Crash Landing: Braves Celebrate the Future as Phillies Celebrate the Past
Last night, fans of the two teams at the bottom of the NL East had occasion to partake in standing ovations. In Philadelphia, fans got to their feet for the fourth time in two nights in order to welcome back an icon of the past. After all the joy he brought to the city, Chase Utley was extraordinarily deserving of the warm welcome he received, but the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was starkly juxtaposed against what happened in Atlanta. While Phillies fans celebrated the past, Braves fans cheered for their future by giving a standing ovation as their top prospect and new starting shortstop, Dansby Swanson, made his major league debut.
When midseason prospect lists were released last month, Swanson found himself on the lists just below Phillies’ top prospect and fellow shortstop, J.P. Crawford.
|2016 Midseason Prospect Rankings|
Swanson was drafted first overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks last June before being traded to the Braves in the Shelby Miller trade last winter; Crawford was drafted by the Phillies in the first round two years earlier. Swanson began the season in High-A and made just 372 plate appearances in Double-A after a midseason promotion; Crawford reached Double-A last summer and now has 571 plate appearances in Double-A and 306 in Triple-A. Swanson uniformly ranks lower than Crawford on prospect lists. So why are Atlanta fans cheering for him in the major leagues while Crawford remains stuck in Triple-A leaving Phillies fans to cheer for relics of past glory?
Perhaps the biggest difference between Crawford and Swanson is the fact that Crawford was a high school draftee while Swanson was a polished college athlete drafted out of Vanderbilt University. As a result, even though Crawford has more than three times as many professional plate appearances as Swanson, he’s still 11 months younger than the Commodore. The Phillies could wait until July 2017 to promote Crawford and he’d still make his major league debut at a younger age than Swanson.
Naturally there’s more to the call-up decision than just the fact that Swanson is 22 and Crawford isn’t. For starters, the Braves found themselves in a situation which was distinctly conducive to calling up Swanson now. Their starting shortstop this season has been Erick Aybar, who was acquired from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade. If the existence of prospects Swanson and Ozhaino Albies in the Braves system didn’t make it clear that Aybar was a mere placeholder this summer, his status as a free-agent-to-be certainly did. With the season almost over and Aybar’s production underwhelming, at best, the Braves were free to essentially dump him. The Tigers wanted a cheap shortstop and so they worked out a trade with the Braves to acquire Aybar which opened up the starting shortstop position in Atlanta.
Although the Phillies are hardly married to either Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez, their remaining years of team control make the roster crunch a little murkier. Whenever J.P. Crawford makes his major league debut, at least one of Galvis and Hernandez will be moved to the bench, if not removed from the roster altogether. There is no particular incentive or need for the Phillies to decide who stays and who goes prematurely. Aybar’s impending departure from the team was a certainty whereas the Phillies have actual decisions to make.
Additionally, the Braves have the soft factor of their new stadium opening eight months from now. Duking it out for top draft pick position over the final weeks of the season isn’t exactly going to generate a lot of momentum for getting people excited about the new stadium. The Braves need concrete things to point to and say “Buy tickets at the new stadium to see *this*” and top prospect Swanson makes a great *this*. Although the Phillies have marketing concerns of their own in selling their own rebuild, the spread out arrivals of Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco, Vincent Velasquez, Jake Thompson and likely more in September lessen the public relations impatience to bring Crawford up.
Which brings us to the final consideration: service time. The Braves have decided that all the factors in favor of calling up Swanson now outweigh the reality that keeping him in the minors until mid-April 2017 would buy them an extra year of team control on Swanson. The Phillies may or may not make the same call. After the season, the Phillies have a boatload of prospects who will need to be added to the 40-man roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 draft including: Nick Williams, Andrew Knapp, Dylan Cozens, Nick Pivetta, Ricardo Pinto, Mark Appel, and Ben Lively. Notice that I didn’t mention Crawford. He will not eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year and, therefore, keeping him off the 40-man roster through the winter will give the Phillies the added flexibility of the roster spot he’d otherwise be occupying.
I mistakenly thought Crawford would be up mid-July, but at this point, I find it difficult to imagine the Phillies calling up Crawford before the end of the season – and that’s without even acknowledging the fact that he’s been fighting an oblique injury over the past week. Although it’s a little bit frustrating to watch Atlanta celebrate the arrival of their top prospect when Crawford appears to be so close to the majors, it’s logical enough for the team not to be in any rush to bring up Crawford.
The good news for Phillies fans is that the final weeks of the season should bring about other debuts, even if it’s not the big debut we’re waiting for. I’ll have a September call-up preview out sometime before the end of the month, but my early predictions include the arrivals of Nick Williams, Ben Lively, and at least one of Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro. Hopefully that will be enough to satiate prospect hunger until Crawford’s 2017 debut.