MASTER NOTES: Prospecting's new wave

So, prospect-palooza is over. Zillions of FAAB dollars were doubtless paid out to acquire the likes of Keston Hiura, Brendan Rodgers, Nicky Lopez, and Willie Calhoun. I spent half my FAAB in Tout-AL on Calhoun. You may forward your congratulations to whatever hospital Willie's in after straining a quad in his second game on my roster.

One of the things I like about playing in Tout Wars is the often innovative thinking that goes on. A year or two ago Justin Mason really overloaded on starting pitching in the Head-to-Head league, where he saw a possible market inefficiency in the rules. Ron Shandler has road-tested some of his ideas in Tout. Steve Moyer used a near-Labadini hitting-heavy strategy. And now there’s a crafty idea in roster management and FAABing that is starting to bubble up.

The idea is FAABing prospects after the auction or draft, during the season—but well before the prospect has been called up. I first saw it when Chris Liss grabbed a potential rising star more than a month before that player was called up.

Many leagues, especially those operating more strictly under the original rules of Rotisserie, don’t allow FAABing players unless they are already on the big-league team’s 25-man roster—that is, unless he’s been called up and activated.

But under Tout rules, and in many other leagues, owners may FAAB anyone they like, with the provision that in mono-leagues (AL-only or NL-only), the player must be on an affiliated minor-league team to be eligible for FAABing. In Tout, unlike, say, NFBC, the rules say that any FAABed player must be active for at least the full week after he is acquired before he can be put on reserve.

I tried the tactic this year by rostering Oscar Mercado, a young OF prospect in the CLE organization, with a $1 FAAB bid while he was still in Triple-A. I first heard about him in BaseballHQ Radio's April 12 edition, when Frequent Flyer commentator Alex Beckey discussed him as a possible game-changer. Beckey said Mercado had "stolen at least 30 bases in every season since 2015, when he snatched 50" and extolled his "flat line-drive stroke that could allow him to hit at the top of a major-league order, which significantly increases his stole-base and run potential."

I was intrigued.

I checked on, and Mercado’s OBP was around .350, and he was running a lot: 14 SB and just 3 CS, an 83% SB%. I thought those on-base skills plus speed could help a CLE squad struggling to score runs. CLE already had a pile of OFs, including Leonys Martin, Bradley Zimmer, Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, Carlos Gonzalez, and Jake Bauers, but that group had an aggregated OPS of .601, more likely to recognize as the area code for central Mississippi than the OPS of a big-league outfield corps. The CLE OF was out-OPSing MIA’s OF by just 25 points, and the Marlins’ aren’t making anyone forget the ’75-’76 Big Red Machine.

With Mercado seemingly so far from the majors, I bid the minimum $1 (Tout allows $0 bids but only for players on 25-man rosters) on Sunday, April 28, and got Mercado effective Monday, April 29. I put him on my roster in our “Swingman” slot, a Tout innovation that lets us use our 23rd roster slot for a 10th pitcher or 14th hitter. Fortunately, the slot was occupied at the time by Justin Bour, and since Bour was more of a “Swing-and-miss man,” all I would lose was a week of Bour’s sub-.600 OPS. Taking the zero might actually have helped, at least in OBP.

I took the zero for Mercado that first week, then reserved him, effective May 6. CLE helpfully activated Mercado on May 14—the following  Tuesday, which was un-handy as it meant I would have to wait six more days to get his stats active. While languishing on my reserve, Mercado played in four games, going 3-for-9 (.333) with a couple of walks and a solo HR. On the Sunday before I could activate him, I saw Mercado easily steal second, only to overslide the bag and get called out. His OPS was well over 1.000, so I was excited about the potential.

I got to activate Mercado effective Monday, May 20. He has since played three games, getting to the plate 12 times. He has two hits (a .167 BA) and no walks (so a .167 OBP), no HR, no runs and 2 RBI. His OPS in those three games has been .417 and he hasn’t attempted a steal.

But that’s in the very short run. CLE believes in Mercado (and Jordan Luplow) enough to have released Carlos Gonzalez, causing BHQ team analysts to bump Mercado’s PT by 45 percentage points. Naquin also suffered a calf injury, giving Mercado even more PT opportunities.

Since snagging Mercado, I have tried again, speculating on BAL 1B prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who is OPSing .876 with 7 HR and 32 RBI in Triple-A, and whose path seems relatively unblocked in BAL, where the only obstacle is Chris Davis (.176/.259/.328 in 139 PA), whom, somewhat ironically, I bought at this year’s auction.

I’m pretty sure that this kind of pre-emptive striking on near-ready fantasy prospects is going to increase in fantasy leagues whose rules allow it because fantasy owners are realizing that big-league clubs are getting more aggressive in promoting their young prospects.

Maybe the clubs are starting to think that the six-year low-cost structure is going to change in the next labor deal, so they might as well get their six years of benefit right now. They might be thinking, “We can promote a kid at $555,000 and get just as much nothin’ as we can paying $3.5 million for a 31-year-old journeyman.” Concerns about the future salary structure would also explain why teams are suddenly being so generous signing first-year extensions like Eloy Jimenez and Brandon Lowe got this season.

This early-prospecting technique might be more playable in mono-leagues, where free-agent pools are thinner than soup-kitchen gravy and the opportunity costs of the lost week aren’t too onerous. Losing a week of Justin Bour’s “production” in a 12-team AL-only is not the same as losing a week of the typical 14th hitter in a 12-team or 15- team mixed.

More of these guys are on the way.

And by the way, the prospect Chris Liss speculated on back in 2015? A young shortstop named Carlos Correa, who played 99 games after his early-June callup, and provided Liss with 22 HR, 68 RBI, 52 Runs, 14 SB and a .345 OBP, helping him to the 2015 Tout-AL title.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.