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Great Expectations, Great Variations

Every team wants to develop its own Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw. Not every team tries to do that in the same way, however. To better understand baseball’s competing prospect philosophies, we hit the spring training circuit.

In many ways, spring training is an outdated ritual. Players work out year-round, so the notion that they need to run wind sprints with teammates to get back into shape is pretty antiquated. Hitters do benefit from facing live pitching, and pitchers do need to rebuild their arm strength after resting over the winter, but few major leaguers would suffer if teams cut spring training in half.

For one group, however, spring training remains essential. It’s a chance for these players to make a first impression with the major league manager and coaching staff, an opportunity to work on their still-developing skills and maybe perform so well that the decision-makers are compelled to put them on the big league roster. Spring training is, more than anything, about the prospects.

Increasingly, baseball’s brightest stars aren’t old enough to rent cars. Not every team is lucky enough to have Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or Clayton Kershaw, but every team must figure out how to polish the gems it does have. Franchises go about mining their young talent in different ways, however. Recently, I traveled to four spring training camps in Florida to find out how teams are handling their top prospects, to learn what traits teams need to successfully develop young players, and to see how some of the stars of tomorrow look right now. Two of these teams are rebuilding; they need to figure out the right time to call up their top young talent, since they might be years away from contending and don’t want to rush anyone merely to fill roster spots. The other two are contenders right now; they’re trying to find the right balance of experience and youth, and attempting to determine if their best prospects are ready to take on bigger roles amid a championship chase.

In each case, the stakes are exceptionally high. Teams that make the right moves with their top, young talent can set themselves up for success in the present, and for years to come. Teams that miss or run into bad luck can see their hopes for a better future crumble. It’s the difference between ending up with Jeter, Posada, Williams, Pettitte, and Rivera in the Bronx … or Wilson, Pulsipher, and Isringhausen in Queens. And it can change everything.

(Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB preview coverage.)

Camp 1: Minnesota Twins — Wait for a Clear Path

It’s 8 a.m. on the last Monday in February, and Twins prospect Miguel Sano is the center of attention. Coaches saunter over to see how he’s doing. Well-wishers shake his hand, a canoe paddle of a paw big enough to envelop the hand of a 6-foot-4 passerby. When a reporter asks for an interview, Sano, whose English is a work in progress, earnestly asks to proceed without an interpreter, only to quickly rope in teammates Oswaldo Arcia and Brian Dozier for company.

Known for his 80-grade power, Sano explains how he’s working at other facets of the game: baserunning, driving the ball the other way, being more patient in delivering throws across the diamond from third base. When asked if he thinks he’s ready to play in the big leagues right now, Sano flashes a huge smile. He acknowledges that he still needs to improve multiple elements of his game, and that the minors would offer a strong environment in which to do so. But, he says coyly, tacitly acknowledging his superstar potential, “This is a decision for the team.”

Five days later, the bad news arrives. Sano has injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, and needs Tommy John surgery. Just like that, one of the few positives for an organization coming off three consecutive miserable years is out of commission. Just like that, a season brimming with hope for Sano is over before it has started.

This is the overriding challenge facing a team like the Twins. On one hand, it’s terrific to have two of the game’s top six prospects in the farm system, as Minnesota does with Sano and consensus no. 1 man Byron Buxton. On the other, these Twins are a shadow of the teams that dominated a decade ago with Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, and are even far removed from the AL Central winners of 2009 and 2010. Now, the Twins have been reduced to Joe Mauer, a bunch of question marks, and a passel of kids. And if the can’t-miss kids suddenly do miss, what then?

An injury like Sano’s would be a blow to any franchise, but it’s a freak thing that’s tough to prevent. What the Twins’ brain trust can do is control the pace at which it pushes its dynamic duo through the system. When assessing the time frame for the players the organization hopes will spark a new era of championship baseball in the Twin Cities, it all starts with a simple question:

“Is there a clear path?” says assistant general manager Rob Antony.

There wasn’t for Sano, even before he hurt his elbow. Antony says the Twins want to get a longer look at Trevor Plouffe, a converted shortstop who whacked 24 homers in 119 games in 2012 before tailing off last year, and who’s still a 27-year-old player with upside. Antony concedes that Sano could’ve come up and hit a bunch of homers right away, even if it meant starting at a position other than third, such as DH. But Sano is still 20 years old, and needs to cut back on the kinds of mistakes young players tend to make, like getting overanxious at the plate with runners on base. When Sano returns next spring, the best course of action still might be starting the season in Triple-A, or even Double-A. In a sport where players most often peak in their mid-to-late twenties, there’s simply no need to rush.

