Last week, I looked at six top prospects that were assigned aggressively and why that might have been so. This week, let’s look at some assignments going the other way: prospects who were given assignments a level below what might’ve been expected to begin the season.
Brent Honeywell, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays (Double-A Montgomery)
Everyone’s favorite screwballer/instigator returns to Double-A for a return engagement after posting ten brilliant starts down the stretch. As I discussed last week with regards to Joshua Lowe, the Rays tend to be conservative in general with prospect assignments. The Rays are also conservative regarding innings limits, and including the AFL, Honeywell has pitched exactly 130 â…“ IP in both of the past two seasons, so he’s probably a year or two away from pitching a full MLB starting workload. As a service time-conscious organization, they probably aren’t in any rush to get him to the majors anyway. Regardless, they’re good screwballs, Brent.
Yadier Alvarez, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers (Extended Spring)
Speaking of innings limits, the Dodgers are a team that has certainly abided by the general concept of staggering increases slowly across seasons. I’m a little surprised they’re using Yadier Alvarez’s 2016 output of 59 â…“ innings as a true starting point, because that number was artificially low; he pitched on a normal rotation schedule in extended spring training for months before making his “pro debut,” and he’s already 21. But, William Boor of MLB.com reported that the Dodgers are indeed holding Alvarez back to limit him to 90-100 “organized” innings this season, in line with their organizational philosophy. I’m not sure that throwing games in extended spring “shouldn’t count” for these sorts of limits; it’s true that it’s a less competitive environment that the team has greater control over, but on some level, a full effort pitch/inning in a game environment is a full effort pitch/inning in a game environment, whether the stats are recorded for posterity or not.
Julio Urias, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers (Triple-A Albuquerque)
The concern with overmanipulating Alvarez’s innings output is that you might get caught in a situation like the Dodgers are in with Julio Urias this year where the pitcher is ready for The Show before his magic innings number is ready for The Show. Urias is very clearly one of the five best starters on the Dodgers—he even started a NLCS game—but he only threw 127 â…” total innings last year, consistent with a slow year-over-year build. So he should be a member of the MLB rotation on merit, but can’t take the ball enough times to be in the MLB rotation this season, and that might end up being true for 2018 too. To deal with the conundrum in 2017, the Dodgers chose to ramp Urias up late in spring and then optioned him to Triple-A to continue to stretch out; lurking in there is an interesting labor question about whether teams should be denying MLB pay and service time to players for the purpose of manipulating statistics and gaining an extra roster spot. Urias pitched 3 â…” innings in Triple-A his first time out and will surely be back in the majors within a month or so, but the Dodgers aren’t going to stop having these problems if they keep being this conservative with how many innings their players are allowed to throw.
Braxton Garrett, LHP, Miami Marlins (Extended Spring)
Matt Manning, RHP, Detroit Tigers (Extended Spring)
This is the final blurb for what you might call the “pitcher manipulation” section of this article. Garrett and Manning were both early first-round prep pitchers from last year’s draft. Both would’ve been expected to show up in Low-A on Opening Day along with most of the other prep pitchers picked early in the draft, like Ian Anderson, Riley Pint, and Jay Groome. In both cases, the team left open the possibility of holding them back through the full extended spring training period to short-season A-ball, or sending them to full-season Low-A in a month or two. Both the Marlins and Tigers indicated an interest in manipulating the number of innings their guys would pitch over the course of the season. You can probably see a general trend emerging here: at least some teams are no longer considering the optimal pitcher development path to be the standard 28-30 starts over the course of the usual MiLB season, instead shaping the season to their own developmental desires.
Jorge Mateo, SS/2B, New York Yankees (High-A Tampa)
We know, generally, that Mateo fell out of organizational favor in 2016. He was suspended for a few weeks, pulled from the Futures Game, and had quotes fed to the papers with the type of stern intonations that convey organizational disappointment. We never heard exact specifics on why, except for the idea that Mateo was upset because he didn’t get a midseason promotion to Double-A along with fellow infield prospect Miguel Andujar. Given that background, it’s not hard to read the Yankees sending Mateo back to repeat High-A as a referendum on his 2016 behavior, but there’s another big factor to consider: Gleyber Torres. Mateo played a lot of second base down the stretch in deference to Torres’s greater prospectdom, and leaving him a level behind gives him unfettered reps to shortstop for awhile. Even if he has little chance of sticking there for the Yankees, it’s worth getting him some extra reps there, because Mateo certainly could be a significant trade piece at some point given where he now lines up on the organizational depth chart.
Yohander Mendez, LHP, Texas Rangers (Double-A Frisco)
It’s strange to see a higher-end pitching prospect pop up in Double-A after a successful month in Triple-A the year prior. But Yohander Mendez moved very, very fast in 2016, starting out in High-A and making the bigs by September. The Rangers have, over the past few years, moved their top pitching prospects pretty fast, but also seen stagnation up and down the system, from Chi Chi Gonzalez to Luke Jackson. Many of the moves were quite defensible—you generally want to get your good pitching prospects out of High Desert as soon as possible due to park and environmental effects, and the Rangers have often been most aggressive avoiding High Desert. Mendez’s profile does resemble Chi Chi’s quite a bit, and that recent memory is pretty strong, so they’ve sent Mendez back to Double-A for a consolidation season. Assuming Mendez continues to carve hitters up, the promotion will be there in June or July regardless. The other prized pitching prospect in the Rangers organization, Ariel Jurado, is being handled in a similarly conservative pattern, also starting off the year at Double-A.
Victor Robles, OF, Washington Nationals (High-A Potomac)
On the one hand, sending a 19-year-old position player to High-A is in a vacuum a pretty aggressive assignment. But Victor Robles is no ordinary 19-year-old hitter. Robles obliterated the minors up through Low-A. He was very good in 41 games at High-A in 2016, given league and age context. Yet he didn’t dominate the level, and he did battle a wrist injury for a chunk of the season. That wrist injury also portends something to watch out for going forward: Robles’ propensity to get hit by an enormous amount of pitches, while it does increase his OBP, also greatly increases his future risk for more wrist and hand injuries. Like Mendez, if the performance warrants it, the promotion should come pretty quick regardless.