First Pitch: Manny Machado and Rushing Prospects

We spent a lot of this summer debating when would be the best time to promote Starling Marte, who was in Triple-A and hitting well during the month of June. Can you imagine the discussions that are going on in Baltimore right now?

The Baltimore Orioles promoted Manny Machado to the majors tonight. What’s surprising about this move is that he was skipped over Triple-A. What’s even more surprising was that Machado wasn’t even dominating the level. He had a .789 OPS with Bowie, with his last game coming against Altoona, where he went 1-for-3 with a homer.

I saw Machado a lot last year in the South Atlantic League. He’s the real deal. But I think there’s a big difference between having talent and being able to use that talent. Since Machado left low-A, he has put up a .692 OPS in high-A, followed by the .789 OPS in Double-A this year. I haven’t seen him in action since then, so I’m not sure how he’s looked versus the numbers. But I can’t imagine those numbers are heavily misleading.

When Starling Marte was in the “When will Marte be Promoted” phase, the argument in favor of promoting him was “Look at Bryce Harper”. Harper only had a .690 OPS in Triple-A, spanning 74 at-bats. That followed time in Double-A where he had a .724 OPS in 129 at-bats (which came after he was skipped over high-A). Yet Washington called him up, similar to what is happening with Machado now. Harper started off well, but has been struggling lately. His season OPS is down to .745. He had an .860 OPS in May, a .780 OPS in June, .619 in July, and .592 in August.

When Marte was on his hot streak, I pointed to the limited amount of games that made up his hot streak. My suggestion was to keep him down for another month and see if he could repeat those numbers over the long haul. That was early July. The Pirates did keep him down for almost a month. He’s had some struggles since joining the majors, but he’s starting to show some of those tools that had us ranking him so well the last few years.

Probably the most frustrating thing with prospects is that you only get one choice. We’ll never know how Marte would have done if he was called up on July 1st. We’ll never know what Harper could have done if he was called up in June, rather than April. And now that Machado is up, we will have to ignore what could have been had he gone through a normal progression, including Double-A success and time in Triple-A.

In all of these situations we tend to assume the best case scenario. Marte would have had this same success in early July that he’s having now. Harper and Machado would have greatly benefitted with more time in the minors. But we don’t know.

I’m not a fan of rushing prospects. I think patience is the best approach, although you probably know that if you’ve read me for any amount of time. I don’t mind aggressive movements (SEE: Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco to West Virginia, Luis Heredia to State College), but I think there’s a fine line between “aggressive movements” and rushing a player. Aggressive movements are best in the lower levels, pushing a guy to a tougher league to challenge his skills. But when I think you get in to rushing players is when you get in to Harper/Machado territory. Harper barely had 200 at-bats above low-A before making it to the majors. Machado now has 402 at-bats above high-A, although he hasn’t been dominating like he should. And looking back, if these guys have Pedro Alvarez type struggles early in their careers, it will be easy to find out what went wrong.

Links and Notes

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**The Pirates beat the Diamondbacks 7-6.

**Pirates Notebook: Correia Adjusts in Spot Start; Presley in Triple-A to Get More At-Bats.

**Prospect Watch: McPherson Shines in Triple-A Debut.

**Kyle McPherson’s Indians Debut Spoiled by Knights.

**State College Player Reports 8/8/12: Creasy, Harlan, Crumlich.

**Jeff Locke Officially Promoted, Alex Presley Optioned to AAA.

**Tyler Waldron Promoted to Altoona, McPherson Making Triple-A Debut.

**Minor League Schedule: 8/9/12.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Anonymous

    Thats something that Tony Sanchez didn’t make the top 10 catching prospects on Mayo’s lists

  • dirtydavid4

    Tim there is plenty of guys who are in the pro’s now with only a year or two in the minors. A lot of teams the bucs have faced this year has at least one guy who has limited minors experience on there squads the bucs are slow to move up prospects from level to level even when production has been exceptional. I would not doubt that Gerritt Cole would be either in AAA or the majors with a majority of teams right now with the way the bucs handle prospects we might not see him till 2015.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Most of those guys are college guys. That’s a normal quick progression through the system. Machado and Harper both came out of high school, and were promoted a year and a half in to their careers (less for Harper), while not having the numbers to support a promotion.

      Cole might be in AAA or the majors with another team, but that’s not saying it would be the right call. And the Pirates aren’t conservative with prospects. Just because they don’t make extreme moves like this doesn’t mean they’re conservative.

