When is it time to Promote a Prospect?

You can’t see it unless you’re there, but there is a wide array of data being collected at each and every minor league game.  Behind home plate sit scouts with notebooks and radar guns, as well as last night’s Pitcher, who is charting pitches.  Further up, somewhere in the press box level is a Trackman sensor that can capture upwards of 27 different and unique measurements grouped by release point, pitch movement, plate location, and batted ball.  In the dugout, the Manager and coaching staff are taking mental notes to include in the post game report they file for the affiliate’s MLB parent.  In addition, there are the observations from the club’s roving instructors, training staff, and front office staff that are compiled on a regular basis.  Depending on the time of year, front office staff may be in attendance, taking notes. As fans, we don’t get to see this, but there is a mountain of information collected every game.

For fans whose actual exposure to a minor league prospect consists of looking up their stats on milb.com while clamoring for the promotion of that player, they’re looking at the tip of the developmental iceberg, missing the bulk of that player’s characteristics which lies below the surface.

Promoting a player to the big leagues is a process that can be fraught with hazards.  In the words of Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus,

Grant promotions too early or too often, and they risk jeopardizing his future by burying him on the bench or subjecting him to the mental and physical rigors of major-league life before he’s equipped to handle them. Delay advancement too long, and they threaten to sabotage his development in a different way, blunting his talents against inferior competition while more expensive players with shorter shelf lives take up space on the big-league roster.

We could be talking about any minor leaguer, but of course, we’re mainly discussing Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is shredding AA pitching at the tender age of 19.  The media has been full of suggestions that it’s time to promote the youngster, and Blue Jays-related social media has been circling the bases multiple times with that idea.

But as GM Ross Atkins told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, there’s more to promoting a player than his numbers:

“That’s just offence, right, when you say statistically,” the Blue Jays GM says in an interview. “There are so many more aspects of the game. And it’s only a month of performance above A-ball, as well. Look, man, we’re elated that he’s having this type of performance and it doesn’t look like this performance is going away, the way he’s doing it.

Atkins did not come out and say that Guerrero, who has played less than 200 games at 3B, needs more reps, but he certainly did suggest it:

“It’s really two things,” Atkins said of the developmental priorities for Guerrero, “it’s first-step quickness and how that impacts his defence, and best possible teammate, because he has the potential to be a leader.”

When it comes down to evaluating whether a prospect is ready for a promotion, teams go far beyond their stats (although minor league numbers, of course, tend to be a good indicator of future MLB success).  Everyone involved with the team’s minor league system has a say in whether a player is ready from a competitive and emotional standpoint for the next level.  For the Blue Jays, that line starts with VP of Baseball Ops Ben Cherington, whose focus with the team is on player development and their minor league system, through Atkins,  and includes Director of Player Personnel Gil Kim,  Director or Minor League Ops Charlie Wilson, High Performance Director Angus Mugford, Analytics Staff, Roving Instructors, Minor League team staff, and likely Special Assistant Tim Raines.  Gathering consensus from such a large group is probably quite difficult, but all have a say, and a player generally doesn’t move forward until it’s reached.  Atkins confirmed that process:

(W)e work through a very detailed process to understand all of the risk factors, all of the objective and subjective information in and around what’s best for a player’s development,” said Atkins. “That’s thinking about the complete player, factoring in environment, factoring in competition level, factoring in resources such as coaches, who he’ll be playing alongside of and what that means for putting the best possible challenge in front of our players in the best possible environment. It’s not about the right time. We’re constantly doing that. We’re constantly factoring in all of those factors.”

The biggest pitfall in promoting a player is that he proves not to be ready for that level, and many teams tend to err on the side of caution in that regard.  The Blue Jays have proven that they don’t mind being aggressive with their prospect promotions, but they have developed a one-step-at-a-time template that they widely adhere to.  Each level of the minors has its own developmental challenges for players, and the Blue Jays see value in spending time at each one – including AAA –  as Cherington told Sportsnet:

“We do feel like it’s important for players to play at the triple-A level. It’s an important development challenge to be here,” Cherington said. “We’ve got players here right now who we really believe in and believe are going to be good major-league players. They are being challenged by this level. This is an important level to be at for some period of time.

“It’s a different level of competition than double-A is,” he added. “Different kind of players you’re facing, different matchups, different game-planning strategies — it’s just a different level of play.”

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