By Mike Ivcic
Picture this. You’re sitting in front of the television one night as your favorite MLB team trots out to the field to begin the top of the first inning. The camera pans to your team’s starting pitcher as the announcers begin to break down the stats and scouting report. Sometimes, you just start smiling because you see it’s your team’s ace, and you know your favorite team has a great chance of winning the game. Sometimes it’s a middle of the rotation guy – a pitcher that sometimes induces strikeouts and ground balls and sometimes induces a slew of four-letter words not suitable for print. And sometimes, it’s a guy you’ve never heard of, or worse – a guy you have heard of and never wanted to hear of again. It’s those games when a lot of baseball fans mutter to no one in particular, “We don’t have anyone better than this guy!?!”
Here’s the thing – for a lot of teams in the major leagues, they actually DO have someone better than the guy trotting out to the mound as the fourth or fifth starter. They’re called “prospects” and they typically reside in AA or AAA, throwing a lot of pitches against fellow prospects and big league retreads waiting for their parent club’s general manager to ring their cell with the call to “the show.” While they’re in the minors, they’re supposed to be “developing” as pitchers, but last time I checked all of the best pitching coaches were typically serving for the big league team, not the Buffalo Bison or Indianapolis Indians. And that, for me, has always begged the question, “What’s the best policy for handling young, star pitchers that provides them with the best development while simultaneously helping the major league team as quickly as possible?”
In the past few years, three organizations have shown three distinctly different methodologies for doing exactly the type of development outlined above. Who has the best approach? Well, that won’t be determined until the prized prospects being handled actually play out their major league careers, but the differences are stark and will likely have dramatically different effects on the pitchers in question.
Theory 1 – Leave them in the minors until they’re ready
Exhibit A: New York Mets
Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg are the same age, yet Strasburg made his debut almost two years earlier than Harvey. True, Strasburg was drafted one year earlier, but Harvey was considered such a good prospect that Arizona took him in the ninth round out of high school in 2007, but he elected to go to North Carolina and the Mets tabbed him with the number seven overall pick in 2010. That illustrates the Mets’ policy, however, to let their pitchers work through their development in places like Savannah, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Las Vegas as opposed to a major league park in front of tens of thousands of people a night. They’re following the same formula with Zack Wheeler, the prized pitcher they obtained from the Giants in exchange for Carlos Beltran two years ago who still hasn’t thrown a major league pitch. As a Mets fan, I can tell you unequivocally that Wheeler is better, right now, than Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Hefner, and he’s probably just about even, right now, with Shaun Marcum and Dillon Gee. So why is Wheeler – and Las Vegas teammate Colin McHugh, who leads the International League in ERA – still toiling in AAA? Well, most organizations follow this model primarily, but the Mets have always handled their pitchers carefully since their “Big 3” of the early 90’s – Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson – all were rushed to the majors and suffered arm injuries. Wilson bounced around as a fill-in starter for a decade, Isringhausen revamped himself into a top tier closer for the A’s and Cardinals, and Pulsipher never recovered. In all three cases, the Mets got zero return for bringing those three up to pitch on Mets teams that were not in playoff contention, and since then they have kept their best prospects under wraps until the organization knows for certain that the young kids can pitch at the big league level.
Theory 2 – The best experience is on-the-job training
Exhibit B: Florida/Miami Marlins
True, there have been extenuating circumstances with the Marlins bringing up young players rather quickly – after all, teams still need to fill out a 25-man roster even if they elect to trade everyone that makes more than six figures on three different occasions – but this organization has a long track record of calling up their top prospects earlier in their development and letting them attack major league hitters head-on. Starting with A.J. Burnett, acquired from the Mets for Al Leiter in the first firesale following the 1997 World Series, the Marlins have brought to the big leagues Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Josh Johnson, and Annibal Sanchez, to name their more accomplished talents. They added another player to this list when 20-year-old Jose Fernandez made the Opening Day roster this season, a move heralded by some and derided by others. Most of the criticism, though, wasn’t directed at Fernandez’s ability to pitch in the majors but instead of owner Jeffrey Loria’s failure to keep the star pitcher in AAA for the first 11 days of the season, which would have delayed Fernandez’s free agency for an addition year and ensured the Marlins more financial control and flexibility with a “can’t-miss” prospect. Instead, Fernandez was named to the team out of spring training and has thus far gone 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 20 innings over four starts. While the early results are a little shaky, though, it’s clear that the Marlins have had success in the past by accelerating the progress of their top tier pitchers, and Fernandez is expected to follow in the footsteps of the names above and become a stalwart of a big league rotation – whether in Miami or elsewhere – for years to come.
