What Is Rushing A Prospect?

Jeff Sullivan · June 17, 2013 at 4:16 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Over the weekend, Mike Zunino clubbed his first-ever major-league dinger, a fact made only slightly less impressive by the fact that Henry Blanco also clubbed a dinger against the same opponent. Zunino was able to go deep in the major leagues because Zunino is playing in the major leagues. This became our reality last week, when the Mariners aggressively responded to Jesus Sucre’s disabled-list stint. Some fans lamented that Zunino was being rushed, despite there being other alternatives in a lost season. The Mariners themselves admitted that they moved up their Zunino timetable. As we understand the term, Mike Zunino has most definitely been a “rushed” prospect.

This is widely thought to be a bad thing, rushing prospects. Bad and irresponsible, and that’s made clear even by the simple word choice, since “rush” comes with negative connotations. To rush a prospect is to promote him quickly, before he seems ready, and consensus is teams shouldn’t do that with kids since those kids are arguably the most valuable assets. It’s generally an argument about long-term thinking: promote a guy too fast and he might be overwhelmed in the bigs. He might not be able to make the necessary adjustments. He might lose all his confidence, and a baseball player without confidence is an athletic baseball fan. Rushing a prospect is the first step toward ruining a prospect, and there aren’t that many steps.

We’re going to leave aside, for the sake of this post, talk about team control and Super-2 considerations. That has to do with money, and I just want to talk about the players. I think we all have a pretty good understanding of the importance of team control, so this doesn’t need to be talked about at length.

In a way, to ask “what is rushing a prospect?” is to ask “why are there minor leagues?” The minor leagues exist to help players develop on the way to making the majors. I like to go bouldering, which for those of you who don’t know is basically ropeless rock climbing. Different routes have different difficulties, starting with VB for “Beginner” and going from there to V0 and V1 and V5 and V10 and so on. When you just get started, you don’t go straight for V5 or V6. You start easier, and you learn techniques and improve, and you go up a level when you’re ready. This is just the way that it’s done, and if you went right for a V8, you might not ever get yourself off the ground. Or maybe you will. But the conservative approach is the accepted one.

We accept that players go through the minors in a certain order, some of them taking longer than others. But there’s a chain of levels, and players are supposed to hit every level. When they succeed at each level, they get promoted to the next. That’s what we take for granted to be the right approach, and so it catches our attention when someone moves quickly. Because it’s unusual, we always get talking about the risk. Who would be so irresponsible, with such an important young asset?

Seems to me the most general purpose of the minor leagues is to put a player in position to be able to confront the major-league challenge. Every single player, no matter how much time he spent in the minors, will have to adjust to big-league competition. Ten years in Triple-A won’t get a guy ready for the majors. The minors are supposed to tell you which guys are ready to try it out, and which guys require further development or evaluation. Which guys seem the most likely to succeed, and which guys seem the most likely to be able to handle failure.

Player evaluation can’t be done independently of competition level, but you can get close. Some guys can be ready soon, no matter where they’re playing. Not ready to be good right away, but ready to begin the adjustment process. It’s that last adjustment process that’s the most important one, the one when you get to the majors.

What happens when a player comes up and fails? He learns the adjustments he needs to make. He absorbs a shot to the confidence. He’ll try to make those adjustments, and he’ll work on them with a big-league coaching staff. He’ll either see progress, or he won’t. If the adjustments don’t take, the player might get demoted to the minors to work without the spotlight and pressure. But these are adjustments that would’ve had to happen. As for the confidence factor, the simplest statement to make is that players who wilt under self-doubt don’t advance that far. Players, also, can be evaluated during their slumps. They would’ve been evaluated when they were brought into the organization. With Zunino in particular, no one seems to doubt his ability to tackle some adversity. After all, he was just slumping in Triple-A. He handled it, he worked at it.

