Let’s create a scenario.
Say Andrew Lambo, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top overall prospect heading in to the 2009 season, and the number 49 prospect in baseball, was currently hitting for a .361 average in AAA. Let’s also say that he had a .942 OPS, and was on fire, with a .474/.512/.711 line in 38 at-bats over ten games heading in to tonight’s contest.
With those numbers, would we currently be talking about creating room on the roster for Lambo to assume a starting role, similar to the talks last year that surrounded Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker? My guess is yes.
Unfortunately, that scenario doesn’t apply for the former top prospect, as Lambo has a .220/.288/.360 line in 100 at-bats this season, even after going 2-for-3 with a homer tonight. Fortunately, those stats belong to another Pirates prospect: Alex Presley.
Presley has been on fire since the start of the 2010 season. After combining for a .257/.313/.379 line at the high-A level during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Presley was moved up to the AA level as a starter. He quickly caught fire, hitting for a .350/.399/.533 line in 246 at-bats, before getting moved up to Indianapolis. With the Indians, he continued his hot hitting, with a .294/.349/.460 line in 272 at-bats. That performance was enough to earn him a spot on the 40-man roster.
In two years with the Indians, Presley has a .319/.371/.490 line in 386 at-bats prior to today’s game. With anyone else, we’d be asking every day why the player wasn’t in the majors. A similar demand for Presley has been minimal so far, despite the fact that he does nothing but hit. In fact, to illustrate this, let’s compare Presley to another player:
Presley: .350/.399/.533 in 246 AA at-bats, .319/.371/.490 in 386 AAA at-bats
Player A: .303/.370/.404 in 228 AA at-bats, .296/.358/.419 in 358 AAA at-bats
Presley has clearly out-performed Player A at both levels, especially in the power department. Despite that, Player A is currently in the majors, while Presley remains in the minors. Player A is Jose Tabata. The AA numbers were his 2009 season, which was considered a huge bounce back year, and rightfully so. His AAA numbers represent his career totals. Tabata had fewer at-bats in AAA than Presley has now, and a lower performance across the board, and still got the call to the majors.
So why not Presley? At the start of the year I mentioned how it was important for one of the Indianapolis outfielders to emerge as a candidate to start along side Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. Presley’s numbers sure are making him look like a strong candidate. Maybe he’s not the ideal choice. Perhaps we were hoping that former top prospects Andrew Lambo or Gorkys Hernandez would have these numbers that Presley is putting up. But Presley is the one putting up the numbers. So why not him?
I feel that a lot stems from his sudden rise to fame. Presley had horrible numbers in Lynchburg in 2008-2009, which caused his 2010 numbers to look like a fluke season. With Tabata, he had success, and the prospect hype. We could look at him and say “he’s finally living up to his potential”. With Presley, we look and think that he’s playing over his head, mostly because this is unexpected performance. At what point do we assume he’s just this good?
As far as the comparison to Tabata, the situations are a bit different. The Pirates had a lot of holes on the roster in 2010. They had no problem finding Neil Walker a spot, as Aki Iwamura was struggling. Andy LaRoche wasn’t doing a good job of keeping Pedro Alvarez down. Jeff Clement left a hole at first, and when Garrett Jones moved over, Jose Tabata stepped in to replace Jones in right field. That’s not the case this year.
The Pirates have a platoon in right field of Jones and Matt Diaz. Jones is doing his part so far, with a .284/.404/.554 line against right handed hitters. Diaz has struggled against left handers, which is normally the strong part of his game. So far this year he’s 4-for-26, with all singles. Presley wouldn’t be a good replacement for Diaz, as he is left handed like Jones. Also, considering the career numbers for Diaz, 26 at-bats is too small a sample size to draw any conclusions.
Lyle Overbay hasn’t had the best season, with a .228/.307/.333 line. I mentioned last week about how Overbay should be platooning, and since then the Pirates have been using Steve Pearce more often against left handers. Numbers-wise, a Pearce/Jones platoon at first base could work, although the defense would suffer with the move from Overbay to Jones. That would create a spot for Presley in the outfield.
There’s not really room for Presley on the bench, as Xavier Paul has been on fire since being claimed, with a .300/.364/.400 line in 20 at-bats with the Pirates. Presley and Paul are identical players, and the Pirates already have one of them working out in the majors.
The most important thing here is that the Pirates are actually winning in the month of May. Last year the Pirates could sit Iwamura, despite his salary, because the team was performing so poorly. This year, those choices are limited. The best options for Presley would be a platoon mate with Garrett Jones (and constantly lefty vs lefty matchups might not be the best thing for his development in the majors), or a full time job in the outfield, with Jones moving to a platoon with Pearce, replacing Overbay. That last option might be too much trouble, and not enough gain, as we don’t know how Presley will perform in the majors.
I’m not about to say that the Pirates’ current above-.500 record is legit, and that they are contenders in any way. I will say that this is a situation that has been rare for the Pirates. When someone has looked ready in AAA in the past, they’ve always had room to call him up. This year there’s not much room, as the team is actually winning. It’s too early to say it’s legit, but at the same time you don’t want to mess with a good thing.
This is a situation that happens with winning teams. They have a prospect that is performing at the AAA level, and no room for him in the majors. Either that prospect continues to perform, forcing the team to make some sort of move on their own roster, or that prospect becomes trade bait to upgrade another part of the team.
In previous years, Presley would have already done enough to warrant a call up to get a shot with the Pirates. For now, he’s blocked at the major league level. Now if he’s still hitting over .350 with an OPS over .900 by the time June rolls around, you might have to consider making one of the above moves. Or the Pirates would have the option of using him in a trade to upgrade the team, depending on how other teams value him. Then again, maybe someone gets injured between now and then, opening up a window for Presley to get his shot.
In any case, Presley’s performance in Indianapolis has been spectacular this season. We wanted a third long-term outfielder, and he’s stepping up as the answer right now. The only problem is that there’s little trust in him as the answer. So at what point do we start to trust him? When is it time for Alex Presley to get a shot in the majors?