You probably aren’t surprised to find that the guy who’s charged with writing the Mining the Minors and Prospect Chatter columns at RotoGraphs has been tabbed to write about strategies for keeper leagues, where every owner is trying to land the next big thing before he becomes The Next Big Thing. What might be surprising, though, is that I’m recommending you alter that approach.
Let’s be clear here: I’m not against selecting nearly-ready prospects during your keeper league draft or auction. It’s just that I’d like to call attention to a slightly different — and lesser-utilized — strategy to obtaining youthful talent with loads of potential. A strategy that can be just as effective.
Sure, gambling on the few players who are gobbling up all the preseason Rookie of the Year hype in 2012, like Jesus Montero or Matt Moore, can pay off handsomely. But that also requires using up a mid-round draft pick or valuable auction dollars on players that remain, to a large extent, unknown or unproven quantities. The opportunity cost, then, is rather steep. And if you swing and miss? Well, then you’re just doubling up on your displeasure.
But rather than going all-in on that hot ROY candidate that everybody has to have, there’s another way to go about acquiring young baseball talent. One that is not only less risky, but also less costly. And better yet, I can prove it.
First, some methodology. I went back over the past five seasons’ worth of rookie classes to dig up the rookies who were preseason faves to win the award, as well as those who debuted during the season and exhausted their prospect eligibility (read: exceeded 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 30 relief appearances). The fruit of this research is boiled down to the need-to-know info below for your enjoyment. And you know, strategizing.
The takeaway from this? You might want to let other owners reach and splurge for the hype at your draft or auction, while you astutely use your selection day to grab as many productive proven players as you can, then pick and choose from the in-season call-ups as the year progresses. How many little-known rookies turn out to be legitimate keeper candidates? Let’s just say you might be surprised.
Alex Gordon, Delmon Young, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Young (OF), James Loney and Kevin Kouzmanoff were the names you were hearing all too much about in February and March.
In the AL, a Red Sox player did take the ROY trophy, but it was the underrated Dustin Pedroia who actually won the award after overcoming a .182/.308/.236 April — not Japanese phenom Matsuzaka. In the NL, Tulo (.291 BA, 24 HR, 99 RBI) proved he really was a stud, but the head of this class was none other than Ryan Braun (.324, 34 HR, 97 RBI), who was a top prospect, but one who wasn’t getting much preseason pub because he didn’t debut until…May 25.
Delmon Young (.288 BA, 13 HR, 93 RBI), Chris Young (.237 BA, 32 HR, 27 SB) and Loney (.331 BA, 15 HR, 67 RBI) were all worthwhile draft picks, and Kouzmanoff (.275 BA, 18 HR, 74 RBI) was so-so, but Gordon (.247 BA, 15 HR, 60 RBI) wasn’t quite the can’t-miss he was supposed to be. You certainly would have regretted going all-in on him, especially when you could have just as easily picked up any one of a whole host of other rookies during the season as keepers for 2008. Just a few guys named (deep breath) Tim Lincecum, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton, Yovani Gallardo, Hunter Pence, Mark Reynolds, Matt Garza, Michael Bourn, John Danks and Billy Butler.
Evan Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz — coming off his September 2007 no-hitter — were the names to know heading into your drafts in the AL, while Geovany Soto, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were joined by Japanese imports Kosuke Fukudome and Hiroki Kuroda in the Senior Circuit.
Longo (.272 BA, 22 HR, 85 RBI) and Ellsbury (.280 BA, 50 SB, 98 R) finished first and third in the AL voting, proving that going after the hype can, in fact, pay off. But those two wound up sandwiching comparatively-less-known Cuban Alexei Ramirez (.290, 21 HR, 77 RBI, 13 SB), proving that there is hope outside of the hype. As for the NL, Soto (.285 BA, 23 HR, 86 RBI) beat out Votto (.297 BA, 24, 84), but owners who drafted Bruce (.254 BA, 21 HR, 52 RBI) expecting to see him sooner than May 27 were disappointed, especially after he hit just .239 from June on.
Fukudome’s path was similar to Bruce’s, as his crazy-hot start (.915 April OPS) quickly cooled (.639 second-half OPS), while Kuroda was solid (9 W, 3.73 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) but equalled by undrafted Jair Jurrjens (13 W, 3.68 ERA, 1.37 WHIP), who finished third in the NL vote. And if you fell victim to the Buchholz hype (6.75 ERA, 1.76 WHIP), hopefully you ditched him in favor of Clayton Kershaw, Pablo Sandoval or Max Scherzer during the season, so you still wound up with a no-doubt keeper. Heck, even dropping him for Johnny Cueto, Chris Perez, Carlos Gonzalez or Brett Gardner would’ve saved you a few sessions (or seasons) of screaming at boxscores.
Outfielders Cameron Maybin, Colby Rasmus, and Jordan Schafer were the NL rooks getting most of the March mentions. And in the AL, you’ll recall Matt Wieters’ Hall of Fame plaque was already being minted, and owners just knew David Price’s 2008 postseason success would carry over to 2009 domination. But just in case, they were also intrigued by Elvis Andrus (then pushing Michael Young off shortstop) and a wave of young arms in Rick Porcello, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, who pitched their way onto Opening Day rosters.