Buxton has a clearer path in center field, with journeyman Alex Presley penciled in right now as the Twins’ likely Opening Day starter. While Sano earns the highest possible scout’s grade for power, Buxton brings a spectacular rating of his own, at 70. What separates Buxton from Sano is that he also runs like a deer, covers acres of territory in center, has a shotgun arm, and, thanks to superior pitch recognition and contact skills, profiles as a likely .300-plus hitter and strong on-base guy. He’s also seven months younger than Sano, and wouldn’t look out of place at a junior prom. While Buxton’s five-tool skill set should get better and better as he refines his game, he needs a lot more seasoning before he can be a major league star. It might’ve been a small sample size, but when Buxton hit .212 with a .288 on-base percentage in 12 Arizona Fall League games, he showed that he’s not remotely ready for The Show, as seemingly limitless as his talent might be.

The Twins need not look beyond last year’s Aaron Hicks experiment to see what can happen when a player gets rushed into a major league job for which he’s clearly not ready. Hicks put up good numbers last spring, and Twins scouts saw enough to recommend him for the starting center-field job. Then he hit a buck-ninety-two in 81 games. On the other hand, Antony says that players can sometimes benefit from working through their struggles at the highest level. The Twins planted the seeds for those successful early-aughts teams in 1999, thrusting Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Eric Milton, and others into prominent roles arguably before they were ready. A few years later, those kids had reached their mid-twenties and were leading the next batch of winning teams for Minnesota.

“We just let them sink and swim together,” Antony recalls. “They learned from it, and we built on it. They were able to keep their heads above water. They didn’t lose their confidence or anything. And a few years later, we had a pretty good nucleus. If you’re going to go all-in like that, it’s a lot easier to do it, and you understand that some guys are going to be able to handle failure, and handle their struggles.”

No one can argue with what the Twins went on to accomplish, winning four division titles in five years, and six in nine. But as well as that sink-and-swim approach worked on a broad level, it still wasn’t perfect. One of the players shoved into a starting role in his early twenties was a young, offense-first first baseman/DH. He had loads of power, but also battled through frequent injuries; he couldn’t field, and he didn’t move particularly well. Since he got a starting job early, the big guy began racking up service time, reaching arbitration eligibility before he was a finished product. Faced with that player’s rising salary, cognizant of their own limited resources, and not quite sure what they had, the Twins opted not to make an arbitration offer, leading to the player’s release. Two years later, David Ortiz led the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.

Mistakes happen, and sometimes they’re gigantic ones, even if an organization has a consistent strategy in place. Antony and other members of Minnesota’s front office say they’re not sweating service-time considerations, and that they’re judging Sano, Buxton, switch-hitting slugger Kennys Vargas,1 and others based on what their talent evaluators see and what’s on hand at the major league level. Longtime manager Ron Gardenhire references the Twins Way in discussing Sano and Buxton, boiling it down to “respecting the game of baseball, working your tail off when you’re between the lines, and letting the talent flow.” The Twins can’t know for sure if they’re letting that talent flow at the right pace, and they’re bound to make mistakes in the future just as they did with Ortiz, albeit hopefully with lesser consequences.

No big deal either way. All that’s at stake is the next decade of baseball in Minnesota.

Camp 2: Boston Red Sox — Winning Changes Everything

The Twins lost 96 games last year; the Red Sox won the World Series. So why are the Sox entering this season with more untested 25-and-under players in their lineup than the Twins? Champions can afford to take chances.

“I can’t tell you that winning or not winning, that the difference there doesn’t affect the psychology,” says Boston GM Ben Cherington. “It has to a little bit. We really believe that we’re giving the right young players an opportunity to prove that they’re ready to be consistent players in the majors, and we’re combining that with trying to build the best possible team in 2014. We don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. But yes, perhaps that’s an easier thing to execute if you don’t have this sort of noise of failure in your ear all the time.”

Life is so good for the defending champs that the Red Sox didn’t bother pursuing their solid everyday shortstop when he hit free agency, paying big bucks for a third baseman even though that spot proved problematic last season, or stopping their All-Star center fielder from signing with their archrival. As the Yankees spent more than $400 million this winter, the Sox looked at their fertile farm system and elected to give Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks what they hope will be their first wire-to-wire big league starting jobs.

Bogaerts-slo-mo

Cherington talks at length about the importance of sustainable success. Throwing tons of money at over-30 veterans could increase Boston’s win expectancy this year, but it would also carry the risk of backfiring down the road as those players age, and it would certainly prevent the Sox from slotting younger and potentially better players into the lineup later on. Cherington and manager John Farrell have no interest in running a day care, though.

“Because of our standard, we can’t ask the major league manager, the coaching staff, and the players to accept and work to integrate young players successfully unless those young players have attributes that give them a chance to succeed and be part of a winning team right away,” Cherington says.

