Harvesting Opinion is a regular feature on Seedlings to Stars. Each week, a handful of FanSided’s MLB sites send S2S a question relating to their team’s minor league system, and we answer them in this space–each question gets one article devoted to answering it. In this way, we make sure we regularly get to discuss hot-button issues relating to the systems of every team, as we cover the teams in a regular, recurring cycle.
Please note that any statistics used may be a day or two out of date, as we prepare our answers over the course of a week.
In this edition, we tackle a question sent to us from our Philadelphia Phillies site That Balls Outta Here:
Matt Rizzotti has been a beast for years in Reading and Lehigh Valley. The standard response to me asking “Why won’t the Phillies promote him?” is for someone to yell “BECAUSE HE’S BLOCKED BY Ryan Howard STUPID.” Yeah, I get it. I guess my question is why have we had him in our system for so long when he’s a proven effective bat? If they’re so keen on keeping him down there, why not trade him?
Well, I’ve argued with Wally about Rizzotti’s merits before, so it’s not like I need to be convinced that the guy can hit. But what sort of calls is Ruben Amaro getting on the guy?
Matt Rizzotti is utterly unable to play any position but first base. That leaves a grand total of 44 possible starting gigs available to him in the big leagues: 30 first base spots and 14 DH spots. A number of the game’s top stars play those positions, so if you really look at the “open” spots out of those 44, you’ve got what—Ten? Twelve? Certainly no more than 15, I’d think.
Given how few teams are in need of upgrades at those positions, the question is whether any of them would look to Rizzotti as the answer. Basically, he’s got two chances at a career: either a) Howard gets hurt and he impresses in his absence, making him a trade target, or b) his minor league numbers catch the eye of the right GM at the right time. Situation B isn’t likely to happen until the Phillies actually give him a legitimate shot in Triple-A, where they instead have Cody Overbeck playing first. Overbeck’s also proven himself in Reading, and the thinking is that as a righty batter who can theoretically play third, he at least has some value to a team with Howard, while Rizzotti hits from the same side and has no second position.
Given that there are a ton of retread MLB’ers (Kotchman/Overbay types) and random Quad-A sluggers (KC’s Clint Robinson and Kila Ka’aihue, Chicago’s Bryan LaHair) out there, it makes sense that none of the few GMs who actually had to fill a 1B/DH hole would be willing to move serious value for a huge, lumbering 25-year-old who’s barely played outside of Double-A. Either they’ll delude themselves into trying their own homegrown guys, or they’ll trade for/sign a retread. For example, at the deadline this year, the A’s traded for Brandon Allen from Arizona, which caused the Diamondbacks to promote Paul Goldschmidt and sign Lyle Overbay, while the Pirates traded for Derrek Lee, giving the Orioles a chance to give Chris Davis at-bats, etc. etc.
And ultimately, if the Phillies never got any good offers on the guy (and there’s no reason to believe they ever have; he was DFA’d in the offseason and nobody even claimed him), they might as well keep him around in case Howard breaks down, because he can hit.
Nathaniel’s response gives you all the reasons why Rizzotti is still a member of the Phillies system and why he’s apparently not all that sought after. The fact that he is still logging at bats in the Eastern League, and not at least in the International League, is also very telling.
My counterpart and friend references Cody Overbeck as part of the reason Matt isn’t in Triple-A. I respect his opinion, but let’s be honest here, a 25-year old hitting 0.279/.331/.416 while playing almost exclusively 1B this season shouldn’t be a roadblock to anyone. That’s what Overbeck has done in 2011 (in Triple-A; he hit .275/.331/.532 in Double-A), and it it’s not a significant departure from his career line of 0.265/.323/.459. In fact, aside from a dismal 0.230/.282/.399 season with Clearwater (A+) back in 2008, the Cody Overbeck we saw this year is almost the exact same guy we saw in 2008 and 2010. He had spent the majority of his time in the minors at 3B and prior to this season he had played just 1 game at 1B, but this season Cody has played 96 games at 1B and just 2 at 3B.
The bottom line here is that Overbeck is a nice organizational guy to have around, but he’s not the reason that Matt Rizzotti is stuck in Double-A. That reason rests much closer to home and we don’t need to look much further than the scouting profiles on him.
Baseball America wrote this about him in the 2011 Prospect Handbook:
… he has shown a vulnerability to premium velocity on the inner half of the plate … Rizzotti’s value lies totally with his bat. Even though he’s improved his condition, he’s a well below-average athlete and runner and fringy defender at first base.
Those are hardly glowing words, but it’s just one opinion right?
We can also turn to the thoughts of John Sickels’ in his 2011 prospect book:
Rizzotti is big, slow, and strong … There is a good chance that he may get stalled as a Triple-A slugger, but he could sneak his way into a platoon 1B or DH role if the dice go his way.
Both quotes paint a similar picture. Perhaps more importantly, I think each source gives us a glimpse as to why he was sent back to Double-A – and stayed there – this season.
First is Baseball America’s observation that he has trouble with the heat middle-in. Rizzotti has been able to overcome or mask that deficiency in the Eastern League. He did hit 0.295/.392/.511 with 79 BB and 125 SO in 587 PA this season, and that was actually a down year compared to what he did at the same level in 2010. We know he can hit AA pitching, but Triple-A is another matter entirely. I have little doubt that AAA pitchers will be far more capable of exploiting his weakness, and you can quadruple triple that certainty when it comes to guys he would face in the majors if he ever managed to get there.
Now some in the pro-Rizzotti camp might argue that there isn’t a lot of “premium” velocity sitting in the International League waiting to exploit his weaknesses and that is true to some extent. However there are a lot of “crafty” guys pitching at that level that are more far equipped to hit their spots and take advantage of a hitters weaknesses than their AA counterparts. Further it’s not like guys in AAA are only capable of tossing up puffballs to the plate. There are plenty of pitchers there that can “bring it” and with better placement and that aside, I’m not convinced Rizzotti would have a great deal of success at the level even if he avoids facing a lot of hard throwers.
That leads us into the insight the quote from Sickels provided. Specifically the thought that he is likely to get stalled in Triple-A. The Phillies know this. They have a better feel than any other organization on what Matt Rizzotti can and can not do. They know that if he is exposed to AAA pitching for any length of time he’s going to have problems. His warts are going to become more exposed and put on display for the other 29 organizations to see. It that were to take place, his already minimal trade value would become non-existent.
All of this puts Matt Rizzotti and the Phillies in a very difficult spot. If they play him in Lehigh Valley next year, chances are he’s going to struggle and be exposed. If they don’t move him up and give him a chance to succeed or fail against Triple-A pitching, his trade value is zero at this point. Most of the other organizations aren’t clueless and they can just as easily connect the dots here. In my mind Philly is trying to play a shell game but they have no leverage in the process.
I know the above may seem kind of negative, but there’s something to be said for a guy that could be an asset as a bench bat with legitimate power in the major leagues. Matt Rizzotti has some value, but it’s just not enough for a team to give anything significant for him at this point and his potential impact is not so profound that the Phillies fans should be clamoring to see him anytime soon.
He will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason so it will be interesting to see if the Phillies protect him and if they don’t (he’s not currently on the team’s 40-man roster), I’m curious to see if another team will select him to get a closer look in spring training.
For more on the Phillies, check out That Balls Outta Here