Promoting Anthony Rizzo is a bad idea

Over the next several weeks, we should see major league clubs promote a variety of interesting prospects. One of the players most internet pundits assume will be promoted is Anthony Rizzo.

It looks like an open and shut case. The Pacific Coast League is known as a hitter’s league, but Rizzo is killing the competition. His .366/.442/.720 triple slash performance screams for promotion. He has decent plate discipline with an 11.6 percent walk rate (22 walks with five intentional passes and two hit by pitch) and a 22.1 percent strikeout rate. He’s shown huge power via a .356 isolated power mark. He has even swiped five bags in six attempts.

So what are the Padres waiting for?

A .426 balls in play average is certainly helping to boost his stats. We can normalize his stats line—removing six hits gets the job done—but the result is still a solid .329 batting average and .400 on base percentage. Those are still good numbers for a 21-year-old in Triple-A. In fact, that youthful age is more of a reason to hold him back than any perceived “luck” on balls in play.

But in all honesty, Rizzo appears to be ready however you choose to define that term. It’s the Padres who aren’t.

Often, clubs will make up a variety of excuses to keep a prospect in the minors. The Padres will have an easy job of this should they decide to wait on Rizzo.

The Padres currently employ hot-hitting Brad Hawpe. If the “hot hitting” modifier caught you off guard, you aren’t alone. If Hawpe’s season is split into two halves, he had a .388 OPS in the first half and a .908 OPS in the second half.

It would be hyperbole to suggest that the Padres have a lot riding on Hawpe, but if he can continue to post an OPS north of .800 through June and most of July, the Padres should be able to convert him into a decent reliever plus salary relief. For a tight-fisted franchise that finds gold in every reliever they touch, that would be well worth leaving Rizzo in the minors.

The Friars also have 24-year-old Kyle Blanks toiling his way back from injury in Double-A. He’s not hitting like Rizzo, but he is hitting well—an .888 OPS on the season and a .988 OPS in his last 10 games.

Blanks can pretend he’s an outfielder, but he really isn’t. The Padres can maximize his value by giving him a chance to run with the first base job from whenever Hawpe hands it over until sometime next season. Treated properly, Blanks could net the Padres a nice haul given his combination of youth, team control, and power. That’s if and when Rizzo forces the Padres to make room for him.

Often it is presumed that activating a top prospect will increase attendance. There’s two aspects to this. The first we can call the “shiny new toy” theory. Basically, the fans will come specifically to see the player. This worked in Washington with Stephen Strasburg. It will work again there when he returns from Tommy John surgery, and it will work a third time when Bryce Harper gets the call up. Rizzo is neither of those players.

The second factor is that a top prospect like Rizzo represents a win or more of improvement over a guy like Hawpe. While some clubs might be able to nod along with this point, the Padres just experienced a 90-win season where they drew 300,000 fewer fans than their 63-win season in 2008 and only 200,000 more fans than their 75-win 2009 team managed. The economy plays a role with those numbers,m but demand for Padres games doesn’t appear to be tightly correlated with winning. Adding a win or two isn’t likely to change fan behavior.

Unfortunately, a discussion of why Rizzo should remain in the minors cannot be complete without bringing up service time rules. If the Padres do something like the above plan and ride Blanks into 2012, they can either put off Rizzo’s free agency by waiting about two weeks into the season before calling him up, or they can try to build Blanks’ value through the trade deadline and avoid Super Two status with Rizzo. In either scenario, the club gets more value out of Rizzo and gets an extra chance to parlay his service into a playoff berth.

Hopefully the next collective bargaining agreement won’t incentivize clubs to hold back their prospects. However, even if that language were in place now, it looks like the long term health of the Padres would still be better served with Rizzo remaining in Triple-A.

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Comments

  1. Geoff Young said...

    Nice take, Brad. I agree that there is no hurry to bring Rizzo to San Diego.

    One minor quibble: Blanks has never pretended to be an outfielder. He is a first baseman, but the Padres wanted to get his bat into the lineup and moved him to left field (which may have led or at least contributed to the elbow injury) because of Adrian Gonzalez’s presence.

