Pitching Prospects: Mets Get it Right, Marlins Get it Wrong

Both the Mets and Marlins, two of the teams who can expect to inhabit the bottom of the National League East in 2013 made decisions with their best pitching prospect in the last week. The Mets, with Zack Wheeler got it right, and the Marlins, with Jose Fernandez got it wrong.

Background Projections
Wheeler (Baron)Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections saw the Marlins as a 70-win team and the Mets as an 82 win team. In the Mets’ case, that included 131 good (sub 3.50 ERA) innings from Johan Santana, which is not going to happen. ZiPS projected the Mets for 68 wins back in January. Vegas lists the Mets over/under at 74 and the Marlins at 64.5. Joe Sheehan saw 59 wins for the Marlins and 62 (and 100 losses) for the Mets.

These are teams that should not be placing much value on wins in 2013. Rather, it should be about building toward their next winning roster.

The Moves
Beset by injuries to two of their projected starting five rotation members, the Mets sent their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to AAA Las Vegas. Best by injuries to two of their projected starting five rotation members, the Marlins promoted Jose Fernandez straight from advanced-A to the big league rotation. Again, the 20-year old Fernandez has never thrown pitch in AA or AAA.

The Prospect Rankings
I saw Fernandez in 2012 when he was pitching for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Of course I loved him, he throws 93-97 with a vicious slider and even showed a few good changeups to go along with some bad ones. Wheeler two has a premium fastball in the mid-90s with two potentially plus breaking balls – a slider and a curve. Coming into the season, Baseball America listed him as the game’s #5 prospect, MLB.com had him #7, Baseball Prospectus at #6, while Wheeler was #11, #8 and #5 in those three rankings respectively. These are two of the game’s best pitching prospects. 

Are they Ready?
Zack Wheeler belongs in AAA right now. In 2012, in six starts in AAA with the Buffalo Bisons, he walked 16 of the 134 batters he faced, a rate of 11.9%. Major League average is 8.5%. Put another way, Wheeler has below average control. His stuff is so good and so lively, that he can get away with some mistakes – against AAA hitters, and even some Major League hitters. However, he cannot get away with that many.
Is Fernandez ready? Of course not. He’s never seen a double-A lineup nor a triple-A lineup. Fernandez has not thrown enough high-minors innings for ZiPS to spit out a projection on him. PECOTA thinks he could survive in the big leagues, projected a weighted mean ERA of 3.52 over only 37.1 innings. PECOTA spits out a weighted mean of 4.15 ERA for Wheeler in 108.3 innings.

The Money
Even if both players could survive a full-season in the big leagues, should they? That is, do their assignments give their teams the best chance of maximizing the players’ long-term (pre free agency) value? Again, neither the Mets nor Marlins should expect to be .500 teams this year.  So, what is the cost of promoting each player? If Fernandez or Wheeler start the season in the big leagues, and spend the whole year with their teams, they will burn a full year of service time and start their six-year clock towards free agency, becoming free agents after the 2018 season. This is the really big number. Assuming that each guy develops into a good or elite starting pitcher, the cost to a team of buying out their free agent years could be $20 million.

Keeping each player in the minors for roughly two months now before promoting a player will likely keep him out of the super-two arbitration category. The Super Twos get to go to arbitration four times instead of three, beginning after their second big league season. Because their raises start earlier, Super Two status could well be worth $10-$18 to the player and team over three years.

The Balance
So, neither the Mets nor Marlins is likely to be in a postion where any marginal wins in 2013 benefit the team dramatically. There is statistical evidence that suggests that Wheeler needs at least a little more time to polish his control. That evidence does not exist for Fernandez because he has never seen higher-level competition. His expected performance should have much larger error bars. And yet, the Marlins are willing to incur a significant cost in promoting Jose Fernandez right now. That makes no sense.

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