What Is Rushing A Prospect?
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.