A favorite past time of those who follow prospects is calling for, musing about, and generally begging for a favorite prospect to get promoted, not necessarily to the major leagues but to the next level along his developmental path. Some requests are warranted, others the product of the average fan's combination of impatience and lack of first-hand knowledge of the prospect. Neither is a knock on fans - passion is what makes baseball and following prospects great. But a better understanding of how these decisions are made and why, or why not, they happen can only enhance everyone's enjoyment of the game.
There are a number of reasons that a prospect is or is not promoted mid-season, and his stat line and box scores are down extremely low on the list. For a player to get promoted simply because his numbers requires an off-the-charts performance. It does, however, sometimes happen, although as you'll see, there are usually additional circumstances involved.
Needing a Challenge
Joey Gallo entered the 2014 season known as one of the best power hitters in the minors. This distinction was based on scouting reports touting his 80 raw power as being perhaps the best in all of minor league baseball and was aided by his 38 home run performance last year in the Midwest League. That performance, however, came with 165 strike outs and a .245 batting average. Despite Gallo's ridiculous power and the fact that it had manifested itself on the field, there were still questions about his hit tool and how it would play out at higher levels.
That power got Gallo on our Top-101 at Baseball Prospectus this off-season, but with tempered optimism in the 95 spot. This year, Gallo came out with the power blazing once again, but with some new tricks up his sleeve.
Gallo began the year in the Carolina League and hit 21 home runs in 58 games, a pace that outdid even his own expectations set from last season. What was more impressive, however, was the way he approached his at-bats. He became more selective at the plate, drawing additional walks when pitchers avoided him (something that's bound to happen more and more as his reputation spreads) and striking out less. While he's still prone to swings-and-misses, he scaled them back to a significantly more manageable level and the result was .323 batting average and .463 on-base percentage to go along with the power and a promotion to Double-A.
The home runs were an amazing run, but to a certain extent, they were expected. Power is not new to Joey Gallo. What got him promoted, however, was the change in approach. The Rangers were expecting Gallo to need an entire year at each level, and he is young enough to handle it and still would have made it to the majors around age 22. It was the development in his approach at the plate, not his power production, however, that got him promoted. The home runs were expected. This kind of adjustment was not.
Timing the Future
Earlier this season, it felt like Gallo and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant were playing a game of "anything you can do, I can do better." If one homered, the other hit two. It was an incredible performance by both players.
Bryant's however, was happening in Double-A, which put him within arm's reach of the major leagues. That, coupled with the desperation of Cubs' fans for something watchable at Wrigley, fueled the calls for Bryant's promotion, if not all the way to the big leagues than to Triple-A at least. About three weeks ago, I wrote about why that was unnecessary. The Cubs waited two more weeks before eventually giving in and sending Bryant to Triple-A, which have only added fuel to the fire.
Despite his success, the Cubs may not call Bryant up to the big leagues at all this year. They are getting a hard time about being cheap, but really that has little to do with it. The Cubs are going to have to pay Bryant at some point and have always been willing to open their wallets. With Bryant, it's about team control.
The Cubs don't want to bring him up this year in what is another lost season. To start his service clock this season would be a waste of one of his low-cost, team-controlled seasons. Production from pre-arbitration players is far and away the most valuable commodity in all of baseball, and to waste any of it on a season like this would be foolish.
The reason his promotion to Triple-A took so long was as part of a long-term plan to call him up next year, probably after the super-two deadline passes in June. Bryant was clearly not being challenged in Double-A, but if they promoted him to Triple-A too soon, it would be tough to justify returning him there next season. The last thing the Cubs want to do is force themselves into a situation where they have no choice but to break camp with Bryant on their major league roster next spring, thus losing a full year of team control. If he had spent four months in Triple-A and had any success on par with what he did in Double-A, there would be no avoiding that fate.
For the Cubs, waiting to promote Bryant even though he was dominating Dobule-A was about setting up his timing for next season. There was more to it than just his immediate production.
It's a Process
The stats only tell part of the story. Scouting tells us more of it, but still not the entire thing. To understand some of the decisions made, we need to step back and look at the entire picture.
Jose Berrios has been dominant this season in the Florida State League, both on paper and in person. WIth a 2.05 ERA, 10.6 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9, Berrios has had no trouble with High-A ball despite being just 20-years-old. In person, Berrios is even more impressive, with easy mechanics, a plus slider and plus change-up that over-match FSL hitters. It would have been justifiable for the Twins to promote him at the all-star break, as was done with many of the league's best pitchers.
They didn't however, because there's more to the story. Berrios was doing quite well in the Midwest League last year too, but towards the end of the season, he began to wear down. It may have been the rigors of going through a full professional season for the first time, hitting a wall that many young pitchers hit their first time through. It could have been because his size, at just 6'0" 185 lbs., doesn't hold up well to the innings needed to be a starting pitcher. There's no way to know why for sure, but he lost velocity towards the end of the 2013 season.
Not having this happen again is one of the final barriers that Berrios needs to overcome to join the discussion of the game's elite pitching prospects. Scouts in hand will be able to tell if his velocity drops, but by keeping him in the FSL, we have a constant level of competition against which we can compare his first and second half performances. Had he been promoted, it would have been easy to justify any struggles in Double-A, perhaps making the fact that his stuff dropped off at the end of the year again.
With a young player like Berrios, there is simply no rush. He's young and still has a few things (albeit very minor things) to figure out, and can afford to spend an entire year at every level and progress naturally.
Despite all of this, however, there are still some players who leave you scratching your head and wondering why they are still where they are. Fans are not always wrong in their assumption that a player should be promoted. Many times there is something internally going on with a player or an organization that the public doesn't know about, or need to know about for that matter, which keeps a player where he is. But barring that sort of scenario, there are a few players who simply need a better challenge.
One of those players is Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. At just 20 (he turned 20 in April), Seager is torching the California League to the tune of .353/.405/.613 with 13 home runs. There are still questions about whether he'll remain at shortstop or end up at third base, but there are very few questions about whether or not he'll hit.
The California League is a hitter's paradise and numbers there have to be taken with a grain of salt. Seager has clearly proved he can handle the league, and at this point, continuing to rake in a hitter's haven isn't proving anything to anyone. He's still far enough from the majors that the Dodgers don't have to worry about planning out his call-up and he can spend as much time in Double-A as he needs. It's just time for a new challenge, since he's clearly not getting one at the moment.
With every prospect, there are different variables that have to be factored in to promotion decisions. It's not as simple as a player hitting or pitching well at a level and rushing him along. Years have gone into the developmental path players take through the minors and there's a reason that most of them hit each stop along the way, for however briefly. It's difficult to be patient with our favorite prospects, but such is the axiom of prospect-following.