9-4-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
The conversations we’re having today about promoting prospects aren’t new. They happen every year, the difference is currently that a very large percentage of the fan base have turned their attention to the development system in an effort to cope with the pain of the MLB squad. So, the conversations have gotten louder.
I shouldn’t even just keep it to the fan base, even people who write about the club have shifted their attention, and while I have no doubt they’ve paid close enough attention to form educated conclusions, they by in large haven’t really ever had to defend those assertions because nobody was watching.
Today, I’d like to talk about some of the reasons players do and don’t get promoted. I’m going to try to not make this a direct explanation of why Nick Gonzales or Mason Martin or whomever you think should be bumped up a level isn’t, and instead just in general describe some of the factors involved. When you look at it that way, you’ll start to understand it’s such a wide spectrum that it’s pretty easy to find an acceptable rationale somewhere therein.
Age Isn’t Just a Number
Some of this was skewed by the COVID lost season of 2020, as college seniors drafted in 2019 and 2020 could feasibly be 23 or even 24 by the time they’ve gotten more than a taste of professional ball. Some players used that time well, others didn’t progress much, either way it’s a fact that it happened and it has at least temporarily altered many of the average ages in the lower levels of MiLB.
Now, a 23 year old playing in Low A might have a lower threshold for checking off their boxes. Those boxes are a theme you’ll see mentioned quite a bit and I’ll dig in more in the next section on that. For this group though where age is becoming a factor, early on you may see teams require a bit less to warrant a bump. There is something to be said for projecting out progression and nothing is worse than taking a real talent and dooming them to not make MLB before they turn 26 or 27. It immediately puts things on an artificially expediated path, and sometimes it actually stunts growth all together.
It forces a player into potentially not reaching Free Agency until he’s just about past his prime, if not completely, see Jacob Stallings. Again, this doesn’t mean they’ll be a bad player, but think about how dicey it is to consider extensions. It’s a factor, it’s not a killer, but let’s just say franchises don’t like to make it commonplace to introduce a bunch of 26-27 year old rookies.
Check Those Boxes
If there was a formula, I’d give it to you.
These probably aren’t formal lists that are actually being checked off, but every player has a plan. For instance, if a guy has a 60 power tool, you probably want to see him hitting some doubles at the very least. If a guy’s best tool is his arm and he can’t hit the cut off man, well, let’s just say he isn’t going anywhere until that sorts itself.
So, when you see a guy has hit a ton of homeruns but they seemingly refuse to promote him, it’s safe to assume there is something else they want to see and this might surprise you but it’s not a stat.
Scouts work hard to make sure their intel is accurate. Armature scouts want to be right on their estimation of talent level. Pro scouts want to be right about promotion. Just like in your job, when you are ready to promote someone, chances are they’ve been ready for a while, but the worst thing you can do is promote someone or worse, do so out of necessity only to find out they weren’t ready. It’s much harder to demote than promote and it behooves everyone involved to be right.
Of course they swing and miss, if it was a perfect science every team in the league would operate like the Rays. Point is, you’d rather be a couple weeks late than a couple weeks early. You’d rather have that check box ticked 5 times over than jump as soon as it’s been crossed the first time.
Unique Learning Opportunity
We’re seeing this right now in Greensboro. As that team fights for a playoff berth it makes sense that the Pirates would want guys to get to take part in seeing that through. I can see this thought compete directly with every other concept we’ll speak to here, and it’s a balancing act to be sure, but some GM’s and specifically the one we have in Pittsburgh, value team accomplishment, even in the minors.
You’ll hear people say this doesn’t matter, and on the surface I agree with that, but there is something to be said for the art of learning to win. Learning what it takes to be part of a winner, seeing how important the 30th man on the roster got you 3 key outs in a game against that team nipping at your heels.
It teaches kids who have been THE star on just about every team they’ve played on in their lives that they alone aren’t enough to take a title like it was in high school.
As we stare at stats, we often forget that Baseball is still a team sport, and bonds formed at this level can pay dividends at some point when members of the group make the show. At least that’s the concept.
For this one, I like to point to MLB. The reason I do that is most of us have watched that play out. For a hitter, a stint on the IL, even if short, throws timing off for many guys. It’s something we don’t see in the minors for a couple reasons. One, the margin for error is greater, timing in MLB is to the millisecond, timing in MiLB for the most part is a few milliseconds.
You’ve all seen a pitcher go on the IL with a blister and watch it turn into a 3-4 week absence too, it takes time to work back in and be ready to go 100%. That’s why serious injury like what Travis Swaggerty suffered are of course noticed and injury like what Oneil Cruz suffered largely get ignored. People don’t see the damage done to a developing player by missing 5-6 weeks in the middle of what they’re doing.
Let’s say the organization was working with Cruz on smoothing out the edges on a bad habit they identified and has all but eliminated. Well, if it hasn’t had time to cement, he may come back from the IL and whoops, all there’s that bad habit back in full force. Maybe he’s healthy, but doesn’t trust the healing all the way and won’t go full bore.
