Keep ‘em or send ‘em out?by Jeff Moore
March 26, 2013
Deciding whether a prospect should make a major league roster out of spring training involves much more than whether that prospect is one of the 25 best players in camp or the best option at his position. That fact often gets muddied in the onslaught of spring training coverage and attention that comes from our desperation for some kind of substantial news, especially toward the end of March.
Prospects' situations differ, but the factors remain the same. Service time, development, and the team's chances to contend are the three main variables, with only the specifics of those variables differing among players.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the prospect roster decisions that have dominated the spring training discussion. Some have been made; others remain to be decided.
This one is pretty simple. The game's top prospect (or 1b if you prefer Oscar Taveras—your call) appears to be ready for the majors at just 20 years old, but the Rangers don't have a place for him. They wisely announced at the start of spring training that they would keep him in the majors only if they had a place to play him every day, and even more wisely, they appear to be sticking to that plan. A spot hasn't opened up in their major league lineup, so Profar appears to be headed to Triple-A, which isn't the worst thing in the world since he skipped the level en route to his September cameo last year.
Ruf's demotion last week represents a change of direction for the Phillies, but didn't come as a shock to anyone who watched him attempt to play left field this spring. To make matters worse, he hit just .246 with two home runs, giving the Phillies little incentive to watch him struggle on defense in the majors. There are still many skeptics about whether Ruf's power is for real, but the reason he's heading to Lehigh Valley is to learn how to play left field.
The Marlins had Turner penciled in as the fifth starter in their rotation at the beginning of the spring, but battles with his command and a bunch of rough outings have left that in serious jeopardy. Even in the spring when stats don't matter, an ERA over 9.00 and almost twice as many walks as strikeouts is reason for concern.
Because he was in the majors at 20 in 2011 and has seemingly been around forever, we feel like Turner is looming on bust-territory as a prospect. But he won't be 22 until May and still has just 18 Triple-A starts under his belt. The Marlins are going to stink, with or without Turner, so what's the incentive in keeping him in the majors and watching him get shelled?
The Cardinals' decision to keep Shelby Miller as their fifth starter, which was announced over the weekend, was a difficult one only because of the incredible depth of young pitching in their farm system. In any other organization, the spot would have been handed to Miller in February and it would have taken a Turner-esque performance to lose it. Miller beat out Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, in a decision that appears to make sense for the Cardinals.
Rosenthal's power arm simply became too enticing for the Cardinals not to use as a reliever, especially given their other starting pitching options. Kelly has shown an ability to do either in the majors, but is a much better pitcher as a reliever. The sample sizes for both are limited (it's all we have to work with), but as a starter, Kelly posted a 3.74 ERA; as a reliever it was just 2.30. Much more telling, however, was his strikeout rate, which spiked from 5.8 K/9 as a starter to 9.2 K/9 as a reliever when he was able to air it out in short stints. Kelly can start if necessary, but he'll likely never be much better than average in the role. As a reliever, however, he can be very effective.
Having Miller in the fold allows Rosenthal and Kelly to do what they do best. Miller spent the entire 2012 season in Triple-A and made a major league cameo last fall, so additional developmental time isn't a major concern. Service time is an issue for all teams, but it's less a factor for teams that are attempting to compete this season. All in all, there's no reason not to keep Miller in the majors.
The case of the Minnesota Twins and Aaron Hicks is an interesting one. Anyone who follows my work has figured out that I always err on the side of caution, patience, and additional development when it comes to prospects. The Twins appear to be eschewing all three in regards to Hicks.
And yet I think he'll be okay.
If it were me calling the shots for the Twins, I'd send Hicks to Triple-A to start the season. The Twins are going to be terrible and an additional few months of Darin Mastroianni in center field instead of Hicks isn't going to make things significantly worse (except for those fans actually trying to watch). Hicks has yet to appear above Double-A and the jump the Twins are asking him to make is a significant one. Additionally, by starting him in the majors next week, the Twins are costing themselves an additional year of his service. THT founder Aaron Gleeman sums it up best:
Instead of having Hicks for 135 games this year and 162 games in 2019 they'll have him for 162 games this year and zero games in 2019. That math seems straightforward enough, especially considering Hicks is likely to be better as a 29-year-old veteran than as a 23-year-old rookie and the Twins might actually be contending in 2019. It's not about being cheap, it's about maximizing a player's value before he can leave. But it apparently never factored into the Twins' decision.
