Cover image courtesy of Clinton Cole
Welcome to Baseball Farm’s 2019 edition of the First Year Player Draft guide! The goal is to provide you with strategy articles, rankings, and player capsules on players who were either drafted in the 2018 MLB Rule 4 (college) draft or signed during the 2018 international J2 signing period. These players typically constitute the player pool for new player drafts in existing dynasty and keeper leagues, which are often referred to as “first year player” drafts or “supplemental” drafts.
If you want to jump right into the rankings and player capsules, here are this year’s hitters and pitchers. If you prefer working in a spreadsheet, here’s my google doc with all of the player capsules and lists.
We’ve also compiled some strategy articles from our Baseball Farm crew and a few friends.
How to Read the Rankings and Player Capsules
Hitter/pitcher split: I decided to split the hitter and pitcher rankings. I think the evaluation process for each player is different and it really just makes sense to rank them against each other. As John Calvagno noted in his portion of the strategy section, you should favor hitters over pitchers, especially early on. Still, you will have to decide when to 'fold in' the pitchers and start thinking about drafting them. For me, I'd like to get through the first two tiers of batters before taking a tier 1 pitcher. Then two more tiers of hitters before thinking about some of the tier 2 pitchers.
Tiers: I think of tiers as buckets of players that I like similarly. It works better than ordinal ranking because the "distance" between Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner is (to me) greater than the distance between Madrigal and India or Gorman. Feel free to swap around guys freely within a tier based on your preferences.
Position: For hitters, I've listed the position they've been playing in the pro debut. This is not necessarily the position that the will stick at. A lot of the SS will wind up playing elsewhere. I've tried to include my thoughts on future defensive home in the player capsules
Blue: This is our proprietary Baseball Farm "blueberry" stat. It ranks a hitter or pitcher's performance based on the percentile he performed during the prior season. For hitters, it shows AVG-OBP-SLG-SB-AB. For pitchers it shows SO-K/BB-ERA-WHIP-HR/9-IP
Advanced stats: These are publicly available stats taken from Fangraphs
Scouting grades: These use Fangraphs publicly available scouting grades as a starting point (where available). I do tweak the grades based on my observations and other scouting reports. Also some scouting grades I had to invent whole cloth just because they aren't publicly available anywhere. I combine "game power" and "raw power" into a single "power" scouting grade just because this is how I think about things. The high end "power" grade is usually a batter's high end "raw power".
Risk: This chart explains how Baseball Farm applies its risk grades to players:
Upside/downside projections: The upside projection assumes everything breaks right and the player maxes out each potential scouting grade. The downside projection does the opposite. For more info on how the 20-80 scouting scale translates to MLB performance, see this invaluable article from Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs.
Valuing Victor Victor Mesa (by Chris Blessing)
Chris is a prospect writer at Baseball HQ, contributing on the Minor League Baseball Analyst and Baseball HQ's Baseball Forecaster.
Prepping for first-year player drafts is an exciting time to look back at your past successes and failures. Only then you’ll be able to focus on how you can improve your draft strategy. Undoubtedly, you’ve taken the first step. You’ve sought help from my friends at Baseball Farm. If you are astute, this is likely one of many fantasy prospect resources you have consulted, including Baseball HQ and the Minor League Baseball Analyst (Cheap Plugs). Only after collaborative research, you can properly organize your draft lists and avoid regrettable mistakes.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen in first-year player mock drafts is the overvaluation of Marlins OF Victor Victor Mesa. Mesa is not a bad player and/or a guy you shouldn’t invest in. Simply, he’s not a player to take in the 1st round of the draft. An argument can be made he’s not even the best International Free Agent signee this year to covet, with guys like Rangers OF Juan Pablo Martinez (*If eligible/available), Giants SS/OF Marco Luciano or Blue Jays SS Orelvis Martinez also available. Why?
