I’m concerned that the Phillies’ incentives, and the natural inclinations of their top management, are pushing them in the direction of putting Andrew Painter on the major league roster this year whether it’s wise or not.
But let me also be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it would definitely be the wrong decision to bring Painter north. I’m not saying that promoting Painter early would necessarily harm him. Some of the information that would help answer those questions we’ll get during Spring Training, and some of that information is unknowable to outside observers. Some of it might even be unknowable to the Phillies themselves. As Yogi Berra said, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.
But here are a handful of somewhat scattered thoughts, all of which I think are true, and all of which cause me concern.
1. The overriding priority in deciding what to do with Painter should be doing whatever is likeliest to maximize his overall success over the length of his career. What we should want most is for Painter to have as good of a career as possible, not to be good as soon as possible, which is not necessarily the same thing.
2. Because Point 1 is true, even if we think that in April 2023 Painter would be better at pitching in the major leagues than any of his spring competitors would (possible if highly questionable), that still would not necessarily mean that Painter should be the pitcher chosen to make the rotation. There are other more important considerations than "who is the best pitcher right now?" The competitors for this rotation spot should not be competing on a level playing field.
3. However, most fans do not believe that Point 1 is true. One reason why they don’t think it’s true is that it generally is not true in other sports. There’s almost never a reason not to give the most playing time to the best running back or shooting guard on your roster. But baseball is not like that. Baseball teams have much more responsibility for player development than teams in other sports do, and people who are fans of teams in multiple sports don’t always understand that.
4. Painter has been dominant so far in his minor league career, but he has pitched a grand total of 28 innings above A-ball. He has pitched zero innings at the AAA level. Maybe he would dominate AAA hitters just as much as he did A-ball hitters, but we won’t know unless and until we find out. If he pitches well against major league hitters in the spring, that will be a valuable data point, but it won’t provide a definitive answer as it would be over a small sample.
5. The maximum number of innings Painter has thus far pitched in a single season is 103 last year (he averaged about 4.2 innings per start). If Painter is in the big league rotation this year and pitches well, the Phillies will have to make a choice between allowing Painter to drastically exceed his past innings ceiling, or shutting him down early.
6. The minors exist for a reason. Obviously that reason is player development, but why are the minors so useful for that purpose? There are many answers, but one main one is that in the minors you can work on your weaknesses in game situations because the game results don’t really matter. For instance, you can throw your third and fourth-best pitches in game situations over and over again until you really master them. You can’t do that in the majors, particularly on a team that just went to the World Series and is hoping to get back right away. Now maybe Painter has absolutely nothing left to work on and improve, but we can’t know that for sure because, again, he’s barely even pitched in AA and hasn’t been tested at all in AAA.
7. There is no such thing as a can’t-miss pitching prospect. It’s an interesting exercise to go back through the MLB Pipeline archives to see who they rated as the #1 pitching prospect in baseball every year since 2011. Here’s what you’ll find (quite a few of these names will be familiar to Phillies fans):
2011: Jeremy Hellickson, #2 overall
2012: Matt Moore, #1
2013: Dylan Bundy, #2 (Taijuan Walker was second at #5)
2014: Archie Bradley, #5
2015: Lucas Giolito, #6
2016: Lucas Giolito, #3
2017: Alex Reyes, #6
2018: Shohei Ohtani, #1
2019: Forrest Whitley, #7
2020: MacKenzie Gore, #5
2021: MacKenzie Gore, #6
2022: Grayson Rodriguez, #4
2023: Andrew Painter, #6
Some of these guys became decent pitchers, but (setting aside Ohtani, who is obviously a special case) not one of them has so far turned into a clear-cut "number one" or "number two" starter in the big leagues. I am not saying that these guys had disappointing careers because of how their respective clubs handled their player development. What I am saying is if anyone is assuming that Painter is so good that it’s impossible to screw up his development by taking it for granted, then that belief is baseless. None of us know yet how good he really is, and there is a very strong likelihood that as talented as he seems to be, he is still mortal enough that his future outcomes can in fact be influenced by how wisely the front office brings him along.