Gleeman is dead on, and the service time considerations are exactly why Hicks should be in the minors. From a developmental standpoint, there's always concern with having a prospect make a big jump and what it may do to his development if he struggles, but Hicks' game is one that should translate well to such a jump. His best tools are speed, defense and patience at the plate. Those skills typically translate well from the minors to the majors. Hicks probably won't hit .300 and his power isn't there yet, but he should be able to play good defense, run the bases, and draw some walks immediately.
But as Gleeman says, Hicks will be much better at 29 than at 23, and for a better version of the Twins. Why give that up for a few additional months this spring? Is Aaron Hicks going to put that many extra butts in the seats?
Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Almost everything I just said about Hicks applies to Jackie Bradley, Jr., with one main exception: The Red Sox expect to be good this year. That's not a minor difference.
If the Twins were in contention in the AL Central, then it might be worth sacrificing 2019 Aaron Hicks in order to get a full season of the 2013 version in an attempt to avoid the situation the Angels and Mike Trout went through last season. But they're not.
The Red Sox, however, are.
Opinions on the Red Sox left field situation this season range from lukewarm to dismal, depending on where you fall on the Mike Carp scale or whether you've been the one driving the Daniel Nava bandwagon all this time. The best case scenario for the Red Sox that doesn't include Bradley winning the AL Rookie of the Year is a Carp/Johnny Gomes platoon working to perfection or Nava turning into a regular at age 30. Neither of those options inspires a ton of confidence.
Bradley is not a corner outfielder, but he does appear to be the closest thing the Red Sox have to an everyday player who can handle left field. Again, much like Hicks, even if he doesn't hit after making the jump from Double-A (where he had only a half-season), he should play great defense, steal some bases and draw some walks. That's more than we can say about any of Boston's other options.
Despite Bradley's ridiculously hot spring, I don't like a jump as drastic as the Red Sox will be asking out of him, but they may need to make the move out of necessity, whether it's good for Bradley's long-term development or not.
The needs of the team versus what's best for the prospect is also at the heart of the Los Angeles Dodgers decision surrounding Cuban defector/spring training super-hero Yasiel Puig.
The numbers for Puig this spring have been astonishing for a number of reasons. Hitting .527/.509/.855 over any 57 plate appearance stretch is impressive, but so is not drawing a single walk over that period. No one's going to hit .500 in the regular season. What happens to his production when he's hitting .280? A .280/.310/.440 line doesn't seem too out of the question, which would make him an average major league outfielder.
Which I'm not saying Puig is. He's obviously supremely talented, as anyone drawing Bo Jackson comparisons would have to be. But at the moment, he runs the risk of being rushed to the majors without ever getting the chance to fully develop, learn to hit professional pitching, adjust to American lifestyle, and overcome all of the other obstacles that come with being a 22-year-old in a new country trying to hit the world's best pitching.
Puig is up there swinging at absolutely everything. At the moment, he's hitting it too. Baseball history tells us that the latter is bound to change at some point. If he's not given a chance to work his way to the majors at a more reasonable pace, the first one may never change.
Throughout the spring, the Dodgers have announced their intention to send Puig to the minors to start the season. Then Carl Crawford took longer to come back from Tommy John surgery than expected. Then Hanley Ramirez broke his thumb. Then Puig started hitting like he was in RBI Baseball. And all of the sudden, the Dodgers are forced to decide between what's best for them and what's best for Puig and his future.
This decisions is yet to be made, and a significant factor will be Crawford's ability to play the field. If he has to start on the DL, the suddenly offensively desperate Dodgers will likely keep Puig around. Even with his still-raw ability, he's probably a better option than a Jerry Hariston/Skip Schumaker/Alex Castellanos combination in left field. In a competitive NL West where one game may make the difference, asking Puig to make the jump may be what's best for the Dodgers short-term in spite of the possible long-term effects.
References and Resources
Jeff Moore is the creator of MLBProspectWatch.com, your one-stop site for all the information you need about minor league prospects. He can be reached via e-mail at mlbprospectwatch AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter at @MLBPW