Phillies could face service time issue with J.P. Crawford

Please welcome a new contributor to Phillies Nation, Evan Gusz. His first piece looks at the issues surrounding J.P. Crawford’s prospect status during a prolonged period of slump. 

While it’s still a small sample size, vaunted Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford has picked up this season right where he left off last season, and that’s not a positive. Many were hoping – expecting – him to turn it around with a strong start to his 2017 campaign, but that hasn’t happened. The popular refrain from Phillies fans and the media – and even the front office to an extent – is “he’s young.” They’re correct: As a 22-year-old in triple-A, he is approximately 4.8 years younger than that of the weighted average of all players in triple-A.

But is age really the problem? For either him or the Phillies?

It’s not. The problem is time. Service time to be exact.

Crawford is about to finish his fifth minor league season, which means that shortly after the season ends the Phillies will have to either add him to their 40-man roster or leave him exposed to the Rule 5 draft, where other teams will have the chance to pluck him virtually free of charge from the Phillies system. This is, of course, how the Phillies came to acquire Odubel Herrera, perceived by many to be their best current player, and Shane Victorino, the Gold Glove centerfielder who helped the Phillies win their 2008 world championship.

While Crawford is a highly ranked prospect, most of that ranking is based on projection, and for the last two seasons he has fallen short of expectations. He has managed to keep his on-base-percentage relatively high, mostly because of his ability to walk. That could change at the higher levels when considering that he hasn’t developed any of the projected power he was expected to. In the majors, if you can’t hurt a pitcher with home runs or even gap power, you won’t walk.

Phillies fans can reflect on Ben Revere’s time in Philly as an example. Pitchers, knowing a home run was highly unlikely, went right after him with strikes, forcing him to earn his base via a hit. And Revere could live off of singles because his speed frequently afforded him the ability to steal second. Crawford can steal a base here and there but doesn’t have anywhere near the proficiency of Revere.

As a quick example of how poorly Crawford has performed, last year at both double-A and triple-A he slashed a very weak .250/.349/.339. This year at triple-A it’s been even worse; he’s sporting a miserable .153/.280/.188 line.

That’s not a problem, right? Just add him to the roster, let him continue to develop and protect him, you’re probably thinking.

The complication with that is the fact that major league teams only get 40 roster spots and those spots have been tight lately for the Phils. There’s good reason to believe that it will be tight again this year, and there might be other players more deserving who also need that protection.

Last year’s 40-man roster crunch saw them lose Hoby Milner to the Cleveland Indians, and though they ended up getting him back, it held the potential loss of a decent young pitcher without anything in return. There just wasn’t the space to protect him.

They also had to leave Andrew Pullin exposed last year, and many fans were somewhat surprised he wasn’t snatched up by another team. As a 22-year-old who had only played 46 games above advanced-A ball he was most likely a little too inexperienced to make the jump to a major league team at that point, as the Rule 5 guidelines dictate. But after this season he’ll have had at least a full season at double-A or better and, unlike Crawford, he is excelling.

Pullin currently carries a .337/.385/.584 slash line in 68 games at double-A. Compare that to what Crawford did at that level – .265/.367/.402 in 122 games. Unless Pullin cools off severely he’ll have well surpassed what Crawford accomplished at that level. Pullin’s career line of .283/.332/.431 suggests his current numbers aren’t a fluke even if they are exaggerated by a hot start.

If push came to shove, and Crawford continued producing at his current rate, would you want to protect Pullin, who is actually hitting, hitting for power and getting on base while playing solid defense, or Crawford, the guy who’s supposed to do all that maybe someday but hasn’t yet at all?

Forecasting the Phillies’ roster situation right now is complicated by the fact that they could be big players at this year’s trade deadline. When taking into account their situation as “close to competitive” and the potential strength of their trade chips, they’ll most likely target safer “major league ready” prospects as the return for their efforts. These prospects will most likely have accrued service time similar to Crawford and Pullin and they’ll arrive with their own potential needs for protection. They may even be guys ready for a 25-man active roster.

Beyond that there’s the belief that a player should earn that roster spot, not be forced onto it by the rules. Adding a player simply because of what he’s been projected to do for years but hasn’t come anywhere close to actually achieving is disrespectful to those more deserving, and it sends the wrong message up and down the minors. When taking service time and need for protection completely out of the equation there are many players in the Phils’ system that are more deserving than Crawford. Rhys Hoskins, for example, is currently slashing .337/.431/.651 while on the same team. Here’s a guy who has hit up and down the system and carries a career line of .291/.376/.524.

Lastly, what seems like it may further hamper Crawford is Freddy Galvis, whom he’d have to displace. While Galvis certainly isn’t the best hitter in the world he is one of the best defenders. Add to that the development of his power stroke (despite a poor on-base percentage) and it makes it harder to justify making room for Crawford.

For people to be purely focused on age with regard to Crawford is a bit short sighted. He may just turn it all around and actually start being the player many thought he would be. But if he doesn’t it won’t be very long where his inability to perform, completely independent of his age, becomes a very big issue for the organization and they’ll be forced to make a very tough decision. Hopefully, he makes it for them with much improved play.

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