For starters, the information on Mesa is limited. The scoutable video out there is from a workout, not even a showcase event. The swing is flat, which should diminish power potential. Also, Mesa lacks the explosive wrists we’ve seen out of other highly touted Cuban prospects, like Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada. I’ve seen experts not do their diligence when grading out his hit tool, relying more on what other evaluators have said without vetting information. Understand, amateur scouting is speculative while with pro scouting, we’re looking for fits. Mesa could be this, this and this but we’re now wanting to know how it all fits into fantasy. Mesa’s run tool is for real and his ability to excel in CF defensively is a plus for his overall prospect status. However, it’s a fringe-average raw power profile with an average hit tool. While I have him ranked lower on my own personal list¸ Baseball Farm has done a great job reflecting Mesa’s true value by ranking him as a Tier 3 First Year prospect, a prospect you should look to target at the end of the 2nd round through the 4th round.
Sun Tzu and the Art of Rotisserie War (by Paul Ladd)
First things first, read the damn rules. You've played for years, even decades. But unless you live under a rock, every league plays by different rules. Make sure you know them. Some overpower bullpens, where there are no innings minimums and ratios rule. Some overpower the value of prospects or have no automatic callups. Some limit the value of prospects by limiting their service time or escalate contacts quickly. Some use different offensive ratios and no minimum at-bats. Those that play in offshoots of other leagues, will have a huge advantage over those who don't. Read the rules, ask questions, ask for examples and explanations. Ask them about the advantages and disadvantages, what strategies have worked/failed in the past?
No matter how much research you think you do, someone is doing more. Even in a $50 league, most of your competitors have pulled down all the active rosters, all the remaining free agents, sorted them, projected #'s and available categories, plugged everyone into a pivot table or workbook or database and has a basic idea if they're competing or rebuilding. Which team is playing for now? Rebuilding? What are each teams strengths, tendencies and weaknesses?
Inflation can and will fuck up the best laid plans for draft day. An average salary of $16 can sometimes mean 10 guys at $32 and 10 guys at $1. Good players can go twice their value and bargains will be found in the low end of the market. Marginal players can go twice their value in overinflated markets. If you're rebuilding you don't want a bidding war for Max Scherzer unless you're going to compete soon and he's your anchor. Recognize that if you really want a player you may have to go over his projected cost. It's not the end of the world. If you draft a bunch of mediocre guys at mediocre salaries, you're going to have a mediocre team.
An auction is a different beast than a snake draft. Owners get caught up in the bidding. Position scarcity will drive up prices. Mistakes will be made. Trying to find value is even more important than filling categories. The team that wins will be the team that puts up the most value, and you can always trade from a strength. The team that is best prepared is often the team that has the best auction.
What are other team's weaknesses going into the auction? Do they need a position light on talent? Exploit it. Nominate guys you don't need, but others do. Force them to spend, as early as possible, as often as possible. Be a honeybadger. The earlier you bring em up, the more expensive they'll be. Don't nominate someone you want until you have to.
Other owners aren't stupid. While there might be a few odd trades during a year, most of your fellow owners are proud, do their homework, and aren't video game composites that can be easily exploited. Many played ball, most have an obsessive love for baseball with an overlap of statistics, and all play because they feel they're expert enough to compete against like-minded people. Try not to insult them. Be able to explain a trade offer and negotiate in good faith.
When trading, what does the other owner want? Need? Are they obsessive about 1st round picks, dangle yours. Overvalue their talent, then try to make a smaller trade and keep the avenues open for another day. If they have a fondness for pitching, then trade your pitchers. Do they only draft shortstops, then offer them another, or try to get one of theirs. Do they covet speed? Figure out what they want, then offer them what they want if possible. You just want incremental advantages, you don't have to kill anyone. Make a plan. Can you get any perceived value, any pot odds, that make it worth the risk? What needs are you addressing? If the trade doesn't help you, why do it? If the trade doesn't help the other owner, why would they do it?
If you accept a trade and owners start grousing someone got taken, put up a trade poll for a deal. Ask the league opinion, it will better inform you of the league temperature. If you come out on the short end, did you actively shop a player? Did you feel you got fair market value at the time? What changed? What is one year of a $75 player, compared to prospects with years of cheap control?