The onus, then, is on the Red Sox’s youngsters to learn and improve on the job. Ultimately, the true test of Boston’s prospect philosophy will come when one or all of these players lands in a 15-for-100 slump. Then, the analytically oriented Sox will need to decide if a stretch like that represents a small-sample-size fluke or a deeper concern.

“It’s in the event that you see them carry it to their defensive side of the game — you want them to be able to separate that,” says Farrell. “There are other ways that they can help win a game,” and at least one of those ways needs to be clicking for the kids to stay in the lineup.

The Sox went through a similar decision-making process with Dustin Pedroia. When the second baseman went through a prolonged slump early in his career, the team stuck with him, in a nod to his excellent defense, baserunning, and other contributions. The hope is that when Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks inevitably go through their own dry spells, they’ll emerge the same way Pedroia did:

Camp 3: Tampa Bay Rays — Manage Service Time

Since their worst-to-first run in 2008, the Rays have developed a certain … reputation. They’re supposed to be smart, a worthy designation that manifests with the team being early on many trends, from defensive shifts to pitch framing and beyond. They’re supposed to be quirky, another well-earned title considering their manager brought a giant snake into the clubhouse and given the getaway-day dress-up schemes that keep the Rays loose and make them look slightly ridiculous. One of the negative reputations the Rays have built, however, is that they insist on keeping top prospects — and even some semi-decent prospects — in the minors longer than just about any other team. The obvious reason seems to be suppressing service time for those young players so the Rays can wait as long as possible before starting the countdown to arbitration and free agency. Tampa Bay’s reputation as a cheap team seems equally deserved, even if being dead last in team revenue helps justify the franchise’s money management techniques.

Rays GM Andrew Friedman acknowledges that his eye never drifts far from prospects’ service-time clocks. In the past few years, Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, and others sat in the minors for months longer than Rays fans might’ve liked. But while the Rays have remained much like their Devil Rays predecessors in being budget-conscious, there’s been one big change from the pre-2008 days: They’re a much better team now, and thus need the players who join the roster to be better than their counterparts needed to be a decade ago.

“You want to kind of fast-forward things sometimes,” Friedman says, a half-second after watching the now-29-year-old Joyce launch a monster home run in batting practice. “I think we learned a lot from the Devil Rays’ past, in terms of getting guys up maybe before they were ready. So from a pure development standpoint, a lot of our guys that were here then are still here now, and [the front office is] just much more reticent to run guys up than they used to be. We’re much more likely to try to put guys in the best position they can to get up to the major leagues and have success as quickly as they can. Preferably right away.”

Keeping players down longer also helps the Rays deal with the 15-for-100 dilemma, says Friedman. Giving a player more time to develop in the minors means learning more about his skill level and gaining more conviction about his ability to succeed in the majors. So if a rough stretch occurs, it becomes easier to answer that still very tough question: Is this prospect overmatched, or is this a flukish run of bad results that will blow over in a few days?

Though the Rays might not have as many superstars as some richer teams, they pride themselves on their ability to build a strong roster, 1 through 25. Despite a run of bad drafts that stretches back to taking Tim Beckham first overall in 2008, Tampa Bay continues to have more viable potential starters than places to put them. Both Friedman and manager Joe Maddon expect big things from recently acquired infielder Logan Forsythe, but also recognize that he’s no more than a platoon player at the start of this season, because there’s simply nowhere to put him. The Rays faced a similar dilemma when they first brought Alex Cobb to the big leagues, only to send him down because he was the team’s sixth starter. Jeremy Hellickson’s out with an elbow injury until sometime in May, but when he returns, promising right-hander Jake Odorizzi might be forced to the bullpen, or even back to the minors. Assemble talented players, try to find starting gigs for those players, but make sure they know that they might have to wait: That’s the tightrope the Rays have walked the past few years.

And they’ve yet to fall. Maddon points to the organization’s insistence that all players be allowed to express themselves as one possible reason for a harmonious clubhouse that might — tough as it is to quantify — foster a winning baseball culture. Though Yunel Escobar is now 31 and thus not a prospect, Maddon notes that Escobar went from being a vilified player in Atlanta who caused even more backlash in Toronto after wearing unfortunate eye black to being a highly popular teammate with the Rays, a motormouth who’ll chatter through a morning of drills, then celebrate a big play in a regular-season game by miming the motion of a fallaway jump shot. The result — whether from correlation or causation — was an excellent debut season for Tampa Bay in 2013.

