Fantasy 101: How to Draft Dynasty Prospects

In the final installment of his dynasty draft preparation series, Travis Sherer discusses how to find Golden Spikes in haystacks.

Dynasty Draft Preparation
Jan. 11: The 10 Commandments of Dynasty Drafts
Jan. 16: How to Win Now in Dynasty Drafts
Jan. 18: How to Win Later in Dynasty Drafts
Jan. 25: How to Draft Dynasty Prospects

I don’t care for the term “blue chips.” You probably already know that the origin derives from poker, where a white chip is worth $1, red is worth $5, and blue is the most valuable at $25. Sure, the term “blue chips” applies the correct value to the most-deserving prospects, but it also implies that the best prospects are the biggest gambles.

If you are drafting prospects in a dynasty league, that simply is not true. On the contrary, you should actually be looking for the lowest amount of risk for the highest reward (i.e. Mark Prior/Stephen Strasburg/Bryce Harper). The best-case scenario is you pick one of those prospects who are “can’t miss.” But those rarely come about. I’d say one comes along every three or four years such as Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Prior, Justin Upton, Strasburg, or Harper.

Managing risk is an essential part of picking prospects. Either a prospect’s ceiling is so astronomically high that it is worth the insanely high price paid for a likely bust (think Byron Buxton), or the prospect’s floor is so high that it outweighs his talent limitations (think Luis Urias). Below are a set of rules that will guide you through the questions you need to ask yourself as well as the types of players to target to build the type of prospect roster you want for the future.


Do Not Pick to Fill Roster Needs


Just about all prospects are gambles. Not only is each a gamble, but you won’t know if one will pay out for years. That being said, by the time you know whether that catcher you thought would replace Buster Posey has paid off, your roster could look entirely different from when you drafted the prospect. The prospect could change too nowadays. Maybe now he’s longer be a catcher. The point is to pick the best prospect available at all times.

Does that mean you pick 10 shortstops in your prospect draft? Yes. The correct answer is: Yes  if each time it’s your pick and your top player is a shortstop. By the time those 10 shortstops make the majors, maybe four are still shortstops, and of those four, only one is good enough to be a starter. Too often managers get hung up in having a glut of prospects for one position. In dynasty, this is not a bad thing. This is an opportunity for trading or just added depth to build your team around.

Of course, there is one thing you can do to better the chances that your prospects are brought to the majors earlier: pick college players. The following is a chart examines the promotion timelines of the top 10 picks in from 2011-2015 MLB Drafts:

Prospect Experience #Made MLB Debuts/Total Avg. MiLB IP Before Debut Avg. MiLB GP Before Debut
High School 12/26 (50%) 321 333
College 27/34 (79%) 168 214

As one may expect, the college players take less time to get their shot on a major league roster. This makes sense  they’ve had more instruction, faced harder competition, and are just older and more physically mature. The difference, however, is substantial. First of all, almost 80 percent of the top 10 college players selected become major leaguers, compared with just half of the high school players. Secondly, the timeline for pitchers is almost cut in half, while a little less so for hitters. When put in the proper context, the difference in these numbers is more striking. Many college draftees do not play in rookie ball or low A, which have roughly 50-game seasons, meaning this is two to three seasons more waiting time for both high school pitchers and hitters. That is a long time to wait.

What I am saying is do not pick for your roster need because it’s on average two years in the minors for college prospects and between four and five for high school prospects. And if you are going to pick a high school player, there must be something special about him. Otherwise, you are just flipping a coin  and waiting half a decade for it to drop.


Pick Based on Developed Exceptional Skills


How many prospects your league allows each team to have should dictate how discriminating you need to be with your picks. Most leagues allow anywhere from five to 15 prospects on a minor league roster. Some are unlimited. The fewer prospects you are allowed to have, the more extreme you need to be in picking high-end or low-floor prospects. Even if your league lets you have unlimited prospects, you want to pick prospects who show exceptional tools. As far as grades go, that means 60-plus on the 80-grade scale.

Not all skills are exceptional. Speed, for example, is a skill that by itself has no value in fantasy baseball on any level. Just look at Billy Hamilton. The former Cincinnati Reds top prospect was propped up in the rankings by an 80 speed ranking. An 80 ranking in anything is rare, so having one in anything seems like it should be valuable. However, in order to utilize his blazing speed, Hamilton has to get on base, which he doesn’t do well.

