A young hitter, drafted straight out of high school, has always been well-regarded. Since he was drafted in 2013, he’s torn up pitchers at every level, most recently posting a wRC+ of 114 in Triple-A. He’s struggled with some injuries throughout his career, most recently since being called up at the end of 2017.
He has average-at-best power, and has hit .214 in each of his partial seasons in the big leagues. What’s more, his defense has slipped, and he was regarded as a negative defender by Fangraphs in 2018.
He’s a former top prospect, who has delivered tantalizing potential right up until it came time to actually do something for the struggling team that drafted him.
Sound familiar? I mean, it could be one of so many busted prospects. Except for some details, it could be Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, or Ketel Marte. The Mariners are no strangers to prospects failing to live up to their potential. Yes, Mike Zunino has been great at times, and serviceable at most. But when it came to his potential, he just never really put it together.
When it comes to his potential, J.P. Crawford has just never really put it together.
So why did the Mariners want him so badly?
It’s a mix of things. For one, Crawford has been plagued by injuries over the past few years. They haven’t been the kind of injuries that make you worry about a player’s long-term durability — for example, a recurring knee injury. Crawford has suffered a torn thumb ligament, a strained forearm, and a broken hand after being hit by a pitch. Crawford has never had the opportunity for a full, healthy season in the big leagues.
Another point in Crawford’s favor is his age. Crawford just turned 24, and even if he has slowed from a developmental standpoint, he still has a few years to develop. He’s under team control through 2023, and if he grows into being even borderline starter-worthy, he will become an asset that increases the team’s payroll flexibility through their projected window of 2021 and beyond.
Finally, there really isn’t any reason to suggest that Crawford is a bust. He’s performed extremely well at every level of professional baseball until the end of 2017, and even then, he’s only played in 55 total games in MLB. He projections shouldn’t change: he should be an okay hitter with a near-elite walk-rate, a potentially very good baserunner, and an above-average defensive shortstop.
One thing that Jerry Dipoto is counting on with regards to Crawford’s development is a strong contribution from new infield coach Perry Hill. Dipoto extolled Hill’s credentials and experience on the most recent episode of The Wheelhouse, calling him the “gold glove maker.” Indeed, there’s some evidence for Dipoto’s claim: Hill was the Marlins’ defensive coach for Dee Gordon’s gold glove season at second base in 2015.
Dipoto recently spoke of what they hope for Crawford to accomplish in 2019 with Perry Hill:
“J.P. Crawford spent the past four years regarded as one of the best 20 prospects in baseball. ... While he didn’t hit for high average, he controls the strike zone. We feel like J.P. Crawford, with a fresh start in Seattle working with Perry Hill (the Mariners new infield coach) and given the opportunity to do the things he does, this is an exciting young player who we are thrilled to have.”
Crawford’s profile clearly fits the Mariners’ philosophy going forward, as they try to return to the “Control the Zone” philosophy that they admittedly got away from in 2018. All that remains to be seen is if Crawford can get over that last hump.