Luke Erickson: Playing to win vs. player development

In theory, the difference between playing to win and developing talent should be, um, minor. Getting ahead in the count (or not falling behind) is what you need to learn to get to the majors (and remember to stay there).

In practice, however, it’s not always one and the same. Last Saturday night in Woodbridge was a good example of the difference.

Joan Baez is the No. 29 Nationals prospect according to Baseball America, which for better or worse is the bellwether for most prospect followers. He can reportedly hit triple digits with the fastball, but struggles to repeat his delivery

This is scout lingo for “some days he’s on, and some days he’s off.” And, yes, he was off.

Baez walked the first batter he faced, went deep in the count to the second before getting a fly ball, same with the third before he hit him and then walked the fourth batter.

In the majors, someone would be up throwing in the ‘pen by now, and the same happened then, too. A single plated one run, and two more came in on a botched double-play ball.

But it was clear to even the most casual of fans that Baez didn’t have it that night. The hitters hit the only pitches that were close to being a strike ... and there weren’t many; maybe 10 out of 30 or 35 (the Nationals reportedly have a limit of 40 in one inning).

In the majors, he’d probably be done for the night after a three-run first, but in the minors, Baez was sent out for a second inning of work. He promptly walked the first two batters, let them both in on another error and two deep flyouts to right, then got out of the second with a grounder.

He came out for another inning in the third - another walk, another run and another five batters faced - and then again in the fourth, when he walked Nos. 6 and 7 before he was finally taken out.

This may seem like an extreme example, but it’s not. Pitchers are just the most visible cases of where they’re allowed to struggle and learn on the job in the minors.

You’ll see it with fielders, as shortstops are shifted to third or second base, third baseman across the diamond, and (shudder) corner infielders are tried out in left field and every so often in right field.

It’s a bit more subtle with hitters, as even in the minors, they will drop guys down in the order before they drop them out. And I’ll close with a word about the designated hitter (if you consider it an “abomination” and/or yourself a “purist,” you can probably stop reading here and check your AOL e-mail).

In the majors, the DH may be used to hide poor fielders or aging sluggers, but in the minors it’s often used to give guys a “half-day off” or a “half-day on” - catchers get a break from fielding, a bench player gets three or four at-bats. It allows more chances to evaluate hitters, which is why it’s not used below Double-A (and even then, only when both teams are National League affiliates), and why it’s not going to go away.

Luke Erickson blogs about the Nationals’ minor league affiliates for NationalsProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nats_prospects. His thoughts on the Nationals’ farm system will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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