Theory 3 – Contribute to the big-league club any way possible
Exhibit C: Texas Rangers
Many teams have done this sporadically in the past, but it wasn’t until Nolan Ryan took over as president of the Rangers that an entire organization began to operate with this philosophy as the primary mindset across every team. This “top-down” model is designed to ensure that the best arms in the organization are contributing to the major league team, regardless of the scenario. As such, projected starters like Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando were brought to the Rangers as relievers instead of members of the rotation. Thus, the major league team is able to take the best 12 arms in the entire organization and build the major league staff, avoiding carrying sub-par pitchers in place of better, younger pitchers and also preventing those young arms from burning up some of their best innings in the minor leagues. Additionally, most young starting pitchers in AA and AAA are there because they don’t yet have command of a third pitch, a basic necessity for almost every starting pitcher on a big league club. As a relief pitcher, a third pitch is far less important – in fact, it’s almost irrelevant – so Nolan Ryan’s philosophy has always been to allow pitchers like Feliz and Ogando to work on the development of that third pitch in bullpen sessions and off days under the tutelage of the best pitching coach of any Rangers team, Mike Maddux, while using their dominant two pitches to get hitters out at the major league level. Ryan’s construct has not been without difficulty, as Ogando took a year longer than expected to enter the rotation and Feliz was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery midway through his first season as a starter, but considering the lack of pitching that existed for years in Arlington, it’s not a coincidence that the time frame where the Rangers used their best young arms in the bullpen was also the time frame that the Rangers won consecutive AL West division titles and AL pennants.
So which philosophy is ultimately the best? The best answer I can give is “all of them.” All three of these organizations have some unquestionably good young pitchers, so ultimately their success should happen regardless of how they are handled by their respective teams. I’m a big fan of the Rangers approach and, as a Mets fan, would love to see Wheeler and McHugh in Queens instead of Vegas, but all three styles have led to success in the past and will likely play out well for everyone involved in the future.
Well, expect for that guy yelling at the television as the opposing team’s power hitter takes his team’s number five starter deep. That guy – he just needs a beer.
Three series to watch this week…
1) WAS @ ATL (4/29-5/2) – That “thud” you heard was the sound of the Braves crashing back to earth after their otherworldly start. Maybe it’s now fair to wonder whether the Phillies, Cubs, and Marlins â the first three teams on Atlanta’s schedule â were more of a factor than the actual play of the Braves themselves. They’ve now lost series to Pittsburgh and Detroit, and face a Nationals team poised to reclaim control of the NL East.
2) LAA @ OAK (4/29-5/1) – The second week of the season, Oakland went to LA and swept the Angels as part of their 9-game winning streak. Now Pujols, Hamilton, Trout, and company are playing better baseball, and Mike Scioscia’s group will make the trip to NoCal seeking some payback. They’ll need some to keep pace with the A’s and Texas in a winnable AL West.
3) SFG @ ARZ (4/29-5/1) – I feel fairly confident in saying that no one really expected the Giants and Dodgers to both be looking up at Colorado and Arizona in the standings at the end of April, but that’s where San Fran sits as they make the return trip to Arizona looking to pick up some ground after losing two of three to the D-backs at AT&T Park earlier this week. Is Arizona in this thing for the long haul? A series win here would sure help.
Three series to watch this weekend…
1) BOS @ TEX (5/3-5/5) – Raise your hand if you had these two teams as 1 and 2 in the AL standings on April 29. That’s what I thought â no one. This was supposed to be another rebuilding year in Boston, a cleansing of sorts, while Texas was supposed to continue to regress after losing Josh Hamilton. Instead, these two teams will meet with the best record in baseball on the line. Funny game, this baseball is.
2) LAD @ SFG (5/3-5/5) – Rumor has it these two teams aren’t very fond of each other, but since they’ve been joined in the divisional race by the Rockies and Diamondbacks, it’s safe to say these games now carry an even bigger importance. That’s especially true for the Dodgers, who thanks to another typical MLB scheduling quirk have this as their only road series in a three-week span. Taking this series would be huge for the ole’ momentum.
3) STL @ MIL (5/2-5/5) – The Brewers recent play has inserted them into the discussion in the NL Central, at least for now. Their ability to stay there will be determined by how well they play against fellow divisional opponents, and after a mid-week series with the Pirates they get the perennial division favorite – both at home. Win each series and we’ll consider Milwaukee as having some staying power.
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