CLEARWATER, Fla. — J.P. Crawford flew to spring training last week, signaling the beginning of a season that is expected to end with the Phillies' top prospect in the major leagues.
Crawford spent last season’s final four months at Triple-A, just a step away from Citizens Bank Park. He will start this season in the minors, but he could push himself to Philadelphia as early as May.
First, Crawford has something to prove.
The shortstop batted just .244 with a .328 on-base percentage — both well below his career averages — in 87 games with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Crawford was plagued by an awful August, when he had 14 hits in 74 at-bats. He might have joined the Phillies in September had it not been for the month that preceded it.
“I tried to do too much last year when I got moved up,” Crawford said. “I was trying way too much with the bat, and physically I was just trying to do too much. This year, I’m trying to go back to what I do best. Stick with a plan and produce offensively.”
“I think he needs to go back and prove he's a better hitter than he showed,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “I really haven't seen enough of him so far this spring. But I know one thing: He's got a lot of potential, a lot of ability. ...
"He's probably going to go to Triple-A and get his bat going and get his game going, and then we'll see where we go from there. I certainly believe he's going to play in the big leagues at some point.”
Crawford, who turned 22 in January, was one of the youngest players in Triple-A last season, more than five years younger than the average age of an International League player. It was a stiff test — and perhaps a humbling stretch — for a player who had zoomed through the minor leagues after being drafted in the first round in 2013.
“For me, age is nothing but a number. We’re all in the same league. I have to compete with those guys, and I could have had a way better year,” Crawford said. “I was just trying to do too much. This year, I’m going to go back there, comfortably, and do what I do. See where it goes from there.”
Working with Bowa: The fog that enveloped Clearwater on Sunday morning rolled out just in time for Crawford to continue a morning routine that started last spring. He set up on a small field outside the team’s spring clubhouse and chased down ground balls from Phillies bench coach — and former All-Star shortstop — Larry Bowa.
Bowa, 71, took a liking last spring to Crawford, even comparing him to Jimmy Rollins. Bowa said he noticed improvement with “everything.” Bowa said he thought Crawford’s struggles last season stemmed from pressure — “a little extra heat” — that Crawford put on himself after being promoted from Double-A.
“You try to tell them, 'Go out and play; don't worry about what anybody's doing at the big-league level. If you do what you're supposed to do, you're going to be in the big leagues,' '' Bowa said. “It sounds simple, but when you're a young kid, obviously the hype on him — and, before, all the kids — is way up there. They do put pressure on themselves.”
In six weeks, the Phillies will fly back to Philadelphia and then board a flight to open the season in Cincinnati. Crawford will likely fly to Allentown, joining an IronPigs team brimming with prospects. Crawford will be out to prove that last season — especially the final month of last season — was an anomaly. If so, he’ll soon be headed to Philly.
“If I get that call, I’ll be blessed. I worked my whole life for that,” Crawford said. “When I get up there, I still have to prove something. I have to prove that I can stay up there and compete up there. We’ll see what happens.”