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Do Number One Prospects Succeed Immediately?

Jurickson Profar has a strong chance at being the consensus best prospect in baseball entering the season. Both MLB.com and ESPN’s Keith Law agree, ranking him in the top slot. And while Baseball America hasn’t divulged their list yet, Profar graces the cover of this year’s Prospect Handbook. For FG+ this season, which you should buy if you haven’t already, I did an article looking at whether it’s worth it to draft prospects in a re-draft league. Since I found playing time to be a major factor in whether a prospect can be successful during their rookie year, I did not look at whether the elite prospects were more likely to have a successful fantasy season. Profar may enter the year as baseball’s best prospect, but does that mean anything for his fantasy value?

When the Kansas City Royals dealt Wil Myers this offseason, people began rehashing the “prospects are unknown quantities” argument. And while you shouldn’t use that argument to try and justify a trade, the statement is absolutely true. Some prospects, even elite ones, fail. If we really had to put a number on whether a prospect will be successful, it’s probably 60/40, as Dave Cameron explained shortly after the Myers trade. The study that Dave cited looked at how prospects performed over their career. It’s much more difficult for a prospect to come up and add value during their rookie season. But the top overall prospect should be the best equipped to immediately experience success, in most cases. If that’s true, then they would probably have a much higher success rate during their rookie year.

Using the data I researched from my FG+ piece, I looked at how every number one overall prospect on Baseball America’s list performed during their rookie year.

Name Year Team AB HR R RBI SB AVG value
Bryce Harper 2012 Nationals 533 22 98 59 18 0.270 13.13
Harper 2011 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Jason Heyward 2010 Braves 520 18 83 72 11 0.277 11.04
Matt Wieters 2009 Orioles 354 9 35 43   0.288 -2.53
Jay Bruce 2008 Reds 413 21 63 52 4 0.254 -1.56
Daisuke Matsuzaka 2007 Red Sox 204.2 15   4.40 1.32 201 13.24
Delmon Young 2006 Devil Rays 126 3 16 10 2 0.317 -16.68
Joe Mauer 2005 Twins 489 9 61 55 13 0.294 9.09
Joe Mauer 2004 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Mark Teixeira 2003 Rangers 529 26 66 84 1 0.259 5.52
Josh Beckett 2002 Marlins 104.2 6   4.21 1.31 110 1.03
Josh Hamilton 2001 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Rick Ankiel 2000 Cardinals 173.0 11   3.54 1.29 192 19.06
J.D. Drew 1999 Cardinals 368 13 72 39 19 0.242 -3.88
Ben Grieve 1998 Athletics 583 18 94 89 2 0.288 8.60
Andruw Jones 1997 Braves 399 18 60 70 20 0.231 1.57
Andruw Jones 1996 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Alex Rodriguez 1995 Mariners 142 5 15 19 4 0.232  
Cliff Floyd 1994 Expos 334 4 43 41 10 0.281  
Chipper Jones 1993 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Brien Taylor 1992 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Todd Van Poppel 1991 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
Steve Avery 1990 Braves 97.0 3   5.47 1.66 75 -10.69

*The value column is based on Zach Sanders’ fantasy system. Basically, every player that posted a positive value would have been a useful fantasy asset the entire season. You’ll notice that there are no values for 1994 and 1995. That is due to the strike. If we were to take an educated guess, Alex Rodriguez’s lack of playing time would have kept him from producing positive value. Cliff Floyd probably didn’t do enough with his at-bats to warrant a positive value either.

We’re dealing with a small sample here, so keep that in consideration when reading from here. That list gives us some interesting talking points. For one, most top overall prospects see a decent amount of playing time right away. Outside of Alex Rodriguez and Delmon Young, every hitter on the list received, at least, 300 at-bats. The same can be said about pitchers, though we only have a sample of four players.

You’ll also notice that in 23 years, seven number one prospects did not play in the majors in the season immediately following their number one ranking. But looking deeper at the numbers, you can see that three of those seven, Bryce Harper, Andruw Jones and Joe Mauer, were named the top overall prospect in consecutive years. Those three players are some of the most talented prospects in recent memory, and were recognized as such before they even had a shot to compete for a major league job. The next guy on that list, Josh Hamilton, likely would have seen time if not for his drug use. We do see three straight years where the top prospect didn’t receive enough at-bats to lose their prospect status, and those came from 1991 to 1993. That may say something about teams being slightly more skeptical and protective of their prospects in the early-90s. That seemed to change quickly, as most top prospects receive playing time early.

The chart also reveals that top prospects have a good chance of being fantasy relevant during their rookie seasons. Of the 14 players to receive significant time, nine of them produced a positive value during their rookie year. Only five players produced a negative value, one of whom was Delmon Young, who didn’t get the playing time needed to carve out fantasy relevance. These guys are named the top prospect because they have immense talent, and, for the most part, those guys live up to their expectations right away.

In Profar’s case, the biggest issue preventing him from playing is that he has no clear path at a starting role. But as we’ve seen with most of the teams in this study, top overall prospects tend to force their way into playing time. And in the case of Young, who didn’t get playing time, his team was in no position to rush him, as they weren’t going to compete that year.

The Rangers should be in contention this season, and that could make them more eager to get Profar into their lineup. It’s not a sure thing that Profar is able to get enough playing time to matter this season, which could mean that he’s not worth a pick on draft day unless that changes. But if he’s still on the waiver wire and he gets the call mid-season, he’s definitely worth an immediate pickup based on how other top overall prospects have performed.