For pitchers, a skill that is overvalued is velocity. Some rankings will give an 80 ranking on a fastball just because it is 100 mph. It doesn’t seem to matter if he can locate it or whether it travels in a straight line to the plate. Ten years ago, you could get by on just a tremendously fast fastball. That isn’t the case nowadays, when the majority of pitchers have a 60-plus fastball. Hitters are used to that kind of velocity and can hit a straight 100-mph pitch that isn’t located well  in any count. Do not get sucked in by reports of pitchers who can throw hard but do not have additional pitches or are completely wild.

You should be looking for 60-plus grades in hit and power for hitters. As far as stats go, you want to see prospects produce a .900 or higher OPS. It really doesn’t matter how they get there, whether it’s a high on-base percentage or a high slugging percentage  or ideally both. If the Joey Gallo has taught us anything, it’s that just an 80-grade power rating is valuable on its own. For pitchers, draft guys with multiple secondary pitches of 50-plus grades and similar command. Pitchers with these types of grades generally have low WHIPs and a nine or higher strikeout per nine innings (K/9) mark.


Do Not Draft Based on Slot


Pick the prospects you want. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. A lot of managers will enter a prospect draft with a tier system that puts several prospects on the same value. This is lazy. Find out which prospects you want the most and go for those. Don’t get caught up in what prospects should be picked in the top 10 or 20 based on your pick  that is how you end up with prospects you don’t like. If you do enough research to create a hard list of prospects you want, you should trust the work you’ve already put in when you’re on the clock.


Proudly Pick Teenagers


Do you know who Blaze Jordan is? How about Robert Puason? If you do not, don’t feel bad because you’re not alone. They are both 16-year-old phenoms. Get to know who the phemons are, and if your league allows it, draft them before anybody else can. Are they longshots? YES. But they are also the kind of prospects who have exceptional skills. Take Jordan as an example: He’s a kid who has been hitting 500-ft bombs since before he could legally drive. That kind of power should not be ignored. How good is his hit tool? I have no clue. But that does not matter. This is the kind of talent that when we do know how good his hit tool is, he either becomes a mediocre prospect or he becomes Harper.

Usually, when someone picks a 16-year-old kid in a prospect draft, everybody else rolls their eyes because they think it’s too early. But then, that is why you got him because you got him too early. If you wait until everybody else doesn’t think it’s too early, you don’t get him.

This is especially true for international prospects. If you want to get the best international prospects, you have to pick them either before or when they are signed by the MLB  at 16 years old. Puason is a good and timely example of such a prospect. He’s been thought of by scouts as the most talented international prospect to come along in almost five years (that includes Juan Soto, Wander Franco, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr./strong>, by the way). He was so good that former Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella risked his career  and lost it  by having a deal with him at 14, two years before MLB allows. Yes, Coppolella did this with other prospects too, but he was the one that everybody noticed, and Coppolella was banned from baseball for life. Still, most managers are unaware of Puason, but they will know who he is this spring when the international prospect rankings come out and he’s on top. If your league allowed for it, you could pick him last year and get him in a late round, whereas this year, Puason might be a first-round pick.


Buy Golden Spikes


If I can stress anything on you in these 2,000 words, it is to select Golden Spikes Award winners. This is the award bestowed upon the top collegiate player every year. The players who win this award are usually under-drafted for one reason or another but tend to produce right away. It turns out USA Baseball, which facilitates the award, is very good at predicting who will be a good Major League Baseball player. Here are the winners since 2001:

Mark Prior (2001) Khalil Greene (2002) Rickie Weeks (2003) Jered Weaver (2004) Alex Gordon (2005) Tim Lincecum (2006)
David Price (2007) Buster Posey (2008) Stephen Strasburg (2009) Bryce Harper (2010) Trevor Bauer (2011) Mike Zunino (2012)
Kris Bryant (2013) A.J. Reed (2014) Andrew Benintendi (2015) Kyle Lewis (2016) Brendan McKay (2017) Andrew Vaughn (2018)