This is why you can look at an overall body of work, think a guy is ready based on their stats and miss what’s really going on.
Before I get into this one, there are prospects that transcend this. For this discussion, this is essentially to move up, you need a place to go, which means someone else needs a place to go as well.
Every Spring you see the Pirates (it happens with literally every team even the Dodgers FYI) sign a bunch of “depth guys” These are guys who another organization has given up on and they have released them to make room for other prospects to move up within their organization.
This is how the Bucs got Phillip Evans for instance. Now, don’t get hung up that he hasn’t really worked out, I’m just describing the type of player. Will Craig had he not decided to head off to Asia would assuredly been a player like this. Next year the Pirates are poised to clean house in AAA. I see a ton of housekeeping taking place now that the AA guys have proven ready for promotion.
Now, some of you are probably asking, why not just do it now then if the AA guys are ready! (I’m guessing there would be a few more exclamation points and capital letters if you wrote it)
The best way I can put it is some of those AAA guys aren’t in the long term plans, but they remain FAR more ready to go to MLB in a pinch than a freshly promoted AA player.
You can argue that a bit, Rodolfo Castro is a perfect example. He’s looked more ready than almost anyone the Pirates called up from AAA this season.
Regardless of all those factors, the fact remains, if you want to promote a player, another players needs to be Promoted, Demoted, or Released. Roster limits are a think in MiLB too, both at each individual stop and as an overall number.
OK, so I promised I’d talk about the types of guys who transcend this. For the most part, this is someone who you drafted older, or suffered stagnant development then suddenly figured things out later than planned. See even in MiLB there is a clock, a number a years you can be in an organization before the CBA forces decisions. Either protection from the rule 5, or avoiding Rule 9 that allows a prospect to select Free Agency. Those are just two, but when a 23 year old who’s been in your system from the age of 17 as an International Signing finally clicks in Single A, you might be inclined to get him moving, because you might only have a year left to decide.
The Levels Are Muddy
This hasn’t always been the case in MLB, but it becomes more every year and the MiLB contraction from a year ago is largely responsible on the low end, MLB depth on the high end.
More GMs are using the AAA level as a bucket for emergency borderline MLB players, sprinkled with a few prospects, but the fear of calling guys from AA is not what it used to be. It’s something that I think we can expect to see it much more as the league adjusts the range they believe to be typical “prime years” for players. It’s trending down, not up, so youth is going to be factor in all these areas to a degree.
When I mention the low end being murky, well they subtracted an entire level and it’s forced clubs to promote players from their international system maybe a bit earlier than they’d like. Even placing draft picks has become a chore. You don’t just want to toss them in Bradenton and hope for the best, so maybe you sneak them into the development league like GCL or you even see some get the assignment like Anthony Solometo but not touch the field until he’s done enough off field training to feel comfortable with. Again, muddy.
This is a good catch all factor, because in many ways what this means is we all could be worried a bit too much about promotions in the first place. As I said, it’s league wide and the difference in competition from AA to AAA isn’t what it used to be. The biggest jump is of course from AAA to MLB, but the next one as currently constructed is undoubtedly High A to AA. The ballparks tend to become a bit more professional, the competition is a bit more tested, the jump to MLB is feasible for many and the fan base is now more about the organization than the individual team. Your affiliate isn’t an afterthought anymore, now it’s the goal.
There is nothing I can say that should stop you from wanting prospects promoted, and honestly, I’m not even trying to achieve it. I’m simply giving you a bunch of factors to think about.
Trying to point out that it’s not about the numbers as much as a formula individual to each player.
There is no one size fits all style method, and there are no shortcuts. It does no good to promote someone to AA a few months early, only to find them overwhelmed and watch them stall there for two seasons.
So when you scream for a guy to get promoted, or even claim Cherington is straight up screwing the pooch by leaving a guy at a certain level, keep in mind, you could be dead on right, but it could also simply be one of these factors you haven’t considered.
When you ask experts why a guy isn’t promoted, you can expect 3 or 4 of these concepts to pop up in their answer before they go about the job of diminishing their numbers or downplaying the importance of a stat you like.
It’s true that some GMs have a reputation for being quicker on the trigger to promote, but keep in mind the GM is merely a reflection of the system he or she operates. If they employ a bunch of scouts who are quick to recommend promotion, guess what might ensue? If they have a ton of guys who slow walk prospects, it stands to reason based on the info and recommendations they send, he too will slow walk.
The Pirates scouting system is a mixed bag of scouts that have been around for a very long time, injected with fresh blood back in 2020. It’s hard to imagine this team is solidified or settled as of yet since they literally had no job in 2020 beside the select few charged with watching guys practice for 3 months.
In fact it could be 2 or 3 more years before we really understand any tendencies from this baseball operations group. We have track records from previous stops, but we don’t have anything from this particular organization. In many ways, the development system itself here in Pittsburgh is developing.
Now if you only care about what you see in MLB, sorry, this was super boring. Even you will one day appreciate everything that went into getting those players to the show in one piece and effective.