Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Strasburg, Posey, Bumgarner

A lot of pre-season questions to our mail bag inbox have revolved around Stephen Strasburg and Buster Posey and to a lesser degree, Madison Bumgarner.  Everyone knows that these guys are widely projected for great things long-term but, understandably, many want to know how long they're going to have to wait for results from each player.

I've noticed that fewer are openly wondering about Buster Posey's 2010 prospects since the Giants brought Bengie Molina back.  While we did significantly reduce Posey's forecast, I'm not yet ruling out that Posey will still make it to the majors by mid-season and take over the catching job.  What's holding me back here is that I don't believe the Giants would ever call Posey up to be Molina's backup.  What needs to happen is that either (a) Molina needs to get hurt, (b) Molina needs to get traded or (c) Molina needs to become a backup catcher.  I suppose any of these three are quite possible and I'm going to be listening carefully to what San Francisco's management says throughout spring training.  For now, I'll be extremely surprised if Posey doesn't start the season at Triple-A.

Also, as is the case with many highly-touted prospects, Posey's numbers don't forecast out to an instant superstar.  Let's pretend that Molina were to suffer a season-ending injury in spring training and Posey ended up with the major league job and picked up 450 at bats this season.  As we're forecasting Posey's current ability, he would end up hitting in the high .270s with 10-15 home runs and around 60 RBI, numbers that are good for a catcher but far from the batting title numbers most expect him to one day put up.

In fact, I don't think I can warn enough that when it comes to even the best prospects, immediate sustainable success in the majors is a rarity.  There are exceptions like an Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun but generally, it's unlikely.  I say this because I've noticed a trend in some non-keeper leagues in recent years that players like Posey (e.g. comparable to how we were considering Baltimore's Matt Wieters last spring) seem to go much higher in fantasy auctions and drafts than their current season prospects would justify.  In those non-keeper leagues, a top prospect is just another player who has to be ready to contribute significantly now if he's to justify an early pick or high auction price.  It is crucial never to confuse a player's top prospect status and name recognition with his ability to contribute for the single season in question in non-keeper leagues.

On that note, let's move on to Posey's teammate, Madison Bumgarner, who actually has a strong chance to crack the starting rotation from the outset.  He needs to have a tolerable spring but unlike what Posey is facing, there's at least a clear shot to an opening here.  Bumgarner also doesn't forecast out to instant super-success, no matter how good those minor league numbers look or those ten innings we saw from him in September were.  Remember, all those sub-2.00 ERAs were accumulated at the far less competitive Double-A level or below and while it's possible he becomes an elite pitcher from the outset, it's far more likely he'll start out as an above-average #4 or #5 type pitcher with an eye on becoming an ace type within the next five to six years.  He's good enough to have rounding out your pitching staff but, again, if you're considering a player only in the context of what he will contribute in 2010, you have to temper your expectations here and remember that if he has a miserable spring, he's headed back to the minors.

Finally, the player it seems everyone is asking about is Stephen Strasburg.  Unlike these other two, I do the rare thing where rookies are concerned and project him for a fairly strong performance from the start.  Here are the main problems: First, Strasburg is unlikely to end up in the majors to start the season.  It's possible but I'd expect that he could go out and have a good or even dominant spring and still end up sent down to start the season with an eye on him joining the rotation around mid-season.  That's what our current forecast reflects as we've given him about 15-16 starts in the latest forecast set.

But even more than Posey or Bumgarner, I have to openly declare here that Strasburg's forecast is, admittedly, almost entirely low confidence guesswork.  Yes, I said the word guess here because unlike the other two prospects we're talking about in today's entry, I have very little reliable data on Strasburg to help form a remotely scientific forecast.  All we have to work with here is a tiny sample of results collected in this past off-season's Arizona Fall League and then, after that, his performance at San Diego State and in the 2008 Olympics and his scouting reports.  I so want to tell readers that there's an X% chance he does this and a Y% chance he does that and so on but I just don't have the data.

In short, today's entry doesn't apply to just these three players.  Every year there are players like these few, top prospects whom everyone wants to have on their team so they can end up with the next Pujols or Lincecum but at a very general level, it rarely happens.  Remember a few years ago when everyone was drafting Alex Gordon?  He may still end up as the prospect everyone imagined but so far, we're three years into his big league career and since he has arrived, he has yet to have as valuable a season as, say, the often more easily obtainable Ty Wigginton has had during that time.  How about the relatively unanimous top prospect of several years ago Delmon Young?  He's definitely proven himself to be a major leaguer but since the start of 2007 (when he became a full-time big league player), do any of his three seasons so far stand out as one that justified his draft position or auction price in 2007?  Only you can answer this question for yourself.

So, if you're in a keeper league, especially a newly-formed one where no one is taken heading into this year's draft, by all means any of Strasburg, Posey or Bumgarner are players worth having in your future plans.  But in non-keeper leagues, remember that all top prospects are high risk players, especially for the short-term.  You can win a league without a single rookie on your roster and you need to remember this as you prepare for your upcoming drafts.