On Tuesday, the Royals called up masher Billy Butler, in no small part because he made them. On the heels of a .331/.388/.499 2006 season at Double-A, and a big Cactus League performance, Butler went to Omaha and raked to the tune of .337/.445/.584 in April. He’s no kind of defensive player; Butler washed out quickly at third base, and is currently engaged in combat with left field, on his way to many happy years at first base and/or DH. It’s not the worst outcomes; his bat will play even if he never takes the field. Butler has a David Ortiz/Travis Hafner upside, good enough to be an MVP candidate, even as a DH.
Sometimes, a prospect is just so good that he takes the decision away from the team. The Royals have to make room for Butler because not doing so becomes the elephant in the room. If you’re playing Emil Brown (.186/.237/.229) and Ryan Shealy (.113/.186/.208, and to the DL) and Mike Sweeney (.263/.341/.368, and to the bank) while keeping the second-best hitter in your organization at Triple-A, it becomes difficult to argue that you’re trying to win. The Royals wanted to be taken seriously-as evidenced by the $55 million commitment to Gil Meche-not calling up Butler is incongruous.
By leaving Butler down until May 1, the Royals ensured that they’ll have his services until the end of the 2013 season. He will probably become arbitration-eligible a bit sooner this way-after 2009, rather than 2010-but if Butler is what he should be, the decision to sign him to a Brian McCann contract will be a trivial one. If you want to consider the business aspects of the call-up, look also at the effect it may have on the team’s relationship with Alex Gordon. Gordon is off to an awful start, hitting .167/.314/.286. If Butler hits while Gordon continues to struggle, the Royals may have the cover they need to send Gordon back to Triple-A for six weeks, a move that would gain them an extra year of his services as well. It’s a bit of a Machiavellian way of handling the players, but when you’re talking about the opportunity to own a peak season of an MVP-caliber hitter at below-market rates, a little scheming is justifiable.
Like Butler, Hunter Pence forced his team’s hand by hitting so well that he had to be promoted. The Astros brought up Pence over the weekend, after the outfielder abused the Pacific Coast League to the tune of .341/.398/.588 to start the season, on the heels of his own big March. Like the Royals, the Astros have struggled to score runs, with center fielder Chris Burke (.227/.333/.347) and right fielder Luke Scott (.188/.293/.344) two of the biggest problems. A power spurt has raised Craig Biggio‘s production up to “passable,” but with a .308 OBP, he’s not really doing an baserunner-starved team any favors. Pence deserved a lineup spot a month ago, and while he doesn’t have the upside at the plate the Royals’ young pair possess, he’s ready to be an above-average major leaguer right now.
It’s not always this simple. In an era where the perception is that major league talent is stretched thin, players often get called up for reasons unrelated to their performance. Philip Hughes, just to name one, became a Yankee last week not because he’d earned it, but because it was a choice between him or Sam Militello for Thursday’s game against the Blue Jays. Hughes is one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but he didn’t look ready for the majors in the spring, and his first two starts for Columbus didn’t change that assessment. It took just one good outing at Triple-A–and four homers by the Red Sox off of Chase Wright–to make Hughes look like a savior. (Will Carroll has more on Hughes’ injury in today’s “Under the Knife.”)
Most call-ups these days fall into this category, where it’s more about what the major league team needs than how well the prospect is playing, a promotion to fill a need rather than reward performance. This is how Travis Buck (and for that matter, Danny Putnam) ended up starting for the A’s, how Brandon Morrow “won” a spot in the Mariners‘ bullpen, and how Rick Vanden Hurk started three games for the Marlins.
It also sometimes happens that a great prospect just can’t find his way to the majors. Tim Lincecum is the best example at the moment. Despite putting up video-game stats in the Pacific Coast League-one run and 12 hits allowed in 31 innings-he remains a Fresno Grizzly, the “victim” of the Giants‘ hot streak. The major league team doesn’t perceive a need for a starting pitcher because of Russ Ortiz‘s apparent resurgence, and they don’t seem ready to give Lincecum a role in their bullpen. This will likely resolve itself soon, because the Giants’ recent success in preventing runs is more about unsustainably low hit and home-run rates rather than their having a very good pitching staff. With a K/BB of 133/96 in 222 innings, the Giants need Lincecum.
The Brewers‘ Ryan Braun is similarly blocked. The 17-9 Brewers lead the NL Central by four games, and with the offense averaging five runs a game, there’s no perceived need to add Braun’s big bat. It is quite a big bat: Braun is hitting better than any of the other top prospects mentioned so far in this piece, .329/.408/.694 for Nashville. His defense killed him in the Cactus League, but it hasn’t been a problem during the regular season. Nevertheless, he’s likely going to stay in Triple-A until the Brewers’ fortunes change. It’s not actually about the performances of Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell, nominally blocking Braun at third base; it’s more about the Brewers playing well enough that they don’t think they need to make a move.
Sometimes a player such as Butler or Pence plays so well that they get themselves promoted. It’s also clear that performance isn’t the only consideration, or even the primary factor. Unless the major league team has the room for the player, the perceived need for an upgrade, and no overriding business concern to do otherwise, a promotion isn’t likely to occur.