Know where your team is at compared to every other team in the league. I've seen owners take over teams and say, yeah, I know those guys! You need an objective assessment of your team compared to the rest. You may find that your "good" team is maybe the 9th best team going into the draft, there are 10 others teams with significant cap room, you've inherited a farm decimated by miscalculations. Can this team compete for a title? If not, perhaps a rebuild is in order.
Rebuild or compete. No half measures, Walt. You play for a title or build towards one. No one wants to finish 8th every season. Look at your team objectively. What's the average point total to win the league? What category totals do you need to project in the top 3-4 in each category? What are your team's projections compared to others? What's available on draft day - and do you have the cap space to buy talent compared to the other owners? What is your average $ per player kept, compared to other owners? What can they spend? What are their obvious needs?
If you're competing for now, be willing and ready to sell your soul. Invest your time in looking at the poorly performing teams and deciding when to ask them about their expiring contracts or underperforming assets. Make sure you have something to offer their future, for your win today. If you have farm talent, you'll be trading it. In fact, the best reason a competing team should work so hard on the minors draft is to have farm kids to trade to win now. Over and over. Always Be Selling. Be willing to grind. How do some of these teams become dynasties? They constantly work to improve their team. If you're not willing to work, someone else will. The only thing worse than losing is coming in 2nd when you could've improved your team and didn't.
If you're rebuilding, invest your time on farming. Build a comprehensive list of everyone's farm assets and have grades on them. Color code it if need be. You will be trying to upgrade your farm, turn it from Red to Yellow to Green. Get a comprehensive list of what minor league talent is available in the draft. Trade for more draft picks and farm talent. Keep churning.
Look to draft major league players at midprice or lower. The high price guys are hard to move because of the salaries. You want affordable guys you can keep as bridges or trade bait, and low prices guys that can add value above their cost. You want to sell off expiring contracts, or contracts with limited time. Play the waiver wire each week, every week. Keep pulling that waiver slot handle and try to get pieces you can trade to contenders for draft picks. Look for arms that could close, the junk bonds of the baseball market.
Contracts...understand what they mean. Some leagues have no contracts, while others are as complicated as the real world. Are they dollars, or millions of dollars? What is the soft cap/hard cap? Penalties?
Research - How many sites does everyone check religiously for data, innuendo, team updates, depth charts...etc? Or twitter feeds? That's just keeping up for the Major League draft. What about the minors? I went from 40 man Ultra Leagues to a 20 team league with 50 minor league players per team. Who's ready to research the top 1000 players in the minors? J2 signings from the year previous? Each week sites are updating prospect rankings, and most of your competitors are aggregating rankings from numerous places.
Know how many of your competitors feel they have scouting chops? More than you think. Or have analytics and programming skills that leave your meager spreadsheet work in the dust? Maybe half. But this isn't work to your competitors, and you shouldn't feel it's work as well. You don't have to be a superstar, but you do have to have a plan and commit to it. Dynasty leagues are dynasties for a reason. This isn't your family league, fantasy football draft in a bar. This is a 10 month a year endeavor (it does seem to lull during fantasy football). There is nothing like the buzz and optimism of an auction, except winning a banner.
Don't Fear the Statlines (by Dan Victor)
When evaluating the performance of a prospect trying minor league baseball for the first time, it is easy to become disillusioned by what we perceive to be a poor stat line. Let’s face it, we have spent much of our time as fans reading box scores and checking the batting average, home run, earned run average, and strikeout leaders, and we all recognize the accepted statistical benchmarks for what is considered a great player. The problem with this methodology exists when we try to paint with such a broad-brush while applying these standards to recently drafted high school players or very young international free-agents.
In many of my prospect evaluations, I am met with questions from fans asking, “why is Player A so highly ranked when he only hit .240 with 6 home runs and struck out in 25% of his at-bats?” The answer is because stats are only a small part of the formula for player development. As we look at the underwhelming stat line of Player A we notice that he was signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old and this season he made his debut in the United States, in Low-A as an 18-year-old. At the Low-A minor league level, the average player is roughly 21 years 3 months old. In this scenario, Player A is, in essence, the equivalent of a very talented high school senior being thrown into competition against prospects that are among the best college players in the world. Not only is there an age disparity, but often a physical development disparity, and an adjustment to a significantly increased workload (schedule). Other factors can include homesickness, nutrition, climate changes, or cultural adjustments.
