I first wrote about aggressive promotions back in July and how it can work either way for some prospects. Clearly, Frank Thomas had no problem making the leap from Double-A to the majors, but Alex Gordon suffered from not getting experience in Triple-A and has just now gotten to the level people thought he would be at when he was originally drafted.
I bring this up again because Davey Johnson is once again talking about Bryce Harper opening up the 2012 season as the starting right fielder. Harper turned 19 years old this past October after hitting .297/.392/.501 across Low-A and Double-A for the Nationals. He skipped High-A due to a mixture of talent as well as the poor conditions of the home park for that field and hit .256/.329/.395 for Harrisburg in 147 plate appearances. If Harper were to indeed start and stick with the Nationals, he would become the first 19-year-old to accumulate 400 plate appearances in a season since Edgar Renteria in 1996. Renteria played in 106 games that season for the Marlins and hit .309/.358/.399. Before him, you go back to Ken Griffey Jr. who hit .264/.329/.420 in 127 games, Robin Yount before him. Yount debuted at age 17 in Low-A ball and hit .285 while slugging .409. The Brewers thought so highly of Yount that he played 107 games at the big league level in 1974 at the age of 18 and was firmly entrenched as the starting shortstop at age 19. Renteria saw 143 plate appearances in Triple-A before his promotion but Griffey and Yount never saw even a single plate appearance in Triple-A, much like what Johnson is proposing for Harper.
Skipping over Triple-A is not something that happens too often, at least not as often as it did in the past. Using Baseball-Reference.com, I pulled up the top 150 hitters by career Wins Above Replacement totals. Of those 150, 32 never swung a bat in a Triple-A park before their first significant season in the major leagues. Yet, of those 32, only five players since 2000 have bypassed the final level of the minors before making it to the major leagues. Those players were Hanley Ramirez, Rafael Furcal, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, and Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro coming over from Japan is a unique situation, but the others made the jump well, and in some cases, at a very young age.
The other players who made the big leap into the majors include Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Vladimir Guerrero, Jason Kendall, Johnny Damon, Jeff Kent, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, Chuck Knoblauch, Reggie Sanders, Luis Gonzalez, John Olerud, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla, Robby Thompson, Jesse Barfield, Kent Hrbek, Paul Molitor, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Ozzie Smith, Carney Lansford, and Dave Winfield. That list includes just seven outfielders and if we remove Ichiro from the earlier list, Johnson is asking Harper to do something that was last done by an outfielder in 1998 when Beltran came up with the Royals. That season, Beltran hit .293/.337/.454 and went 20/20 while winning rookie of the year.
Conversely, much was made last season about Desmond Jennings and Jesus Montero nearly compiling 1,000 plate appearances in Triple-A for their careers as they “wasted away” in Triple-A. It is funny how short-term our memories can be sometimes because we have seen players pile up more plate appearances than Jennings and Montero did. The most Triple-A plate appearances in the Top 150 WAR totals belongs to Lonnie Smith who saw 2,172 plate appearances in Oklahoma City of the American Association while part of the Phillies organization in the late 70's. He was eventually called up in 1980 and finished third that season in the Rookie of the Year voting, but was later traded to the Cardinals and in 1982, finished second to Dale Murphy in the MVP voting that season.
Smith is joined by nine other players who saw at least 1,000 plate appearances in Triple-A before their first full-time season in the majors and all of them went on to have impactful baseball careers:
Brian Giles - 1,348 PA's
Tony Fernandez - 1,312 PA's
Pedro Guerrero - 1,295 PA's
Bobby Abreu - 1,283 PA's
Jorge Posada - 1,227 PA's
Edgar Martinez - 1,159 PA's
Wade Boggs - 1,079 PA's
Fred McGriff - 1,033 PA's
Jose Valentin - 1,027 PA's
In Giles' case, he was stuck in the minors as the Indians had Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, and Manny Ramirez in the outfield with Eddie Murray DHing. Abreu was stuck behind the likes of Richard Hidalgo and Derek Bell in Houston and was eventually exposed to the expansion draft and traded for Kevin Stocker by the Devil Rays. Boggs was stuck behind Carney Lansford at third and Carl Yaztremski who was DHing at this point of his career leaving him little room in the lineup.
These days, players do not typically see that type of exposure to Triple-A because the parent club will move the more expensive asset to another team to create the room for the prospect. Overall, the fear of a player suffering from no time or too much time in Triple-A is rather overblown. It is not the same for every player and those that are rare talents can pull it off while others bide their time waiting for the big league roster situation to shake out. Just because a prospect is piling up too many plate appearances in Triple-A does not necessarily mean that player's star is dimming and that he will need to don the cap of the Quad-A player. The top 150 WAR players spent an average of 414 plate appearances in Triple-A before their ascension to a full time role in the majors. If we take out the 32 players that never saw a plate appearance in Triple-A, we are left with an average of 519 plate appearances.
Every prospect is a unique case and the team makes the decision to promote them or to slow them down based on skills first, and then for financial reasons. Harper is on a major league contract already, so that helps make this decision somewhat unique but looking at what Harper did in Double-A and the issues he has shown against left-handed pitching even in the Arizona Fall League makes me hope that Johnson is just giving writers something to talk about before camp starts. Harper was taken with the ninth pick of the 15th round in the latest expert mock draft and has a current ADP of 212. In a reset draft, that's a risky move.