First Pitch: At What Stage Should a Prospect Be Promoted to the Majors?

Not every prospect should be treated the same.

In this game within the game of prospect evaluation, we reduce potential Major League Baseball players to a number.

If you’re a 50, you’re going to be an average MLB starter. Anything more, and you’re an impact player to a star. Anything less, and you’re a bench player to a career minor leaguer.

Players don’t usually have a single number. What they have is a spectrum of possibility, and it’s our job to provide the most likely outcome. In the rankings at Pirates Prospects, we’ve always used three grades: Floor, Ceiling, and Likely Upside.

The first two of those grades help us to determine the parameters of the spectrum of possibility for the player. The third grade is our guess at where the player will end up.

Not every prospect should be treated the same, but every prospect is the same in the sense that almost none will reach their ceilings. Very few will even reach that “Likely Upside”, which is why we should probably have a different term going forward.

I’ve been thinking about how prospects traditionally get promoted to the majors, especially in the last year with COVID throwing a wrench into the standard prospect progression.

The standard approach to promoting prospects is linear. A player moves from rookie ball to A-ball, then to Double-A, Triple-A, and finally the majors.

I’ve spent years arguing that certain players aren’t ready because they haven’t spent time in Triple-A. That debate usually centers around the best prospects who are typically held back for Super Two purposes. However, I didn’t limit my view of prospect progression to the top guys, applying this linear promotion path universally to all prospects.

This means a guy who we had projected as a future bench or bullpen guy needed to follow the same development path as a guy who is projected as a star.

Baseball is a constantly evolving game, and if you’re complacent on “This is how it’s always done. Period.” then you’re going to end up being left behind.

I’ve talked a few times about the way the Pirates have used Rodolfo Castro and Max Kranick this year. Both players received surprising promotions to the majors, and a good amount of playing time on top of that. Both players played in A-ball in their last season in 2019, and both were promoted with little to zero Triple-A experience. That’s a massive departure from what we’ve seen in the past.

Part of what keeps Linear Promotion Paths a thing is the idea that a player can be ruined if he goes to the majors too early.

I believe that is definitely a risk, though only for an organization that doesn’t communicate effectively with the player that he will get more than one opportunity.

A big flaw with the linear path is that the player gets slowly moved up until it’s time for his shot. However, we never truly know if the player is ready for the majors until he’s in the majors. So, when is a player ready?

It can’t be that everyone needs 350 at-bats or 20 starts in Triple-A. Some players should be capable of making the jump earlier. And there are some players who might not have more to gain in Triple-A.

Castro and Kranick are perfect examples.

We have both players graded as likely bench or bullpen players. Our three number grade for each guy is 30/40/50, meaning a floor of 30 (Quad-A player), a ceiling of 50 (Average Player), and a likely upside of 40 (bench/bullpen).

What we’ve seen from Castro and Kranick so far has been a 30-grade. Neither looks like they belong in the majors right now long-term. However, they don’t look like they’re NOT ready for the majors.

Under a linear promotion path, there are prospects who arrive from Triple-A with more anticipation and expectations than Castro and Kranick, and those prospects end up putting up worse results. Those prospects end up going back to the minors to work on their game before their next opportunity.

Why the wait to start this process?

How many players arrive in the majors as finished products and remain in the majors long-term? How many of those players actually reach their ceilings, or even their likely upsides?

Under a linear promotion path, I could see the exact same results from Castro and Kranick the first time around. I could also see either player being more likely to be a 30 grade than a 50 grade. That’s nothing specific with these two, but more about the extreme difficulties of even being an MLB bench/bullpen regular.

If time wasn’t a factor, then a linear path would make a lot of sense for these types of players.

In a league where players get three years on the 40-man roster before they need to be in the majors for good, and where players are called “post-prospects” if they’re a day over 25-years-old, time is definitely a factor.

Castro is on the 40-man roster. He used an option this year. He’ll use one in 2022. He’ll use one in 2023. He needs to be in the majors for good by 2024, assuming he uses the remaining options by then.

A linear path would have him in the minors all year in 2021, using up his first option without ever actually being an option for the majors.

That path would likely put him in the majors in 2022, using his second option during the year. If he came up and performed like he did this year, then he’d have one season, 2023, to work on things in the minors before he needs to be in the majors for good.