So, in addition to raising their level of performance on the baseball field, they have these other pieces of the puzzle to put together. Many of these young hitters have never seen premium quality breaking balls or the kind of high octane fastballs they are seeing consistently in the minor leagues.
When considering your dynasty league players at your next draft don’t give up on the Heliot Ramos(es), Yasel Antuna(s), or Ryan Vilade(s) of the world (they were among the youngest players in the South Atlantic League in 2018). During the first exposure a player gets to full-season minor league baseball, they learn a lot about how to train their bodies to withstand the grind of a 140-game schedule. Conversely, when making your dynasty selections start by finding the youngest players in each level; then consider their signing bonuses, draft selection, and scouting reports before deciding to hold a lackluster stat line against them. In 1992 Derek Jeter began his minor-league career by hitting .210 with 4 HR and 52 SO in 210 at-bats. Similarly, in 1994 David Ortiz hit .246 with 2 HR and 46 SO in 167 at-bats during his debut minor league season. Keeping an open mind during your draft will help you avoid the pitfalls of missing the talented players that might just require a little bit of adjustment before figuring things out.
Supplemental Draft Strategies (by John Calvagno)
John runs his own live amateur scouting site, Notes from the Sally, where he scouts young MiLB players in the South Atlantic League (A-Full) and Appalachian League (Rookie).
Supplemental draft strategies vary based on size of league and whether you're competing. The general rule of thumb though is hitting over pitching and I subscribe to this. At least in the early rounds because there's so much volatility with pitchers. Watch/listen for pitchers showing improved command/stuff in double-A and pounce then. That's often the best way to acquire arms.
Something else to consider: college players tend to get to the big leagues faster than prep (high school) or J2 (International) players, thus offering high floors. But outside of the top handful of college players, most offer a limited ceiling. While many of the younger players are more volatile, they tend to offer enormous ceiling and non existent floors. I find it best to have a balance between the two. And the high ceiling/low floor types tend to make good trade pieces.
One last thought. What do you do if you're limited to 15-20 prospects by your league rules and your MILB roster is currently full? It might be worth packaging a few picks and trading up for a top talent. Remember, in that scenario, you'll have to drop a player for every player you add.
Navigating the Hitter/Pitcher Split (by Enoch Tang)
In a draft involving prospects, hitters should be prioritized over pitchers. This is due to pitchers’ likelihood of getting injured and development time when they enter the majors. While this is a rule for me, you're still going to need to draft pitchers at some point. I generally draft pitchers with the intention of trading them when their value rises.
I have a profile of pitchers I like to follow for major leaguers. I do the same, with some tweaks, for minor leaguers:
GB% is over 44%
K/BB above 2.5
K/9 over 8.0
Swinging strike % over 9%
I believe that if the pitcher can keep the ball down and get swings and misses, good things happen. If they are able to repeat aspects of this profile through different MiLB levels, then that gives me more confidence that they are moving in the right direction.
When running this profile against A-ball pitchers for the year of 2017, it comes back with a handful of pitchers, including Bryse Wilson, Jose Suarez, and Dustin May. In 2018, all three of them made it to AA before the age of 21. Looking at other levels, Jesus Luzardo fit this profile as well in 2017, splitting time between rookie ball and Low-A.
By no means is this a perfect system. It is meant to give one a starting point to find value in the mid-to-later rounds of the draft when we have to draft some pitchers.
Fantasy vs. Real Life in Prospect Rankings (by Enoch Tang)
It is helpful to look at rankings of prospects from as many sources as possible. Prospect rankings are a subjective thing. Everyone will have a different viewpoint in what they like in a prospect. It is up to you to piece them together and understand why you would draft one player over another.
