The supposedly contending Pirates are in trouble already, and they've got a hot prospect down in the minors. Does it really make sense to hold him back, in order to save a few million dollars down the road?
When to call up a hot-hitting prospect isn't always the easiest decision to make.
Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports
By Rob Neyer
The Pirates are off to a rough start this season, and it's mostly because of their pitching. Last season the Pirates finished third in the National League in ERA, and this season they're 11th.
But there's no quick fix for the pitching. The hitting, though? The Pirates are actually doing slightly better this season: ninth in scoring last season, seventh this season. Right field's been a weak spot, though, with holdovers Travis Snider and Jose Tabata combining for sub-average production.
Meanwhile, the Pirates' top-hitting prospect is tearing up the International League. Before the season, outfielder Gregory Polanco ranked 24th on the Baseball Prospectus prospect list, and he's only moved up since then. Sunday night, the Pirates hosted the Cardinals on ESPN, and this conversation about Polanco ensued:
Olney: Well, when you talk to the Pirates they’ll tell you that he still has some more development to happen. But as you mention, Dan, a lot of the small-market teams, mid-market teams, the Tampa Bay Rays most notably, will keep their guys in the minor leagues. Typically, that means mid-June, late-June.
Shulman: At this point, if the Pirates were to call [Polanco] up today, they already would have delayed his free agency by a year, as opposed to the beginning of the season. In order to delay his arbitration eligibility for another year, there’s something called the Super 2 clause. And what that means, everybody with three years service is arbitration-eligible, plus the top 22 percent of players between two and three years, in terms of service time... Generally to be safe, teams in the past have waited until June to call a guy up, and then they’re pretty much safe, that they’ve delayed his arbitration by a year. You gotta believe if he’s still hitting .365 or whatever he’s hitting, four weeks from now, he’s gonna be a Pirate.
Kruk: Well you would hope he is. You know that’s a great sell to the fans, your front office people, their job is to see how much money they can save, and not have to spend. But if you’re a player— [liner to third base ends inning].
Let me see if I can finish Kruk’s thought. If you’re a player ... you want to be in the major leagues as quickly as your talent merits! But on the list of players we should feel sorry for, hot-hitting prospects aren’t real close to the top of the list, are they? If Polanco’s really this good, is one month really going to make a difference in his life when he’s looking back after an incredibly profitable 10- or 15-year career?
I really doubt it.
I also really doubt if bringing up Polanco right now will change the Pirates' season, and for this simple fact: It’s very easy to overstate the impact of a single player over the course of just a few weeks.
Back in 2007, the Brewers opened the season with Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino sharing third base, while Ryan Braun languished in the minors. Counsell and Graffanino were awful. Braun finally reached the majors in late May and hit well enough in 113 games to grab Rookie of the Year laurels.
According to Brew Crew Ball’s Kyle Lobner, “missing two months of Braun cost the Brewers 8.5 runs, or roughly .85 wins. The Brewers only missed the playoffs by two games, so the difference is significant.”
Well, yes. But our ability to measure such things remains (and will always remain) imprecise. Based purely on Lobner’s calculations, it’s obviously less likely that Braun’s absence did cost the Brewers a playoff spot. In fact, they missed tying for a playoff spot by two games, and tying means a one-game playoff, and you’ve got just a 50/50 chance of winning that one.
Still, you’ll take those chances whenever you can get them. The problem is that you don’t know what’s going to happen before the fact. When the Brewers were weighing Braun’s situation in the spring of '07, they couldn’t know they would finish just two games behind the first-place Cubs. The Brewers had gone just 75-87 in '06, and their 83-79 record in '07 -- remember, with Braun in the lineup for most of the season -- wasn’t anything special. It seems perfectly rational for the Brewers to have been thinking beyond just the '07 standings.
On the other hand, it’s very easy to overthink these things; to assume a number of things that simply aren’t safe to assume. As Lobner pointed out,
• The player could underperform and be sent back to the minors.
• The player could have a career-altering injury that ends their big league time or dramatically alters their effectiveness.
• The player could be traded and their arbitration clock could become someone else's problem.
• The player could just turn out to be a disappointment, meaning their value when they hit arbitration won't be that high anyway.
• If free agency is what you're afraid of, the player could sign a long-term deal that eliminates the cost uncertainty of arbitration or the possibility of free agency.
You don’t know what’s going to happen! And it’s unlikely that the service-time clock will still seem so terribly important two or three years down the line.
But wait, there's even more uncertainty. On Opening Day in 2007, the Brewers couldn’t have known that Counsellino would be so terrible, or that Braun would be so terrific. Maybe they figured that out after a few weeks ... but now we’re talking about one lost month, not two. And one lost month pencils out to … less than half a win? Does the decision seem so obvious now?
Well, that’s where we’re at with Polanco right now. Except much, much less so. The Pirates’ right fielders (Snabata?) haven’t been as bad as Counsellino. Polanco, for all his considerable talents, probably won’t be nearly as good as Braun was in his first year. And at this point, we’re not even talking about a whole month; more like three weeks to keep him from achieving Super 2 status.
Contending teams, I think, should usually promote their best players when it makes sense on the field. They don't, in part, because humans love to fool themselves into thinking they can predict the future. But we can't. The universe, and even the tiny little part of the universe that plays baseball, is simply too complex.
But it's not entirely clear that Polanco's much better than the right fielders the Pirates already have. And it's no longer clear that the Pirates are even contenders.