Before we get to our featured attraction, a couple appetizers to ponder.
- I had this terrifically fantastic idea for a new sport, and as I think it through I cannot identify any potential flaws. It combines polo and hockey, only instead of horses the players are riding a hippopotamus. Granted, most animals consider wherever they are to be their bathroom, but that's how you get the puck. And I'm sure hippopotami can be taught how to skate. Anyway, I really believe that hockpolopotamus could be successful -- but this is a baseball site so let's talk baseball...
- Remember when the A's were linked to potential starting pitchers at the trade deadline? The asking price was going to be pretty steep, perhaps Michael Choice, and the A's ultimately made the Choice to stand pat. Matt Garza arguably did the Rangers more harm than good, combining his embarrassing brand of "fiery competitiveness" (by chance, do you have a less misogynistic or immature flavor?) with truly mediocre pitching, as Texas missed the playoffs entirely. The Red Sox acquired Jake Peavy primarily for the post-season but Peavy got lit up in the ALDS and then has picked up where he left off in the World Series. He's currently lined up for a possible Game 7 but do you think the Red Sox, or their fans, are excited about this? In general both these guys are decent to good pitchers, but I think the A's did well to make no move at the deadline.
But while there may be a blue ribbon committee, I'm not here to talk about the Pabst. I'm here to talk about Addison Russell.
Opinions vary widely around when the A's should even consider that Russell might earn a big league call-up in the pre-ASB portion of 2014. So much so that 2 comments that could not be more polar opposite perspectives (here and here) have appeared on AN this week.
Let me be crystal clear that I neither advocate for, nor expect, the A's to put Russell into the mix for a big league job out of spring training or really in the 1st half of the season. Russell will not turn 20 until January and has played a grand total of 110 games at the professional level. Only 13 of them have been above A-ball and in 9 of those he struck out.
But I think the pros and cons are interesting to list because they paint a picture a bit more complex than it may at first appear. I'll start with the cons, which are more self-evident.
- Though you would like to think that if a player has star quality he won't be destroyed by adversity, you would hate to take your best prospect and have him struggle mightily as a junior varsity player on a varsity team. And there is really no limit to poorly a player can perform if over matched. It's not like the worst thing that could happen is Russell could hit a pedestrian .230. He could hit .130 and have his development backslide as he is perceived as a disappointment and ultimately demoted. It's one thing to be aggressive with promotions and allow a player to skip a level or make it a year ahead of schedule; it's another to fast-track a player several years ahead of schedule.
- Why would you assume that Russell would perform at a high level in his rookie campaign? Russell may have a season in his career where he hits .300/.380/.480 and plays excellent defense at SS -- but even if he does, it's very unlikely to be in his first season at the age of 20.
- 13 at bats is the ultimate small sample, but Russell's 9 Ks in 13 at bats at AAA (1 hit) serves as at least a reminder of how bad it could go, even for an extreme talent with a bright future, if moved up too far too fast.
- The "service clock" issue is sometimes overblown for players. Most of the time you just want to promote a player when he is ready and is the player best suited to most helping the team at that position. However, if there's an exception it's with players potentially special enough, like Russell, and if brought up at the age of 20 a player is going to become expensive by 23, then free agent eligible by 26. Unless the A's are sure Russell is so ready that it's worth trading out his age 27 season, Oakland would be well advised to slow down the Runaway Russell train.
It kind of seems like an open and shut case. Clearly the A's should leave Russell in AA or AAA throughout 2014. Certainly the notion of allowing him to compete for a job in spring training is nothing more than the fantasies of uninformed fans, not of sane GMs and competent managers. Or is it?
- It is far from unprecedented for a player to jump into major league action by age 20 and thrive. Sure, Bryce Harper had "top pick" pedigree and Mike Trout is widely accepted as a freak of nature. But add Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts to the list, remember that Russell was a 1st round pick and 11th pick overall, and the idea becomes more "unusual" than far fetched or ridiculous.
- What is ridiculous is to think that getting off to a woeful start will irrevocably ruin a player's confidence, and with it his career. Exhibit A would be Josh Donaldson, whose cup of coffee in 2010 produced a slash line of .156/.206/.281, followed up in April and May of 2012 with lines of .069/.069/.069 and .170/.167/.321. He bounced back ok in the end, I think.
- Age is just a number. What determines when a player is ready is when the player is ready. Opposing pitchers will tell you whether you're ready to hit at that level, and clearly some players are ready at age 20 while others are not ready at 25, while others not ready ever. So age and experience alone should not be the indicators of how fast a player moves up. The best indicator is "What is this player ready to do, where?" And if the answer is, "Hit and field well at the big league level," then so be it. Granted these examples are pitchers, but the A's have never been afraid to fast-track players they felt were among the "best 25 out of spring training": Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Huston Street were 21 when they made the Opening Day rosters.
- Now here's the most powerful argument: The bar for what Russell needs to do in order to be the right choice for the Oakland A's is not all that high. He pretty much has to be able to perform as well as the combination of Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo. Why do I say this? Because Russell at SS would move Jed Lowrie over to 2B, which would improve Lowrie's defense. So Russell wins a tie. Let's look at both sides of the ball...
Defensively, you're comparing Russell's SS defense against Sogard's and Callaspo's defense at 2B. We don't know a whole lot about what Russell would do as a big league SS right now, but the scouting reports on his SS defense are favorable and it seems reasonable that even with a learning curve that he might be average defensively in his rookie season. In fairness, I could be way off on that were Russell to come up at age 20 -- but by all accounts the tools are there. Sogard plays a solid 2B while Callaspo is very poor there. Seems pretty reasonable to me that Russell at SS, Lowrie at 2B could be better defensively than Lowrie at SS, Sogard/Callaspo at 2B. In fact, I expect it would be.
Offensively, the combination of Sogard vs. RHPs and Callaspo vs. LHPs is pretty solid if you're looking for league average production. You could certainly hope for and expect a solid enough batting average, maybe around .260, and an OBP around .340. You're not going to get any slugging: Maybe a composite .370? Looking at each player's career split stats, a slash line of .260/.340/.370 seems about right. Russell could certainly fail to hit that well; he could also certainly hit that well. That's kind of what spring training and/or the first half of a AA or AAA season is for: To assess what you see a player being ready to accomplish.
Could Russell, even out of spring training or else by May or June, be seen as one of the 25 players most in a position to help the Oakland A's compete for the AL West crown, and could a call-up be warranted far sooner than it "should be"? Literally as I wrote the previous sentence Xander Bogaerts, the 21 year old 1st round draft pick, dramatically tied game 3 of the World Series with a clutch base hit off of closer Trevor Rosenthal. Just saying...