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Thoughts on the development of Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford

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JP Crawford has been the subject of many a conversation for the last four years, now. His MLB debut is seemingly imminent, and the top prospect in the Phillies organization will soon get a chance to do his thing against some of the best players on the planet.

Crawford was the 16th-overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, and has been demonstrating fantastic defensive skill, excellent arm strength and range since he stepped onto a professional field. There are a lot of pundits out there who feel that he may be the next great ML shortstop, especially since he has ML average-or-above skills across the board. Adding to that the fact that he still retains some physical projection and comes from a highly-athletic family, and one would assume that Crawford is all that he is claimed to be.

From my perspective, let me just say this: he is, but he isn't. Or more to the point, he isn't yet, but he could be. Here's what I mean.

The defense is ML-ready, in terms of his arm strength and range. While he has average speed, his first-step quickness and agility make him an excellent prospect based on potential, alone. Still, Crawford has racked up errors in bunches; over 395 MiLB games, he's accrued 84 errors. Also, while he has a talent for the spectacular play, he also developed a reputation for booting the routine grounder. Counter that with the 263 double plays he's taken part in, and one can see that his defensive ability may be more of a mixed bag than is generally thought. High error counts often go hand-in-hand with young infielders who have great range, which is another detail to keep in mind. Finally, it should be noted that his error rate IS declining and should continue to do so.

He's highly athletic, as is his father; Larry Crawford was a defensive back for Iowa State, then began a nine-year pro football career in the Canadian Football League with the BC Lions, where he was a four-time All-Star and a Grey Cup champion in 1985. The senior Crawford was a fast, agile, multi-position threat, with a wiry-strong build, and JP has a similar look about him. He is also cousin to ML veteran Carl Crawford, a power-speed threat when in his prime.

Crawford is still only 21 years old, and will hopefully add a little bulk in the coming years. He has never demonstrated more than extra-base power, and it is unlikely that he will tally any more than 8-12 homers in the Majors. Fortunately, that's not his game. However, his season high for doubles is 23 (set in 2014 over 123 games split between Class-A and Class-A+), and thus far there is little indication that he will dramatically surpass his usual full-season XBH totals anytime soon. Again, he is very young for Class-AAA ball, but one wonders if he will increase his upper-body strength sufficiently enough to handle ML pitching on a daily basis. His build/frame may preclude that, at least for awhile.

On that subject, Crawford suffered what was called a "very slight tear" of his ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb while playing in the Arizona Fall League last year. The reason this could be significant is that the insertion point for this ligament is in the base of the thumb; sprained or damaged UCLs can turn into chronic injuries and cause instability and loss of grip strength among athletes. This sort of injury is often found among volleyball players, skiers, and baseball players.

The Phillies' director of player development, Joe Jordan, went out of his way to tell CSN Philly just how minor the injury was found to be:

"It's a very, very slight tear in the UCL ligament in his left thumb," Jordan said. "It's so slight they had to read the MRI three times to find it. Surgery is not necessary but he is in a splint and will be immobilized for three to four weeks so his AFL season is over."

Fortunately, the injury didn't require surgery. Still, Crawford has also dealt with at least two oblique injuries in the last two seasons; the first one cost him nearly a month of playing time, the second occurred on August 9th of this year and kept him out of action for nearly two weeks. These injuries, combined with his smallish frame, raise concerns about his long-term durability.

At the plate, Crawford has shown an advanced eye in terms of pitch recognition, as well as the patience to take a walk. That's going to stay with him in the Majors. How he holds up over a full ML season remains to be seen. There is no question that he will have to add some muscle in order to deal with the rigors of 162 ML games, plus Spring Training, at the very least. It could be that he has maxed out, physically, and if that's the case it's possible that it could limit his playing time somewhat.

So, is Crawford a fantastically talented shortstop? Yes. Is he going to be a Major-Leaguer? Absolutely. But the aforementioned concerns could also conspire to prevent him from even playing full seasons, never mind becoming a perennial All-Star. As of this moment, we can anticipate that his glove will come along and he will at least become a steady (and sometimes spectacular) shortstop in the Majors, if not the all-around sort of star that many prognosticators have said he will become.

The rest, of course, could possibly come along. But it's definitely not going to be soon.