Under the current path, he got a look, saw what he needed to work on, and is currently getting an opportunity to work on his game back in Double-A in his first option year. Next year, he can do the same thing. He can do the same thing in 2023.

The difference is that by the end of 2023, Castro should have had three years to show he belongs in the majors. Under a linear promotion path, he’d have maybe a year and a half to accomplish the same thing.

Kranick, on the other hand, approaches that “post-prospect” stage. Everything about the option years above applies. However, Kranick is older than Castro, turning 24 last month. He needs to be in the majors for good by his age 26/27 season.

That time frame coincides with the average player’s expected peak performance. A linear path has Kranick getting his first real shot at age 24/25. If he had similar results to what we saw this year, then he’d enter age 25/26 in that “last option year” limbo.

Like Castro, the current path benefits Kranick. He showed that he doesn’t belong, but that he might not be far off, especially if you’re looking at him as a bullpen guy. By the time he’s in his age 26/27 season, he should have had three years worth of chances in the majors. Rather than adjusting to the league in his prime years, he would ideally be adjusted and more likely to maximize his production.

In both of these cases, the player’s value plays a big role in how they should be promoted.

You don’t build contending teams with 30/40/50 guys. Those guys help, but unless they reach that 50 upside, they’re going to be replaced before they hit free agency.

So, why would a small market team like the Pirates spend an excessive amount of time trying to develop 30/40/50 guys? Especially when, as is the case with Castro and Kranick, they’re already at a 30-grade in Double-A?

Do you send them down the linear progression path to give the allusion of ensuring that 40-grade and increasing the chances for the 50-grade? Or, do you send them to the majors, and hope they can make the 30-to-40 jump there, while conceding that the 50-grade probably isn’t something that can be taught or reached in the minors?

It would be different if either player had a 60-grade ceiling, or higher. You would want that player to develop beyond a 30-grade guy in the minors. This way, you use their MLB service time as a 50-60 grade starter, rather than developing up from 30 to 40 and 40 to 50.

That said, we don’t really know anything about how a prospect makes the successful jump to the majors. Maybe MLB experience, at any point, is far more valuable than the amount of minor league time at any level.

Or, putting it to a scenario: Let’s say Quinn Priester is absolutely dominating in Double-A in the first half next year. He’s looking like he could already start in the majors, though obviously not at his top of the rotation upside.

A linear promotion path would have Priester arriving in the majors in mid-2023 if all goes well. He isn’t on the 40-man, and doesn’t need to be added until the end of 2023. He’s also only 20 years old. So, we’re only considering his talent level here with an alternate path.

There would be fear of messing up a top prospect by promoting them too soon. Again, I think that’s a communication issue. If you called up Priester in 2022, he would need to be in the majors for good by his age 25 season. That’s assuming he doesn’t stick right away.

This creates two scenarios:

The first is that Priester arrives in his age 21 season, after dominating Double-A, and eventually develops in the majors, possibly with some trips back down to the minors.

The second scenario is that Priester doesn’t work out, and by his age 25 season he is in a situation where he needs to be in the majors. Basically, he’d be Mitch Keller this year, but without options. And Keller had a linear promotion path.

The short of all of this is that players should be promoted when they’re ready. The catch is that you’ll never know if a player is ready until he arrives in the majors.

So, promote away and find out.

Daily Links

**Weekly Transaction Analysis: Henry Davis Likely Done For the Season With an Oblique Strain

**Prospect Watch: Some High Run Totals in the System, Both For and Against

**Quinn Priester Gives Pirates Fans a Glimpse into the Future Friday Night

**Pirates Release Gregory Polanco; Recall Cole Tucker

**Pirates Transactions: Howard Recalled, Dillon Peters Placed on 10-day IL

**Pirates Injury: Michael Chavis Leaves Saturday’s Game with Right Elbow Issues

**Adam Wainwright Dazzles Again as Cardinals Stomp Pirates, 13-0

**Game Recap: Pirates Embarrassed Again, 13-0

**Daily Pirates Discussion: August 28, 2021; Polanco Released, Tucker Recalled, Chavis Injured

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: August 28th, Charlie Grimm and the Neagle/Schmidt Trade

**Card of the Day: 1922 W501-2 Charlie Grimm

PBN Updates

Pirates Prospects mid-season top 30 is coming this week…

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