BP360 is Back! One low price for a: BP subscription, 2022 Annual, 2022 Futures Guide, choice of shirt

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 Insider.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
One thng that is constantly left out of the service time discussion is the requred major league AB to actualize one's potential. To use Hosmer as an example, I understand why the Royals would would want to delay his arbitraton clock. However, if you work under the assumption that you need a certan # of major league AB before you can really fulfll your potential, wouldn't it make sense to get as many of those under your belt as early as possible, so that the prospect (say, Hosmer, or Jennings) is as close to a finished product as possible when the team is ready to compete?
Is it a coincidence that the 3 superstars rushed to the majors all had maturity problems?

It's not a rhetorical moral judgment. Common sense says that younger players have deeper careers. Is there a study to determine if rookie teenagers have a higher disappointment rate?
Forgive me, but this is sort of a strange observation you're making. For the three in question it took about a decade on average for these "maturity" problems to manifest themselves in ways that the public became aware of. It clearly didn't impact their performances at a young age as the first 8-10 years of the careers of Cabrera, Andruw and K-Rod are either Hall of Fame caliber or at least in the discussion.

Maybe your point is that teenage superstars suppress maturity problems that explode later and threaten to shorten careers?

Well, maybe that's something we'll observe going forward but it's interesting to note that the list of players who made the majors as teenagers includes some of the greatest players in the history of the game: Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mel Ott, Johnny Bench, Robin Yount. Some really good current players who also debuted as teenagers: Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Justin Upton, Adrian Beltre, Aramis Ramirez. Also the recently retired Gary Sheffield.

I don't think there is today or has been historically a crisis of rushing teens to the majors prematurely. It's in the team's interest not to promote someone who isn't ready, and the track record seems pretty good. If there's a study that says otherwise, I'd love to see it. It'd have to overcome a whole bunch of pretty spectacular success stories to conclude there's a problem.
Thanks. It was too early in the morning to sort a spreadsheet and perform my own analysis.

The maturity problems I noted are probably just a byproduct of remaining in the public eye. That's why Cal Ripken Jr. and Andre Dawson are such anomalies.
No worries. I'm glad it didn't come across like I was jumping down your throat.

I know there are exceptions like David Clyde, who was rushed to the majors the year he was drafted (out of a Texas high school) as a marketing stunt, but in general I think there's less of that than one might assume. The incentives are really all the other way - towards deliberate development, maximizing the value of team control, sometimes delaying a player's arrival for financial reasons - in today's baseball economy.

I read an interview with Bill James some years ago and in response to the question 'is there a factor you can look for that predicts Hall of Famers' and his answer was something to the effect of 'the thing that seems to unite more Hall of Famers than anything else is their arrival and success in the majors at a very young age.' I'm sure I didn't get that exactly right, but it led to me do some research and I was really astonished at how many great players debuted as teenagers. The list is even longer than I've captured here.

As for those three, yeah, you may be right: the longer anyone stays in the public eye the more apt we are to see the blemishes. And the only way their careers could be construed as disappointing - even if none of them played another game - would be relative to the huge expectations that their greatness has engendered.

Fun topic.
Don't forget that today's media is so much more pervasive, that we're more likely to hear of problems today, than ever.
It's also easy to forget that a 19 year old kid succeeding in the big leagues is living an incredibly surreal life. They've been followed around by scouts for years, have more money than an average person makes in a lifetime in their bank account, women want them, grown men stand in awe of them, and so on and so forth.

19-20 year old kids are not fully developed humans, and coming of age in that kind of environment has to take some sort of toll on kids that aren't already incredibly well-grounded. It really seems similar to what happens to a lot of hollywood and musician types who make it huge at a young age, i.e., charlie sheen, michael jackson, brian wilsons, tom cruise, gary busey and a thousand others.
4/21 when are the Royals gonna call up Moustakas?
The thing is, I don't think people are asking you if you *know* when Moustakas (for example) is going to get called up - they want to know your opinion. It's like asking a baseball analyst whether Albert Pujols will win the triple crown - obviously they don't know what AP will do, but they are paid to watch and study the game and their opinion is (theoretically) more informed than the average baseball fan. I would guess the same is true for the people asking you these questions about call-ups - you are an analyst that is an expert regarding baseball prospects, people are interested in what you think about a timetable for a guy based on what you see and what you hear about them. I think it's entirely reasonable, regardless of how bemused that concept may make some front-office guy.
I've always taken these questions to mean "What is a realistic time-table for Prospect XX's development?" That is, given his current skill set and projectability, how long will he need before he's ready to compete in the Major Leagues?