Good and Bad of F-Mart and Tejada Promotions
On Saturday, the Mets made a pair of roster moves, releasing Alex Cora and relegating Jeff Francoeur to platoon duty. Any intelligent fan walking away feeling disappointed from this awesome, albeit overdue and painfully obvious occurrence, must be some sort of baseball masochist, right? Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Well the Mets somehow managed to cut ties with the mind-boggling uselessness that is Alex Cora, reduce Francoeur’s playing time, while simultaneously reminding you they lack basic motor skills, mindlessly promoting Fernando Martinez and Ruben Tejada from AAA.
At least that is how some people see it. I am not quite sure where I side on the issue of aggressively promoting prospects, which was a hallmark of the Tony Bernazard era. (see Wilmer Flores, Jefry Marte, Martinez, Tejada, Franciso Pena, Juan Lagares, etc.) In this case, we are talking about going from AAA to the big leagues, but the essence of the issue remains the same: Will promoting (insert player’s name) service or impede his development? I have no idea, and even the shrewdest talent evaluator can, at best, venture an educated guess.
A few weeks back, I was doing some work for The Hardball Times in Lakewood, New Jersey, home of the Phillies A-Ball affiliate. Earlier this year, Lakewood featured a right fielder named Domingo Santana, just 17, who tore the cover off the ball in the Gulf Coast League in 2009. Santana predictably flopped, hitting .174 with a .604 OPS. in just under 200 plate-appearances, before being demoted.
I discussed the rationale behind this move at length with Lakewood manager and former big leaguer Mark Parent. Now, I realized he was not about to go trashing his head honchos organizational philosophy, but I decided to play devils advocate, and see if he could shed some light on the subject.
I started out by delivering the usual schtick about confidence and how struggling might affect Santana’s self-esteem and ultimately derail his development, and Parent actually chuckled at the notion. “Look, you have 140 games” he said. “You have 0-4 days for several days in a row and you feel like s**t but the next day you go 4-4 your on top of the world. That’s baseball. Up and down. You have to get to where you at an even keel.”
I suppose there is something to be said for that, but I think you can make an equally convincing case to the contrary. For one, learning to accept 0-4 days, which every ballplayer experiences upon entering professional baseball, can be done in the midst of success. Evident by assessments such as the Calipher Test, athletes and people also respond differently to failure. Further, being rushed can cause a player to fall into numerous bad habits in an attempt to catch up with the competition when feeling overmatched.
So, there is that. Parent also talked about how playing against older competition turns a competitor on. I see where he is coming from, but I cannot put too much stock into that belief. The incentive to succeed is so great at any level of professional baseball, I do not see they need the additional push, considering the potential downsides.
Later, though, Parent mentioned something I found more profound and revealing. “If you don’t succeed,” he said, “at least you have vision, like Santana, of what he was lacking here and he goes down and works on it and you will find out that he if he goes on to succeed that he was not a quitter. Those are the guys that will help you in the big leagues down the road for 162 games.”
Again, I do not want to get caught up in the Francoeur-esque talk about grit and hustle. But I think his commands regarding acquiring a vision of what it takes to succeed is significant. Santana is now holding his own in the New York Penn League. Instead of being held back in Extended Spring Training, Santana got a closer view of playing in the big leagues in Lakewood: he saw first-pitch breaking balls, full-count sliders, pitchers five to six years his senior who know how to pitch. He played in front of 6,000+ fans, talking to reporters and being held accountable for what happens. All of this is a far cry from Extended Spring or the Appalachian League.
In certain respects, perhaps the Phillies aggressive approach quickened Santana’s develop.
Which brings us back to Martinez and Tejada. In their case, they get to see what the big leagues have to offer. Again, it is not so much the stretch in A-Ball, or AA, AAA, that matters, but the journey to the final destination, “The Show”. It is not the short bursts of success and winning, however beneficial, but coming to terms with the adjustments you must make.
Of course, it is easy to take a broad, all-inclusive approach to this, but context is everything. With Ruben Tejada, I will quote some snippets from my post a month ago, when Castillo was about to come off the disabled list and replace Tejada:
Not to mention, Tejada could improve his production this season. Elvis Andrus put up very similar numbers in the minors at the exact same age, and in his first full season in 2009 he hit .267/.329/.373 with a .322 wOBA….
Tejada could definitely use some refining in AAA, where he can work on his pitch recognition, learn to walk more, and fine tune his defensive game. But can he not equally develop at the big league level, where we would at least have a better idea of what to do next year? I do not know.
Pretty much everything remains true today. With a weak free agent market next year and the Mets lacking payroll flexibility, if Tejada can increase his offensive production modestly — still below average but not hovering around the Mendoza line — he is a passable starter, with the potential for more.
Tejada will likely accumulate in the neighborhood of 180 at-bats if he plays every day for the rest of the year. If he does hold his own, does that really tell us much about what to expect from him in 2011? Two months are worth something, but it’s still a small sample size.
I am not too worried about starting the arbitration clock early financially, since even if Tejada develops to his fullest potential, he will not be costing the Mets tens of millions of dollars. It is probably not wise to start it when Tejada is unlikely to produce; the Mets might be better off waiting until at least 2012 to reap the maximum benefits of his cost-controlled year. Again, though, the Mets really should not fret about this too much. Further, maybe I am kind of alone on this, but I am not enthralled by Justin Turner. Turner reminds me somewhat of Jeff Keppinger, who admittedly has had some good years and is a nice little player, but his defense precludes him from being a valuable starter, and the Mets have more important matters to figure out than next year’s utility infielder.
Evaluating Martinez’s promotion is complicated by the fact we do not know how long Jason Bay is sidelined. I worry about not starting his arbitration clock before he’s better prepared, moreso than Tejada. It’s also hard to see how he figures into next year’s plans anyway. Unless the Mets plan on shopping Carlos Beltran, there is no logical spot for Martinez on the roster; I would hate to see him have a promising stretch with the Mets, only to be their fourth outfielder next year. Even if the Mets did somehow trade Beltran, Martinez would have to post very impressive numbers in the remainder of the season for me to consider handing him the right field job next year.
Most importantly, I think the Mets have a better alternative in Lucas Duda, who has torn up the minors this year. Duda appears to be not much more than a righty power bat off the bench, at least for the immediate future. I continue to insist that if the Mets were run sensibly financially, the need for cost-controlled players would not be so glaring, But hey, Oliver Perez’s contract and Francisco Rodriguez’s vesting option are not going anywhere; the Mets can use all the financial help possible going into next off-season.
I think Duda deserves more recognition than he has received thus far. Despite his defensive limitations, he is a massive dude (6’5″ 240) who has shown major power at just 24. Some guys just take longer to adjust to the wood bat. Heck, Ryan Howard did not become a big-time prospect until he was 24. That is a stretch, to say the least, but why can Duda not become an offensively-minded, everyday left fielder, ala Josh Willingham?
The fact is, the Mets season is a lost cause, and development must now take precedent. While I think there may be better alternatives to promoting Martinez and Tejada at this time, the earth will not go spinning out of its orbit toward the sun, even if they prove overmatched.