Keep in mind that there are real-life prospect rankings and fantasy prospect rankings. This was a mistake I made when I first started playing dynasty leagues that included minor leaguers. I was relying on real-life rankings and not realizing what I should be looking for.
Scouting and Statlines (by Chip Bourne)
Chip ran some data this offseason and found an interesting lack of correlation between a player's Rookie-level performance and his subsequent MLB career performance in WAR:
Chip also looked at whether a hitter's wRC+ in the lower minors levels correlates to his future wRC+ at higher minor league levels. It does not correlate well:
So, pay extra attention to the scouting reports at the lower minor league levels. They are more likely to pay dividends than just looking at stat lines alone.
Thinking About Catching Prospects (by Phil Goyette)
A common refrain you might hear among your dynasty and keeper league mates is that they "hate catching prospects". You might ask yourself why? These are usually players who hit the ball hard and have a great baseball IQ and feel for the game. Shouldn't they develop from great prospects into great players?
The difficulty is that learning the catching position for the MLB level is incredibly difficult. A catcher will have to spend as much, if not more, time learning the craft of calling the game, handling the pitching staff, pitch framing, blocking, controlling the running game, etc. etc. Often times this comes at the cost of development in other areas.
Ben Carsley of Baseball Prospectus did an in-depth study on past catching prospects this summer. He looked at 21 top catching prospects who have lost rookie eligibility since 2015, finding just 4 "reliable" fantasy performers: JT Realmuto, Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber (who obviously is no longer even catching). The rest is really a wasteland. So, when looking at catching prospects for your upcoming first-year player drafts, remember that you might wind up waiting 6 years for Joey Bart to become what Evan Gattis is now.
Yusei Kikuchi - #1 Overall? (by Phil Goyette)
Kikuchi has agreed to a 4-year deal with the Mariners. Depending on your league's rules, he might be eligible to be drafted in your upcoming first-year player draft. If he's available, how should you value this 27-year-old in relation to a bunch of college kids, prep stars, and J2 athletes who might only be 16 years old??
A big part of the answer depends on what your team looks like now. In theory, you'd be drafting at the top of the 1st round because you are rebuilding and did poorly last season. If that is the case, then you might consider a high ceiling bat like Nolan Gorman or the best college bat (Jonathan India) as a centerpiece of your rebuilding project.
However, not every league works this way. There are plenty of leagues where the 1.1 pick is awarded for some kind of success in the previous season (maybe a consolation bracket for all of the teams that missed the playoffs). Therefore, your team might be in a position to both compete in 2019 and select Kikuchi. If that's the case, that's what you should do. With a nice landing spot in Seattle and SP2 upside, Kikuchi is a piece that can really help you win now.
Kyler Murray - How to Approach the Heisman Winner? (by Phil Goyette)
Heading into the 2018 draft, Kyler Murray was a highly rated, albeit raw, draft prospect. This is because he spent most of his time in college preparing to become an elite QB. He transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma where he waited for his opportunity to start after Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield left for the NFL. Also, he starred for the Oklahoma baseball team, posting a .296/.398/.556 slash line in the spring of 2018. Billy Beane took a shot on him with the 9th overall pick in the draft, throwing $5 million at him and telling him it was fine if he played football for the Sooners in the fall.
During the draft, many people said, jokingly, "man wouldn't it funny if Kyler won the Heisman too?" Then, he put together an incredible season and did just that. He threw for 4,300 yards, ran for 1,000 more, and accounted for 54 total touchdowns. Mental. Given the opportunity to commit his future to baseball in the press conferences leading up to the college football playoffs, Murray was understandably non-committal. It's all but certain that an NFL team is going to call his name in the draft come April.
So what do you do with this guy? When I started my ranking process this summer, before he officially won the starting QB job at Oklahoma, I had him in the Top-5 range. He's slowly slid down the rankings ever since. However, don't read these (or any other) rankings as gospel. Think about how you would like to construct your team. If your first pick is a "high floor" guy (say Nick Madrigal), it might make a ton of sense to take a risk on your second pick. And Kyler Murray with his 30/30 upside might be sitting there waiting for you to pick him.