Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Jon Papelbon Part II - or young starters

John B followed up at Alex Patton's web site with a follow up question about Papelbon:

most keeper leagues owners are going to have to decide whether to keep this player at about this $20 salary. Do you try to corner a young stud starter on the way up? I like to. If you want any shot at owning the big guns, think Santana on the way up, Mussina on the way up, you have to get them early because you are certainly not going to pay for them later at their fully bloated market value.

My supposition is that there are a few young starters who blossom into studs, but few that we can easily predict will do so. To research this, I decided to dip into my favorite minor league resource, the excellent "The Baseball Prospect Book", produced every year and self-published by John Sickels. I decided to look at pitchers with a grade of A or A- from 2001-2006 in both leagues. Pitchers are listed in descending order of grade:

2001: Ryan Anderson, Ben Sheets, Josh Beckett, Jon Rauch, Roy Oswalt, C.C. Sabathia, Bobby Bradley, Chin-Hui Tsao

2002: Josh Beckett, Dennis Tankersley, Juan Cruz, Mark Prior, Jake Peavy

2003: Jesse Foppert, Francisco Rodriguez, Rich Harden, Jerome Williams, Kurt Ainsworth, Rafael Soriano, Adam Wainright, Gavin Floyd

2004: Zack Greinke, Ryan Wagner, Edwin Jackson, Joe Blanton, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, Dustin McGowan, Adam Wainwright, Gavin Floyd, Kris Honel, Greg Miller.

2005: Felix Hernandez, Adam Miller, Jeff Francis, Chad Billingsley, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Crain, Dan Meyer, Huston Street, Gavin Floyd, Matt Cain, Mike Hinckley, Brandon McCarthy

2006: Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, Craig Hansen, Jason Hirsh, Cesar Carrillo

You're forgiven if you don't remember or never even heard of some of these guys.

One of the problems a year like last year presents is that it gets us excited about the anomaly. Verlander, Liriano and Jered Weaver all succeeded wildly as rookies, earning $20 or more in their first year in the bigs. While it's possible that this could happen again, history tells us that it's almost impossible.

Let's look at a living example of this in Felix Hernandez.

Last year, Alex put what I thought was a very conservative $13 bid on Felix Hernandez. In the culture of pricing, this sounded to me like Alex's way of saying "pass." Meanwhile, in other corners of the fantasy universe, it was not uncommon to see bids for King Felix in the low 20s. He had earned $14 in a mere 84 IP, and he looked unhittable in his first run through the bigs. Rototimes, in fact, had him ranked 6th overall in their 2006 starting pitching predictions.

Assume for a moment that no one was allowed to keep Felix from the previous year, or that you have no farm system and he had been FAABed at a prohibitively high price. You draft him for $20.

Felix earned $9 last year. Are you going to keep him this year at $20? I wouldn't.

I think trying to grab hold of a young stud on the way up is a great idea. However, it's a lot more difficult to do this in practice than it is in theory. Paying $20 on the off chance that Felix Hernandez is going to break even in year one and then turn a fat profit in year two isn't a winning gambit. You actually are better off paying the full market value for a stud like Johan Santana or Roy Halladay and getting $30+ worth of stats from them then you are paying $20 on a rookie who has a very small chance of breaking even in Year One.

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