Surely, there have been prospects in the past who were rushed, and who wound up busting. Of that there’s no question in my mind. But at the same time, there have also been prospects in the past with whom teams were patient, who wound up busting as well. By “rushed,” I mean moved up quickly, questionably and aggressively. Prospects of all kinds fail, and prospects of all kinds succeed. Just yesterday I was noticing Jose Fernandez’s stats. He’s 20 and the Marlins promoted him straight from Single-A. He’s been outstanding. Rafael Furcal came up from Single-A. Rick Porcello came up from Single-A. Albert Pujols came up from Single-A. A group of “rushed” prospects will be selective for prospects teams think can handle the pressure and adjustment, but if it’s a dangerous strategy, where is the compelling evidence?

That’s really the heart of this post. We accept, almost to an individual, that rushing prospects is a bad idea. We think rushed prospects are those promoted too aggressively, or when they don’t appear to be ready based on their minor-league performances. But is there good proof, or is this just conventional wisdom that no one’s ever truly investigated? When the Tigers put Porcello in their rotation, John Sickels called it “batshit insane.” Porcello was fine, if underwhelming for a while, and while he’s only now started to strike guys out in the majors, he didn’t strike guys out in Single-A before he was promoted. Porcello was rushed, according to observers, and I think the Tigers would say it was a success.

Remember, a young player can always go back to the minors if he struggles too badly at first. The Red Sox were said to have rushed Jackie Bradley Jr., and he was demoted after going 3-for-31. If that dealt a blow to his confidence, though, it didn’t seem to matter, because Bradley immediately started hitting well in Triple-A, even though he’d never been there before. Alternatively, we might consider Aaron Hicks. The Twins were said to have rushed Hicks, and he finished April having batted .113/.229/.127. Since then, he’s batted .218/.262/.445, and while that’s not good, Hicks is learning on the job. He’s never played in Triple-A. Hicks is adjusting, like all prospects will have to do.

As for the confidence issue, if you have a player whose development might be stunted by experiencing a period of low confidence, that’s bound to come up eventually, whether he’s rushed or whether he’s taken care of cautiously. If these players exist, at some point they’ll slump, and when they slump, they’ll have bigger problems. You can’t leave a player in the minors for so long that he’s just immediately ready for the majors, no problem. There will be challenges, unavoidably.

I think our understanding of “rushed” is probably mistaken. I think the minor leagues, certainly, are important. You can never be fully prepared for the majors without having seen the majors, but you can be more prepared, and the more prepared you are, the smoother the adjustment. But I think adjustments can be made in the majors, and if not the minors remain an open option, and while I’m not closed off to the idea that moving a guy quickly can destroy his career, I’d really like to see some compelling evidence. Some careers are just destined to end up destroyed. I think, probably, there are guys who would be rushed, guys who shouldn’t be, but I don’t think those guys get rushed by their organizations. I think the players who get rushed, according to our definition, are the players who have been judged by their teams to be ready to meet the challenge. Take the Mariners. They’ve said they didn’t want to move prospects too quickly in response to short-term needs. They moved Zunino quickly, in response to a short-term need. Some of that, perhaps, was indeed desperation, but I think the team believes Zunino is ready to see what this level is all about. I think they believe he can handle it, physically and mentally. They wouldn’t have done this if they thought it would kill Zunino’s career. I don’t know why one would believe that it could.

I don’t think enough is known about how prospects are handled. I don’t think careers are as fragile as they’re made out to be.


33 Responses to “What Is Rushing A Prospect?”

  1. spuuky on June 17th, 2013 4:27 pm

    This is exactly what I tried to tell anyone who would listen to me when Zunino was called up. I’m glad I’ve got you to say it for me.

  2. Notorious DAD on June 17th, 2013 4:47 pm

    John Olerud never spent a day in the minors, and I think it’s safe to say he turned out just fine.

  3. Jeff Sullivan on June 17th, 2013 4:52 pm

    I just don’t know about Olerud’s maturity.


  4. Dave on June 17th, 2013 4:59 pm

    Removing service time and payroll implications from the discussion is like discussing what kind of car you should buy without considering the cost. Conclusion: everyone should drive a BMW!