    Like I said, minor quibble. Good stuff; thanks for writing this.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    I like the imagery of a player feigning competence at a position. My intention would have been more clear if I said something along the lines of “The Padres have asked Blanks to pretend he’s an OF in the past and they could do it again to get both players in the lineup. But…(cite UZR)”

  3. Drakos said...

    I kind of wonder if the Padres use Blanks to replace Hawpe at first but then put Hawpe in left and deal Ludwick as he’s got to have more value than Hawpe. Unless they think they can get more out of Ludwick from free agent compensation. Or they could get rid of Hawpe and Ludwick and bring up Blanks and Cunningham. Maybe Decker instead of Cunningham but I have a feeling he’d be more of a roster expansion callup.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Drakos,

    The Padres do have some flexibility in how they pursue this. Given their spacious outfield, the Padres might do best to avoid reminding other teams how atrocious Hawpe is in the outfield. An acquiring team could potentially see him as a PH/5th OF/backup 1b.

    I think the latter scenarios you mention should be considered the goal in San Diego. Player performance and the deadline market will determine whether they can execute that plan.

  5. Craig Burley said...

    This is the most *unbelievable* horsehockey I have read in ages. 

    “A discussion of why Rizzo should remain in the minors” should absolutely not ignore the fact that Anthony Rizzo is the best first baseman the San Diego Padres have.  It is unequivocally in the Padres’ best interests to treat their players even-handedly and fairly, and try to win baseball games, and they can do that by employing Rizzo at first base. 

    To suggest they should do otherwise, in any way, destroys the fair and robust competition that gives baseball’s fans (and especially those of the Padres) an interest in watching and attending baseball games.

    The person most obviously hurt by such shenanigans would be Anthony Rizzo, but equally injured would be San Diego’s fans.

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    Craig,

    Are the Padres fans hurt if they lose out on half a season of a developing Anthony Rizzo on an uncompetitive team in exchange for a full season of Rizzo in his prime on a team that could be competitive? Furthermore, would you not agree that it is in the best interest of the franchise, given the rules set forth by the MLB and MLBPA, to leave Rizzo in the minors? And is not the longterm health of the franchise – that is the course of action that wins the club the most games over multiple seasons – also in the the best interest of the fans?

    You have an issue with the rules. I did not make them.

  7. Geoff Young said...

    “Anthony Rizzo is the best first baseman the San Diego Padres have” is a debatable point. He is likely the long-term solution, although Blanks may be better in the interim. The thing holding Blanks back is that he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

    The situation isn’t so cut and dried. Look at how the Giants handled Brandon Belt. Is it really in the best interests of Rizzo and San Diego’s fans to bring the kid up, watch him struggle, lose patience, and then send him back to Triple-A? This is only one scenario, of course, but it could happen (and has happened).

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    Geoff,

    A nice example to follow with Rizzo might be Ryan Howard. Of course the Phillies had Jim Thome blocking Howard so nobody questioned leaving him in the minors, but the Phillies basically allowed Howard to fully polish his game in the minors before Pat Gillick made room for him. Rizzo can still improve certain aspects of his game so it’s not “hurting” him as a baseball player to let him continue developing in triple-A. It is hurting his bank account but that is another matter entirely.

    If you head over to MLBTR, you’ll find a nice tidbit from Jed Hoyer today stating that Rizzo is not yet ready and that the time and situation have to be right for a promotion.

  9. kevin said...

    “not hurting him” as a player. yes i am sure there are things he can polish up on in the minors but also take into the mind games that play with him by leaving him down. he is hitting the cover off the ball so really by hitting he dosnt have much to prove, so by leaving him down even though you can positively explane to him he needs to work on this or that it just puts doubt in someone mind that you cant make it at a higher level. so the longer he stays down the more frustrated he can become and may then always think maybe there right and i cant do it up here.sure some people need time to get there but othere (andrew jones was 18 i think) and others in the history of the game 9 went on to the hall of fame.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_baseball_players_who_went_directly_to_the_major_leagues

    so maybe its time to just say ok step of here and prove you can. keep him down there any longer and you just may mess with his mind. i mean how many times have we heard oh this player is a “CAN’T MISS” and you baby him along and he really is nothing but a average bench player. i hate it when your favorite team is either in it or out of it and then trades young prospects for a 37 year old never been much of anything player just to fill a spot. thinking how now after 15 years in the magers he can just be great and get you over the hump. so you just give kids away for someone elses reject. i say lets see what the kid has. thats life no matter what your job. heck if i dig ditches for a life and every year i am told oh you just cant dig ditches with us up here its gonna mess with my mind. bring the kid up

  10. Brad Johnson said...

    Ultimately, it is not for us to guess the psychology of Anthony Rizzo. Undoubtedly there are some players who would get miffed if they hit this well and weren’t called up. There are also other players who understand that it’s a business and it’s their job to force the management’s hand.

