The MLB Phenom Call Up Debate… Better Later Than Now

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Talent sure does create some high class problems, doesn’t it? If it weren’t for Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves would not have to be concerned with arbitration eligibility, or the merits of bringing up the young player to the Major Leagues too soon, or overloading a talented young kid. Unfortunately for the Braves, they have befallen a very unfortunate – though seemingly rare – situation where a young prospect seems so good that the team has no choice but allow a 20-year-old kid to begin the season in the show.

But, the Braves have taken some criticism for giving Heyward a trip North with the big club in late March. Some critics believe that Heyward’s early call up prevents the occasionally stingy Braves from having an extra year of arbitration protection on its best young player. The belief is that the Braves have sacrificed long term greatness for short term gain. I only half-buy the missing arbitration arugment because it is inherently cautious… a trait far too prominent in sports for some fans. My issue is partly with losing control of a talented player a year sooner that is possible (especially when the trade off is only a six week wait at the beginning of the season), and partly with what an early call up does to stunt the growth of a burgeoning talent.

I admit that while it is impossible to avoid falling in love with Jason Heyward as Loyal Homer, it is similarly difficult as Sports Geek. He is an excellent, better than usual for his age. But he is far from perfect, especially considering the 20-year-old has spent a brief two seasons in the minor leagues.

As good as he is now – and if you want to read the love-fest Loyal Homer has, be my guest… parental advisory, though – the most important aspect of his game is still upside. He has not proven over a long haul that he is able to adjust to pitchers and make the kinds of adjustments – even during an individual at bat – that are necessary to achieve long term greatness.

In short, for every Jason Heyward there is a thousand Corey Patterson’s.

Mortgage the future, and perpetually rebuild. Observe the trip down memory lane we all took last week when I recounted the various mistakes by Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Case after case shows that Hendry’s desire to win now put reason in the back seat, and clouded his long term judgment. Win now is a good and proper sports philosophy, but not at the expense of rational management.

There is a substantial difference between caution and prudence. Take, for example, the case of Joba Chamberlain. Here is another all world prospect that had many folks very excited. His potential seemed limitless, both in his physical characteristics and his mental toughness and emotion. He was exciting, talented, and entertaining all in one – the perfect player for New York City (kind of how Jason Heyward, the Georgia native, is the perfect player for Atlanta).

Joba’s shut down pitches and intensity came to a halt one October evening in Cleveland as he battled some gnats. Well, not just any gnats, super-hyper, annoying gnats. The gnats – and the Cleveland Indians – defeated Joba that night. Since that resulting loss of confidence, Chamberlain has suffered through some different roles on the team and battled some injuries. One thing is clear – he is not the same pitcher he was once believed to be.

My point with the Joba example is that lots of talented, perfect-for-the-city-players appear to be unstoppable right when they come up to the big club – especially if their entrance onto the big stage is fast… like only two seasons in the minors fast (read: Heyward). Caution would not have helped Joba, but prudence may have turned him into a viable, effective pitcher for the long haul.

Keeping a player longer in the minor leagues is not just about what the big club currently is not getting right away or the obvious benefits of keeping a player’s rights for a longer period of time. It is about the development of the young player and doing what is necessary to ensure his long term success. Triple A and Major League pitching is different because of a heavy reliance on breaking pitches. It is harder to be a professional hitter at the upper levels of baseball, which is Heyward’s primary objective with a mere 13 plate appearances at the AAA or higher level coming into the 2010 season. Despite his hot start – and trust me, April is not time to evaluate how good a player will be long term – Heyward has never demonstrated an ability to be a professional hitter and sustain success for a long period of time.

The Braves should have already learned this lesson with Jeff Francoeur. As a rookie the 21-year-old hit .300 and set baseball writer’s pens to paper. His 14 home runs were a bunch for a rookie and he was also a native Georgian. But over time Francoeur showed he did not have the professional stamina to be a great hitter for a long period of time – something extra conditioning in the minor leagues would have helped. In fact, it DID help him, to a degree, when he was embarrassingly sent BACK to the minors after a few seasons in the majors.

I am not saying Jason Heyward is Jeff Francoeur. I am saying that players are all different, but far more often than not prudence is warranted regarding phenom call ups. Long term success is much more important for the team and the player because the goal should not be to win a World Series and sail off into the sunset, but to dominate a sport for years. The Braves used to know something about that, but have not made the right decisions in recent seasons to reach long term dominance again like a team like the Yankees has.

If a team’s chosen path to long term success is through cultivating young talent (not buying it, like the Yankees do), then fans and front offices must be patient and allow the talent to germinate. Rushing a player to give the MLB club a great few months early in a season does not give the team help when it really needs it – in October and beyond.

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