    Sorry, it just doesn’t fly. Rick Porcello is finally figuring out how to strike people out at age 24, but because the Tigers aggressively promoted him, he’s already getting expensive and they now only control his rights through his age-26 season. Did Rick Porcello turn out okay? Yeah, maybe, but that’s not going to help the Tigers if he turns into an ace right before he becomes a free agent and they either have to give him $100 million or watch him sign somewhere else.

    The reality is that teams that “rush” prospects are making a future-for-present trade, hoping that the player is good enough in the short term to justify the long term cost of giving up prime years for pre-developed years. Sometimes, this trade-off makes sense, especially if the team is contending and the player is high-risk enough (read: pitchers) that the odds of receiving the future prime value years are fairly low.

    But, Zunino is neither all that high risk of a prospect, nor are the Mariners in any position to be borrowing from the future to improve the present. The arguments that can be made in favor of rushing a prospect do not apply to this situation.

    It’s one thing to talk about player development from a broad perspective and wonder about how players react to different development paths. It’s entirely another thing to evaluate whether a team is getting the most value out of the assets it has by promoting a prospect before he’s ready to contribute meaningful value to an organization. If you want to defend the promotion of Mike Zunino, you need to do it in a an environment where real variables like “service time” and “salary” are included in the analysis.

  5. scraps on June 17th, 2013 5:14 pm

    I think it’s one thing to speak of rushing prospects when they’re already mastered the level they’re at, and another when the prospect has struggled at the level he’s at, but the team promotes him anyway.

  6. Kazinski on June 17th, 2013 5:22 pm

    I think it is a little easier to “rush” a prospect when they are a college player with at least 3 years experience. Zunino’s defense looks great behind the plate, and he doesn’t look like he lacks any confidence at the plate.

    I wouldn’t have been in a huge hurry to bring him up, but now that he’s here they shouldn’t send him back down without some blatant hole in his game that he needs to work on. His average wasn’t great in the minors, and he had a few too many strikeouts, but he was slugging .500, and that is not struggling.

  7. scraps on June 17th, 2013 5:27 pm

    Oh man, I wish I didn’t know that about Olerud, Jeff. Especially this:

    The neighbors’ dispute was fraught with references to the Christian faith shared by both couples. At the first of two city hearings, Olerud cited Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as a reason the Bakers should give the Olerud family the same commanding view they enjoy.

    Sheesh. Lots more citing of Christ. Jesus wept.

  8. Dave on June 17th, 2013 5:29 pm

    If you want to see a couple of perfect examples of why you can’t just look back at “rushed” prospects as successes without taking organizational context into account, look at how the late-90s Pirates handled Jose Guillen and Aramis Ramirez. Both were highly touted, both went straight from high-A to Triple-A, both got to the Majors very early, both went back and forth between Pittsburgh and Nashville, and the Pirates traded both away after getting frustrated with their poor performance over thousands of at-bats their early 20s.

    Guillen was traded at age-23. Ramirez was traded at age-25. They were legitimately bad players early in their careers, and it wasn’t that tough to justify dumping them based on their stalled development. They both went on to become good players for other organizations who hadn’t had to watch them struggle against competition they weren’t ready for.

    In Jeff’s hypothetical, rushing Aramis Ramirez was a success, because look at his career. In real life, the Pirates screwed up big time.

  9. scraps on June 17th, 2013 5:38 pm

    Zunino’s average wasn’t great in the minors, and he had a few too many strikeouts, and he was slugging .500 in the PCL: you say he’s not struggling, I say he’s arguably is.

    I will say that Dave or Jeff (or any USS Mariner author) disagrees, of course they are much more knowledgeable than me.

  10. Dave on June 17th, 2013 5:44 pm

    Zunino wasn’t just struggling, he was overmatched. The idea that a .500 slugging percentage in the PCL means he was doing well is silly.