    If they bring Rizzo up now, they squander a potentially high value asset in Kyle Blanks. But if it really is going to hurt his psyche irreparably, then activate Rizzo. He’s the future at the position. From our perspective, I think we have to assume a player is mentally well adjusted until proven otherwise. I’ve seen far more players “ruined” by quick promotion than slow promotion.

  11. Michael said...

    Would the Rays be a good trade partner for Kyle Blanks right now? They could ship some young, cheap, and good pitching from their embarrassing depth. Say Alex Colome, Alex Cobb, and Scott Shuman? Blanks plays 1B, Pads get some good pitching depth.

  12. Brad Johnson said...

    Blanks is still coming back from Tommy John surgery and he had some issues with plantar fasciitis before that. He also isn’t a “proven” commodity. So selling now would be at a low.

    If they let him establish his health and skills for a season, they can sell at a substantially higher asking price. This isn’t remotely risk free, so if the Padres have a reasonable offer now, it might be something to consider.

  13. John Conniff said...

    Excellent article, Richard I enjoyed it very much. 

    Two minor points; Last year Rizzo hit .207 against lefties in Portland in 133 plate appearances – so like you and the Padres I might want to see him have a little more experience against them before bringing him up.

    Blanks is an average OF but because of his size I don’t think its really sustainable to keep him out there and also the model that seems to work best in San Diego of speedy, athletic OFs – he doesn’t really fit.

    Again, very well written argument.

  14. Didi said...

    Rizzo can still work on his fielding skills in AAA, getting more comfortable around the first base. Watching Hawpe play 1B is torturous after having the luxury that is Adrian Gonzalez who’s smooth as can be and instinctual on the field. As John mentioned, he wasn’t hitting lefthanders so well last year and I think Jed mentioned this also as something Rizzo can keep improving.

    When his time comes, he’ll be ready but for now, the scenario presented in this article is the way to go most likely. Thanks for the finely thought out article.

  15. Josh said...

    Being a close friend of Anthony Rizzo, I have to disagree with the psychological aspect of calling him up.  Anthony is fully prepared for awaits him in the big leagues. He understands the developmental aspect of the game and completely respects it. He goes to the ballpark everyday ready win games and help his team. He is not hurt by not being called up, he is just happy to be in the situation he is in.

    With that being said, the kid is ready for the big leagues. I understand he hasn’t seen much lefties in AAA and that playing in the PCL allows people to doubt his numbers. I would even agree that his numbers are somewhat inflated due to the PCL. But, take a closer look at base hits. Line drives, opposite field power, better pitch recognition then years past. None of which has anything to do with the stadiums he is playing in. 

    But, he is a pure power hitter. His career line supports that theory; .297 average, 50+ home runs. Subtract a year missed due to cancer. Remember, he is only 21 years old! 

    With that being said, I don’t think it is a bad idea to bring Anthony up. The Padres will not be making a playoff run this year, so why not let him make adjustments in the big leagues? The business aspect makes sense, which is why they can wait until after the all star break to bring him up, thus delaying his service time. He is far superior to the competition in AAA and it is not allowing him to progress. Bring him up and let’s see what he can do.

  16. Brad Johnson said...

    Josh,

    Thanks for that insight into Rizzo’s character, it’s appreciated. I’d like to talk more via email or twitter if you’re up for it.

    @baseballateam

    -or-

    pitchin432 AT Yahoo.com

  17. John said...

    Common sense, folks.

    When a 21-year-old has a 1.162 OPS in a third of a season at Triple-A, he doesn’t belong in Triple-A anymore. Most Triple-A players are veterans who have spent time in the major leagues before. A player who is dominating them night-in and night-out is a major-league caliber ballplayer.

    If baseball had a Commissioner with some guts, he’d use the “best interest of baseball” clause to order teams to stop gaming service time with young players and bring them to the major leagues when it is clear that is where they belong. Keeping Rizzo in Triple-A may be good for the long-term bottom line, but it’s a disservice to Padres fans and to Rizzo himself, who has earned a place on the major-league team.

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