The Secret to Rebuilding Your Fantasy Team

I have owned Nick Williams in a very competitive Ottoneu league since mid-January.  Effective today, I am cutting bait on Nick Williams.

Actually, Nick Williams is really just a proxy for all those glossy prospects we fall in love with. Exiting the 2015 season, I was coming off a championship but knew I’d be staring headfirst at a very difficult rebuild.  So, entering the spring of 2016 I did exactly what I usually advise new fantasy owners to avoid: stock up on a bunch of prospects and let hope fill in the strategic gaps.

Rebuilding heavily on the backs of limitless but unproven prospects rarely works, but there I was, investing fully in the hope of cheap, young, potential “surplus“.  I couldn’t help myself, and Nick Williams became one of my proudest prospect acquisitions this past winter.  What wasn’t to like? He entered the spring just outside several Top 25 prospect lists but still felt a bit underrated. I’d read “lightning fast wrists” and comps to Carlos Gonzalez.  He was lauded for a great hit tool and possessed emerging power.  There was caution in his approach at the plate, but he was coming off a season of tangible gains.  He was relatively close to the majors (100+ games in AA) and played for an organization that had no one blocking his way.  Bottom line: Nick Williams was lining up to by my next franchise player, and I was smart enough to see it before everyone else.

Nine months later, those dreams are gone.  While Williams is still only 23 and holding his own at AAA this year, he isn’t going to be a franchise player, at least not for me.  More importantly, he isn’t likely to be riding on my roster if he ever does figure it out.  And that’s really the thing with almost all prospects, isn’t it? If they do pan out, will it actually happen on your watch (and your team) when you need it to? The Corey Seager‘s, and Carlos Correa’s always blind us into thinking the only prospects that never fail are our own, but what is the true opportunity cost of holding all these prospects that actually do fall flat?

I’ve attempted to answer this question in hindsight now that the 2016 season is nearly complete. What cheap but effective players could I have nabbed off of waivers this year in place of Nick Williams, and would my team be better off going forward with them instead?

Using Ottoneu ownership and average salary data as of September, I limited my filter to all players currently owned for $3 or less, and then hand-selected a few hitters who (using wOBA and P/G as quick standards for YTD value) appear to have enough future value to be at least as interesting as Nick Williams once was to me so long (not really) ago.

2016 Waiver Gold – Hitters
Robbie Grossman OF $1.84 37% 442 0.367 83 5.33
Lonnie Chisenhall 3B/OF $1.94 43% 478 0.336 114 4.19
Joe Mauer 1B $1.96 75% 665 0.333 129 5.16
Jorge Polanco 2B/3B/SS $2.05 30% 212 0.321 50 4.24
Cesar Hernandez 2B/3B/SS $2.14 53% 602 0.328 136 4.43
Sandy Leon C $2.21 69% 388 0.409 63 6.16
Adam Duvall 1B/3B/OF $2.36 96% 663 0.333 131 5.06
Eduardo Nunez 3B/SS $2.37 90% 672 0.322 130 5.17
Nick Franklin 1B/2B/OF/SS $2.38 25% 232 0.366 49 4.73
Michael Saunders OF $2.41 96% 701 0.358 123 5.70
Ryan Schimpf 2B/3B/OF $2.56 78% 422 0.375 72 5.86
Jose Ramirez 2B/3B/OF/SS $2.59 95% 724 0.351 134 5.40
Mike Zunino C $2.72 81% 220 0.381 40 5.50
Steve Pearce 1B/2B/OF $2.90 81% 433 0.374 84 5.15
Tyler Naquin OF $2.95 91% 508 0.389 101 5.03
Willson Contreras C/OF $2.96 95% 301 0.34 63 4.78

A few highlights:

Robbie Grossman: Grossman will soon turn 27 and in short spurts he’s been sneaky good this year, mostly due to his .353 BABIP and proclivity to crush LHP (.442 wOBA).  I have no idea if Grossman will play the same role in 2017, but he’s got age and now a bit of a track record on his side, and in many deep leagues being “useful”, even off the bench, is far more valuable than what many owners are getting out of the prospects that have been riding the pine all season.

Lonnie Chisenhall: If you remember, Chisenhall was that shiny prospect five years ago, and he’s finally producing at a steady enough level in 2016 to be considered useful.  Like Grossman, a career best .344 BABIP helps, but you’re really only platooning him vs. RHP anyway if you own him in the $1-$2 range.  He’s hitting the ball harder than ever before and will play 2017 at the age of 28, so there’s at least some hope that this is a foundation to build on.

Jorge Polanco: The jury is still out on Polanco after just 50 games, and while he’s no Corey Seager, he’s hitting for a decent average (.298) and doesn’t seem over-matched like a lot of young prospects (14% K%).  He’s someone to keep an eye on, and likely a prospect still under-the-radar enough that you could swap him in for someone on your bench where you spent the first five months of the season place-holding Orlando Arcia (Ranked #8 pre-season by Baseball America) instead.

Sandy Leon: It’s always nice when youthful catchers like Gary Sanchez and Wilson Contreras (now 23 HR between them in 100 combined games) reward our patience as if there was never any doubt at all, but there are far more early stalls like Mike Zunino and Blake Swihart to ignore the risks with young backstops.  While most rebuilding owners are busy stubbornly holding on to the next Matt Wieters, you could have opened up a roster spot to take a chance on Sandy Leon, a 27 year-old catcher with just 75 games played before 2016 on his resume.  Leon continues to ride a sky-high BABIP (.441), but had you picked him up in June his .356/.414/.553 line is now firmly on your fantasy team books, so you’ve gotten your money’s worth regardless of where things go from here.  But Leon looks like a keeper at these waiver-wire prices and is another great example of not putting all your eggs in the prospect basket.

Adam Duvall, Michael Saunders, Ryan Schimpf: Congrats on being quick to scoop up this trio off waivers this season.  They’ve gone on to deliver over 70 HR for your team this year, which is about the same number we were all expecting out of Joey Gallo and AJ Reed this time seven months ago.

A lot of fantasy owners believe the secret to successful rebuilding is patience, and nothing requires more patience than a top prospect still learning on the job.  The reality, of course, is that the real secret to rebuilding is exactly the opposite: success takes an active, dedicated mindset of constant tinkering, churning, and sifting through all avenues of value, including the adding and dropping of prospects, fishing the waiver wire, and making shrewd trades, even when think you might be buying high on a no-name player by selling “low” on a previously stud prospect.  Prospects (even the less shiny ones) can pay off, but it’s only when we recognize that value comes in all shapes, sizes, ages, and names that we’ll be able to effectively speed up the rebuilding process.

Part Two: The Jose Berrios Lesson

Trey is a 20+ year fantasy veteran and an early adopter of Ottoneu fantasy sports. He currently administers the Ottoneu community, a network of ~1,200 fantasy baseball and football fans talking sports daily. More resources here:

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I really like the premise of this article: I play in a 16 team mixed dynasty and it is rarely top prospect promotions that keep my team at the top: it is grabbing the next Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, Khris Davis sorts that you can pick up as free agents at no cost and get top production out of for a few years. Trying to wishcast on the next Corey Seager/Kris Bryant is usually cost prohibitive vs. just seeing which late bloomers/unheralded guys flashing some skills stick.