Effectively Using Fringe Prospects

kitk nieuwenhuis

Path Of A 4A Player

Every organization carries a number of players who are referred to as Quad-A material. From early on, many are deemed for this generic role. Typically, they are selected in the middle rounds of the draft and produce well enough at every level to advance to Triple A. They arrive at the final level, a level where hitters lose their confidence as quickly as they lose sight of a breaking ball that was never thrown in Double-A. It is at this level where a young man can smell the major leagues from the residual odor that his veteran and called up teammates walk around with.

At this last stage before the spotlight of the majors, these players are still considered prospects. If you subtract a year or two from their age, they may even jump up to rank in the club’s top 5 list. But for now, they are a borderline prospect that will have to prove they belong, yet again. Their manager motivates them by telling the hopeful young men that  “you are one hot streak from a call up. Repeat what you did in AA and the front office will start throwing your name around”. So they do what they have done their whole career, and they keep on hitting without missing a beat.

eric campbell

Mets Career Minor Leaguers

In the Mets organization, we have two players of this mold, Zach Lutz* and Eric Campbell who have been on and off teammates in the minor leagues for seven seasons, eight to include this campaign. Lutz (3B) was drafted as a 5th round pick in 2007 and Campbell (1B) was drafted as an 8th round pick in 2008. Both have followed the classic formula below for being a 4A player entering 2014.

(Many skills * good) + (zero skills * great) + (perform at every level) + (visit the DL at inopportune moments)

So what do you do with these players that knock on the major league door every year, players who you are not ready to count on but at the same time you do not want to bury in triple A again? Well, you know for sure that these fringe players will not receive a starter’s playing time so I believe the first step is identifying the players who can accept a role on the bench.

You need hitters who have spent the last decade playing every day to adjust to sitting on the bench 90% of the game and still be sharp when their number is called. The same goes for fringe pitchers who must be ready to spot start, come out of the pen as long relief and not lose their confidence being yanked back and forth from the majors and minors.

Beyond the mental perseverance is an even more important factor, how a player can fit into the team’s needs, particularly off the bench. Personally, I believe that flexibility in filling for multiple needs (position, defense, speed, power, platoon, etc) is the defining trait of a useful bench player.

One month into his 2014 debut, Eric Campbell has looked like a solid call up, showing not only timely hitting but defensive versatility. But as much as Mets fans are riding high on Campbell, we only have to look at the short lived Josh Satin honeymoon to be reminded how thin the ice these callups are walking on. Satin played quite well in limited duty last year but was quickly exiled after a slow start this season. In 2014, he was demoted after just 34 plate appearances, roughly equivalent to what a starter receives in 7 games.

But this is the nature of being a low profile prospect. Every AB, every play in the field can be your last in the majors. The Mets will continue to play guys like Campbell, Matt Den Dekker and Andrew Brown sparingly, as they should. You have to earn your playing time. Daniel Murphy did it, John Maine did it and Dillon Gee did it. But just as a fringe player should focus on being productive off the bench, the organization must be wise in picking the right players out and putting them in positions to succeed and not hoping for them to become full time solutions.

A player such as Eric Young has plus plus speed and is a proven base stealer. He should get into a game daily as a pinch runner or pinch hitter and receive starts based on opposing pitchers, defenses and ballparks. But the minute you expose him to unfavorable matchups, his weakness as a hitter becomes unprotected.

The goal for your 4A player is to become a reliable bench option, any playing time beyond that must be earned, not in the span of 10 ABs or 15 innings but over the course of a season. Daniel Murphy worked his tail off to not be fighting for a bench spot right now and Dillon Gee performed time and again so that he no longer takes ten hour bus rides with the AAA team.

There is a valuable place on every major league team for fringe players. Don’t shy away from them but don’t over rely on them.

*At the time of writing this article, Zach Lutz was with the Las Vegas 51s. His contract has since been purchased by the Rakuten Eagles.