Insights IV: Growth, or Players Forever Arriving

J. Meric

Not everyone can be precocious.

You don't need to search far to make growth analogous with sports. We grow up alongside and with athletes, moving through our lives while they move through their careers. They're an ever-persistent force, always looking forward, and their existence -- be it through aging, or injections of youth from the minors or college or what have you -- is a constant reminder of our own progression through life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in baseball, given the organization of its leagues and levels.

Major League Baseball is the one active* organization that can draft a player out of high school. Nothing makes a college student who used to play some high school ball feel as old -- or their dream as dead -- as Justin Upton's being drafted as a 17-year-old. Nor does the birthday of Felix Hernandez, less than two weeks after this not-so-hypothetical college student's own, do their aspirations any favors.

*The NHL allows the drafting of high school players, but until they figure out their lockout streak, they're about as active as your local BASEketball team.

This ability to draft and sign a player at such a tender age allows for long-term fan-player relationships. You watch the player start in the lower levels of the minors as a teenager. You watch them progress through the minor-league system, stumbling, failing, but, in enough cases to keep Major League Baseball alive and well, growing and developing, turning the promise they once held into actualized performance. By the time a player gets to the majors, a dedicated fan might already have four-or-five years of familiarity with them, and if the team has played its cards right, it might squeeze another six or seven seasons from them.

That's a significant chunk of time. In this scenario, we're talking about a player who has been around for about 10 years. What's changed in your life in the last decade? Maybe you graduated college. Maybe you graduated high school and college. Maybe you met the love of your life, and through nature's late-night gift to humanity*, or adoption, or science, or maybe just a few too many drinks one night, maybe you had a kid. And let's not even get into the various cell phones you've had in the past 10 years, as the older ones now look straight out of Star Trek.

*Sex, you guys.

Because of the sheer length of time it takes for players who aren't Mike Trout or Bryce Harper to develop, it's easy to see how fans can become impatient with those who don't immediately actualize their potential. You see a player drafted, you watch them show promise in the minors, and halfway into the major-league part of this arrangement, maybe they still aren't who you thought they were or wanted them to be. You'd be upset at one of your friends or kids if they were halfway through life as an underachiever, and while you don't have that kind of intimate relationship with a baseball player, you can certainly project one on them easily enough, for the right or wrong reasons.

Like your intelligent and talented buddy who just won't get a regular job or is incapable of heading out on dates with anyone who will keep them out of trouble, the path of someone like the Mets' Jonathon Niese can be infuriating to a dedicated fan. Niese was drafted back in 2005 as an 18 year old and was placed in the short-season Gulf Coast League. He toiled in the minors for three years, full of flaws but equally full of promise, until he made the majors for the first time in 2008. He would once again briefly show his face in 2009, making five starts at various points during the year, but didn't come up for good until 2010. That's four years of minor-league performances and major-league teases, all before Niese was even the age where he would have graduated college had he gone that route. Four years is a long time, especially for a fan base in need of pitching.

When Niese was good, but not great, for his first two full years in the bigs, it became even easier to be impatient with his lack of growth. Niese had excellent stuff, and he knew how to find the strike zone consistently. What he hadn't figured out, though, is the next-level stuff that is rarely natural, regardless of the level of a hurler's repertoire. Niese didn't throw enough quality strikes, leading to higher-than-usual batting averages on balls in play. He was inefficient, and fatigued at season's end, damaging his overall numbers. By the time the opposition saw him a third time in his starts, it was wise to lift Niese if your intention was to win games.

The Mets were and are focused on developing their kids, though, so Niese stuck in those contests, stretching himself out further and facing difficult situations that he, in many instances, failed to succeed in. It paid off in 2012, as Niese, despite little change in his peripherals, was better for longer periods of time, allowing for a career-high 190 innings, a return to the land of 30 starts, as well as career-bests in ERA and ERA+ that, for the first time, matched his pure stuff. No longer a tease, Niese grew into what Mets fans have been waiting the better part of a decade for. Because of the nature of baseball's first major league contracts, coupled with the extension the Mets signed Niese to, those fans will now get to see this all grown up pitcher through at least 2016, and 2018 if his options are picked up. That's 14 years of Jonathan Niese, and it makes the few years of impatience waiting for him to develop seem trivial.

Niese's case isn't abnormal, either. Just last year, many players like him -- around for years, full of promise, but failing to realize it -- finally broke out in a way that many fans and analysts felt was late in coming. Edwin Encarnacion became more patient, swinging out of the zone less, seeing more pitches, and crushing those he did offer at. Ian Desmond, the Washington Nationals' shortstop, drafted by the now-extinct Montreal Expos back in 2004, similarly delivered on long-term promise by setting career highs in just about everything of consequence in his age-26 campaign.

Chris Davis, traded as part of a larger package deal for reliever Koji Uehara less than a year before, finally performed in the manner that attracted scouts to him in the first place while with the Orioles, mashing 33 homers and slugging over .500. Jeff Samardzija, who had the stuff but hadn't put it together either in relief, starting, the minors, or majors, was placed in the Cubs' rotation and put together a productive and average campaign. Michael Brantley, 25 years old and drafted back in 2005, owner of nearly 1,000 major-league plate appearances heading into 2012, finally broke out as well as the Indians' center fielder, hitting .288/.348/.402 with capable defense.

In the case of Davis and Desmond, their teams were helped to the playoffs by these somewhat unexpected -- or, more aptly, delayed -- developments. Encarnacion's rise didn't directly bring Toronto to the postseason yet, but his emergence helped justify their Big Trades of this off-season that, in theory, are supposed to propel them towards an October continuation in the coming season. Samardzija and Brantley aren't core players, but they're inexpensive, under team control, and are filling holes their clubs now don't have to worry about. Not too shabby of a turnaround for a group with a lifetime's worth of professional baseball experience among them.

It's easy to forget how talented and promising players who no longer have the prospect sheen on them are, especially when you've become as familiar with their ups and downs, their path to growth, for good or bad. But like with everything else, growth takes time. It takes experience. And like you, or someone you know in your own line of work or your larger life, things don't always figure themselves out immediately. That's what makes the rise of the Trouts and Harpers of the world, in baseball or otherwise, as special as they are. Don't let that cloud your perception of everyone else, though. Those who have to work a little harder, a little longer, are just growing at their own pace. And when they get to where they need to be, there will be payoff for your loyalty and patience ...

... And if they fail, there's always another crop of kids for you to be overly attached to behind them, even if they make you feel even older than the previous bunch did.

Marc Normandin is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the managers of Over the Monster. Follow him at @Marc_Normandin.

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