  11. ivan on June 17th, 2013 5:55 pm

    “In Jeff’s hypothetical, rushing Aramis Ramirez was a success, because look at his career. In real life, the Pirates screwed up big time.”

    Because we have the advantage of hindsight here, isn’t it just as arguable that the screwup was that they gave up on Ramirez and traded him?

    I’m not disagreeing with the point you’re trying to make here. But each case is different.

  12. PackBob on June 17th, 2013 5:58 pm

    If a player moves quickly through the system and fails, he was rushed. If a player moves quickly through the system and succeeds, he moved quickly through the system.

    It seems to me it would be awfully hard to make much of a reasonable determination of whether a player had been rushed without being part of the process.

  13. Dave on June 17th, 2013 6:02 pm

    Because we have the advantage of hindsight here, isn’t it just as arguable that the screwup was that they gave up on Ramirez and traded him?

    I’m not disagreeing with the point you’re trying to make here. But each case is different.

    We have to at least acknowledge that an organization is more likely to give up on a kid after watching him fail in the major leagues than waiting for him to get to the big leagues. So, I don’t think it’s really fair to extract the trade decision from the promotion decision. The trade was made more likely by the promotion, which led to the team watching him struggle in person.

    And yes, every case is different. Bryce Harper was probably rushed a little bit last year, but the Nationals were legitimate contenders and he was ready to help them win. We weren’t railing against his promotion last year. If there’s a real benefit, it can be a trade-off worth making.

    The only possible benefit here is that a lousy team is slightly less lousy and people who deserve to get fired don’t get fired because the kid performs well and gives people the false impression that the organization is headed in the right direction.

  14. ivan on June 17th, 2013 6:11 pm

    “The only possible benefit here is that a lousy team is slightly less lousy and people who deserve to get fired don’t get fired because the kid performs well and gives people the false impression that the organization is headed in the right direction.”

    It’s not worth arguing about further, but I don’t agree with any of that. The benefits are not so easily determined at this stage of a rookie’s career or a team’s progress; they are only guessed at. I hope we can agree that your threshold for prejudgment is different from mine.

  15. Jeff Sullivan on June 17th, 2013 6:25 pm

    Dave —

    I didn’t intend for this to be a defense of the Zunino promotion, nor am I deliberately ignoring future salary/control concerns. I think we have a pretty good idea that that’s important. That, at the start of the season, you might as well leave a top prospect in the minors for 2-3 weeks, just to be safe, because of the extra year gained. What I was trying to focus on was the notion that rushing a prospect can ruin him and his entire career. That’s what I was getting at, and if that wasn’t clear enough, that’s on me for just writing this off the top of my head instead of mapping it out first.

  16. Milendriel on June 17th, 2013 7:09 pm

    One issue that hasn’t been brought up is the fact that results trump process in the majors. Imagine a pitcher with a good fastball and a mediocre curveball. The correct process is for the pitcher to throw his curveball an appropriate percentage of the time, to hopefully get better at throwing it in the future, but there’s no luxury to do that in the majors when the result is what matters. He’ll throw his fastball too much, and maybe have short-term success, but ultimately lack the skills to sustain success long-term.

    Zunino clearly has major league power, but needs to work on his pitch recognition. The risk is that he “locks in” a subpar approach in order to get results now, either lowering his ceiling or lengthening the amount of time he needs to develop. In the minors, he can focus on playing with the correct process and maximizing his potential, where results don’t matter and his service time isn’t being wasted.

  17. f2aler on June 17th, 2013 7:27 pm

    I’m not sure where all of the above leads. I gather from the post and comments, a prospect for various reasons shouldn’t be promoted until they are “ready”. What defines ready? Or when does being “ready” outweigh the financial considerations (for a team like the Mariners that isn’t contending)? If being rushed supposedly ruins a players confidence wouldn’t letting him rot in AAA create resentment? Maybe some players thrive best when challenged?

