Baseball world goes gaga for prospect hype
Baseball executives tend not to be the apologetic type. Their judgment comes in the form of employment, or lack thereof. So to see one over the weekend acting flat-out contrite and another do everything but officially say sorry was a noodle cooker, if not for the actions so much as the similar reasoning behind them.
Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz admitted his team did Tom Glavine(notes) dirty by cutting him Wednesday when he was due to rejoin the team and snag a $1 million bonus. Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington wrote a 778-word letter to fans explaining why the team traded Nate McLouth(notes) to Atlanta for three prospects.
They were, in large part, a principal motive behind both transactions. Each is young and mightily talented. Hanson, who took the spot reserved for Glavine in the rotation, throws 96 mph with a devastating breaking ball. McCutchen, who succeeded McLouth in center field, causes havoc on the basepaths, hits for average and may develop power.
Hanson and McCutchen are prospects, which means they arrive in the major leagues triple-dipped in hype. They were not the only saviors summoned last week. Baltimore called up catcher Matt Wieters(notes). His college teammates nicknamed him God. The Chicago White Sox brought up Gordon Beckham(notes) to play third base. He has played eight games at third base in his minor league career and was still considered the solution.
It’s all part of an uncomfortable reality: While baseball gladly engages in the promotion of talent long before it reaches the major leagues – the amateur draft on TV, the Futures Game, the prospect reports on the Internet – teams often wind up in awkward positions when figuring out how best to handle their top prospects and shield them from the same buildup they fostered.
God, by the way, went 4 for 28 his first week.
“There are expectations,” McCutchen said following his first game. “It’s anticipation for me and them. They’ve heard there’s this guy named Andrew McCutchen in the minor leagues waiting his turn, and they’ve been waiting just as much as I have. I gave them a little something to look forward to, and hopefully I can give them some more.”
On that afternoon, McCutchen went 2 for 4, scored three runs, drove in one and stole a base. His braided hair flopped behind his cap, and he smiled out in center field, and all was well during the 11-6 victory against the New York Mets that sealed a series sweep. Already people were calling him Cutch, like an old friend.
“It’s different these days,” said Nyjer Morgan(notes), the Pirates’ left fielder and a minor league teammate of McCutchen’s. “Things are so much more publicized. But the kid’s good, man. I saw him before he signed, when he was 18, in Bradenton [Fla.]. He was hitting like a monster then. I had never seen that from someone so young.
“He’s a top 20 prospect. You better believe people know who the hell he is.”
It doesn’t even take being among the 20 most touted in the minor leagues for recognition. That day, the Mets started 20-year-old Fernando Martinez(notes) in left field. Fans have known him for years, ever since he signed for $1.4 million out of the Dominican Republic at 16. Among prospect wonks, he was considered something of a bust – before his 21st birthday and first major league at-bat.
Hoopla didn’t used to be this way. Every few years there was someone, and most of them bombed out. Rick Reichardt single-handedly caused the draft and mustered a decent career. David Clyde gave us the ultimate cautionary tale. Clint Hurdle got jinxed by Sports Illustrated. Darryl Strawberry cared more about white powder than white balls. Greg Jefferies lost people tons of money on rookie cards. Todd Van Poppel stunk for a decade. Mark Prior(notes) hasn’t thrown a pitch in three years. There were more, of course, players like Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) who arrived bathed in excitement and exceeded it.
Today, such anticipation is the norm. Perhaps it’s just society: bigger, better, faster, stronger and, most important, quicker. Development is for laggards, learning curves for dweebs and failure for losers. Now means now, for everyone.
Why, Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria(notes) were immediate stars. How could Beckham go hitless in his first 10 at-bats? Or Wieters still not have a home run? Or McCutchen dare go hitless in a game? Or Hanson shut down Milwaukee in the first inning, strike out the side in the second and then implode with Braun hitting a pair of two-run home runs?
“All those guys are great players, and they’re going to bring a lot to this game when they settle in,” McCutchen said. “It’s a new regime coming in. I think we’re going to help keep the game going and bring excitement and fans.”
Never mind McCutchen’s delusions of grandeur. He’s 22. He grew up in a baseball culture whose fans and media deified him as a teenager, the way basketball has long done with its prime talent. He saw his every accomplishment broadcast to a frothing group of Pirates followers, the same ones who have to be so confused by this all: 17 straight losing seasons, and they’re trading a player in McLouth they had developed and locked up to a team-friendly contract, for … three more prospects.
McCutchen is an innocent in this, a product of the system more than a cause. Baseball doesn’t see any issue with it, either, so long as the product blossoms, interest jumps and relevancy remains. It’s not like anyone can amend this. Pandora ain’t the sort to change her mind.
So get ready to hear about Jason Heyward and Madison Bumgarner, Josh Vitters and Mike Stanton. Prepare to learn everything possible about Stephen Strasburg, who’s a lock to get at least $20 million from Washington as the No. 1 pick in Tuesday’s draft.
They are the next wave of heroes who haven’t done anything particularly heroic. Oh, well. That’s how it goes. And it’s something for which no one in baseball seems too terribly eager to apologize.