The best player in Fantasy Baseball last year didn't even have a job coming out of spring training.
Think about that for a minute.
It's not a riddle. It's not a cutesy bit of trivia that hinges on clever syntax or tricky wording. It's the plain and simple truth: Mike Trout wasn't deemed ready to start in the majors.
And because of that, he wasn't deemed ready to draft in Fantasy.
So for the first four weeks or so of last season, he was on the waiver wire in most leagues. The best player in Fantasy, right there for the taking.
It boggles the mind. For all the emphasis on player evaluation in the preseason and all the hours spent combing through depth charts, hoping to unearth some hidden gem, how could the biggest asset in the game go so overlooked, and how can we, as Fantasy owners, keep it from happening again?
First, a dose of reality: It probably won't happen again. What Trout did last year was unprecedented in the days of Fantasy Baseball. The only 20-year-old rookie in history to produce an OPS higher than Trout's .963 mark was Ted Williams, who many regard as the best hitter ever.
And that number doesn't even account for Trout's MLB-leading 49 stolen bases. So yeah, unprecedented and unlikely to happen again.
But here's the thing: Trout wasn't the only midseason call-up to pay big dividends in Fantasy last season. The same weekend in late April that he came up, so did Bryce Harper, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year. Harper's stat line wasn't historically significant, apart from him compiling it at age 19, but it was good enough to make him more productive than Curtis Granderson on a per-game basis in Head-to-Head leagues and to elevate him to third-round status in early drafts this spring.
Likewise, Anthony Rizzo contributed 15 home runs after arriving in late June and is now a fixture in the middle rounds of all Fantasy drafts. Yasmani Grandal, who also arrived in late June, produced the fifth-highest OPS among full-time catchers and likely would have ranked among the top 12 at the position this spring if not for a failed drug test and subsequent 50-game suspension. And back in 2011, Eric Hosmer, Desmond Jennings and Brett Lawrie all arrived midseason to make an immediate impact in Fantasy.
True, sometimes you won't see it coming, like with Josh Rutledge last year, but none of those other players should have caught Fantasy owners by surprise. They were all considered top prospects, and they were all projected to arrive at about the point they did.
The only thing they lacked was immediacy. They couldn't help Fantasy owners right out of the gate, so Fantasy owners opted to seek them out later, preferring to wade through the Jose Tabatas and Ryan Raburns during those first few weeks.
Yup, both were drafted ahead of Trout last year.
Was it worth it? Even in a best-case scenario, would Tabata or Raburn have provided you with anything you couldn't live without? Might stashing Trout or Harper instead have been the difference in you winning your league?
I'm not out to scold anyone. For the most part, I've actually done my best to pooh-pooh -- at least in terms of immediate value -- every up-and-comer hyped to the hills before even suiting up in the majors, pointing to players who were once in a similar position and needed several years to find their form.
But you know what? I've gotten burned by that approach enough in recent years that I now have a different take on it: It's dumb. And shortsighted. For every Alex Gordon or Austin Jackson who creeps his way to prominence, an Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton or Matt Kemp proves to be a world-beater right away. In recent years, I can think of more examples of the latter than the former, which probably says something in itself. With all the new metrics available and financial consequences to consider, scouts and front office types have become so adept at assessing major-league readiness that they rarely pull the trigger too soon.
And Fantasy owners are taking notice.
According to CBSSports.com Draft Averages, five players who likely won't have a job coming out of spring training are going off the board within the first 22 rounds, up from just Harper last year. Of those five, Wil Myers is probably the closest to Harper and Trout in terms of upside, hype and inevitability, and he's going off the board in Round 15, nearly 100 picks earlier than Trout did last year. The others -- Billy Hamilton, Dylan Bundy, Oscar Taveras and Travis d'Arnaud -- are all late-rounders.
And why not? Their pedigrees suggest they'll do more in a partial season than a John Mayberry or Rick Porcello would do in a full season. Granted, that doesn't come with a money-back guarantee, but at that stage of the draft, if the proposition is even 50-50, what do you have to lose?
Of course, I know what you have to lose, particularly in mixed leagues. It's exactly why I haven't endorsed this approach in the past. Stashing players bound for the minor leagues consumes roster space at the time of year when you need it most. During those first few weeks of April, spilling into May, players nobody expected to break out will emerge off the waiver wire, threatening to become this year's R.A. Dickey or Edwin Encarnacion. To snag at least one of them, you'll want to cast a wide net, and to do that, you'll need flexibility, not 21-year-old deadweight that might have a chance of helping your team at some indefinite point in the future.
Even if he's sure to meet the hype when he comes up, what if he doesn't come up until after the All-Star break? Or what if he doesn't come up at all? For every Dickey or Encarnacion you pass up, you become all the more invested. The longer you wait, the more inclined you are to keep waiting, potentially handcuffing yourself all season for no gain whatsoever.
Last year's Myers owners know it all too well.
So perhaps the best approach isn't as simple as rounding up whatever prospects you can, hoping they become the next Mike Trout.
Or in AL- and NL-only leagues, perhaps it is. Particularly in Rotisserie formats, you can afford to sell out for the big picture. If you get nothing from your fifth outfielder or middle infielder for the first six weeks, it'll set you back a little, but not nearly as much as it'll move you ahead when Taveras and Wong arrive. In the end, you won't even miss whatever Scott Hairston and Clint Barmes would have provided you.
Then again, in shallower leagues, where the alternatives are significantly better than Hairston and Barmes, a little discernment couldn't hurt.
First of all, you'll need to have a bench to even consider drafting a prospect bound for the minors. With the exception of Myers, whose arrival is all but assured in the first six weeks, you risk forfeiting too much by starting an empty void over a Coco Crisp or Jason Kubel type.
If you do have a bench, which should be a given in Head-to-Head leagues, you wouldn't want to overload it with prospects bound for the minors. Any more than one puts you in jeopardy of missing out on the Dickey- and Encarnacion-type breakouts. And certainly, you wouldn't want to be down two spots for more than a month or so, not if you hope to sit injured players and maximize two-start pitchers.
Speaking of maximizing two-start pitchers, that strategy makes any hitter -- even a major-league one -- a less-than-ideal option for the bench in Head-to-Head leagues. You can get away with it if he's a high-upside player, which Taveras and d'Arnaud certainly are. Are they more deserving of bench spots than, say, Adam Eaton or Jesus Montero? Probably not. But if a fairer comparison in your league would be Michael Cuddyer and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, then prospects like Taveras and d'Arnaud are probably the only non-pitchers worth stashing.
Ultimately, whether or not you should draft a prospect bound for the minors comes down to what you could draft instead. A player who doesn't fill an immediate need or who lacks the upside to displace someone who does is just taking up space. Why not use that space to beat the rush to the waiver wire by stashing a prospect you know everyone will want a few weeks from now?
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