  • john.alcorn

    Tim, I think you have a confirmation bias issue here. Your saying that guys who moved quickly who struggle will have an easy explanation isn’t really valid without much more analysis. There are plenty of guys who spend years in the minors then struggle in the bigs and plenty of players who move quick and don’t struggle. Generally, those who move quickest are the best talents, while the slower path is more common for more marginal players. You’d really have to do a much broader study to make any conclusion or at least focus on consensus top talents.

    • Lee Young

      Tim mentioned that you never know. Look at Rutledge for Colorado. Look at LaHair for Chicago.

      And, don’t forget that guys like Alvarez, Presley and Tabata ALL did well their first years in the bigs.

      It’s a ‘who the heck knows’ type of deal. Just like protecting pitchers. They weren’t coddled when I grew up and seemed to do okay. Now……don’t get me started….lol

      • http://twitter.com/jamesmvargo James Vargo

        Harper is going to be great, but someone please tell me why he was in the All-Star game. One shouldn’t get chosen because of potential, since his numbers were OK, but not better than many others. We will be sick of him in future AS games as it is.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I think there’s a difference between moving quickly and stuff like this. Alvarez moved quickly. But this kind of stuff is beyond moving quickly.

      • john.alcorn

        Truth, he’d be at Bradenton if we had picked him.

  • http://twitter.com/jfranco77 John Franco

    If you asked me to guess how many ABs Machado had above High-A, I would have said a lot less than 402. So my initial reaction that he was really being rushed might be off a bit, but honestly, Hardy is at .229./275./385 with a pretty solid glove and I’m skeptical that Machado can improve on that.

    • john.alcorn

      Machado will play 3B for the O’s

  • TonyPenaforHOF

    I think promoting Machado at this point is a mistake. I believe it is better to let a prospect master their level before promotion. Once players get to AA/AAA/MLB talent becomes less of an issue – mastering the mental aspect is the key. The game is a series of adjustments, and taking the time to make the adjustments while keeping mental focus is vital to MLB success. Better to learn this in the minors than trying it against the best baseball players in the world. That’s the part that is difficult to measure and why I would take a conservative approach.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Harper’s the real thing. Bonds blew thru the minors too. His first year was a little spotty, but he learned and improved. The Orioles are trying to make the playoffs, that matters.

  • BlueBomber72

    I’m always in favor of promoting a player that shows success at an area of team need, but this one’s a head scratcher. Betemit and Hardy aren’t great, but it’s unlikely that Machado is an improvement over either. Maybe the Orioles are hoping his athleticism is enough to give them a short term boost. Other then that I can’t imagine it’s a good idea to throw him into a AL East pennant race at this point. Does anyone know if they do any type of mental fitness assessments of players? I always wonder if some high scores in mental adustment or some other type indicator may influence decisions like these.

  • RandyLinville

    I think these situations should be handled case by case. I think it would be silly for an organization to have a firm rule against moving talent quickly through the system.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    I agree on Harper. I just don’t know why you’d bring up a player well before he’s ready. You draft a guy and pay him a big bonus for what he could become down the line. So why call him up before he reaches that level of performance?

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting a firm rule. But I can’t think of many cases where it looks smart to move a 19 year old with an OPS under .800 from AA to the majors.

  • john.alcorn

    Tim, are you aware of a study that shows that promoting too soon is damaging? Anectodally we know it happens (see Castillo, Jose) but is it more than random noise? Both Jose Guillen and Aramis Ramirez were rushed and turned out OK.

  • RandyLinville

    Last 15 players to get 50 or PAs at their age 19 season or earlier:
    Bryce Harper
    Justin Upton
    Adrian Beltre
    Andruw Jones
    Edgar Renteria
    ARod
    Pudge Rodriguez
    Griffey
    Juan Gonzalez
    Gary Sheffield
    Jose Oquendo
    Ricky Seilheimer
    Robin Yount
    Claudell Washington
    Darrell Porter

    To your point, most of these guys were raking when they were called up. Exceptions would be Renteria (.713) and Pudge (.683). Griffey (.845 the season before as he made the Opening Day roster) and JuanGon (.848) weren’t tearing it up.

    We have to assume Baltimore knows what it is doing. Other than Seilheimer & Oquendo (and Harper so far), the guys on the list varied from making multiple all-star teams to making the HOF. That’s a pretty good track record for inserting a 19 year old into the Show.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    Going one by one:

    Bryce Harper – Wasn’t really dominating in Triple-A. Didn’t dominate in AA. He’s hit a wall lately after a hot start.

    Justin Upton – He at least had success in AA and AAA (only a limited amount of time in AAA). He struggled his age 19 season.

