Fantasy Baseball Prospect Analysis: Answering top questions about the top 100 prospects

Like many baseball analysts, I have a top 100 prospects list. If you haven’t checked it out yet, please do. It recently got a facelift, incorporating some developments from the abbreviated spring training.

My prospect rankings are different for all the normal reasons anyone’s rankings would be different from anyone else’s, but then also this one: They’re geared specifically for Fantasy Baseball.

But what does that even mean? Say we narrow it down to dynasty leagues, at least, meaning we don’t need for every one of these prospects to contribute in 2020. Even then, the priorities could change based on, among other things, scoring format, keeper rules and whether or not your league uses dedicated minor-league spots. There comes a point where you just have to accept that ranking prospects is an imperfect process.

Nonetheless, people have questions. Here are six of the ones I get most often:

How do you evaluate prospects?

If I had to reduce my prospecting philosophy to just one line, it would be this: Nobody knows all that much. So me, I try not to pretend like I know more than I do, which isn’t always easy because I’m often more studied than others. I can develop interesting talking points and relay relevant facts. I can pull up stats and deduce a fair amount just from those. So, yes, I’m better equipped to form an educated guess than others, but it’s still, ultimately, a guess.

What I can’t do is go and scout players for myself. I have neither the time nor the means to do so, and even if I did, I wouldn’t put a great deal of trust in the things I’m seeing, certainly not compared to the actual scouts employed by actual teams. They can point to things the rest of us aren’t likely to discover on our own, and I’m more inclined to believe them than myself. Reviewing what they have to say is an essential part of prospect evaluation, but they of course bring their own biases and don’t have an actual crystal ball.

I believe, then, that my role as Fantasy Baseball writer for CBS Sports is to process all of that information, interpret it for a Fantasy Baseball context and present it in a more condensed form, baking in my own intuitions, inferences and leanings. It’s a never ending research project where I’m constantly reporting back on my findings.

Why do you have Dylan Carlson ahead of Jarred Kelenic?  

It’s true. I’m one of the few who do, and the simplest explanation for it is proximity. Carlson, having advanced to Triple-A last season, may have a spot on the Cardinals’ opening day roster. Kelenic, who saw a little bit of action at Double-A, probably won’t arrive for the Mariners until 2021.

Proximity of course matters in Fantasy Baseball. Not every dynasty league GM has the option of keeping his minor-leaguers on separate terms from his major-leaguers, and it’s always easier to keep someone who’s contributing now. But beyond that, the skill set for these two is remarkably similar:

2019 stats

Carlson: .292 BA (489 AB), 26 HR, 20 SB, .914 OPS, 58 BB, 116 K

Kelenic: .291 BA (443 AB), 23 HR, 20 SB, .904 OPS, 50 BB, 111 K

Each shows few weaknesses as a hitter, demonstrating strike zone awareness and enough athleticism to steal bases. Of course, Carlson didn’t really come onto the prospect scene until a year ago while Kelenic has been there since the Mets drafted him sixth overall in 2018, and I’ve seen other evaluators suggest something like “why take Carlson when he’s basically a less proven version of Kelenic?”

But “proven” isn’t the most befitting way to describe any prospect, and to the extent it does apply, it should apply chiefly to the level of play that a minor-leaguer has already mastered. Carlson played 108 games at Double-A last year. Kelenic played 21. 

Shouldn’t we be wary of whatever held back Carlson prior to last year? You can make the case, sure, but it sounds like typical developmental stuff. A switch-hitter, Carlson wasn’t as developed from the left side of the plate, where he was getting the majority of at-bats, but ironed out his swing last year and ended up crushing righties. The Cardinals also promoted him aggressively, which is why he’s already to Triple-A as a 21-year-old. Seems like they knew what they had all long.

Which of the Tigers’ big three pitching prospects do you want the most?

The three in question are Casey Mize, who I rank seventh, Matt Manning (26th), and Tarik Skubal (36th), and I suppose those rankings could just speak for themselves. But rankings are by nature a matter of the head rather than the heart, and particularly in the context of prospects, with their high failure rate and hypothetical outcomes, the heart deserves a say.

2019 stats

Mize: 8-3, 2.55 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 109.1 IP, 23 BB, 106 K

Manning: 11-5, 2.56 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 133.2 IP, 38 BB, 148 K

Skubal: 6-8, 2.42 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 122.2 IP, 37 BB, 179 K

Mize is the easy choice to rank highest since was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft and just annihilated high Class A and Double-A for 13 starts before having some shoulder soreness. But he struggled to the tune of a 6.61 ERA after returning from the injury and underwhelmed with his strikeout rate throughout. He’s a fairly safe bet to hold down a rotation spot for many years, but does he present the same upside as the other two? The head says yes, but it’s inconclusive.

Manning has been on the prospect scene the longest of the three — since the Tigers made him the ninth overall pick in 2016, basically — but is only now getting his due as one of the very best pitching prospects even though the strikeout rate has been consistently high. An improved walk rate last year helping relieve concerns that his long levers would make his delivery unrepeatable.