    I haven’t seen anyone here produce evidence to suggest “rushing” a prospect is good or bad aside from a few anecdotal player mentions. Maybe there is something more scientific out there……

  18. heyoka on June 17th, 2013 7:35 pm

    I saw it as a piece entirely about developmental concerns – devoid of consideration for team control issues.

    On just the idea of developmental concerns it leaves you in the position that any of us should be in which is, “who knows?” Was Griffey rushed? Was Felix rushed? I sure wish Edgar and/or Tino Martinez were more rushed. We have development on our minds because of various prospect failures and successes.

    In terms of financial considerations, there are few conclusions that made sense for bringing up Zunino other than trying to save jobs. The only reason his AAA slugging was above .500 was the carry over from that ridiculous start those first couple weeks or so of the season.

  19. wetzelcoatl on June 17th, 2013 7:49 pm

    So I guess my take away from this article and Dave’s comments is that, if you’re Mike Zunino’s mom and you’re worried that the M’s may have caused your son to have a less successful career by rushing him, you probably shouldn’t worry so much. But if you’re a fan of the Seattle Mariners who worry the M’s may have just caused themselves to win fewer games in the future by wasting a highly regarded prospect’s most valuable seasons of team control on developmental seasons then it’s OK to keep banging your head against the wall.

  20. f2aler on June 17th, 2013 8:31 pm

    Nothing posted here has attempted to answer the question of when all things are considered when is the appropriate time to call up a prospect and how is it measured?

  21. Phightin Phils on June 17th, 2013 9:17 pm

    I think the lack of an answer to the question of “when the appropriate time to call up a prospect” was addressed, actually. There is the team/organization perspective, and there is the individual player career development.

    For individual career development, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to measure it; hence no way to predict it.

    For team/organization, again, what data helped predict failure/success?

    Data to suggest the Mariners are currently failing as an organization, as a result of predicting individual failure: lots.

  22. f2aler on June 17th, 2013 9:24 pm

    If there are no conclusions from a player development point, then it is probably a money issue. Keeping Edgar in the minors two extra years didn’t cost the mariners any playoff berths, it saves money and presumably didn’t anger Edgar that much so he wanted to play elsewhere. So perhaps when the team sucks it pays to keep prospects in the minors until they get pissed off

  23. McExpos on June 17th, 2013 10:05 pm

    I really enjoy Jeff’s pieces that take a more philosophical bent towards baseball. Sometimes it’s fun to set aside the dollar signs and think some about the very nature of a thing, such as the concept of what it means to rush a player.

    That being said, Dave, your criticism of this piece in the comments strikes me as rather odd. Readers of this site are certainly smart enough to understand the disappointing economics of Zunino in Seattle and still engage in a thought exercise like this. To suggest otherwise is either to be condescending towards your readers (“they only know what I tell them”) or to set the importance of staying on message (“Mariners front office is bad!”) above all else.

    Eat a Snickers, Dave.

  24. CCW on June 17th, 2013 10:10 pm

    Dave, your point about service time and the economics of bringing up Zunino would be exactly the same if Zunino was absolutely destroying AAA and was clearly ready. Are you saying that a shitty team like the Ms, in a season that can’t be salvaged, should never bring up a top prospect? Should they have gone with a stop-gap instead of Franklin, too?

  25. Ed on June 18th, 2013 12:45 am

    Building on that–even top position player prospects frequently don’t live up to expectations, right? How will you know if they can contribute to a playoff team until they’ve been called up and challenged with major league opposition?

    The current environment, as noted on Fangraphs, is one of parity, where dark horse teams run for the playoffs each year and very few teams have zero chance of contention. This season is lost, but how confident are you that the Mariners have no chance next year? Does it make sense to test prospects in a lost year if you think there’s some shot at contention the next year?

    Aramis Ramirez was in his age 20 season when he was called up; Jose Guillen was in his 21st (and, looking at his ABs, was probably still 20 at the time of his promotion). Zunino is in his 22nd. Does this make it any less foolish to think he might be further along his development track?

