December 20, 2010
Think about this: If the Rockies had the best shortstop prospect in baseball, would you punish the player just because Troy Tulowitzki is signed for the remainder of the decade?
Probably not—you'd likely move him.
The 25-man roster is a reality in baseball, and as a result, the free agency period has affected the paths of several top prospects to the bigs—either halting those paths or clearing them.
Here's a look at a few of those situations:
Dustin Ackley, 2B
When Seattle dealt Jose Lopez to the Rockies, the writing was quickly on the wall for Chone Figgins to slide back over to third base, his primary position over the previous three seasons. That seemed to open a door for Ackley, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft, but the Mariners also hedged their bets by picking up Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals. Ryan and Jack Wilson will likely begin the year as arguably the best defensive middle infield in the game, but among the worst offensively. Ackley will change that; he's a good defender but should be an on-base machine when he arrives. Door is opened.
Josh Bell, 3B
Bell was pegged as the third baseman of the future in Balto, but he looked rough at the major league level this year—including a 53-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 159 plate appearances. The O's went and got Mark Reynolds; if you're going to have a guy whiff 200 times, you want someone who will also bag 30 homers. Bell has, effectively, created his own purgatory in Baltimore. Door is closed, with a chance he can break through it.
Lorenzo Cain, OF
Door is opened here. In terms of opponents to be KC's starting CF, Jarrod Dyson can't hit and recently signed Melky Cabrera is fat and was fringy at the position at best during his Yankees days. Cain is the perfect fit as a plus-plus runner who can provide above-average up-the-middle defense while profiling offensively as a bigger, more athletic version of Rajai Davis with a better approach.
Chris Carter, 1B/OF
The door seems closed for the time being here. Carter is a legit power prospect—more than 100 homers across the past three years at various levels -- but Daric Barton is locked in at first, and now the A's acquired Josh Willingham to play LF, where Carter was being experimented with. It seems like Carter will begin the season biding his time at Sacramento.
A.J. Pierzynski signed a two-year deal earlier in the month, so Flowers is stuck—but in many ways it's of his own doing. After looking nearly ready to begin the year, Flowers began to struggle mechanically with his swing, leading to more tinkering and more moves in the wrong direction. The end result was a miserable .220/.334/.434 showing. He's in the unenviable position of needing a change of scenery when his trade value is at its lowest.
Gregory Infante, RHP
The White Sox traded away Scott Linebrink, lost J.J. Putz to free agency and chose not to tender a contract to enigmatic closer Bobby Jenks. That could create an opening for Infante, who took the biggest step forward in the system in 2010 by converting to the bullpen and going from high Class A to the big leagues. His pure stuff took off in short stints, as his 95-97 mph fastball is a swing-and-miss offering at any level, while his power breaking ball shows steady improvement. Control is an issue, but with more strikes he could end up in a late-innings role by the end of the season.
Desmond Jennings, OF
Carl Crawford is now with the Red Sox. It's time for Jennings. He was merely good at Triple-A last year when greatness was expected, although wrist problems provided a mitigating factor. With his size and athleticism, he generated some Crawford comparisons during his minor league time, but those aren't bandied about nearly as much as they used to be, as Jennings projects for most as a good leadoff hitter as opposed to a dynamic all-around talent. He'll help fill the void, but the swap of Crawford for Jennings is hardly a zero-sum game.
Ryan Kalish, OF
Crawford's mega-bucks deal dooms Kalish to the bench as an excellent fourth outfielder, but he'll likely be needed at some point, as the other two-thirds of the Red Sox outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, have sizable injury histories.
The signing of Russell Martin changes the game here. If the Yankees truly believe Montero can catch long-term, and they're in the minority on that one, Montero would be poorly served in a big league backup role; while an exposure to pro pitching would be beneficial for his future, he needs to play every day for development purposes. He didn't turn 21 until the end of the 2010 season, so time is on his side, but barring injury, his much anticipated arrival as an integral part of the team is pushed back a year.
Pitchers, in general
Now that Zack Greinke is a Brewer, go check out the projected Royals rotation in 2011. Return when you are done giggling. 2011 will likely be another last-place finish for Kansas City, but with zero payroll commitments in 2012 and the best minor league system in recent memory, the transition to youth is about to begin. The system's Double-A rotation will be packed with a potential dominating quartet of power southpaws in Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery, and all of them have the ability to pitch their way into the big leagues in preparation for an Opening Day rotation slot in 2012. Be patient, Royals fans, you're close to waking up from your long nightmare.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .