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.