May 13, 2013
Dumping Targets, a Look Back
Most fantasy web sites and other resources do little if any analysis on playing for next year, or what is known less elegantly as “dumping.” Some analysts refuse to even acknowledge that it is part of the game and advise that it is always best to trade with this year in mind and worry about future consequences next year.
In reality, if you’re in a keeper league, you will probably have to give up and play for next year sooner or later. If other teams are building rosters for 2014 around cheap players such as Bryce Harper, Matt Harvey, and Shelby Miller, and you are sitting back while your team languishes in seventh place with little hope of winning, you are not doing yourself any favors.
One of the challenges of playing for the future is that it is hard enough to predict what is going to happen this year. Predicting what might happen in 2014 and beyond is even trickier. For this reason, the best players to target are players like Harper or Mike Trout: young superstars with contract control that you can build around at an affordable price. The catch is that even in a Rotisserie-style league, owners are reluctant to trade players like Harper or Trout. If you want to try to hit the jackpot, you often have to dip into the murkier world of minor leaguers.
There are owners in my leagues that will gladly mortgage the future for the Byron Buxtons and the Carlos Correas of the world. But what is the return on investment— both in the short term and the long term—for the best prospects in baseball?
Below is a look back at the top prospects in baseball in 2008. Why 2008? In a Rotisserie-style league with long-term player contracts (no dynasty rules/keep “forever” formats), five years is usually the longest you can keep a player once he makes the big leagues. Assuming that you decided to rebuild in 2007 and restocked your team with future studs for the 2008 campaign (and possibly beyond), how did you do?
Table 1: Top 10 Baseball Prospectus AL Hitting Prospects, 2008
Table 1 and all of the tables in this analysis draw from Kevin Goldstein’s Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects list of 2008. All 10 hitters were in an American League organization heading into the 2008 season. Rather than omit a hitter like Carlos Gonzalez because he was traded to a National League team, all of his seasons are included in the table above.
It’s always easy to look back at a chart like this and snicker at the inclusion of “obvious” busts like Clement, Snider, or Brignac. So in the interest of intellectual honesty, here were Baseball America’s Top 10 AL hitting prospects that year:
Andrus would have helped this group out somewhat, but Wood is just as much of a bust if not more of a bust than any of Baseball Prospectus’ top prospects.
If you targeted a top AL prospect back in 2008, you had about a 3-in-10 chance of getting a stud, though only CarGo comes without an asterisk. Ellsbury is only a stud in the years that he’s healthy, while Longoria is only a stud for the 120-130 or so games he is on the field, on average, in any given season. Wieters is the kind of steady player you need to win, but he hasn’t been the elite catcher some hoped he would become. The jury is still out on Jennings and Moustakas.
The biggest takeaway from this chart, though, is failure. If you made a dump deal for Snider, Clement, Brignac, or Barton, you have my condolences.
If you expand the list past the top 10 hitters, the song remains the same. Austin Jackson, Carlos Gomez, Chris Davis, and Ben Revere are the remaining success stories in the Top 100. However, there are a lot more busts. Remember Wes Hodges? I barely do, but if you traded for him, I’m sure his name rings a migraine-inducing bell.
Table 2: Top 10 Baseball Prospectus NL Hitting Prospects, 2008
Baseball America Top 10: Bruce (1), Rasmus (5), Maybin (6), McCutchen (14), Fernando Martinez (20), Matt LaPorta (23), Schafer (25), Marrero (27), Jason Heyward (28), Kosuke Fukudome (30)
The National League list is somewhat more success-oriented. If you were out of the running and flipped an option-year Albert Pujols for Joey Votto or Andrew McCutchen, you shouldn’t have any complaints. While he hasn’t been a superstar, Bruce has been a solid producer and a source of top-tier power. It took Headley years to become a top-tier player, but even while you were waiting for his breakout season, he offered decent production.
The busts here are Schafer, Marrero, Villalona, and, arguably, Rasmus. I’m reluctant to put Maybin in the bust category because of how young he still is, but also because $38 of earnings in 2011-2012 combined isn’t trivial. This is why I’m on the fence about Rasmus as well. If you paid a high price for Rasmus in a dump trade, I could see why you might be disappointed or want to fling furniture, but getting even one $20-plus season from a prospect isn’t garbage, as these charts illustrate.
Table 3: Top 10 Baseball Prospectus AL Pitching Prospects, 2008
Baseball America Top 10: Chamberlain (3), Buchholz (4), Price (10), McGee (15), Davis (17), Porcello (21), Adenhart (24), Gio Gonzalez (26), Adam Miller (29), Deolis Guerra (35).
I used to avoid pitchers entirely in my farm drafts, but special arms like Stephen Strasburg have made this difficult. However, I do downgrade arms somewhat in my rankings, and for good reason. Pitchers generally take longer to generate the returns that their hitting counterparts do, and some of them never do anything more than stick at the back end of a big-league rotation.
Price is the only arm on this chart with which you could claim to have hit the jackpot. There are a number of solid arms in Table 3, but up until this year, Buchholz was looking like a middling starter and nothing like an ace, and Porcello was looking much more like a fifth starter at best. Every arm on this list has staying power, but you have to wonder how much of this is due to pedigree as opposed to merit. Despite the gaudy results in Price’s case, as a general proposition, this table supports the notion that you should avoid pitchers when you’re rebuilding your squad.
Table 4: Top 10 Baseball Prospectus NL Pitching Prospects, 2008
Baseball America Top 10: Kershaw (7), Morales (8), Bailey (9), Cueto (34), Parker (46), Jair Jurrjens (49), Detwiler (51), Carrasco (54), Chris Volstad (59), Max Scherzer (66).
At the top of the list, Kershaw is an affirmation for rolling the dice on a top pitching prospect. Eighteen dollars and $21 doesn’t sound like a lot, but keep in mind that pitchers take a smaller piece of the earnings pie than hitters do. A $20-plus pitcher in 5x5 is an ace; a $30-plus pitcher like Kershaw was in 2011 is platinum, and is probably pushing you toward a money showing at a minimum.
However, the same problems exist in the NL that did in the AL. Cueto and Latos are solid, but the rest of this crowd simply isn’t much more than pedestrian. It’s nice that Bailey, Detwiler, and Parker earned double digits in 2012, but the only place you can wait that long for a pitcher without a negative impact on your squad is in a dynasty league with deep reserve lists. Like the AL, the NL has its share of hot prospects like Morales, Parra, Elbert, and Carrasco: pitchers that never made much of an impact while they were up in the major leagues.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t trade for minor leaguers under any circumstances?
Of course not. Whether they’re hitters or pitchers, minor leaguers should be important components of your rebuilding efforts. But they are exactly that: components, not centerpieces. If you acquired Votto or McCutchen in a dump deal a few years back, you might be tempted to ignore this advice. But luck was more of a factor than skill. Most farm experts had LaRoche and Schafer ahead of Votto and McCutchen, and with good reason.
This is an important point as well. Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks can run circles around me and nearly every other fantasy expert when it comes to knowledge of minor leaguers. This applies to non-Baseball Prospectus experts as well. John Sickels of SB Nation and Jim Callis of Baseball America have forgotten more about prospects than I’ll know in a lifetime. Forecasting minor-league performance is and will probably always be an inexact science. Trading for minor leaguers is useful, but there is far more risk and variability when you trade for a player with zero big league experience. This risk must be built into your price tag for minor leaguers during your rebuilding process.