May 28, 2009

I'll admit it, I've grown comfortable with you guys. So, how would you like to know my innermost keeper league secrets? Yeah? Okay. Just, you know, keep it to yourself.

When it comes to evaluating prospects, ultimately I'm looking for superstars. I'm looking for the next .300/30/30 threat and the next 20-game winner. But, then again, who isn't? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that superstars are your ultimate asset. But they are few and far between. Not every kid that dominates Single-A will do the same in the majors. In fact, some of those kids may never even see the majors.

After the superstars have all been plucked, are too expensive, or are unavailable, I'm looking for the prospects that project to be above-average players. I have no interest in a shortstop whose prime year will result in a .253 average with six home runs and nine steals, or a first baseman whose prime spells .266 with 14 home runs. Likewise, I don't want a starting pitcher with mediocre stuff who hopes to crack a 4.00 ERA by the time he hits his prime. I want guys who will be real assets to my team. The trick is in discovering which highly touted prospects are just blowing smoke.

When it comes down to it, the higher the level of competition, the higher the level of respect. Double-A is where real player evaluation begins. It's the level where teams lengthen the leash on their star pitchers and allow them to use their full arsenals. It's the level where every hitter has shown a good enough skill set and has paid his dues. It's the level where players realize that they are just one phone call away from the majors. But it's also the level where frustration and career first slumps can set in.

I buy into the idea that if a player with real prospect status can play at an above-average level at either Double-A or Triple-A, a major league career of at least some substance is on the horizon.

When I evaluate an advanced pitcher over the course of a season, I look at strikeouts, walks, and WHIP. A pitcher that averages in the neighborhood of a strikeout per inning has the ability to be at least a No. 2 or 3 starter, with the potential to develop into an ace. A pitcher that doesn't have the big strikeout numbers but does have a low walk rate is someone I look at as a back of the rotation type, but most of these guys still have the arsenal to grow into a No. 2 or 3. I look at WHIP simply as a better measure of minor league success than ERA or wins. Take a peek at the rest of the stat line, but take it with a grain of salt. Another one I like to look at is BABIP. Anything significantly above or below league average should raise some eyebrows.

When I evaluate a position player, it comes down to more than just a few major stats. Position obviously comes into play, but you want as many .300/30 hitters as you can get, regardless of position. It's a balancing act. Overall, I need information on home runs, doubles, batting average, stolen bases, stolen base success rate, walks and strikeouts, among others. If a player offers nothing but speed, I want nothing to do with him.

I try to be careful with doubles. Doubles can be an indicator of future home run power, but looks can be deceiving. A high doubles rate could just be an exceptionally fast or instinctive base runner stretching would-be singles into doubles.

Home runs are the meat and potatoes of evaluating a hitter, but if a slugger strikes out a third of the time he's at the plate, can only draw a handful of walks, and can't hit for a respectable average, what good will 20-25 home runs do? I'm looking at you, Greg Halman.

I have come under fire from some readers for not including Halman on or anywhere near my ongoing Top 100 Fantasy Baseball Prospects list. No, it was not an oversight. Halman is one of the more overrated prospects in baseball, and his poor 2009 Double-A performance is exposing his flaws. I have been accused of ignoring the "elite" power that Halman possesses. Halman does not have elite power. He has plus power. Twenty to 25 home runs a year would look good coming from a No. 3 outfielder. But how good will a .245 batting average look? From Seattle's perspective, how good will 160 strikeouts, a paltry 35-40 walks, and a .300 OBP look? It's Seattle that will or won't give Halman his playing time. How much playing time would you give a player who would produce those numbers over the course of a season? Don't let his age fool you. If he's struggling mightily against Double-A pitching, what will his major league struggles look like?

I owned Halman during the 2008 season in a keeper league. The only reason was because I knew his prospect status was high in many circles, thus he would carry value in a trade. I packaged him with four or five other, better prospects and in exchange landed Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard from a team looking to rebuild. Without Halman the deal was a no go.

