The Art of War: Prospect Strategy

Bob Levey

"Those skilled at making the enemy move do so by creating a situation to which he must conform; they entice him with something he is certain to take, and with lures of ostensible profit they await him in strength." – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The idea behind this post is to get the reader to think a little bit about their opponents and give some thought into basic Game Theory as it applies to fantasy baseball. Too many players focus on their own team’s strength and what they need, without consideration of how transactions will affect their opponents. Understanding the other managers in your league can provide a huge advantage when it comes to trade discussions and this post (and hopefully subsequent posts) will help you understand the many different ways your opponents might approach a certain scenario.

The first installment of this series is how different managers approach building a farm team. You cannot ask a manager his opinion on every prospect you want to bring up in trade discussions, but if you can get an idea of how he approaches prospects in general you gain valuable insight into how to attack trade negotiations. I have 4 different strategies that an owner may take. Each strategy has a brief philosophy, followed by its strengths, weaknesses, and how to exploit a manager employing this approach.

Buy and Hold:

Philosophy: A "Buy and Hold" investor tries to load up on prospects, typically in an attempt to rebuild a struggling franchise. You see this in managers who are taking over an abandoned roster. They build up through the draft and by trading their veteran MLB players in the first few weeks they take over the team. What separates this strategy from others is that after a year or two of re-stocking the farm system, this strategy involves minimal trading of draft picks and prospects. The idea is to load up and get a solid base that will graduate to the major leagues in the next few years, and then supplement it through smaller trades and through the natural process of the draft.

Strengths: The strength of this strategy is that it is not over-reactive to the volatile nature of the prospect business. You load up for a year or two and then ride out that wave of players until they hit the big leagues. No matter if a prospect’s stock is up or down you are holding on to him until he hits the big leagues or falls into prospect irrelevance. This conservative model most closely resembles the approach of the majority of MLB clubs. It is safe and will likely produce a competitive team that will have a chance to compete for a title if a few things break the right way.

Weaknesses: You leave a lot on the table. The strength of your team is too dependent on the depth of the minor league system during the time frame in which you are stocking up on prospects. If you happen to be loading up on a draft class that will ultimately deliver very few MLB contributors, you will find yourself 3 years older and back at square one. This strategy is not dynamic enough and needs to be as fluid as the prospect industry in order to maximize your talent at both the major league and minor league level.

How to Exploit: There is no point in attempting to acquire any minor league players from a manager just beginning this strategy. They are looking to hoard any prospect that has ever received a positive scouting report. The best place to attack here is to get it on the fire sale that normally occurs the first few weeks this strategy is employed. As stated earlier, it will typically be from a new manager but I have seen a few managers who after loading up one year to make a run, find themselves with nothing the year after and decide to start from scratch. I like to pick off a few value players for middle of the road prospects. No prospect is guaranteed to make an impact at the major league level, so if you can flip a few prospects who MAY make an impact down the road, for a player or two already making an impact now, it’s a great move.

Dividend Investors:

Philosophy: I’ll admit, this fantasy strategy doesn’t correlate perfectly to the investment strategy, but let me see if I can make this work. Dividend investors, in fantasy terms, invest in prospects and quickly flip them for MLB Talent. They aren’t acquiring Top-10 caliber prospects, and they aren’t receiving Top-50 MLB players but they do insure themselves a constant supply of fantasy role players by trading prospects early (or even draft picks if allowed in some leagues). These teams are usually a few big FA Signings away from a banner year. These are typically the managers who got involved in a league with minor league systems, but doesn't know much about minor league systems.

Strengths: The strength of this plan is that you flip prospects before they ever have a chance to have their flaws exposed. A guy like Josh Bell in Pittsburgh still has the projection of an above average big-league hitter. Even though he has struggled out of the gate, he still has the injury to cover any flaws that have been exposed. After seeing him for a full season next year, we will get a much better idea of what kind of hitter he is and that might not be a good thing for his future value. This also manifests itself with Catchers. You can deal them while there is still hope that they will be a Catcher in the MLB. Guys like Stryker Trahan, Clint Coulter, and Will Swanner are current examples and Wil Myers is a little bit older example – a few years ago, Myers was expected to be the hitter he is now but at the catcher position. That could’ve brought home a couple of nice MLB-ready pieces.

Weaknesses: A Dividend Investor will never grow a superstar. They must rely on acquiring one through Free Agency or through a blockbuster trade. Using this approach, you must concede the fact that you will never inherit a player that you can bolster with role players. You won’t have the depth in your system to have a few players breakout to become Top-10 MLB fantasy contributors. Many dynasties are formed by having a few top prospects turn into top MLB contributors so that a manager’s focus is only on supporting those players with as much talent as possible.

