April 21, 2011
I Can't Answer That Question
The best thing about being a baseball writer and the explosion of social networks is the ability to interact with readers. Readers have questions, I (hopefully) have answers, and in many ways they are paying the bills, so we scribes should be happy to provide them. That said, there is one question that I just can't help with, and it requires more than a Facebook comment or 140 characters to explain. The question revolves around player promotions; people want to know if Mike Trout can get to Anaheim this year, or how soon they'll see Julio Teheran in a Braves uniform, and when the Rays will bring back Desmond Jennings. Then there are the more granular questions about when hot pitchers like the Cardinals' Shelby Miller or the Mets' Matt Harvey will move from High-A to Double-A, as well as their big-league timetable.
Yet when it comes to getting to the big leagues, the answer is simple but remarkably unsatisfying to deliver.
“I don't know.”
The good news is, I usually have room for the second part of the answer, which helps soften the blow to my ego.
“And neither does the team.”
“Did somebody really ask you when Harper will get to the big leagues?” bemused one front-office official. “How would you know that? How would anyone know? Mike Rizzo couldn't answer that.
“How Harper performs, that's an unknown. How fast he moves, that's an unknown. And then there is how much they need him, and where the team is as far as the winning cycle goes. Any sort of timetable thrown out right now is a guess, and a barely educated one at that.”
Performance and how fast a player moves are somewhat connected, but it's not a completely symbiotic relationship. A perfect example is Drew Pomeranz, the Cleveland Indians' top pitching prospect and the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft. In his first three professional starts for High-A Kinston, the left-hander has struck out 22 while allowing just six hits over 15 innings. It's a dominant statistical performance, and one that has led to the unavoidable questions about when he'll move up. However, this is one of those times when knowing how a player is doing something is far more important that what he's actually doing.
Armed with a fastball and curveball that are both plus and often even better pitches, Pomeranz is carving up Carolina League hitters, but he's rarely using his changeup, which is easily his least-effective offering. Allowing him to dominate for a while with just the fastball/curve combination is a good move for his confidence, but it doesn't mean he's ready for Double-A. He won't move up until the third pitch in his arsenal is better and a more frequent part of his sequencing. Pomeranz looks like he's ready to move up based on the box scores, but the way he's winning won't get him to the big leagues.
One front-office official also believes that how the numbers are compiled on a day-to-day basis can be as important as the numbers themselves. “The biggest thing we're looking for when thinking about promotions is consistency,” he said. “We want pitchers looking good every five days as opposed to throwing seven shutout innings one start and then not getting out of the fourth the next. We want guys hitting .300 across the month as opposed to hitting .500 one week and .100 the next.”
How much a team needs a player is not only an underrated aspect to the problem, it's also the hardest to predict. Think back to the end of spring training, when Orioles left-hander Zach Britton won the fifth-starter job with an outstanding camp. The plan was to hold him back until April to properly manage is service time, but one Brian Matusz injury later, that plan is out the window. How many people were talking about Jerry Sands being in the big leagues in April? Three weeks ago, even general manager Ned Colletti would have laughed at the notion. Yet one two-headed nightmare of Tony Gwynn Jr. and Marcus Thames, combined with five Triple-A home runs in 10 games for Sands and voila! Instant big-leaguer. Prospects, even the great ones, rarely just bash or hurl their way to the majors. Perfect siutations caused by trades or expiring contracts are the exception. First opportunities are usually caused by factors beyond the team's control.
Of course, service time still plays a big role. "Why is [Rays prospect Desmond] Jennings still in Triple-A right now, especially now that Manny Ramirez is gone?” asked one official. “It's all about money there. Once they trade B.J. Upton at the deadline, which they will, he'll be up, but him being at Triple-A right now has nothing to do with development.”
When a potential star-level prospect arrives in the majors can depend upon how good the big-league team is. Two teams hoping to compete for a playoff spot this season could be facing such a conundrum later this year. Angels outfielder Mike Trout (currently at Double-A Arkansas) and Braves right-hander Julio Teheran (at Triple-A Gwinnett) are the best position-playing and pitching prospects at the upper levels of the minor leagues. However, both were also born in 1991 and are far from finished products. Would Trout improve the Angels' outfield right now? Would Teheran improve the Atlanta rotation? In both cases, one could easily argue that the answer is yes, but what about the long-term development of the player, and how does a team balance that with the immediacy of getting into the playoffs?
“It comes down to this,” explained one team vice president, “If the kid is talented, despite not being fully developed, is he still better than a more experienced player? If you're on a losing team and a kid isn't on the 40-man roster, I don't see the benefit. But if you are winning and contending, and the answer is yes, you have to go with the kid.”
Another assistant general manager agreed. “The reality is that from April to October, we exist in a very imperfect world. Players get hurt, players under-perform, and any number of things can and do go wrong with the big-league team. If we believe that a player in Triple-A, or even Double-A, can help us win right now, even if it may not be the absolute best thing for his career, we have a responsibility to make that happen.”
Trout and Teheran are the kind of special players than can make an impact in their first big-league stint. One official wrapped things up by explaining how the risk often pays off. “Look, Andruw Jones was hitting World Series home runs at 19. Miguel Cabrera hit a huge home run in the World Series off Roger Clemens before he was 21, and Francisco Rodriguez went from the minors to closing World Series games. Young players that can become superstars can do special things right away. Superstars rise to the occasion, and I'd hate to be the team that had those guys sitting at home because they didn't think they were perfectly developed.”
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .