Crawford a prospect to watch for in 2016

Crawford a prospect to watch for in 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If one had to bet on the first prospect to join the Phillies this season, one might take outfielder Nick Williams or right-hander Jake Thompson.

Williams and Thompson will open the season in Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and based on their skill sets and the organization's needs, their paths to the big leagues could be the shortest. But shortstop J.P. Crawford figures to get the most attention this season, and understandably so, as he is the No. 5 prospect in baseball, according to MLBPipeline.

He also has the brightest future, making him the Phillies' prospect to watch in 2016.

"I think about it all the time," Crawford said about his call to the big leagues.

But patience is key, perhaps for Phillies fans more than anyone. Crawford, 21, has played only 86 games at Double-A Reading. He hit .265 with 21 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 34 RBIs and a .761 OPS in 351 at-bats last season, and he hit .150 with one RBI, three walks and three strikeouts this spring.

He has room to improve, and that means he needs more time to develop in the Minor Leagues.

Besides, there is no rush. The Phillies are rebuilding for the future, so 2017 and beyond are more important than 2016.

The Phillies want to make sure Crawford is ready to play every day and succeed whenever he gets the call. They don't want to yo-yo him from the big leagues to the Minor Leagues, and they don't want him to split time at shortstop with Freddy Galvis.

When he is up, he will be up, and he will be playing.

"If it happens, it happens," Crawford said about a potential promotion. "I'm not really going to think about that. But if I do, I do. If I don't, I don't."

Of course, Crawford could force the issue with his own play. He could start the season in Reading and dominate, earning a relatively quick promotion to Triple-A. And if he plays well there, perhaps he'll warrant a promotion before the end of the season.

But there are plenty of "ifs" there.

Could Crawford make the big leagues this year? Yes, but only if he is ready. After all, the long-term is much more important than a little short-term spike in fan excitement.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his Phillies blog The Zo Zone, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.