How to Exploit: Deal from depth. If you have an extra OF who could start on most teams, but you’re loaded at that position….flip him to a Dividend Investor for a few young prospects/draft picks. The players you will be acquiring are normally too risky to give up a cornerstone piece or to expose your Major League Roster to another weakness, so dealing from strength is the optimal way to go about this. Trading a player in his prime, for two or three lottery tickets isn’t a bad deal if you have other options available to cover what you are giving up.

Growth Investors:

Philosophy: Growth investors love potential. They love shiny new toys and get rid of them as soon as they lose their luster. Managers who employ the Growth Investor strategy have a ton of talent in their minor league roster but typically never keep it long enough to reap the rewards. They always seem to have the inside track on the hot new prospect and won’t give him up unless you give him a Top 5 MLB 1B and a Top 10 SP.

Strengths: The Growth Investor strategy does not work long-term. A manager stuck in this mindset will never realize enough talent to be competitive. It seems counter-intuitive that a manager would not stick with their top prospects after they graduate, but the fact is that many prospects fail early. Growth Investors do not have the patience to stick by their guys, so they typically flip them for the next hot prospect coming up. The strength of this approach is that it is an easy cure, and it is a cure with a quick remedy. If you are loaded with top prospects, all it takes is isolating the managers who need them most and poaching their top MLB-ready talent. You can take a team that employed a successful Growth Investor strategy and turn them into a winner in one off-season if played correctly. The problem is that the manager never realizes their own mistake and can’t get out of the vicious prospect cycle.

Weaknesses: The weakness is the inability to ever field a competitive team. Ever. It gets worse if you try to get out of the cycle by letting your players graduate and you begin to realize that the success rate of most prospects is not very promising. Very few Top-100 guys actually become impact fantasy players, so Growth Investors can typically find themselves with nothing after thinking they had a farm system that would generate a championship-caliber team for years to come.

How to Exploit: It’s tough to exploit these managers. All they want are top prospects and they have nothing much at the major league level to offer in return. The best way to exploit these players is to time the market. When there top prospects are graduating and hit early struggles in the big leagues (it happens to almost everyone), put out an offer for that player in exchange for one of your top prospects. Even Mike Trout hit .220 in his first 135 Plate Appearances. An initial struggle like that could open the door for an exchange for two or three top low-A prospects. It by no means works every time because the length of a player’s struggles varies drastically, but you can time it right and buy-low on a guy like Anthony Rizzo after he struggled in San Diego.

Value Investors:

Philosophy: A value investor is interested in pure profit. No prospect is ever off the trade block, so long as the opposing manager is willing to at least pay market value. A value investor understands that top prospects (especially those in low-A and rookie leagues) can be risky business and they aren’t afraid to flip a top prospect for some guaranteed value at the major league level. Value Investors are adaptable to any environment. If they see that a few managers are willing to part with minor league talent for dirt cheap, they will buy it and turn around and sell it to a manager who overvalues that same talent. They build their strength through a series of moves that slowly build value across the entire organization.

Strengths: This is where every manager wants to be. Unfortunately, you can only afford to be here once your team has reached a competitive position. If your team has no major league talent, and the cabinets are empty at the minor league level, you don’t have any assets to trade. The reason I mention this in the strength section is because there are very few chances to take advantage of a Value Investor. If the team is down and out, they understand the importance of building through the rookie draft and if they are in the midst of a championship season, they will deal a prospect or two to bolster the championship run but won’t have to mortgage their future to do so.

Weaknesses: There really are no weaknesses to this approach. The only word of warning I can give to someone who feels their team is in the appropriate place to become a Value Investor, is to make sure you balance your Major and Minor league talent appropriately. If you find a manager who is a Growth Investor (loves shiny new prospects), you can’t trade your entire farm team to him in exchange for major league talent even if you are getting great value for it. Most league settings make it difficult to rebuild a farm system in one year, so you must be sure you are keeping an adequate balance at both ends of the spectrum.

How to Exploit: You can only exploit a value investor if your current strategy is to load up on major or minor league talent. If you need MLB players for a championship push the value investor will be willing to part with his if you pay the appropriate price. The opposite goes if you are in rebuilding mode and want to stock the farm team. You will never exploit a Value Investor into speeding up the process of making your team competitive, however they can help facilitate you getting there and are always open to a trade if you make the right move.

To wrap this article up, I’d just like to stress the importance of finding a process and sticking with it. All 4 of the above strategies can be successful (with the exception of Growth Investors, but they can quickly be turned around), but they only work if you stick with it and are true to your strategy. Don’t trade because you want to "shake things up". This isn’t a professional franchise and there is no chemistry amongst your players that you need to worry about. Only pull the trigger on a deal, if it is consistent with your overall approach.

Brian Creagh