A healthy collaboration between Friedman’s baseball operations staff and Maddon’s coaching staff comes into focus when other new players join the roster as well. Right after the Rays traded for Ryan Hanigan, the former Reds catcher told a reporter that he planned to watch every start made by every Tampa Bay pitcher in 2013 so that he could gain a better understanding of each pitcher’s repertoire and thought process. When Hanigan got together with Cobb to do some pre–spring training work in January, Cobb was shocked to discover that Hanigan knew so much about him, even though they’d never met before; Cobb says it sometimes seemed like his new battery mate knew more about the pitches being delivered than Cobb did. With that kind of due diligence, and both Hanigan and Jose Molina excelling at pulling borderline pitches closer to the zone for called strikes, Cobb, Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer should be well positioned to succeed at a higher level than most young pitchers with such relatively little big league experience. And if the young guns had to wait a little longer before gaining the benefit of that favorable environment, well, the Rays can live with saving a few bucks, too.

Camp 4: Miami Marlins — Start ’Em Early

Unlike the Rays, the Marlins don’t seem to give a damn about service time. Actually, that’s not quite right: If anything, the Marlins seem to revel in calling up players earlier than anyone would’ve expected.

Last year, the first surprise came with the promotion of Jose Fernandez, an excellent prospect, but also a pitcher who’d never competed at a level higher than Class A. Now, of course, we know that promoting Fernandez right out of spring last year worked out beautifully, with Fernandez winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and emerging as a rare bright spot on a struggling Marlins team. But while even the team’s biggest optimists might not have imagined Fernandez performing that well so quickly, calling him up that early honored the team’s belief that certain players can thrive when pushed to the outer limits of their comfort level.

“A lot of guys have physical ability,” scouting director Stan Meek told me last April, after Fernandez’s MLB debut. “But mentally they might not be able to handle the stress, especially at the big league level. When you find those special talents, then see that they can handle things mentally, that’s when it’s time to challenge them.”

Fernandez echoed that sentiment when I met with him last month at Marlins camp. “I came to spring training [last year] to make the team,” says Fernandez. “I told that to everybody that asked me. I’m here to make the team. I’m not here to go to Double-A.”

fernandez

The thing is, even ignoring the downside of starting the service-time clock for young players who might now become expensive before the Marlins are ready to contend again, challenging prospects didn’t always work last year. Though Fernandez pitched masterfully and Christian Yelich found his groove at the plate (even if he didn’t hit for a ton of power), young outfielder Jake Marisnick proved to be overmatched in the big leagues at age 22, and now figures to start 2014 back in the minors.

GM Dan Jennings recognizes that an aggressive approach doesn’t work with every player, and he’s taken steps to avoid another Marisnick situation this year. Few baseball pundits thought much of the two-year, $3.7 million deal the Fish gave to well-traveled super utility man Jeff Baker this offseason, but to Jennings, adding Baker and Casey McGehee was part of a concerted effort to avoid the temptation of calling up top corner-infield prospect Colin Moran, lest Moran struggle mightily in the majors and have that early failure potentially stifle his development.

“If Moran forces us to put him up based upon his production and maturity, then you put him up there,” Jennings says. “Some of the good guys fast-track themselves, and they’re ready. Other guys, you need to pump the brakes a little bit, give them a chance to get a base under them. We want to have the option to pump the brakes on Moran. You know the old mind-set of 1,500 at-bats for hitters or 500 innings for pitchers [before they’re ready]? Just because the cost of procuring talent has gone up, it hasn’t changed the time frame that it takes for that apple to go from green to red. It still takes time for them to develop, and we want to recognize that, even if some players do force our hand.”

Since so many players do seem to force the team’s hand, Marlins skipper Mike Redmond emphasizes the role that he and his coaching staff play as teachers.

“A lot of playing in the big leagues is knowing what to expect,” explains Redmond. “In the big leagues, you have to be so good at everything. Your swing has to be solid, you can’t have a whole lot of weaknesses. And the coaching staff, that’s our goal, to make sure that these guys are fundamentally sound, that they have a chance to be successful in the big leagues.”

It sounds simple, maybe even obvious. On many veteran-laden teams, however, managers and coaches can amount to little more than caretakers; they make sure nothing goes horribly awry, but they don’t necessarily take a proactive role when it comes to fostering players’ success. Redmond and the Marlins go the other way. They know they’ll need to lean heavily on player development if they hope to succeed, and that player development shouldn’t stop the moment a kid gets to the majors.

Maybe one day, the Marlins will be like the current Red Sox and Rays teams, working with players on getting better while also vying for the postseason every year. For now, though, the focus is on using their prospect philosophy to develop the next round of Fernandez-like success stories. Get enough of them on the roster, and the wins will come.

For more on prospects, read Michael Baumann’s piece on the vanishing first-base prospect.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, MLB Prospects, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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