There are a lot of stories in the minor leagues that are pretty standard. You’ll have guys like Gerrit Cole who are drafted as top prospects, perform well in their minor league careers, and go on to become big leaguers, as expected. There will be some surprise breakout prospects like Gregory Polanco and Tyler Glasnow, where the individual performances are a bit of a surprise, but the overall strategy of “find enough talented players and 1-2 of them will break out” is expected.
My favorite story when it comes to covering prospects is when a player goes from being a non-prospect to someone who makes the majors. It’s a rare story that doesn’t come along every year, but when it does come along, it’s a great thing to follow. We’re seeing the latest version with John Holdzkom.
Earlier today I linked to a story by J.J. Cooper about the path Holdzkom took to the big leagues. We’re at a point right now where we don’t really know what Holdzkom could be. Maybe he will be an elite reliever and one of the best scouting stories you’ve ever heard of. Maybe he will be good enough to help the Pirates’ bullpen this year, but only your average middle reliever going forward. Maybe the three strikeout inning performance in his debut will be the pinnacle of his career, and he will fail to match that going forward. No matter what happens, the fact that he reached the majors is incredible.
The thing I liked the most from Cooper’s article is that Holdzkom fixed his control issues with a simple change in his grip. Rather than putting both fingers on the seams of the ball, he moved them closer together, and it immediately led to improved control. I’d say that this is a reminder that every player is just a simple adjustment away from being a legitimate prospect, but that would over-simplify the issue. It’s never easy to find that adjustment. Some players can never make it. Some scouts and coaches can never find it.
Just look at Holdzkom. He spent five years with the Mets, a season with the Reds, and was with three indy ball teams in the last two years. That doesn’t count high school and his time at Salt Lake Community College. You think about all of the coaches he had watching him, and no one made that simple switch until this year. The fact that this adjustment came in indy ball made the story that much better.
This is why teams give prospects extended chances. It’s why you see countless waiver claims, minor league free agent signings, and other moves that will amount to nothing the majority of the time. Those moves always generate two types of responses. Either they are ignored completely, or they result in misplaced outrage in the form of “the Pirates have a need in the majors and instead they’re signing this guy.” In Holdzkom’s case, the reaction was that he was ignored. Between the article that announced he was signed, the article about his promotion to Indianapolis, and all of the Tweets from my account and the site account, there were no responses to the Holdzkom signing.
These moves are usually meaningless, but you make those types of moves hoping that you’ll eventually land a guy like Holdzkom. In an example that isn’t so extreme, this is also why you continue giving starting time to guys like Alex Presley, Elias Diaz, Andrew Lambo, Mel Rojas, Keon Broxton, and many other players who have struggled a few seasons, looked to be career minor leaguers, then revived themselves as prospects. Even if there’s a small chance that they turn things around, you take that chance when there’s no risk involved and no downside if the player doesn’t work out.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.