Didi Gregorius is playing second base for the Triple-A Reno Aces right now, waiting for an injury or some massive failure to open a spot for him on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ roster. Gregorius was Arizona’s starting shortstop in 2013, and for a prospect whose offensive viability had always been the biggest question mark, he acquitted himself very well. At .252/.332/.373, he more than pulled a strong defensive shortstop’s weight with the stick, and although his defensive numbers were less than stellar, one could see the smoothness and athleticism to be a solid-average defender at the position over the long haul.
At the same time, though, Chris Owings was busy winning the Pacific Coast League MVP award, batting .330/.359/.482 in the inflated offensive environment there. Owings was a prospect with a similar overall pedigree to Gregorius’s, although his value always projected to take a different shape. Owings played better during Spring Training, and took the job from the incumbent Gregorius—a rare and neat trick.
It never should have happened. Owings shouldn’t have won the job; both players should have. Gregorius is a .275/.357/.424 career hitter against right-handed pitchers, and while Owings doesn’t offer enough of a big-league sample to say for sure, his true talent level against righties is unlikely to be higher than that, at least for now, since Owings bats right-handed. Gregorius also has a better glove, so he should play against righties, and Owings should play against lefties, and occasionally behind fly-ball pitchers against lesser righties.
“I don’t think [sharing the job would be] good for their development. They’re both everyday type players and they’re ready to be everyday type players. I would just hate for one of those kids to be sitting on the bench and playing once or twice a week. They’d be better off being in Triple-A, getting at-bats and getting ready in case there’s an injury.”
This is a common notion. It’s almost ubiquitous. I’m not sure it’s true, though, and to whatever extent it is true, I’m not sure teams should worry about it so much.
For one thing, the goal of any MLB franchise should be to win ballgames, and as many of them as possible. It’s not always the best idea to do every little thing that maximizes the chances of winning right away, because you want to win games in three years, too, not just in three weeks. Still, winning games is the main object, and teams shouldn’t lose sight of that in an effort to maximize the chances that a particular player or two reaches their potential. Towers may be right that Gregorius and Owings will both be slightly better off, in the long run, if they continue to play every day. If the Diamondbacks lose games they could have won in the name of shepherding the pair toward success, though, the team gains nothing.
Furthermore, while platoons likely aren’t the best possible arrangement to help an individual improve, they’re probably also not as bad as many assume. Platoon players still get regular reps; they’re more than mere bench players. Platoons shelter a player from their own weaknesses while allowing them to face very strong opponents. That may not help the player aggressively address their weaknesses, but that’s the wrong way to think about player development, anyway.
A young player focused only on shoring up their weaknesses will find more and more of them to address, as other parts of his game atrophy, and their confidence and mentality are damaged by constant preoccupation with the things they don’t do well. Even a platoon player sees same-handed pitching about 20 percent of the time, so it’s not like they don’t get any opportunities to work on their shortcomings. Emphasizing strengths while addressing weaknesses is the psychologically competent approach to developing young players, and it’s perfectly possible to execute that approach while carrying the player and playing him only semi-regularly.
There’s one other factor to consider, and it is: Forcing a young player to share a job, or keeping his backup readily available, is the best way to keep the player accountable. Starlin Castro has made an unacceptable number of mental and fundamental mistakes over the past few years, and while the Cubs have occasionally made a show of dispensing discipline, the fact is that Castro has had little reason to be proactive about changing the way he plays the game. The level of commitment on the part of the team made Castro bulletproof, in absolutely no danger of losing playing time or status. Castro has made some good-faith efforts to improve his preparation, approach, conditioning and focus, but the team had to wait for him to find internal motivation for that. They didn’t have any mechanism by which to speed his maturation process.
No organization should go looking for reasons to criticize or pressure a young player, but nor should they make a needless commitment to playing a guy all the time, no matter what. Most importantly, if a guy is capable of making a substantial positive contribution at the big-league level, he should get a chance to do it.
Speaking of Castro’s Cubs, the same issue has arisen during the early going, only the organization is doing exactly the right thing, and getting heat for it from the fans. Chicago brought third baseman Mike Olt north with the parent club, but ha splayed Luis Valbuena over him more often than not thus far. Olt still sees action against lefties, but Valbuena plays against righties. Similarly, Junior Lake sits against right-handed pitchers, in favor of Ryan Sweeney, Emilio Bonifacio and Ryan Kalish.
The prospect hounds and youth-obsessed team bloggers have been harsh about this on Twitter, but manager Rick Renteria is absolutely doing the right thing. For one thing, neither Olt nor Lake is even as certain to be a solid future regular in MLB as Owings and Gregorius are. For another, Valbuena, Kalish and Sweeney get far too little credit for the things they do well. It remains possible that the latter set are better players than the former pair will ever be.
Finally, though, young players who deserve everyday playing time and long-term commitments will earn them, eventually. The current crop of big-league managers and executives are less comfortable about competition and time-sharing than they ought to be. Many are products of the 1970s and early 1980s, times when teams so prized athleticism that they didn’t platoon, because players were selected for speed and defense more than for offense. The right way to determine playing time, though, is the way they did it back in Casey Stengel’s and Joe McCarthy’s days. It’s okay to make players earn their at-bats. It won’t ruin any player with the makeup it takes to really succeed, in the first place. In the meantime, whether a guy makes it or not, the team will be better off, which should be the principle criterion in teams’ decision-making more often than it is, lately.Next post: Choose Your Own Adventure: Changing the Look of Extra Innings
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