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June 4, 2010

Checking the Numbers

A Developmental Dilemma

by Eric Seidman

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Two months into the season it has now become clear that this is a truly special year with regards to rookies. Phenom Jason Heyward broke camp with the Braves. Mike Leake bypassed the minors completely to join the Reds. Jaime Garcia has been driving batters batty. Garcia’s teammate with the Cardinals, David Freese, has been an offensive stalwart, and division-mate Starlin Castro is already making a big impact on the Cubs. In Detroit, both Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch are keeping the Tigers in the thick of things, and John Jaso and Reid Brignac are helping the Rays make up for putrid performances elsewhere. This isn’t even to mention the recent call-up of Buster Posey by the Giants or even the much anticipated debut of Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals next Tuesday.

Another minor leaguer will earn major-league rookie status this year, and to borrow the famous catch phrase from the broadcasters of this player’s employer, HIS NAME… IS MIKE STANTON! However, the eventual call-up of Stanton poses quite the curious conundrum for the Marlins involving who gets traded or demoted. They have a few players relevant to the transaction in question whose development is tantamount to the team’s future success, and handling the situation correctly is of the utmost importance to everyone involved. With that in mind, my goal today is to introduce Stanton as well as exploring the different scenarios that could conceivably play out regarding his debut.

Who is Mike Stanton?

Well, if you’re like me, up until the end of last year you thought the Marlins had signed the crafty veteran left-hander to a minor-league deal. If not, you knew that Stanton was the pride of the Marlins farm system, a 6-foot-5 right-handed hitter with a mighty whopping stick who would strike out his fair share but also draw many walks. Stanton skipped college and quickly began to stand out in the Marlins organization, putting up a .293/.384/.611 line in 2008 in A-ball with 39 home runs. Numbers like that just are not common in the minors and can really turn heads.

Last season, Stanton split time between Single-A and Double-A, hitting .294/.392/.578 with 12 home runs in the former, and .231/.315/.455 with 16 bombs in the latter. All told, Stanton hit .255/.345/.503 with 28 home runs as he faced tougher pitching. His ability to hit came into question with the paltry line in Double-A, but he sure put skeptics in their place with his numbers this season at Double-A Jacksonville: .300/.429/.706 with 20 homers, and an impressive 40 walks to 51 strikeouts. The 20-year-old can flat out rake, and his numbers so far suggest that his patience is improving as well. In our most recent annual, we had this to say about the future Fish outfielder:

     You're going to hear a lot about Stanton's strikeouts, which is an amazingly short-sighted thing to focus on with a teenager who has shown this kind of power. There just aren't a lot of teenagers playing at Double-A, and some pitch-recognition problems aren't surprising given his relative inexperience—Stanton could be in college now instead of a couple of steps away from the majors. If the Marlins don't rush Stanton to The Show because they've dealt away every player who makes more than the minimum, Stanton should start the season back at Double-A and try to adjust to more advanced pitching. When he does, his walk rate should skyrocket, as pitchers aren't going to want to pitch to this guy. Stanton's AFL season was cut short by a sore back, but the problem should be resolved by spring training.

Though Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein does not think Stanton will be called up anytime in the next week or two, it would be very unusual if he spent the entire season in the farm system. When he does make it to The Show, whose spot on the roster does he take? As far as I can tell, there are four main options for the Marlins that we will explore in-depth: demote Chris Coghlan, demote Cameron Maybin, cut Brett Carroll, trade Cody Ross.

Scenario #1: Recall Mike Stanton and Demote Chris Coghlan

Oh, how the times have changed. Last year, Coghlan hit an impressive .321/.390/.460, combining solid contact with pop and patience en route to the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He had spent most of his minor-league tenure as a keystone cornerman but shifted to left field due to the presence in the major leagues of second baseman Dan Uggla. Though Coghlan has never been known for defensive prowess, he has hit at every level, leaving analysts to wonder about his upside and not about whether or not his skills would translate to major-league success.

PECOTA expected some regression and offered a weighted mean .285/.355/.430 with a 90thpercentile below what he produced last season. Though the forecast seemed like a potential miss, the season is now two months old and the sophomore is surely slumping, hitting .237/.284/.326 in 206 plate appearances. He missed some time earlier in the year with an injury to the left side of his body, sustained while making a fantastic catch in the outfield, but he wasn’t doing much raking even before that Tax Day injury. Small sample size caveats abound, he has actually been heating up since May 25, hitting a robust .378/.425/.622 in 40 trips to the plate.

If the Marlins demote Coghlan to pave the way for Stanton’s arrival, it means two things: first, that Coghlan still would not have turned his season around, which would be a very bad sign for the hoping-to-contend Marlins; and second, that they not only value the potential major-league production of their unknown commodity above lame duck Coghlan, but also that they think the latter would respond well to a demotion, not losing a ton of confidence and understanding that the move is for the benefit of his future. One other rationale behind demoting Coghlan would be to give him more time at second base, given that it is unlikely Uggla will remain in Miami for much longer and it is Coghlan's original position. This might be a reach, but then again, I don’t believe demoting Coghlan is the answer anyway.

