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The Dos and Don’ts of Trading for Prospects

Chris Mitchell January 9, 2018 9:10AM EDT

Avoid the Biggest Buzz Guys

If you confidently believe a prospect will be a “core franchise player” and a key member of your organization for the next 6-8 years, then you absolutely should target and pay whatever it costs to acquire him. However, targeting the hottest names at the top of everybody’s prospect list is not the way you find value. This article is about ways to avoid overpaying for prospects.

Fantasy owners need to be careful when prospects with limited minor league experience are as highly ranked as Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. following their breakout seasons. The breakout could be a confirmation of scouting reports and fully legitimate, or an anomaly and an outlier.

When you lack previous seasons to use as a base of comparison, then you are guessing and hoping more than evaluating. When a prospect is ranked in everybody’s Top 10 after a breakout campaign, the price to trade for them grows exponentially regardless of risk. When a prospect’s trade price grows exponentially while their risk becomes only slightly lower, they become a player to avoid in trade talks.

Acuna and Guerrero Jr. have immense physical ability and their recent performance is in line with scouting reports. There isn’t anything to point to so far and say, “aha, this is a fluke.” However, to acquire a prospect with the kind of buzz surrounding Acuna and Guerrero, you have to be willing to trade away one of the 10-15 best players in Fantasy Baseball. Are you willing to take on the risk of a prospect with fewer than two full minor league seasons if you have to trade Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado or Nolan Arrenado?

In a Dynasty league format, it doesn’t make sense for another owner to trade Ronald Acuna or Vlad Guerrero Jr. for players like Marcell Ozuna or Justin Upton. In order to acquire them you will have to make an elite star available, and then negotiate the additional parts to make a fair deal happen. That’s why you want to avoid targeting most of the players at the top of the prospect list. The risk, in general, may not be “high,” but considering the caliber of player it will require to trade for them, the pressure to be right becomes significant, and that means the risk increases while the reward decreases.

Ronald Acuna, OF Atlanta Braves

prospect

It’s too soon to say whether Ronald Acuna will be a superstar in the Majors. Credit AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

BaseballAmerica.com’s 2017 Prospect Handbook ranked Acuna as the Atlanta Braves’ sixth-best prospect.  As we enter 2018, MLBPipeline.com ranks him as the sixth-best overall prospect after 236 minor league games and 557 at bats. The scouting reports suggest his 2017 breakout season didn’t come out of nowhere, but it did come fast.

Acuna’s tools look real, but until 2017 he had never hit more than four home runs or played more than 55 games in a season. Now he is a Top 10 prospect. Also, he has yet to play more than 57 games at any level. That doesn’t provide many opportunities for players to adjust to an opponent or for scouting reports to get a good read on them. Acuna may have benefited from opposing pitchers not seeing a lot of him.

Acuna’s meteoric rise at such a young age will cost you an arm and a leg in a trade, and there isn’t enough statistical evidence to know just how good this kid might be. We have seen prospects have great seasons that spanned multiple minor league levels before. Pitcher Daniel Norris and outfielder Dalton Pompey both did it for the Toronto Blue Jays, and neither of them has proven to be what their great minor league seasons suggested they would be.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B Toronto Blue Jays

Guerrero is another toolsy talent whose star has risen extremely quickly. Like Acuna, his on-field production isn’t the power behind the buzz. Guerrero played his first full season in 2017. He only hit 13 home runs, but it was his best season in every way.

Avoid Recent Amateur Draft Picks

The amateur draft is an exciting time filled with optimism about the potential of baseball’s future stars. It’s a zesty environment filled with scouting reports of lofty ceilings and thrilling player comparisons, and it’s a bad time for Fantasy owners to find “value.” A good rule of thumb is the more a scouting report is filled with projections rather than statistical evidence, the higher the price will be, and the more risk involved. That’s the formula for an overpay and that’s why you should avoid targeting recently drafted amateur draft picks.

Hunter Greene, SP/SS Cincinnati Reds

Greene is the perfect example of a player that should be avoided in trade talks. He is as athletically gifted as any prospect in the last 20 years. There have been debates about whether he should be developed as a shortstop or a starting pitcher. He has plus power with the bat and has been consistently clocked at over 100 miles per hour on the mound. When you consider the buzz created by a player with such a high ceiling it’s understandable to think an owner would demand an extremely high price to trade him. Combine that acquisition cost with the poor track record of success associated with right-handed high school pitchers and you have a high-cost, high-risk trade target and those are the types of prospects you want to avoid in trades.

