The New York Mets limited Michael Conforto to short season action in his professional debut last summer, puzzling fans and pundits alike. Conforto was one of the best college hitters available and many evaluators pegged him as the most advanced bat in the draft. Critics suggested that the Mets were stalling his development, arguing that Conforto had little to learn at the level. Many felt that every game he played in Brooklyn was a wasted opportunity for at-bats in a more developmentally appropriate setting, and delayed his arrival in Queens.
The Mets didn’t see it that way. Speaking about Conforto, New York’s Director of Minor League Operations, Ian Levin said that his assignment in Brooklyn was “just about gaining experience in professional ball, getting used to the daily grind, and dealing with teammates in a new situation.” Levin was promoted to his current position over the past off-season, so he didn’t make the final call on Conforto’s assignment. Still, he didn’t feel that the assignment was tentative. “I don’t think (the level) that first year out matters so much,” he said, noting that ensuring regular playing time and adjusting to a new routine were more important factors in determining initial prospect placement.
From a development perspective, it’s hard to argue that the Mets harmed Conforto last year. He began the 2015 season in High-A and, two promotions later, debuted in New York barely a year after signing a professional contract. In 48 games, he’s hit .278/.354/.521 and has helped catalyze the Mets resurgent offense. Perhaps a more aggressive minor league assignment could have helped him reach the big leagues a few weeks sooner, but there were clearly no lasting detrimental effects from his initial assignment.
Still, many clubs would have pushed Conforto harder than New York chose to. It isn’t unusual for polished college draftees to debut in Low-A and some players, including Houston’s 2015 first-rounder Alex Bregman, reach High-A just a few months out of school. At a glance, it appears that the respective developmental paths prescribed for Bregman and Conforto speak to an overarching philosophical difference about how to develop freshly drafted players. It’s rarely such a black and white decision, however. Teams have specific plans for their players, and there are a variety of factors that affect where a player is sent for his initial assignment. Provided that the player has the right mentality, he should benefit from his first taste of professional ball regardless of where he lands.
For many teams, a challenging initial assignment is a vital part of the development plan for an advanced player. Miami’s Director of Player Development, Brian Chattin, believes that some players have skill sets that all but demand an assignment in full-season ball. He argues that it’s important to challenge players, not only with their first assignment, but all the way up the ladder: “if a player has clearly demonstrated, both by performance and development that a new challenge is warranted, you need to give it to them.”
For Chattin, challenging people with a promotion is a reward that can provide long-term benefits for player and club alike. He says that “there is inherent value in a player knowing his efforts, growth, and performance have been recognized.” From that perspective, a difficult assignment becomes a carrot to a player, a sign that they have performed well and that the organization is closely monitoring their progress. It’s a strategy that Miami has employed regularly in recent in years, even at the big league level: since 2013, the Marlins have brought Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick to the majors with limited experience in the high minors.
The Marlins aren’t alone. Milwaukee, among other teams, has also built a reputation for promoting young talent quickly. The club’s Director of Player Development, Reid Nichols, sees value in the strategy, even if players fail initially: “Some players need a big stage to perform. Some require a challenge that will show them some changes are needed.” In that sense, a difficult assignment presents a win-win for the development staff: either the player performs, or his struggles highlight an area where he can work to improve his game.
One of the more common developmental paths is the practice of sending top picks to short season ball for a week or two as they acclimate to their new organization. These cameos can fulfill several developmental objectives. Organizations with local short season affiliates, such as Seattle with Everett and the Mets with Brooklyn, keep their prized farmhands nearby so that executives can take a long look at their newest personnel before sending them out for their next assignment. Naturally, clubs with local Low-A affiliates will sometimes employ the same philosophy when pushing recently drafted personnel into full season leagues. Another reason stems from inactivity: most draftees don’t play much between the middle of May (when college teams finish their season) and their signing day. A trip to the complex leagues or to a short season affiliate helps rusty players round into game shape.
It should be noted that, for most players, short season ball is a developmental challenge. Every draftee was one of the best players on his college team and in his conference, and the range of talent in a professional league is much smaller than what he’s used to facing. It’s not unusual for college players, even top draft picks, to struggle in their first taste of the minors. For all but the most advanced players, teams prefer their players have success at rookie ball while they build their confidence, improve their fundamentals, and acclimate to the responsibilities inherent in professional ball.
More often though, a player’s first assignment is grounded in their development plan. It’s not unusual for players with similar backgrounds and skill sets to have different plans. Take Andrew Heaney and Brett Lilek. Drafted three years apart by the Marlins, the two players are fairly similar: both are tall, left-handed pitchers from elite college programs and each entered pro ball with the ability to regularly top 90 mph and throw three pitches for strikes. But while Heaney reached Low-A in his first minor-league season, making four starts and pitching well in the South Atlantic League playoffs, Lilek spent all of 2015 in rookie ball.
The discrepancy is explained more by circumstance than talent. The Marlins had an opportunity to let Heaney pitch in a pennant race and promoted him so that he could extend his season and pitch in the postseason. As an organization, the Marlins emphasize winning games in the minors and Chattin felt that the experience of playing in big games would be valuable for Heaney. Thanks in part to Heaney’s efforts, Greensboro reached the South Atlantic League’s championship series.
Lilek, by contrast, needed to build stamina after a layoff between the college season and his professional debut. It’s easier for teams to manage a pitcher’s workload in short season ball, where rosters are big and bullpens are deep, and so the Marlins sent their polished lefty to Batavia in the New York-Penn League. It took Lilek a few outings to rebuild his endurance and by that point, the Marlins were satisfied with their rotation in Low-A. Not wanting to disrupt anyone’s schedule, they opted to leave him in Batavia for the rest of the summer.
Many in player development believe that, with good makeup and the right mentality, players can build their skills at any level. For Nichols, players need to have the fortitude to handle failure and be able to embrace the possibility that they will struggle before they succeed: “makeup is as important as talent, in my opinion. Baseball will humble anyone. If you don’t love the game and the competition, you are not going to survive.” Similarly, Levin says that most players will respond well to a difficult assignment, and he values players who aren’t afraid of failure: “if you think a guy will mentally struggle (with a difficult assignment) he may not be a guy you want in your system anyway.”
None of the executives who commented for this story believe that the destination of a player’s first minor league assignment significantly alters their developmental course. While some commenters may chastise organizations for starting their players either too slowly or too quickly, many within the game believe that players don’t require a Goldilocks situation to learn and improve their game. Provided that parent clubs base their assignments in a coherent developmental goal, and that development plans adapt to player struggles and successes, the level at which players compete will take care of itself in due time.
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