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How not to call up a position player prospect

A comprehensive, comparative look at the Rockies’ treatment of their position player prospects

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Despite their third-place finish, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the Rockies’ future in 2016.

That year, Baseball America ranked David Dahl (22), Ryan McMahon (43), and Tom Murphy (97) among the Top 100 Prospects in the game, and Raimel Tapia (49) joined them in 2017. All four had advanced at least to Double-A by 2016—Tom Murphy was in Triple-A and had already made his major-league debut—and Rockies fans believed that well-regarded, young reinforcements were on their way to Coors Field to augment Nolan Arenado and a burgeoning pitching staff.

Two years later, neither Dahl, McMahon, or Tapia are starting at the major-league level, and Tom Murphy’s status appears undefined as well. Tapia was recently sent back down to Albuquerque after an 18-game stint with the big-league club, during which he received a grand total of 20 plate appearances. McMahon has been yoyoed between Denver and Albuquerque all year and has started back-to-back games only fifteen times.

David Dahl has played more than McMahon and Tapia, but he’s still hasn’t been given every day starts, starting in only 58% of the team’s games before he went down with injury. And while Tom Murphy may be headed towards regular starts at catcher, he’s also alternated between starting every day (parts of June and early August) and sitting on the bench (most of July).

The Rockies’ unwillingness to commit to their prospects is a familiar and frustrating refrain. But it’s also unusual when compared to the rest of Major League Baseball. Forty-seven hitters from Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects in 2016 have made their major league debuts; here’s how the Rockies compare to that list:

2016 Top 100 Prospect Playing Time

Player MLB Plate Appearances 2016-2018 WAR
Player MLB Plate Appearances 2016-2018 WAR
Non-Rockies 2016 Top 100 Prospects 694 (Average) 2.1 (Average)
Raimel Tapia 232 -0.1
David Dahl 334 1.4
Ryan McMahon 148 -0.1
Tom Murphy 197 0.4

In fact, this underestimates playing time around the league, because it includes several prospects who had only reached Single A in 2016. Top prospects who had reached Double-A—as Tapia, Dahl, McMahon, and Murphy had in 2016—have averaged 725 total plate appearances. In other words, Rockies prospects have received about a third of the playing time compared to their once-prospect peers.

At this point, all of the Rockies former position player prospects now fall into the exclusive club of AA-and-higher 2016 Top 100 Prospects with fewer than 350 major-league plate appearances:

The Under 350 Club

Player Team
Player Team
Willy Adames Rays
Brett Phillips Royals
Jake Bauers Rays
Dominic Smith Mets
Alex Verdugo Dodgers
Clint Frazier Yankees
Franklin Barreto A's
Adalberto Mondesi Royals
Austin Meadows Rays
AJ Reed Astros
JP Crawford Phillies

Several players are well on their way off the list. Adames and Bauers are regular starters in Tampa Bay, and Adalberto Mondesi has been starting every day in Kansas City. Even if we’re charitable and include them, the Rockies are dominating the former-top-prospects-who-haven’t-been-played-much sweepstakes, with over a third of the members of the under-350 club.

Injuries tell part of the story here—Dahl and Murphy were both injured last year—but they don’t explain Dahl and Murphy’s playing time this year, and they don’t explain McMahon and Tapia either. Commentators have speculated that the Rockies have several reasons for keeping their prospects out of the lineup

1) The Rockies are in a playoff race.

2) Each prospect is blocked by a better player.

3) Dahl, Tapia, Murphy, and McMahon haven’t played well at the major-league level.

Let’s break these arguments down.

You Can’t Play a Rookie in a Playoff Race!

One reason why the Rockies might not be giving their prospects playing time is that they’ve been fighting for a playoff spot for the last year and a half. After all, it’s easy to give Hunter Renfroe a chance when the Padres are in last place, but the Rockies can’t take chances when they’re trying to compete, right?

Looking at the rest of the league, however, not only do other competing teams play their prospects, they often do so with successful results. Several of the 2016 Top 100 Prospects have been called up by competing teams—often in mid-season promotions:

Prospects on Competing Teams

Player Team Plate Appearances 2016-2018 WAR
Player Team Plate Appearances 2016-2018 WAR
Corey Seager Dodgers 1528 13.4
Trea Turner Nationals 1296 9.4
Andrew Benintendi Red Sox 1228 6.3
Rafael Devers Red Sox 636 1.6
Bradley Zimmer Indians 446 1.9
Gary Sanchez Yankees 1035 8.6
Gleyber Torres Yankees 276 1.7
Alex Bregman Astros 1327 9.3
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 993 6
Willson Contreras Cubs 1099 8.3
Aaron Judge Yankees 1220 13
Ian Happ Cubs 742 3.4

Some of these callups happened because of injury—Adrian Gonzalez’s injury paved the way for Cody Bellinger, and Luis Valbuena’s injury made it easier to keep Alex Bregman with the Astros after his callup. But there is still plenty of willingness among top teams to give their high-regarded prospects a chance. In fact, the top seven 2016 Top 100 Prospects by WAR thus far—Judge, Seager, Turner, Bregman, Sanchez, Contreras, Benintendi, and Bellinger—have all been called up by competing teams.

Rather than concluding that good teams can’t possibly take the risk on young talent, the reverse seems to be true—teams that take a risk on highly-regarded young talent generally become better teams.

But the Current Starter is Better—and Less Risky!