Tarik Skubal was a relative nobody at this time a year ago, but his 13.1 K/9 rate in 2019 was the most impressive of the three. And his 17.4 K/9 in nine starts after moving up to Double-A was just out of this world. The scouting reports don’t offer much reason for skepticism either, highlighting his two plus breaking balls and ability to command the strike zone, and of the three, he was the one generating the most buzz in spring training.

These three pitchers are now the stars of the Tigers’ rebuild effort, but of them, Skubal is the name the casual dynasty player may not know. It makes him the one I’m likely to have the most shares in.

Is Carter Kieboom being overlooked in Fantasy Baseball?

It’s the weirdest thing. Kieboom is a top 25 prospect across virtually all publications — some of them for a second straight year — and has so earned the trust of the Nationals that they, the defending World Series champions, are ready to install him as Anthony Rendon’s replacement at third base for the start of the season. And yet Fantasy players couldn’t be less interested, drafting him 323rd overall on average, according to FantasyPros.

Even in redraft leagues, top prospects at the precipice of breaking through tend to get far more love than he is, and yet even I, the one pointing out how weird it is and ranking him ninth overall among prospects, am content to let him go undrafted in most of my leagues. In my deeper leagues — say, 15 teams or more — he’s a fixture on my bench, so I seem to be acknowledging his upside more than the masses, but the simple fact is nobody’s acknowledging it that much.

And it has to be because of his pitiful showing as a hurried replacement for the injured Trea Turner last April. If we hadn’t rushed to pick him up off the waiver wire only to see him hit .128 (5 for 39) with 16 strikeouts while committing four errors in 11 games, we’d all have a more favorable opinion of him today.

Is it fair? Of course not. He was a 21-year-old who had just barely gotten his feet wet at Double-A, and the Nationals delayed the decision for about three weeks because they weren’t convinced he was ready. But Kieboom went back down and put up the sort of numbers befitting a top prospect, and now they’re convinced he is. Says a lot right there.

A big spring, which Kieboom wasn’t having, would probably go a long way to relieving our fears, but either way, our shared response to him hasn’t been a rational one.

If this list is for Fantasy Baseball, why do you have starting pitchers so high?

It’s another effect of this list needing to be all things to all league types, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The amount of Fantasy Baseball analysis that’s geared toward traditional 5×5 Rotisserie play (and, oddly, the 15-team format) seems disproportionately high given the variety of leagues that people actually play in, and especially on, the Head-to-Head points format makes up a significant part of the customer base. That’s the one that has traditionally valued starting pitchers higher than any of the others.

Naturally, prospect rankings that are adapted for standard Rotisserie play will have certain tendencies, elevating would-be base-stealers, emphasizing power ceiling and suppressing all but the most high-end pitchers since the threshold for an impact starting pitcher is so unfairly high in that format. But I’d prefer a fairer ranking for the fairer scoring formats, presuming that you, as with any other rank list, will adapt it to your own sensibilities. I have faith in you.

Of course, there’s a case to be made, regardless of format, that pitching prospects are inferior to hitting prospects just because of the risk factor  — TINSTAAPP and all that — but that belief is built into my rankings to the same extent it would be for any real-world rankings. It doesn’t mean we should completely bury the top pitching prospects, though, because if you hit big on one of those, it’s arguably the best asset you could have in today’s offensively charged game.

Which prospect confuses you the most?

It’s the Braves’ Drew Waters, and I don’t have to think especially hard about it. The Scott White of a few years ago might have written him off completely, convinced the world is full of idiots who can’t keep up with his enlightened thinking. The Scott White of today is a little suspicious.

I still grimace seeing him at 37 in my rankings, and yet I know it still puts me at the lower end of the evaluations. Surely, his defensive prowess is influencing some of the real-life rank lists — he’d project as the Braves’ future center field if not for the presence of Cristian Pache — and yet Baseball America gives him a 55 hit tool and 55 power tool, both better than average. If he’s a base-stealer, too, he has the makings of a significant asset.

2019 stats

Waters: .309 BA (527 AB), 7 HR, 16 SB, .819 OPS, 39 BB, 164 K

What makes me skeptical is the actual performance. While he hasn’t been lacking in doubles (40 last year) and triples (nine), the home run power hasn’t developed yet … as he’s already pushing for a major-league job at Triple-A. Even worse, the strikeout rate is untenable. That .309 batting average he put together between Double- and Triple-A last year relied on a .436 BABIP at the former and a .429 BABIP at the latter. Simply outrageous.

And yet … Waters looks to have a high-BABIP profile. That’s the part I might have overlooked in the past. His line-drive rates are consistently elite. He hits the ball to all fields. When he makes contact, it’s high-impact contact, and if he learns to elevate a little better, it’ll be even higher-impact contact. Still, it’s all predicated on the strikeout rate coming down. It’s not Joey Gallo-caliber contact that he’s making, after all.

That’s a big ask, all things considered, so while I acknowledge Waters’ place among the top prospects, I might be shopping him now for fear of things getting worse rather than better.

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