Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
I acknowledge that patience is a virtue. I just don't have any of it.
But some people do. And many of these patient folks play fantasy baseball. On draft day you'll hear them say things like this:
"Five dollars for Byron Buxton."
"Better make it ten."
And then another guy like me chimes in and says, "What are you, crazy? Buxton isn't even in Double-A yet."
But that's how committed some of us are to the hype. In keeper leagues, these seedlings known as "top prospects" can someday grow into Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens.
Not all of them make it to the show, but enough do to make this a legitimate strategy. Basically, fantasy baseball has become a lot like managing the Houston Astros. You stockpile young talent, wait a few years and hope for the best.
But remember, I'm not the waiting type. How long will it take for Buxton and others to develop to the point where I can actually compete for a title?
Miguel Cabrera, the current gold standard for fantasy success, is a good place to start. After winning two consecutive MVP awards, it's safe to assume Cabrera is near the height of his powers. Miggy may have ten years left in his career but it's doubtful they'll be as good as the two he just experienced.
Cabrera is 31-years-old. If 31 is the hard and fast rule, we should all be terrified. Mike Trout is 22. By the time he's Cabrera's age, he could have a shelf full of MVPs.
Of course, as you all know, baseball doesn't work that way. Hard and fast rules don't exist. The baseball gods bless some and tear down others seemingly at random. Trout could tear his ACL tomorrow and come back as Nick Punto. Baseball is weird like that.
Like snowflakes, no two players are exactly the same. But if you're looking to build a fantasy empire centered around Buxton and other top prospects, there are still trends we need to pay attention to. Forecasting a player's peak, especially when we only have Single and Double-A stats to base it off of, is no small task.
For our purposes, it's probably easier to look at players who have already finished their careers. Ken Griffey Jr., a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, had his best season in 1997 at the age of 28. That year, Griffey knocked 56 balls out of the park while hitting over .300. He was the easy choice for AL MVP.
The act of peaking isn't necessarily confined to one season. Indeed, Griffey's peak was longer than most. Between the ages of 27 and 30, Griffey averaged 52.3 HR and 141.8 RBI. Chipper Jones, another former MVP, peaked between the ages of 26 and 29 with his best year coming in 1999 as a 27-year-old (.319, 45 HR, 110 RBI, 25 SB).
Cal Ripken's peak was a bit more fleeting. Rather inexplicably, Ripken rattled off 34 HR and 114 RBI en route to the AL MVP in 1991. The next year he turned 32 and was never the same hitter. Even in 1990, there was nothing to suggest Ripken would go off the way he did in his age-31 season (.250, 21 HR, 84 RBI).
While Ripken was able to stay healthy, injuries stalled Griffey's career right around his 30th birthday. Some would label Griffey's peak as "undetermined" or "MIA" for this exact reason, but I disagree. It's hard to use bad luck as an excuse when you're getting hurt year after year. Even if his ability was still apparent, Griffey's body was breaking down. To me, that signifies the beginning of his decline.
Johan Santana's story is similar to Griffey's. The stud left-hander won two Cy Youngs in a span of three seasons with his last coming at age 27. His next five seasons were an injury-riddled mess and now it's likely Santana will never pitch in the big leagues again.
Pitching and catching are usually regarded as more physically demanding than other positions, which is why their careers tend to be shorter. Dontrelle Willis is a good example of this. Willis became a dominant force for the Marlins almost immediately, picking up 22 victories during his age-23 season. He never came close to repeating that feat and was out of Major League Baseball by age 29.
We do have safeguards to prevent burnout (pitch counts, six-man rotations, having catchers DH or play first base once in a while) but the reality is, you never know until it happens. Imagine if Mets top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard got called up tomorrow, had two pretty good seasons and that was the end of it. See you later, thanks for playing. And you were the one who paid $10 for him when he was still in the minor leagues. Was it worth it?