We don’t talk about prospects that project as less than true MLB-quality players much in prospect columns. The vast, vast majority of nearly any minor-league team is composed of players below an OFP 40, players that don’t project to be long-term MLB roster players, role 2 and role 3 players. But within that grand batch of players, there’s an interesting distinction. Role 2 players are pure minor-league filler, players that won’t be expected to make The Show outside of extreme emergencies or goodwill gestures or things like that. Role 3 players are basically what the original sabermetricians defined as replacement-level players, the up-and-down types and minor bench/bullpen pieces living on the major-league fringes.
Discerning which players are role 2s vs. role 3s is typically a relatively inconsequential part of being a prospect writer, unless you’re one of those crazy folks that goes 60 players deep in your home system (or unless you have to write up the Marlins or Angels top tens). Yet for a scout, it’s actually a really important part of the gig; writing up a player commonly considered a random, inconsequential role 2 as a role 3 player with a chance for more could get that player tossed in a trade to your team, taken in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft, or prioritized as a minor league free agent. Being able to identify and write players who add fringe MLB value can add lots of value to a scouting staff. Every team needs a bunch of these types of players to survive a MLB season, and some can add real value to the back of your roster.
How do you discern a role 3 dude from a role 2 dude? You’re basically looking for one skill that will accrue just enough MLB value to have utility in a pinch. It is, in fact, possible to still be a role 2 player even with certain 80-grade tools, so don’t just automatically assume that one superlative tool makes a guy at least a role 3 or 4. An 80-grade arm for position players doesn’t guarantee enough fielding value to overcome a plethora of minus tools everywhere else. An 80-grade fastball combined with low-grade command and lack of secondary pitches can certainly lead to a career of nothingness. Baseball America’s list of 100 MPH throwing prospects in 2016—a decent, if imperfect, proxy for 80-grade fastballdom—contains more than a few total non-prospects, and at least one guy who doesn’t even currently have a job in organized baseball in Casey Weathers.
Many role 3 players fall into some very common player types:
– Good defensive catchers that can’t hit. I’m stipulating good defensive catchers because great defensive catchers, the Rene Rivera and Caleb Joseph types, are typically strong MLB backups even if they can’t hit. But if you’re just a 60 defender, you’ll still have a really long MiLB career and often years of MLB per diem just because there aren’t enough role 4 and up catchers to go around given the rigors of the position.
– 80-grade runners, especially higher-end 80-grade runners, even if they have no other useful baseball skill, are usually occasionally useful MLB contributors, especially after roster expansion and in the playoffs. Terrance Gore is a perfect example of this kind of player: he’s a terrible hitter even by Double-A standards, and while his speed allows him to play center irregularly in the minors, he’s really limited to left defensively. However, he’s a high-end 80-grade runner, and based on that one skill alone, Gore has accumulated nearly a year of MLB service time over four seasons, and also picked up a World Series ring for his troubles. And he still hasn’t had his first career MLB hit.
– Very good defenders at short or center that can’t hit are always useful in a pinch. Again, these are more your 70-grade defenders than your 80-grade defenders, because 80-grade defenders at those spots are MLB regulars or close to it no matter how weak their bat is. But the notch below that can provide a bit of MLB value in an up-or-down or even bench role, especially given that a 70 defender at either of those spots should be able to handle lots of other positions very well too.
– Players that hit beyond the explanations of evaluators tend to get tagged as role 3 guys until they prove they’re able to hit MLB pitching. It’s sort of funny that in 2017 it can’t go without saying that if you hit enough, even if you have little else going for you, you’ll eventually get a chance to fail or succeed in the majors. But, every year, there’s a few dudes spread around the minors that hit their way to the majors without much more than a good feel for hitting, and that can be enough to stick on a MLB bench or ride the Triple-A up-and-down train. This fits in with a general point I probably make too often: figuring out whether a player can hit MLB pitching is the hardest thing in baseball to evaluate. Of course, if these types continue hitting anywhere near their MILB numbers at the MLB level, they’re not actually role 3s; we’re getting close to having to make that call with T.J. Rivera, for example.
– Extremely versatile players have always been welcome to fill out the back of a MLB bench. I think of minor-league veteran Cody Decker as this model of a role 30: he’s capable of standing at all four corners defensively, he’s got enough pop to be a viable all-roles pinch-hitter, and he adds an experienced third catcher as your 25th man. That basically fills two or two-and-a-half roster spots in one. Decker has yet to actually stick in that role for a MLB team, and you can probably blame that on the increasing commonality of the eight-man bullpen, but he’s seen some MLB time and he’ll excel on your Double-A or Triple-A roster while giving you a better emergency option than a typical high-minors corner guy if things go south in the majors.
– Pitchers with fringe stuff but strong command and control that are good at getting outs in the minors. These are often “crafty” types with a garbage fastball but an obvious out pitch; Jeffrey wrote two of my current favorite crafty role 3s up in this week’s Notes From The Field, Nick Fanti and P.J. Conlon. Both have very mediocre fastballs, one useful offspeed pitch, and very strong command profiles, and both project as LOOGYs or emergency starters if things go relatively well. It’s easier to project lefties in this role than righties because you can stick a LOOGY outcome on them. These are also some of the most entertaining guys to cover in the minors, because they usually get a lot of outs quickly and present a good challenge to the opposing hitting prospects.
These are far from the only role 3 guys out there, but they’re the most common archetypes. When you’re at the minor-league ballpark, figuring out which of the lesser prospects on the field has a major-league future can be just as rewarding and fun as hunting for the biggest prospects—even if we don’t always write about it.
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I didn't see Pillar until Double-A and he was already on the map by then, but I would guess he probably got signed based on being an extremely productive D2 player who had good instincts in CF. And prospects absolutely do get better or worse both in present grade and projection; this whole thing isn't linear at all.