    Adrian Beltre – Jumped from AA to the majors, with a .992 OPS in AA at the time. He struggled in the early part of his career. He had two seasons with an OPS > .800 by the age of 25, and didn’t really become the player he is now until that point (with some inconsistencies along the way).

    Andruw Jones – It was limited time, but he was dominating AA and AAA. He had a .709 OPS at 19 and a .745 OPS at 20.

    Edgar Renteria – Had a .713 OPS in Triple-A, so he’s a guy who wasn’t tearing up the level. He really didn’t have a good season until he was 25, with three sub-.700 OPS seasons mixed in his first few years.

    ARod – Posted strong numbers in AAA. He actually came up at 18. Limited playing time at 18-19, with a .609 OPS in 196 at-bats. He broke out at the age of 20.

    Pudge Rodriguez – As you pointed out, he had poor numbers in AA. At ages 19-20 in the majors he combined for a .648 OPS. At 21 he had a .727 OPS. His first big year was 22, with an .848 OPS.

    Griffey – Posted an .845 OPS in AA before making the jump to the majors. He had a .748 OPS the first year, then became a star at the age of 20 and didn’t look back (until injuries hit).

    Juan Gonzalez – He might not fit on this list. He came up at 19 briefly, after a full season at AA. He went back for a full season at AAA at the age of 20, then came up briefly during the season. He wasn’t really in the majors for good until 21. Technically he was up at 19, but I think it was more to get a taste, rather than to be up for good.

    Gary Sheffield – Good numbers in AAA before coming up. In his 19-20 seasons in the majors he combined for a .650 OPS. Didn’t break out until the age of 23.

    Jose Oquendo – Didn’t have good numbers at all in the minors, and never really became much in the majors.

    Ricky Seilheimer – His age 19 season was the only time he was in the majors.

    Robin Yount – He went from low-A to the majors. His first three years he combined for a .629 OPS. He cracked .700 in a season at the age of 21. He didn’t really break out until 23.

    Claudell Washington – Went from AA to the majors, with good numbers in AA. Never really had a great career, and he didn’t start putting up consistently good numbers until 24.

    Darrell Porter – Went from low-A to the majors at 19. Went back to AAA at the age of 20, after putting up a .629 OPS in 70 at-bats in the majors at 19. He had an .800 OPS in AAA, then came back up for a .406 OPS in 56 at-bats at the age of 20. Didn’t really come up until 21, when he had an .820 OPS. Kind of similar to Gonzalez.

    I think there’s a very strong trend here. The majority of these guys went on to have successful careers, but almost all of them struggled at ages 19-20, even if they did have success in AA or AAA. Some of them struggled until ages 23-24, at which point they became good consistent players.

    I’m not saying that Harper and Machado can’t have the careers that these guys had. I think they will. I just think they could see struggles early in their careers. Maybe those struggles will be limited to their age 19 season. Maybe it will be 19-20. Maybe more than that.

    As you pointed out, there’s a decent amount of players who have come up to the majors at 19, and most of those guys were more deserving based on their AA and AAA numbers. But I think this supports my point even more. There’s not a good track record of guys having success in the majors at 19-20. And if guys aren’t even dominating AA and AAA, I think it would be less likely that they’d be the exception.

    I just don’t see a need to rush prospects in these situations. Especially with the economics of baseball these days. If Harper and Machado become stars, Washington and Baltimore will have a hard time signing them for their free agent years. And if you rush them up, you’re making them free agents before they hit their prime. Right now Harper is on pace to be a free agent after his age 25 season. He still would have been a young free agent, even if they gave him a bit more time. But if you’re going to pay him a huge bonus, and you’re likely only going to have him for 6.5 years, then don’t you want the best possible production for those years?

  • RandyLinville

    I think the strongest argument against promoting him was made by BlueBomber in an earlier comment. That is, he might not be an improvement over what they currently have.

    I understand what you are saying about becoming a young free agent and trying to maximize the limited amount of time of player control. But I believe if Machado is the best option for SS or 3B in the whole organization at age 19 or 20 or 21, then he should be in the Show, even if you risk losing him as a free agent at a young age.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    It’s not just the free agent part. You draft Machado and pay him $6 M because you think he’s going to be a certain level of player. He might be the best option they have, but he’s not yet the player they thought he would be when they drafted him.

    If we’re setting a low bar of just being better than the worst player on the major league roster, they could find some 4A guy to do the job. He’s replacing Wilson Betemit, who has a .750 OPS. I’d be surprised if Machado does better than that. He might have an easier time improving over Hardy (.660 OPS), but from what I understand he’s up to replace Betemit, not Hardy.