    Those questions aren’t rhetorical. I don’t know the answers to any of them. That, in addition to Jeff’s thoughtful post, is why I find it incredibly difficult to judge the exact moment a prospect is ready to be brought to the major leagues.

  26. GLS on June 18th, 2013 2:13 am

    Consider the high rate of failure, even among first round picks, in turning minor league players into successful major league players. And by “successful”, I mean that they perform measurably above replacement level for at least several years. Go to B-R and look at the first round of the draft year by year and the lifetime WAR totals for the players listed. The conclusion you will come to is that a drafted player becoming a successful major league player is actually a somewhat rare occurrence. The failure rate, even in the first round, really is super high.

    Given this high failure rate, where success, let’s say an 18 WAR career, is rare enough to be an outlier, I’m not sure how we can generalize on the proper development path for “all players”. It seems to me that each player will have his own development path that he will succeed or fail on.

    My hunch is that Zunino will be fine.

  27. Paul B on June 18th, 2013 7:31 am

    It is case by case, as was said players learn at different rates.

    A Junior or an ARod had so much talent they could be positive WAR in the bigs pretty much straight out of high school. But they are exceptions of course.

    Pitchers with a lot of talent can blow people away for awhile, but they will eventually need to learn to pitch (versus just throw hard). In the Mariner history, I always think of Billy Swift as the prime example of a pitcher who was rushed and eventually had to return to the minors to learn to pitch.

  28. ChrisFB on June 18th, 2013 7:45 am

    Removing service time and payroll implications from the discussion is like discussing what kind of car you should buy without considering the cost. Conclusion: everyone should drive a BMW!

    If service time and payroll implications were such a huge deal, there would be a long list of players who were brought up “too soon” according to maximizing team control. And then that list would have some pretty obvious warning stories based on players who got really expensive or traded really quickly.

    Is it straightforward to look up on say, Cots’ contracts or something, players in recent years who were brought up fast enough to shave a year or two off of the team control their teams normally would have otherwise? And then out of that pool, how many of them became prohibitively expensive for their teams to hang on to, such that they became free agents or got traded because there was no way to afford them?

    The concern about service time and cost of a player is legitimate if getting players cheaply is as important as getting good players. And obviously baseball is a business and they have to work within budgets like any other business. But where is the overwhelming evidence that teams that don’t manage the service time and playing time of their prospects end up consistently losing those players altogether or crippling themselves financially to keep them?

    Just as Jeff rightly wants to see some evidence that rushing a prospect wrecks their career, I’d like to see some evidence that rushing prospects wrecks teams’ ability to afford their homegrown stars.

  29. smb on June 18th, 2013 8:22 am

    I’ll help you with that one…we have zero shot to win the WS next year. Zero.

  30. sawsatch on June 18th, 2013 8:59 am

    An organization with good scouting and player development has few worries. A player then gets to the majors at a good time both for the individual and the team.

  31. don52656 on June 18th, 2013 9:13 am

    Given the alternatives, isn’t bringing Zunino up the right choice? Certainly his defense appears to be major league caliber, and really, how much worse can his offense be than any catcher the Mariners have used this year?

    The Mariners were consistent in saying that we would see Zunino sometime this year…why are we quibbling about a few weeks when the alternatives at catcher are so uncompelling?

    Given that this season is likely lost, as a fan I would much rather see Zunino than anyone else. For that matter, I would like to see Brad Miller at SS, Ackley in CF, Romero in LF, Ramirez in the rotation. The sooner the better.

  32. msfanmike on June 18th, 2013 9:39 am

    ^ On the money!

    At least, I agree with all of it.

  33. GLS on June 18th, 2013 11:37 am

    One thought that occurred to me is that in the offseason, Jack was quoted saying something to the effect that players with major league experience are much more valuable as trade commodities than are minor league prospects. Assuming he doesn’t completely tank over the rest of the season, would the Mariners be likely to include Zunino in a trade for a premier player like Giancarlo Stanton?

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