8. There is a school of thought out there that says you should just throw prospects into the deep end, and if they fail, well, that just proves they weren’t tough enough to succeed anyway. This is stupid macho BS that should be rejected by anyone who has any common sense and remembers what it was like to be 20, or who has a son or nephew or other relative in that age range.
9. A more nuanced version of this argument is that it’s not a big deal to promote a prospect prematurely, because if they struggle, you can just send them back to the minors to fix their flaws and give it another shot later. This might well work out fine for most prospects, but I think it’s naïve to be so blithe about the risks. Again, those who are old should think back to when they were 20. Are you positive that you would have been able to brush off a very public failure like it was nothing? On the flip side, what is the harm of letting the entire development process, including a large-sample stint in AAA, play out to its natural conclusion, and eliminating, as much as possible, all doubts about his readiness before promoting him? Even if the risks are modest, why would you tolerate any unnecessary risk at all with an asset with this much potential value?
10. A lot of fans seem to have it in their heads that a team can help demonstrate its "commitment to winning" by either promoting or trading prospects, but keeping a prospect in the minors proves a lack of commitment and can only be explained by a desire to avoid spending money. I know that some fans hold this belief because against my better judgment, I still occasionally listen to sports talk radio in the car. That belief is very unwise.
11. John Middleton has made a number of public comments over the years that suggest to me that not only is he committed to winning, but he is also committed to ensuring that the fans believe that he is committed to winning. The first part is great. The second part is not. That kind of image-consciousness will inevitably lead to incorrect decisions that make it harder for you to win. Personnel decisions should be based on a cold-eyed analysis of the merits, not because you want to project a certain attitude or prove something to people. Jeffrey Lurie is the best sports team owner this city has had in my lifetime by an incalculably wide margin, and one reason why is that while he is clearly committed to winning, he has on many occasions not been afraid to make decisions that were unpopular in the moment.
12. The Phillies do not control the media, but at the same time I think it is fair to say that the Phillies have been happy so far this spring to let the media and the fans get as stoked as they want to get about the possibility of the next Dwight Gooden-esque wunderkind bursting out onto the scene right now and being a big star attraction. I don’t think this is responsible. At this stage they should be pouring cold water on the idea. The last thing you want to do with your fan base is overpromise things, and it doesn’t matter whether you are overpromising through affirmative statements or through omission.
13. Incidentally, Dwight Gooden had a pretty disappointing career after pitching a ton of innings as a big league ace at ages 19 and 20. His ERA+ between ages 21-29 was 106. I’m reminded of this because a week or two ago I heard some guy on the radio openly argue that the Phillies should let Painter be the next Gooden because of how exciting that was.
14. There are some decent reasons to doubt Bailey Falter (he doesn’t throw very hard, he was never rated as an elite-level prospect) but it is interesting that most of the projection systems on Fangraphs predict that he’d post an ERA in the 4.2 range, which isn’t terrible. Extrapolated over a 180-inning season, that would be about 1.5-2.0 WAR (ZIPS would actually have him at ~2.3 WAR). Those wouldn’t be world-beating stats but you could certainly do worse. A surprisingly large number of competent major league pitchers were not highly rated prospects when they were in the minors. Guys like Corey Kluber, Shane Bieber, Miles Mikolas, Zac Gallen, and Chris Bassitt never made a Top 100 Prospects list. To take another familiar example, Cole Irvin was a mediocre prospect, we dumped him for nothing, he went to Oakland, and promptly gave them an unspectacular but non-embarrassing 3.4 WAR over two seasons. Could Painter outdo that at age 20? Yes, it’s very possible. It’s also possible that he wouldn’t. But one nice thing that would happen if Falter were to win the job and perform well is that when Painter comes up in 2024, you could make room for both of them on the roster. If you go in reverse order, then you might never find out for sure if Falter can start in the big leagues because he’ll be out of options in 2024. If he turns out to be good, it will probably be for another team.
15. If the Phillies think they need to sacrifice future success in favor of success in 2023 because their "window" is closing, that’s the wrong way to look at things. This team’s window can stay open as long as they want it to stay open. They have enough resources to be good every season forever, as long as they consistently make good decisions, especially on player development, with the right timescale in mind. When teams say they need to "go for it" because of a closing window, that’s usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.