There’s a reason most prospects aren’t immediately thrown into Double-A after being drafted. The almost-century-old history of the minor leagues has evolved naturally over time. The jump from High-A to Double-A isn’t the hardest because someone decided it needed to be. That’s just where the natural progression from low-to-high minors has settled after decades of movement.
There used to be a dozen levels of the minor leagues. At one point, Branch Rickey had as many as 40 farm teams under the control of the St. Louis Cardinals. Over time, the lower levels of the minors eroded away as it became clear that there was a point of diminishing returns with the number of farm teams an organization can realistically monitor. Eventually, baseball settled into the system it has now.
This brief history lesson teaches us about the risk of doing things that go against the baseball norm. For every innovator, rebel, maverick, or any other adjective you want to use for a decision-maker who isn’t afraid to go against the grain, there is someone who crashes and burns. The Colorado Rockies’ decision to go with a four-man rotation and 75-pitch limit with their starters this year certainly went against the grain, but no one called anyone in the Rockies front office gutsy or an innovator. And whether because of the credibility of the idea or the players tasked with carrying it out, the decision has clearly not worked.
While history, both baseball and world, is filled with great people who have gone against the norm, it was equally as important to the success of those people to realize the history they were up against. Quite simply put, what the Orioles have done with Machado is something that has not been done in recent history.
Machado was promoted to the majors after just 928 minor league plate appearances. There have been just six other first-round picks since 1997 who were drafted as position players out of high school and were called up to the majors with fewer than 1,200 plate appearances. Only one of these had fewer plate appearances than Machado.
Hamilton had some extenuating circumstances, and was ultimately 26 years old when he made his major league debut, so let’s take him out of this discussion. With the exception of Mauer and Upton, this list is a collection of promise that has thus far gone unfulfilled, and even Upton has had hiccups in two of his five full major league seasons.
It’s also worth noting that both Mauer and Upton were not just top-rated prospects with loads of potential, but they were dominant players in the minor leagues before their promotions. In his last full season in the minors, Upton posted a .961 OPS while Mauer batted .338 across two levels and walked as many times as he struck out.
While taking nothing away from Machado as a prospect, much of his billing to this point has been about potential, as it is with so many prospects. He’s played well, especially with the caveat of being young for every level he’s played at, but his .756 OPS last season is above-average at best and his .789 OPS in Double-A this season is only slightly better (the Eastern League average OPS is .723, making him just nine percent better than average).
While minor league numbers often mean little when it comes to gauging a prospect’s potential, I’m a big proponent of allowing a player to dominate a level before moving on so that he gets a taste of what it takes to truly succeed, especially when that player has such an ability to do so. Too often, organizations are willing to play the “young for his level” card to upgrade an average performance in their own eyes.
Heyward is the most recent example of the possible pitfalls of a rushed prospect. Much like Upton and Mauer, he dominated the minor leagues, posting a .968 OPS in his final season, including a 1.057 mark in a half-season in Double-A. In his rookie season in 2010, Heyward looked like one of the few who could handle the limited developmental time, making an all-star team and finishing with an OPS+ of 131.
But the major leagues are unkind. Since then, Heyward has hit .248/.331/.433 and an OPS+ of 106, despite a nice job rebounding this season. He’s just 22, and I still believe Heyward will be a star, but his 2011 season should serve as a warning flag for those teams who believe prospects are ready without significant time in the upper minors.
Cameron Maybin is the player who stands out on this list, however because much like Machado, at the time of his promotion, Maybin was still more potential than production. Sure, he was hitting .304/.393/.486 when the Tigers called him up at age 20, but he was still striking out at almost a 2-to-1 rate over his walks, much like Machado. And much like Machado, he got off to an impressive start, homering in his second game (off Roger Clemens, no less) and posting a .913 OPS with two doubles and that homer in his first four games. He then collected three hits in his next 34 at-bats.
And of course there is Patterson, the ultimate cautionary tale of a prospect brought to the majors too young, before he learned any plate discipline, and drowning against advanced competition. Patterson is, of course, a very different player than Machado, but he just so happened to fit our criteria.
The thing that scares me the most, however, is how each of these players struggled in his own way, despite domination of the minors before promotion. The decision to promote each of these players was backed up by the fact that the minor leagues appeared to offer no further challenge. Below are the minor league OPS numbers for each of these players at the time of their call-ups:
Maybin – .885
Heyward – .899
Upton – .854
Patterson – .889
Mauer – .830
Manny Machado’s career minor league OPS: .776
This, of course, is in no way an indictment of Machado, who is by all means a terrific player, but simply a lesson of the risk the Orioles are taking. Machado has all the tools to be a great player in the same class as what Mauer is in, Upton is on the border of, and Heyward is returning toward becoming. But the jump that the Orioles have made with Machado is much greater than anything we’ve seen in recent history, both in terms of experience and minor league success.
Just like with every decision, whether in baseball, business or life, the risk of that decision must be compared to the reward. Driving to work every morning does carry with it the inherent risk of dying in a car accident, but the risk is minimal and the reward of a paycheck that enables us to buy things like food and shelter is worth it. On the other hand, if you dropped a nickel out the car window on an interstate, it would not be worth the extreme risk of dodging four lanes of traffic for the minimal reward of five cents.
These ludicrously silly examples show the line of thinking that we each do thousands of times every day, often without realizing it. But it’s the same thought process we use when we take the time to analyze a major decision and weigh out the possible consequences.
While the decision to promote Machado may have no adverse effect on his career development, you can’t deny the inherent risk in the move. And given his role as the future of the franchise (and with a realistic ceiling as shortstop and number three hitter for years to come, that’s exactly what he is), the Orioles are taking a risk with an extremely valuable piece.