Maybe the Wieters hype hit a tad too early, eh? The O’s catcher, who was projected to go .311-31-102 by PECOTA, didn’t even reach the bigs until May 29, then hit a solid-but-un-MVP-like .288-9-43. Price took an eerily similar route, not getting the call until May 25 and then pitching only okay (10 W, 4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP), while three of the other four American Leaguers mentioned above performed capably (Cahill’s 4.63 ERA and 1.44 WHIP excepted). In the end, none of the preseason faves proved to be a definite fantasy starter in 12-team mixed leagues, let alone nearly as good as out-of-nowhere Andrew Bailey (1.84 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 26 SV), who won the award. NL-wise, Maybin was just starting his run of continually disappointing owners (.250 BA, 4 HR, 1 SB in just 176 AB), while Schafer (.204 BA, 2 HR in 167 AB) fell off a cliff after his Opening Night homer. Rasmus (.251 BA, 16 HR, 52 RBI) fared slightly better, but was outdone by an onslaught of mid-season debuters like Tommy Hanson (11 W, 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Andrew McCutchen (.286 BA, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 22 SB) and uber-surprising Chris Coghlan (.321 BA, 9 HR, 47 RBI), who probably shouldn’t have won the award, but did.
If you wisely avoided buying into the Wieters and Price machines — or more likely, lost out on them because someone else took them waaay too soon – and also missed out on adding Bailey, Hanson or McCutchen via free agency, you still could’ve hit on anyone of Ricky Romero, Jeff Niemann or Daniel Bard in the AL, to Mat Latos, Drew Stubbs or Bud Norris in the NL and come away with a viable keeper.
Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, Wade Davis, Austin Jackson and (gasp) Scott Sizemore got a lot of attention heading into the year, and the name to know in the NL was simply Jason Heyward. Period. (But if you were bold enough to go against the grain, you might’ve also considered Buster Posey or Stephen Strasburg.)
Feliz (2.73 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 40 SV) breezed to the AL award by beating out Jackson (.293, 27 SB, 103 R), but it turned out that Heyward had more than his share of competition (see below). Despite not getting started until May 29, Posey (.305 BA, 18 HR, 67 RBI) did enough by leading the Giants to the NL West title to make voters forget about Heyward’s Opening Day homer in his first-ever at-bat (and .277 BA, 18 HR, 72 RBI, 83 R). Beyond that pair, there was also Jaime Garcia (13 W, 2.70 ERA, 1.32 WHIP) and Gaby Sanchez (.273 BA, 19 HR, 75 RBI), both of whom contributed from Day One and finished in the Top 5. Then came Starlin Castro (.300 BA, 41 RBI, 10 SB) and Pedro Alvarez (.256 BA, 16 HR, 64 RBI), who were productive, if slightly overlooked because their debuts in early-May and mid-June, respectively, got swept up in Strasburgmania (5 W, 2.91 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 12.2 K/9 in 12 starts between his June 8 debut and late-season Tommy John surgery).
Although Matusz (10 W, 4.30 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) and Davis (12 W, 4.07 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) held their own, Sizemore (.224 BA, 3 HR, 14 RBI in 143 AB) was a big fat whiff, especially compared to fellow AL rooks like mid-season promotion Danny Valencia and hadn’t-heard-of-him Brennan Boesch (.342 BA, 12 HR, 49 RBI before a second-half faceplant), not to mention Carlos Santana, were all undrafteds who turned into better values. But let’s shift back to the dynamite class in the NL, where you could’ve left Heyward and Posey go by without being left sans keeper, so long as you snatched up any of Mike Stanton, Madison Bumgarner, Logan Morrison, Neil Walker, John Axford, Drew Storen, Ike Davis, Daniel Hudson, Jhoulys Chacin and Jose Tabata.
Pitching ruled the preseason in the AL, with Jeremy Hellickson being favored over the likes of Kyle Drabek, Chris Sale and Michael Pineda. On the NL ballots in March? Primarily Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Aroldis Chapman and Brandon Belt.
In the AL, Hellickson (13 W, 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and Pineda (9 W, 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) made a lot of people look smart, finishing first and fifth, respectively, sandwiching under-the-radar Mark Trumbo (.254 BA, 29 HR, 87 RBI), promoted-sooner-than-expected Eric Hosmer (.293 BA, 19 HR, 78 RBI) and surprising Ivan Nova (16 W, 3.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP). But Sale (2.79 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8 SV) was little more than a good reliever, and Drabek (4 W, 6.06 ERA, 1.81 WHIP) was an #epicfail before being put out of his misery with a demotion, while lesser-known Jordan Walden (2.98 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 32 SV) seized the closer gig early. The NL ballot was topped off by Kimbrel (2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 46 SV) and Freeman (.282 BA, 21 HR, 76 RBI) — again, making predictors look savvy — but the rest of list was a smorgasbord that included Vance Worley (11 W, 3.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), Wilson Ramos (.267 BA, 15 HR, 52 RBI), Josh Collmenter (10 W, 3.38 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) and Danny Espinosa (.236 BA, 21 HR, 66 RBI, 17 SB). Chapman (4 W, 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) and Belt (.225 BA, 9 HR, 18 RBI in 187 AB) were solidly in the disappointments column.
Brandon Beachy, who practically no one had heard of before his late-2010 debut, beat out the more-pubbed fellow Braves prospect Mike Minor and proved to be the right choice (although Minor remains a legit keeper). And many of these others were known ‘spects before the season, but they debuted weeks, if not months, later only to become keepers to be excited about heading into 2012: Brett Lawrie, Desmond Jennings (finally!), Jason Kipnis, Dustin Ackley, Paul Goldschmidt and Dee Gordon.
So that’s it. On a yearly basis, nearly three players who garner loads of preseason ROY hype come up short of expectations, while more than 10 prospects work their way from lesser-knowns to keeper candidates by season’s end. Remember this before you reach for a top prospect too early in your next keeper draft.
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