I specialize in scouting minor league baseball, but I consider myself a realist in that area as well. Never get too high on any one prospect. When putting together a trade, if I am getting an All-Star in his prime, I am willing to give up a couple of good prospects.

The best example I can think of involves a keeper league that I am a part of at Franchise Baseball League. Just before the 2008 season I packaged then top prospects Ian Kennedy and Felix Pie together with the since struggling Jose Tabata. In exchange I received Roy Halladay, Daniel Duffy, and some other lower prospects. At the time, I viewed Kennedy as a pitcher who would initially struggle as he adjusts to the majors. I was right, and Kennedy's stock has since plummeted. I questioned Pie's plate discipline, swing consistency, ability to hit secondary pitches, and work ethic. My feelings were correct. I questioned, and still question, Tabata's power, plate discipline, and love for the game. He still has time to prove me wrong, but I will chalk that one up as another win. Yet, all of these guys were considered, at the very least, Top 50 prospects. So, what went wrong? Modern media hype.

In the same keeper league, just before the start of this season, I traded Trevor Cahill and a couple of low level prospects for Roy Oswalt. No matter your view on Oswalt, I saw Cahill as a pitcher that if he lived up to all the hype, he would have a Oswalt-esque career. Why not just get the real thing rather than invest in hopes and dreams?

Cahill has initially struggled, as I expected. But he is a guy I hope to reacquire at some point in the next couple of seasons (I hope his owner isn't reading this), if his stock gets low enough.

Always expect rookie prospects to struggle in their first couple of years in the majors. You'll be much better off. But, in turn, expect those now former top prospects to turn it on by the time they reach their prime, age 25, 26, or 27. This simple system pays dividends every year. It's a matter of buying low and selling high, which often seems to be the case. If possible, cash in on any top ten prospect not named Matt Wieters now. In a year or two, most of those top ten stocks won't be worth anywhere near what they were. Reacquire the player just before their prime. Rinse and repeat. It's the No. 1 player acquisition strategy that I use.

Guys that you should look into acquiring right now; Clay Buchholz, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon Wood, Jeremy Hermida, Delmon Young, Howie Kendrick, Alex Gordon, Colby Rasmus, and Billy Butler. And that's just off the top of my head. At least half of these guys will have long, successful careers. The trick is doing your homework and figuring out which half will turn it on in their prime and which half will fade off into the sunset. And yet, two or three of them will still live up their initial hype. If you're holding a gun to my head, I'll say Buchholz, Scherzer, and Butler are the best investments.

When dealing with a player's prime you also have to know when things are going downhill, and then cash in on the hype, brand name, and reputation. Just before this year, in a Yahoo keeper league, I traded David Ortiz for Matt LaPorta and the future rights to Caleb Gindl, Gordon Beckham, and Michael Montgomery. I was laughed at by some of my rival GMs, but I'll be doing the laughing from here on out.

So, what made Ortiz a player trending downward? Injuries and conditioning. Watch out for 31, 32, 33 year old hitters that break their hands, suffer from chronic pain or weakening in their wrists, etc. It's hard to get back to full strength when those injuries happen. Watch out for the overweight players in the game. Watch out for the players that aren't particularly strong or athletic, or the ones that don't generally keep themselves in the best of shape. They're all giving you warning signs.

It should go without saying that you must avoid any pitcher that suffers from a major arm or back issue. But even I don't listen to myself sometimes.

Before the 2008 season, I traded Johnny Cueto for Chad Cordero straight up, even though it was apparent that Cordero was far from 100 percent. I figured I would take a gamble by trading an overhyped prospect for a potentially dominant major league closer approaching his prime.

As long as I'm chasing the skeletons out of my closet, oh yeah, I also still own David Ortiz in another keeper league, despite fielding trade offers. I just didn't see a deal on par with the LaPorta steal that I received in my Yahoo league. So, I held onto Ortiz.

I make mistakes too. I just need to follow my rules more often than not. And as long as I follow my set of rules, nine times out of ten I'll be sitting pretty near the top of any keeper league.

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