the gut of Houdini-like proportions.

If the player’s a pitcher, you can to some extent take solace in philosophy. “TNSTAAPP,” you might say to yourself, shrugging your shoulders in resignation. But if it’s a hitter, you find yourself facing a dilemma with very sharp horns indeed. Do you keep him and hope the hype wasn’t misplaced? Or do you cut him loose and risk seeing him blossom on someone else’s roster?

If there’s a player this season who exemplifies the problem, it’s Justin Morneau. Coming into the year Morneau was expected to be nothing less than very good. Consider, for instance, his top six PECOTA comparables at the beginning of 2005:

  1. Kent Hrbek
  2. Ryan Klesko
  3. Mark Teixeira
  4. Dale Murphy
  5. John Olerud
  6. Dave Winfield

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s six All-Stars (with 24 total appearances), 11 Silver Slugger Awards, two MVP awards plus five other top fives in voting, and one Hall of Famer. (For good measure, Willie Stargell clocks in at #10 on Morneau’s comparables list.) His 50th percentile projection was .281/.349/.513, with a home run every 20 plate appearances or so. As a profile, that’s just a notch below David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado and other superstar first basemen.

Instead of an initial step towards greatness, however, Morneau tripped in 2005. Blame his early-season beaning, or the small bone spur in his elbow, but whatever the reason, a .244/.311/.454 line is nowhere near what his owners were expecting. In fact, if the season ended today, his new PECOTA comps list (provided by the indefatigable Nate Silver) might start out something like this:

  1. Tino Martinez
  2. Mike Marshall (the Dodger)
  3. Ben Grieve
  4. Hrbek
  5. Greg Walker
  6. Jay Gibbons

Seeing names like Walker and Grieve on that list could be enough to drive Morneau’s owners to drink. Before you crawl inside that bottle, however, let’s take a closer look at his year.

First, while Morneau’s batting average is ugly, his .210 ISO isn’t far off the .232 of PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection–his power, at least, is relatively on pace. Similarly, his OBP sag is the result of fewer singles, not a reduction of his expected plate discipline. So his core batting skills are still in place.

Second, while the PECOTA comp duds in his profile have increased in prominence, he still gets a return engagement from Hrbek (and, for that matter, Stargell, still checking in at #10), and Martinez hasn’t had such a bad career either. The picture is a bit muddier, but not all doom and gloom. From a baseball perspective, it would appear Morneau still has a very good chance of having a very good career.

We’re not talking baseball, however, we’re talking fantasy baseball. If Morneau follows Martinez’s career path, he’s going to be almost useless to you–Martinez didn’t rise above mediocrity until his fourth major-league season. It’s sad to say, but in the space of four months Morneau has gone from being a no-brainer keeper, to a player on which you’ll need to perform a risk/reward assessment. What salary you have him at, what other options you have for that roster spot… these will have to be considerations if Morneau doesn’t close out 2005 with a bang.

It’s very easy, as a fantasy owner, to become “married” to your top prospects. You found the kid, grabbed him before anyone else knew who he was, and watched him tear up the minor leagues. He’s your boy. The temptation to say, “Next year is the year he’ll break out,” despite the available evidence, can be overwhelming (just ask the guy in your league who keeps holding onto Brandon Phillips). Of course the reverse is also true. Some owners develop a kid, feel betrayed by his early struggles and give up on him much too soon. Training yourself to ignore both impulses, and focus solely on what you know and what, as a projection, seems reasonable, is a key component in any successful keeper league strategy.

As for Morneau? I own him in two leagues right now. In the first, I have him signed at a reasonable price for one more season, which means he’s both cheap to keep and cheap to buy out. Which course I take will mainly depend on which other first basemen are likely to be available at next year’s auction, but right now I’m leaning towards keeping him.

In the second, I have him at a single digit base salary, but will need to sign him to a long-term deal. I’m going to shop him around in the off-season, and see if his reputation as a prospect has created a gap between his perceived and likely value going forward. It’s equally possible he could be on both my rosters next season–or neither of them.

I still think Morneau is going to have a very impressive major league career. I’m just not necessarily willing to bet my fantasy life on it any more.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox. He can be reached here.

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