Scenario #2: Recall Mike Stanton and Demote Cameron Maybin

Maybin was the key piece in the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers. While it didn’t take too long to realize that Andrew Miller wasn’t major league-ready, many are starting to suspect that Maybin isn’t ready to contribute in the big leagues either. The former 10thoverall pick has looked impressive at every level of the minors, with a career slash line of .302/.391/.473. The numbers don’t pop as much as Stanton’s, but tell the tale of an athletic player who could reach base by means other than his bat, but also bat some balls around the field and out of the yard. In just 382 games he stole 81 bases and managed to hit 27 triples.

At the major-league level, he hasn’t been so impressive. On top of misplaying routine fly balls and not turning his athleticism into solid fielding, Maybin is hitting .239/.306/.376 in 102 games over the last two seasons, numbers that might be acceptable for a defensive replacement or pinch-runner, but not an everyday center fielder. And when he reaches base, he isn’t stealing as frequently or as efficiently, either, with just six swipes in 10 attempts. Simply put, everything that made him attractive as the enticing factor of a blockbuster deal has not been on display in Florida.

Demoting Maybin would make more sense than sending down Coghlan given that Ross can at least fake an okay center field, and that Coghlan has shown more signs of breaking out of his funk, but the demotion doesn’t come without its potential detriments. Having to send a player like Maybin down after doing so in 2009 following a similarly slow start might really hurt his psyche, which would be a terrible turn of events for a 23-year-old hitter. Then again, despite the young age, the Marlins cannot be happy with his production and have to be wondering if the Maybin they envisioned will ever surface.

Sending him to the minors could instill a last-chance-to-work-it-out message to the youngster, because he has been floundering in what was supposed to be a breakout year. It would also create a very productive Coghlan/Ross/Stanton outfield. Then again, maybe the Marlins need to set their sights on developing players to help them win next year or the year after instead of mortgaging success in the short term by sending down players in need of more major-league experience.

Scenario #3: Recall Mike Stanton and Cut Brett Carroll

In our 2009 Annual, we called Carroll a fringy organizational guy, and there really is not a better description of what he brings to the table. Last year, we had this to say:

     Carroll is a hustling defensive outfielder with a strong arm, but his bat just doesn’t play and never has. Even at Triple-A, where he has hit well in 133 games over three seasons (.311/.364/.602) he has drawn only 34 walks in 533 PA. While he has some power, there can only be one Jeff Francoeur, and Carroll isn’t him. Right-handers eat him for breakfast, and with his .257 career OBP against left-handers, they have him for lunch. Plans for dinner have yet to be determined, but they could involve Pat Venditte. It’s also tough to make a career as a fourth outfielder when you’re stretched in center field.

Allow me to summarize: Carroll can hustle and throw, but he can’t hit righties, can’t reach base against lefties, and isn’t that solid of a fielder. Summarizing even more, Carroll is a bad major-league player, either defining or falling short of the replacement level. That he is still given at-bats by the Marlins is beyond me given that several other Grade C prospects on the farm could produce similar results right now while simultaneously offering more upside.

The reason cutting him to make room for Stanton isn’t as straightforward as it may seem is that, in this scenario, Carroll leaves and Stanton shows up, but then either Coghlan or Maybin is relegated to the bench. Technically, this move would result in the highest level of talent on the roster, but it would do nothing to aid the development of either outfielder. Both Coghlan and Maybin need consistent at-bats, either at the major-league or minor-league level, and platooning them or using them as pinch-hitters, pinch-runners or defensive replacements does not help them potentially improve into the players the team is seeking. Carroll should probably be cut no matter what, but in a mutually exclusive move.

Scenario #4: Recall Mike Stanton and Trade Cody Ross

The Marlins are to arbitration-eligible players on the cusp of free agency what MTV is to VJs approaching 30. Nobody in their right mind believes that Ross will remain a Marlin for the remainder of his career, but while he will not reach free agency until after the 2012 season, now might be the perfect time to capitalize on his skills and extract a proper return. With players like Ross, who display plenty of power but are less valuable due to shortcomings elsewhere, it is easy to suggest a trade to the offensively sapped Mariners or Giants, but the problem is that he would not represent a vast enough upgrade to merit the ponying up of valuable assets.

Even a team like the Phillies, who desperately need another powerful bench bat from the right side, would not part ways with anything valuable on the farm for a year and a half of Ross. The Marlins will eventually have to settle if they decide to trade Ross, perhaps looking for a bevy of high-upside unknowns to mitigate the risk instead of seeking a high-impact prospect. Such a move would allow the Marlins to play Stanton, Coghlan and Maybin in the same outfield, giving all three ample and consistent playing time, without having to send anyone to the minor leagues. Even better, all three figure to be key components of the next Marlins winner while Ross will be working for a different employer.

Ross might have his faults but there is certainly a market for a player with as much pop as he provides, and while it might signal the end of their hopes of contending this season, the Marlins will be able to better evaluate Maybin, continue to let Coghlan work out of his funk at the major-league level, and give Stanton an extended look.

What Will They Do?

In the opinion of this writer, I fully expect Coghlan to be up around .265/.365/.440 or better by the end of July and that Maybin will start to show signs of life as well. Unless Maybin absolutely craters and continues to look as overmatched as he currently does, I believe the team will unload Ross to a contender looking to shore up its bench or replace an ailing outfielder. I also believe this is the most appropriate move, as a team like the Marlins should be building for the future—next couple of years, I’m not talking about seven years from now—and Ross has no place on that team. Stanton, Maybin and Coghlan are building blocks until proven otherwise and one should not be given the opportunity to flourish or gain experience in the majors at the expense of another.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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