Brendan McKay, 1B/SP Tampa Bay Rays

McKay needs to find a way to become a regular outfielder to be a relevant Fantasy player and that alone is a good reason to avoid targeting him at his peak, rather than 2-3 years from now when the reality of his potential hits and the price drops.

Target Prospects That “Lost the Love” in 2017

This is where projection and “prospecting skill” comes in to play. There was a lot of negative talk that created panic about Lucas Giolito in the 2016 offseason. We heard talk of low spin rates that led to an analysis of how pedestrian his contact rates looked, despite his plus “stuff.” He was a top prospect on the verge of contributing at the Major League level, and he was still traded. This led most to believe that the Nationals who, theoretically, know him better than anybody, no longer believed in him.

He finished 2017 in the Major Leagues with 45.1 innings pitched, an ERA of 2.38 and a WHIP of .95. There is risk in targeting “buy low” guys because while buying low is great, buying bad is not. When the Fantasy community loses confidence in a player for whatever reason, whether it’s an injury or a blip in their development, that is an opportunity to acquire a top prospect talent at a reasonable price.

Lucas Giolito, SP Chicago White Sox

There was a time when I ranked Lucas Giolito as my #1 Fantasy prospect based on his profile as a top of the rotation starter. He is now ranked by BaseballAmerica.com as their 75th best prospect. That fall from grace provides owners with a “buy low” opportunity. However, be aware that Giolito will be on a lot of yearly league “sleeper” lists, so feel out the mindset of the owner you’re dealing with to make sure he is being discounted.

Anderson Espinoza, SP San Diego Padres

He struggled after being traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres in the Drew Pomeranz deal and eventually, it was discovered that he needed Tommy John surgery. His development will slow down and considering how crazy the buzz was, that’s probably a good thing. The potential was immense, now the price should be affordable. If he busts, the cost won’t kill you, and if he returns to be a top of the rotation starting pitcher, you acquired him cheap.

Isan Diaz, 2B/SS Milwaukee Brewers

I love the tools, and I’m not completely discouraged by his struggles. The fact that his batting average and on-base percentage have dropped in three consecutive seasons makes it understandable that he dropped 21 spots in MLBPipeline.com’s rankings and fell out of BaseballAmerica.com’s Top 100 altogether. That’s why he is affordable now. He steals bases, hits for power and plays in the middle of the diamond. The reduced cost justifies the investment despite his struggles.

Tyler O’Neill, OF St. Louis Cardinals

The pedestrian OBP is a concern (.321 career OBP bolstered by a .374 breakout season in 2016), but he’s had two 30-plus home run seasons over the last three, and he steals enough bases to be noteworthy. The Mariners appear to have given up on him, and he’s dropped 51 places in MLBPipeline.com’s Top 100, so he is fixed firmly as a “buy low.”

Target Lower Level Talent

The top of a prospect list is typically filled with players at Double-A or higher. That proximity to the Major Leagues illuminates their profile for the masses, lowers their risk and raises their trade cost. If you targeted Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna at this time last season, then you found bargains. That’s what you should be trying to do at this time of year every single year. You are going to swing and miss but If you miss, the cost shouldn’t kill you. When you succeed, you set yourself up well at an affordable cost.

Estevan Florial, OF New York Yankees

He features elite tools and high strikeout rates. That’s a breakout candidate waiting to happen. More contact in 2018 will mean more home runs, flashy stolen base totals and an OPS that has him in the Top 10 next winter.

Daniel Johnson, OF Washington Nationals

He’s another speed/power prospect who’s already had a 20 home run, 20 stolen base minor league season. That’s a good sign of things to come.

Sixto Sanchez, SP Philadelphia Phillies

His fastball sits mid-90s and he has plus command of it. The secondary pitches need to come, but that’s a sound base to work from. If he falls back, he becomes a closer.

Adonis Medina, SP Philadelphia Phillies

His dominating fastball produced 133 strikeouts in 120 innings. He has to develop his other pitches, but it’s a good place to start.

Jordan Hicks, SP St. Louis Cardinals

Hicks has a plus-plus breaking ball and 95-plus mph fastball. That’s an elite profile looking to break out. He needs to repeat his delivery better but if he does, that foundation with more consistency will make him an elite prospect in 2019.

Cole Ragans, SP Texas Rangers

A left-hander with low to mid 90s velocity and a plus changeup. A two-pitch lefty is always worth the risk.

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