Note that all but two from 2001-2013 went on to be an All-Star at least once, meanwhile, three won MVP Awards, two won Cy Young Awards, and two won Rookie of the Year. Something else about Golden Spikes recipients: They make it to the majors much quicker than normal draft picks. Above, I wrote that 40 of the 60 (67%) top 10 picks from 2010-2015 made it to the majors (from 2016 on is just too soon to look at how picks have turned out). Below is how quickly it took Golden Spikes awardees from 2001-2015 to get to the majors:

Prospect Experience #Made MLB Debuts/Total Avg. MiLB IP Before Debut Avg. MiLB GP Before Debut
High School 12/26 (50%) 321 333
College 27/34 (79%) 168 214
Golden Spikes 15/15 91 135

From 2001-2013, Golden Spikes winners have outperformed the eventual first pick of the following year’s MLB Draft in terms of how many eventually were called up to majors, the rate at which they debuted, and All-Star appearances. It has been the most reliable way to predict the success of prospects as far as I can tell. Will that continue? We’ll find out.

One might try to argue that organizations felt compelled to try out such accomplished college players, but you’ll also note that only three of these award winners were picked No. 1 in their drafts (Price, Strasburg, Harper). So many of these prospects weren’t thought of as the top talent in their draft, making it difficult to argue there is extra pressure on a Golden Spikes awardee. Also, prospects who are named the best in college baseball travel through the minors almost twice as quickly as other collegiate prospects, suggesting this is more about production than age/expectation.

What is the question you should be asking right now? The answer is Andrew Vaughn.

Graphic by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

5 responses to “Fantasy 101: How to Draft Dynasty Prospects”

  1. Sean says:

    “You should be looking for 60-plus grades in hit and power for hitters.”, ok and what do you after the first round? :)

    • Travis Sherer says:

      I should have said “60-plus grades in hit OR power for hitters…” That opens up the player pool a little more.

  2. theKraken says:

    I consider myself a dynasty vet and your league needs to be really deep for 16 y/o to be a viable strategy. Many don’t even debut stateside for a year or more. Why not buy them a few years in when the projectable 16 y/o has a real scouting report and has lost much of their shine? The best values are the Trevor Story types who have well documented warts in the mid minors where people are looking to sell or in a shallow format have already dropped them. It is important to understand that kids don’t have real scouting reports – they are very wishy-washy and clouded with vague upside. Am I going to miss out on Vlad Jr? You bet. I will also miss out on Kevin Maitan, who I could get for 10% of what he cost initially. I will be picking up J2 kids that have developed more than their 16 y/o peers, which is how you would describe Acuna or Oscar Taveras. I am very good at prospecting and I will tell you my most helpful secret – I don’t follow amateurs. How many stateside HS juniors end up going nowhere near where they were projected? What would you have paid for Tristan Beck after his FR year at Stanford? How many early mocks done by industry professionals don’t look embarrassing within months? A child’s ability to swing as hard as they can and hit a ball really far or hard isn’t a baseball skill any more than a long drive golfer belongs on the PGA tour. You need playable tools, not showcase tools and you just don’t know anything about that until they play professional baseball. Furthermore, the good players are going to be the ones that develop the most – being an impressive 15 y/o doesn’t get you very far. There are so many inexperienced prospect writers on the inter-webs trying to be first to write about the next big thing that the demographic just isn’t profitable – there is a puff piece on everyone. How do you sort the hype from the reality? There will be hype… Consider the 3/4 year penalty associated with drafting a J2 that never does anything. I think someone churning that roster spot would win more often than not. My best dynasty prospect advice is to cut ties ASAP – bad rosters are always littered with players that were/are overvalued and the same is true of prospects. Imagine the sucker that was all in on Manny Margot, Anderson Espinoza or Lew Brinson (those were really, really hyped prospects at one point) and has just been sitting on them waiting for what they invested in. Maybe those guys all blow up this year, but wouldn’t your rather be targeting them now as trades as opposed to trying to find the next decade’s waste of roster space? I appreciate your work, I am just offering up some different advice.

  3. Noah says:

    Travis, MLB has scouting grades for its list of top 100 prospects. Where to find those grades for players not on that list?

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