Baseball America recently published its list of its top ten prospects for the 2017 Amateur Draft. The top two players, high school star Hunter Greene and Louisville 1B/P Brendan McKay are described as two-way stars (offense and defense) who the drafting teams will probably develop as pitchers.
I wish MLB teams and the players themselves would be more willing to develop the players as two-way stars, like Japan’s Shohei Otani. There is a certain logic to what I am saying, at least so far as those prospects who are developed as pitchers in pro baseball. Because pitchers are so susceptible to arm injuries, developing the player at least in part as a position player is basically a kind of insurance policy, since if he blows out his arm, he could still prove to be a major league hitter.
In the case of Greene and McKay, their talent levels as baseball players are probably so high that they could potentially develop into stars either as pitchers or afield. If the player quickly proves in the low minors that the player’s professional potential is as one or the other, you haven’t lost much but committing a minor league season or two to doing double duty.
MLB teams and amateur players don’t typically do so for a number of reasons. The teams quickly decide how they like the youngster better and train him toward that narrow goal. That’s what they based their 1st round draft pick on.
Also, each MLB team ideally wants to be developing one player at each position on each minor league team, because in most cases those are the guys who are one day going to contribute at the major league level. Developing a player as a two-way star means some degree of platooning somewhere, as I explain below.
The amateur player’s primary concern is getting as big a signing bonus as possible. Since the team almost always considers their value at the moment of selection as either or, the player’s financial incentive is clearly with doing what the team wants the player to do.
I would love to see a young player like Greene or McKay say, “I’m willing to sign for $1M under slot if you will agree to play me at least X number of games in the field. I’m good enough to do both, and I just might add a great deal of value if I can prove it.
In 2016’s NPB season, Shohei Otani went 10-4 as a pitcher with a 1.86 ERA and 174 Ks in 140 innings pitched. As mainly a DH, he slashed .322/.416/.588 in 104 games and 382 plate appearances. Otani would have led the Pacific League in OPS if he’d had only 61 more plate appearances. Oh, and by the way, his team the Nippon Ham Fighters won the 2016 Nippon Series.
You can’t tell me that the way the Fighters used Otani in 2016 didn’t have a lot to do with the team’s success, since while he could have potentially pitched exclusively for the same overall value, he would have had to throw a truly unhealthy number of innings to do so. Otani, who is still only 22 years old, could be better, on both sides of the ball, in any of the next few years than he was in 2016.
Developing a two-way player requires a team to be willing to platoon, at least at the DH position, since a two-way player is going to miss games recovering from his pitching efforts. Also, teams willing to do so don’t typically get to select the two-way player before the team that most highly values him as a pitching prospect.
On the other hand, MLB organizations realistically expect only a couple of players at any level below AA ball to eventually make the Show. Platooning to develop a true MLB prospect on both sides of the ball is not overly burdensome, since it’s unlikely that any one MLB team will have more than one of these players in its minor league system at any one time.
I’d don’t think it’s any surprise that the very best of the best amateur players feature real two-way prospects. Youngsters with great physical talent who really understand the game at a physical level are going to be able to hit, pitch and field.
That said, I will admit that it’s either to find the next Shohei Otani in NPB than it is in MLB. Since MLB is the better league, you have to be better on both sides of the ball to be either a pitching ace or an hitting star, let alone both.
At the end of the day, it’s probably going to take Greene saying, “I’m willing to take only $5.4M or $6.4M in order to play both ways,” or Brendan McKay saying, “I’m willing to accept $5.0M or $5.85M to play both ways,” in order for MLB to develop a true two-way player.
I’m sure we haven’t seen the last two-way player in MLB, but it’s sure unlikely to be any more common in the future MLB than in its been in MLB past, for the reasons suggested above.