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The Long Game: 2019 Breakout Targets

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

If it's become clear that your team just isn't going to compete this season in your keeper or dynasty league, then it's time to start stockpiling talent for the future. Trade away your expiring contracts and expensive stars for prospects, picks and cheap big leaguers who can provide you with the foundation for a title run next year.

Sounds simple, right? Just run out and acquire a bunch of Juan Soto, Gleyber Torres and Alex Reyes-type players, and you'll be hoisting that trophy in no time. The problem, of course, is that you're not the only team chasing those guys, assuming they're even available. In most leagues, you won't be able to assemble a roster full of elite young players with massive upsides, and will have to make do with lesser returns for your assets.

The question then becomes, what sort of “lesser returns” should you be looking for? Sure, Nick Markakis and Jed Lowrie probably carry bargain salaries, and adding cheap players who can provide some (presumably) guaranteed production can help round out a roster, but grizzled veterans playing over their heads probably aren't going to be key cogs in your turnaround. Similarly, while collecting as many prospects as possible gives you more chances to hit on some who will help you, not all prospects are created equal. After the elite tier of Forrest Whitley's and Vlad Guerrero Jr.'s, it's important to consider how much upside a minor-league actually has relative to your league depth. The shallower the format, the higher the ceiling a player needs to have to be worth your time. Consider, for instance, Chris Shaw. In 12-team NL-only leagues, Shaw's a nice prospect to stash as a guy seemingly headed for a starting corner outfield job with San Francisco in the next year or so. In 12-team mixed, though? How much value does a guy who might hit 20 homers with a .240 batting average at his peak actually have? Especially when that player will be stuck in a home park that suppresses his one plus tool, left-handed power. Shaw shouldn't be a target in a league of that depth – in fact, he barely even rates as a throw-in consideration. If you're not sure whether you'd use the player on your active roster even if he pans out, he's not worth your time.

If those are the kinds of players you shouldn't make it a priority to acquire in dump trades, which ones should you be looking for? The simple, and somewhat glib, answer is breakout candidates. The offseason is going to filled with lists of post-hype sleepers and players expected to rebound. Why wait until then to go after them? Grabbing them now, when their value might be at its lowest point, can allow you to assemble a roster core that carries plenty of promise.

Here are three categories of player I tend to look for when trading for the future:

The Struggling Youngster

This is where next offseason's post-hype sleepers are going to come from. Not every hyped rookie pans out right away. Sometimes, a youngster needs more than a handful of games – or even a handful of months – to acclimate to the game's highest level, and picking them up when they're still in the middle of that adjustment period can pay huge dividends when things finally click.

Players like Rafael Devers, Luis Castillo, Ian Happ, Scott Kingery, Manuel Margot and Bradley Zimmer all came into 2018 with huge expectations that landed them on 12-team mixed rosters, and all of them have been disappointments so far – which can't really be surprising for a group of kids who are all 25 years old or younger. A team that's in the title hunt despite those struggles should be more than willing to part with them in the right deal.

One hidden advantage of targeting players like this comes in leagues that penalize teams at the bottom of the standings, or reward those that finish higher in the standings but still out of the money. If they start to figure things out in the second half of 2018 rather than 2019, they have the upside to carry a rebuilding squad to a surprisingly respectable finish.

A subset of the Struggling Youngster is the Buried Youngster – a prospect who was expected to have a big role in 2018, but hasn't really gotten the chance to show what they can do yet. Ryan McMahon is probably the poster boy for this category right now, but Franklin Barreto and Austin Hays would qualify as well.

The Forgotten Upside Pitcher

Moreso than position players, pitchers can take a long time to reach their ceiling, with their development coming in fits and starts or derailed by injuries. Blake Snell had 43 big-league starts under his belt coming into this season. Mike Foltynewicz had 65. Michael Wacha had 112, while Gerrit Cole had 127! Finding pitchers who have tantalized with ace-like upside in the past, only to seemingly fumble it away since, are exactly kind of pitchers who can be next year's Snell or Cole if they finally flip the switch. Depending on how long it's been since they teased that upside, they may not cost very much to acquire, either. Starters in this category include Vince Velasquez, Reynaldo Lopez, Jameson Taillon and Lance McCullers, and don't overlook injured hurlers like Jimmy Nelson either.

The Bust

I should really just re-name this one “The Buxton”. The one-time top fantasy prospect in baseball now has over 1,000 plate appearances under his belt, and a .672 OPS. That's... not ideal. Byron Buxton has probably burned multiple teams in your league by now, and for every GM that never wants to hear his name again, the market for his services (and his asking price) comes down a little more. Nonetheless, he's still got that big 2017 second half on his resume, and it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which he's finally healthy for 150 games next year and explodes for something like a .280-20-80-100-40 fantasy line. If you're not able to land any of the usual suspect elite prospect names, rolling the dice with a player teetering on the brink of busthood could be your next-best option – especially in deep leagues where high-upside prospects are worth their weight in gold, and get priced accordingly on the trade market.