Another oft-cited reason for the Rockies reticence to play their prospects is that the players in front of them are producing. Ryan McMahon plays multiple positions, but is primarily blocked by Ian Desmond; were Raimel Tapia or David Dahl to get a chance to start every day, the odd man out would be Gerardo Parra; and if Tom Murphy continues to start, it’ll probably be at the expense of Chris Iannetta.

Have other teams been willing to replace similar veterans with unproven prospects? Let’s take a look at that same list—2016 Top 100 Prospects on competitive teams—and see who was blocking their path at the time of their call-up, and how that compares to the Rockies.

Value of Players Blocking Prospects

Player Player Replaced Player Blocking WAR
Player Player Replaced Player Blocking WAR
Alex Bregman Luis Valbuena 2.1
Bradley Zimmer Austin Jackson 1.9
Willson Contreras David Ross 1.7
Trea Turner Ian Desmond 1.4
Gary Sanchez Brian McCann 1.3
Ian Happ Jason Hayward 1
Andrew Benintendi Chris Young 0.9
Corey Seager Jimmy Rollins 0.5
Ryan McMahon Ian Desmond 0.0
Tom Murphy Chris Iannetta 0.0
Aaron Judge Aaron Hicks -0.2
Raimel Tapia Gerardo Parra -0.3
David Dahl Gerardo Parra -0.3
Rafael Devers Pablo Sandoval -0.4
Gleyber Torres Neil Walker -0.4
Cody Bellinger Adrian Gonzalez -1

Like the previous chart, this one is a little bit charitable to the Rockies—while Neil Walker was the Yankees’ Opening Day starter, they were willing to trade Starlin Castro (1.9 WAR) to make room for Gleyber Torres. And while Pablo Sandoval was designated for assignment by Boston, Devin Marrero (0.3 WAR) was seeing time at third base when Devers took the job.

It’s unlikely that Tapia, Dahl, McMahon, or Murphy will produce at Seager or Judge-like levels, but they’ll probably be better than the players currently in their way. Of the 57 position-player 2016 BA Top Prospects, only nine of them—AJ Reed, Anthony Alford, Adalberto Mondesi, Lewis Brinson, Clint Frazier, Kyle Tucker, Christian Arroyo, Dominic Smith, and Willy Adames—have amassed a WAR worse than Ian Desmond or Chris Iannetta.

Still, the point here isn’t that Tapia, Dahl, McMahon, or Murphy are guaranteed to succeed at the same level as the players on this list. Prospects often struggle when they’re first called up—the Yankees grew tired of Aaron Hicks and replaced him with Aaron Judge, only to see Judge struggle in the fall of 2016, strike out 44% of the time, and put up -0.2 WAR. Rather, the point is to illustrate the risk that other teams are willing to take, and what level of production they’re willing to tolerate before replacing a veteran player with a prospect. Even teams in playoff races have replaced far more productive players.

But they haven’t produced!

The last critique leveled at the Rockies’ prospects is that they haven’t produced when they’ve been given the chance. A related critique—primarily of Raimel Tapia, but perhaps Tom Murphy, too—is that they lack polish and need to work on their game before being called up permanently.

Baseball is a game of rhythm. Pinch-hitting is entirely different from playing every day, and starting occasionally is entirely different from doing so on a regular basis. After struggling in spot starts earlier this year, Ryan McMahon told the Denver Post:

“It’s different not playing every day and being a bench guy, so I’m trying to get used to that role.”

Noel Cuevas made the same observation in a recent interview with Kyle Newman:

“Coming up through the minor league system, I was always an every day player. To find myself in that pinch-hitting role, I just never had the opportunity to work on it... I was basically improvising here.”

The adjustment to big-league pitching is difficult enough, but the Rockies have placed an additional hurdle in front of their prospects by asking them to adjust to both a different league and a different role simultaneously. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Get ready to face a situational lefty every two days, and if you succeed, you’ll start twice a week.

Though the sample size is small, the results thus far speak to this difference. David Dahl was a revelation in 2016, posting a 113 wRC+ while playing every day; earlier this year, he struggled to find his rhythm without everyday starts. Raimel Tapia has seen one month of regular playing time in his career while Gerardo Parra was injured last year, during which he hit a torrid .378/.420/.573 with a blistering 144 wRC+; outside of that month, Tapia has struggled to produce.

And, once again, the Rockies differ in their treatment of prospects than other teams. Taking our previous list, Bregman, Zimmer, Contreras, Sanchez, Happ, Benintendi, Seager, Judge, Devers, Torres, and Bellinger were all given immediate, everyday starts when they were called up. Only one of that group, Trea Turner, was given inconsistent playing time when he was first called up, and he predictably struggled to a .200/.294/.200 (43 wRC+) line.

As for polish, well, yes, some of the Rockies prospects probably lack polish and could use some work. But it’s worth remembering that young players often lack polish, and development doesn’t stop once you’ve made it to the big leagues. Gary Sanchez has a passed balls problem. Rafael Devers leads the league in errors. In 2013, Yasiel Puig and “mental mistake” were practically synonymous. It’s also worth remembering that the Rockies currently tolerate plenty of less-than-stellar play from their veterans—Ian Desmond has never been all that good at first base, and Gerardo Parra has an affinity for outs on the basepaths.

So—where does that leave us? David Dahl, Tom Murphy, and Ryan McMahon are all with the Major League club, and all could see significant time down the stretch. But the Rockies’ history suggests that they won’t see regular playing time, most likely out of a belief that benching veterans like Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond just isn’t what Major League teams do.

What the Rockies should understand, however, is that the reverse is true. Benching poor-performing veterans for ready-to-go prospects is exactly what other Major League teams do.