Slow the Lyles Express Down

Houston Astros top pitching prospect Jordan Lyles was promoted to Triple-A following his last start, his 21st appearance above A-ball. While with Corpus Christi in the Texas League, Lyles posted a 3.12 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and succeeded despite a defense that led to a .328 BABIP. He left the Texas League fifth in innings pitched and second in strikeouts, despite being the league’s third youngest player.

Lyles, who jumped straight from the South Atlantic League (Low-A) to the Texas League (Double-A), will now become the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. He will turn 20 following the season, in October. Recently, Houston manager Brad Mills told the Houston Chronicle that Lyles could have one promotion left this season: a Major League debut.

“That’s not out of the question,” Mills said. “You see guys make those steps all the time, get a couple of starts at Triple-A and then move up to the next level.

“If he is as good as advertised, that wouldn’t be surprising at all.”

If he does follow that path laid out by Mills, Lyles is in line to become the eighth player in the last 20 years to pitch in the Majors at age 19. Here are the previous seven: Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, Edwin Jackson, Rick Ankiel, Matt Riley, Todd Van Poppel and Rich Garces. It’s not the most inspiring list, but it should be mentioned that the 80’s had some better success stories with Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Valenzuela. To be in that territory is certainly the sign of an elite prospect.

But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Jack Moore had a good (albeit snarky!) point: “He should slow down a little bit so he can still be under team control when Houston can put another contender on the field.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but the underlying point is that Houston is risking having Lyles enter free agency a year earlier with this aggressive path, and you have to believe that they will be more successful in 2017 than 2011.

First, I should say one thing: I totally agreed with the Astros decision to have Lyles bypass High-A and the California League. Their affiliate in the league, Lancaster, is no place for baseball to be played: the stadium there is seeing 12.8 runs per game, which you might remember in contrast to the Florida State League, where the highest this season was 9.93. Plus, Lyles posseses an arsenal geared for success in the higher levels, which I praised after the Futures Game a couple weeks ago. Armed with one of the minor league’s best change-ups, and good command of his fastball, Lyles had no problem making the jump, even holding lefties to a .259/.309/.374 line this season.

But jumping from Low-A to Double-A in one season is a precedented move that the California League has forced teams to exercise often. Moving that same player to Triple-A, and possibly to the Major Leagues at age 19, is less precedented, and as a result, open to more questioning. While Lyles is a workhorse, he’s also just 18 innings from bypassing last year’s innings pitched total (144.2). The more appropriate decision might be to give him five starts, where his inning total will be around 160, and then to call it a season.

Before this season, I wrote a piece criticizing the Braves for opening the season with Jason Heyward on the 25-man roster. If other teams are exploiting the service time rules to retain their players for the most time (see: Santana, Carlos; Strasburg, Stephen), I thought the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze for Atlanta. Many of you argued the ethics of such a move. In hindsight, given Atlanta’s spot atop the NL East, aided no doubt by Heyward’s 2.6 WAR, I was probably wrong about my example, if not my point.

Regardless of his performance in Triple-A this month, Lyles should return to Round Rock to start next season. He should make 11 starts there to open the 2011 season, and if he’s then ready, should finally make his big league debut next June. I don’t think anyone would argue they held him back, and the team wouldn’t lose a service year to their own fascinations. It’s the most prudent, responsible move for an organization that owes their fan base a well-managed rebuild.

Lyles is one of the minor leagues best pitching prospects, and has been developed flawlessly by the Astros. Here’s to hoping he’s still around for Astros fans in 2017.

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7 Responses to “Slow the Lyles Express Down”

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  1. neuter_your_dogma says:

    I want to see Fernando’s birth certificate. The real one.

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  2. OremLK says:

    I don’t have any problem with Lyles moving up to AAA now; he is ready for that level, so you might as well continue to challenge him. But I agree completely that he shouldn’t be seeing any MLB action this season more strenuous than getting cups of coffee for grizzled veterans like Chris Johnson during a September taste of the action.

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  3. rick11p says:

    Atlanta learned from 2009 when they held Hanson back and those ten starts might have cost them a shot at the playoffs. (and resulting revenue)

    I hope they dont do the same thing with Freeman next year. I realize that most of the writers here are young enough to assume 2017 is a given. The average fan not so much

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  4. Neil S says:

    “but it should be mentioned that the 80?s had some better success stories with Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Valenzuela.”

    Coincidentally, i’m sure, each of them burned out around age 30.

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  5. E Dub says:

    I’m not sure how Heyward’s exception is just a bad example. Rather I think he does damage to your point if it’s simply a matter of uniformly holding back players for service time concerns while disregarding the team’s ability to contend. I’d say that what dictates the handling of Santana and Strasburg is a function of their team, not the players, so ATL is really the exception and bad example, not Heyward. Similarly, if SF ends up missing out on a play-off berth by a couple of games it will be worth asking whether or not Buster Posey could have made a difference.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Well, right. I don’t mean it was a bad example because Heyward was ready, but because the Braves were contending. It makes a lot more sense for a team like Houston to do this — in fact, it’s a no-brainer — than Atlanta. San Francisco is probably in the grey area in between.

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  6. ElJimador says:

    Bumgarner, Jackson, and Ankiel did not pitch in the majors at age 19. It may have been their age 19 season but all of them had reached their 20th birthday by the time of their major league debute. (Jackson debuted on his 20th birthday and Bumgarner and Ankiel a little more than a month after theirs).

    Not that it’s really a big difference comparing someone who is a month past their 20th birthday to someone like Lyles who would be just a month short of his, but just fyi.

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