To answer the question of whether the Royals can build a contender through player development alone, I thought it would be helpful to look at recent teams who were able to assemble a contender fairly quickly after a prolonged stretch of losing. I used the following criteria:
1) A team which had at least five consecutive losing seasons, followed by
2) A playoff appearance in the first or second year after the stretch of losing seasons.
I was surprised by how many teams I found. In the last 20 years (1991-2010), 11 teams met those criteria, including one team last year (the Reds). Last year’s Rangers almost qualified as well – they reached the World Series after losing seasons from 2005-2008, and again from 2000-2003 – their winning season in 2004 kept them from making the list even though it was their only winning season in a nine-year stretch.
(Ned Yost’s 2008 Brewers also came very close – only an 81-81 record in 2006 kept them from 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2006.)
It’s too early to know whether the Reds will sustain their winning. But of the other 10 teams, seven of them made another playoff appearance within two years. That itself is fairly impressive; after a prolonged period of losing, you would suspect that some of these playoff appearances would be flukes, but for the most part they were not. Let’s dispense with the three teams that did not go on to repeat glory:
The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. Speaking of stone-cold flukes…the Phillies had six consecutive losing seasons from 1987 to 1992, and seven straight losing seasons from 1994 to 2000, but somehow won 97 games and the NL pennant in 1993. That Philly team was hardly a youth movement; six of the eight regulars in the lineup were 30 or older, and the offensive philosophy was pure Moneyball, ten years before the book was written. The Phillies had three guys – Darren Daulton, John Kruk, and Lenny Dykstra – draw at least 110 walks. Only one other team in major league history (the 1949 Philadelphia A’s) can make that claim.
The 2003 Florida Marlins. The Marlins celebrated their second World Championship in 2003 – and also celebrated their second winning season ever. (The 1997 team would be on this list, except that the franchise didn’t play its first game until 1993, so it only had four losing seasons in the tank at that point.) It’s hard to know what lessons to take from this team, which doesn’t allow winning to become a distraction from its main priority of profit-taking. The Marlins did have a lot of homegrown players, such as Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and spectacular rookie performances from Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Mike Lowell and Brad Penny had also been acquired as minor leaguers in shrewd deals. Despite trading Derrek Lee right after the season, the Marlins managed to stay above .500 the next two seasons, and have been around .500 ever since.
The 2006 Detroit Tigers. I’m not going to break down this team again, because I have already done so – in excruciating detail – here and here. Suffice it to say that while there was some homegrown talent here – primarily Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson on offense, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Joel Zumaya on defense – the 2006 Tigers are an exhibit in what a GM can accomplish with shrewd trades and free agent signings in just three years. Five years later, it’s still hard to impress upon people just how impressive a job Dave Dombrowski did with that franchise. If you want to criticize Dayton Moore’s job with the Royals, the easiest way is to compare him to Dombrowski’s job with the Tigers at a comparable point in his tenure.
But precisely because Dombrowski’s magic act involved a heap of veteran talent, it has proven harder for him to sustain the Tigers’ success. The Tigers have remained competitive, and of course lost the AL Central crown in a one-game playoff to the Twins in 2009. Regardless, the 2006 Tigers are not a good comparison for what the Royals are trying to do.
That leaves seven other teams. In increasing order of relevance, they are:
The 2005 San Diego Padres. I’m tempted to disqualify them, because their appearance on this list is solely the result of being a part of the weakest division in major league history, the 2005 NL West. The Padres won the division with 82 games, the lowest winning percentage ever for a first-place team. They actually won more games (87) the year before, after losing seasons from 1999-2003.
On top of that, this wasn’t a young team at all; five of their eight regulars were 33 or older. In any case, the Padres won the division again in 2006, were competitive in 2007, and then the bottom fell out in 2008.
The 2000 Oakland Athletics. I wouldn’t say that what the A’s did is irrelevant to the Royals, but the perception of the A’s is so colored by Moneyball that it’s hard to tease out reality. The first of four consecutive playoff teams was exceedingly young in places; the A’s had Eric Chavez (22 years old) at third base, Ben Grieve (24) in left field, Terrence Long (24) in center field, Ramon Hernandez (24) behind the plate, and Miguel Tejada (26) at shortstop. Long had been acquired from the Mets in a trade deadline deal the year before; the other guys were all signed by the A’s. And on the mound, of course, sophomore Tim Hudson (24) was joined by rookies Mark Mulder (22) and Barry Zito (22).
So half of the A’s roster was the product of a youth movement that the Royals can only hope to emulate. But the other half was pure Moneyball. Jason Giambi was homegrown, but he was 29 and pure take-and-rake. Matt Stairs patrolled right field. Randy Velarde was the second baseman. The DH was supposed to be John Jaha, but after he failed spectacularly (in 97 at-bats, Jaha batted .175, but still managed a .398 OBP), the A’s turned to some combination of (Royals castoff) Jeremy Giambi and Olmedo Saenz. The rotation contained stalwarts Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier, and insomuch as Moneyball was supposed to be outsmarting your opponents, I will always submit that any team with Kevin Appier is outsmarting its opponents.
The bullpen was the perfect manifestation of baseball arbitrage, taking advantage of undervalued assets. The year before the A’s had traded Billy Taylor, who had been their closer for years but was pitching on fumes, for a once-heralded arm coming back from major surgery, Jason Isringhausen. Izzy was put into the closer’s role immediately and excelled; his set-up men in 2000 included soft-tosser Jeff Tam and 43-year-old changeup artist Doug Jones.
The A’s would win go on to three more playoff appearances in a row, and while their Moneyball ways played a part, having Tejada, Chavez, and The Big Three starters played a substantially bigger one.
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. One of the arguments I’ve heard as to why it’s unrealistic for the Royals to build a contender solely through their farm system is that for as much as the Tampa Bay Rays owe their success to their farm system, they would not have won the AL East twice in the last three years without acquiring talent in other ways.
Sure, their farm system was responsible for Longoria and Upton and Crawford, but the rest of the 2008 offense came from outside: they pilfered Dioner Navarro from the Dodgers, grabbed Ben Zobrist in a small deal with the Astros, and got Jason Bartlett in that huge Delmon Young trade with the Twins. They signed Carlos Pena off of the scrap heap and brought in Akinori Iwamura from Japan. The Navarro deal also brought them Edwin Jackson, and they also got Matt Garza in the Young trade, complementing their home-grown staff of Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, and James Shields.
They won in part by radically upgrading their defense; Iwamura was moved from third to second to accommodate Longoria, Upton moved from second base (where he was awful) to center field (where he was excellent), and Bartlett was a plus defender acquired for a defensive liability in Young. And the Rays’ entire 2008 bullpen – Troy Percival, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Trever Miller – came from outside the organization, at least until David Price came up at year’s end and took over as the closer.
The Rays would win the division again two years later, with almost the same group of players. Price had ascended to the role of ace, and Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis gave the Rays a rotation that, aside from Garza, was completely homegrown.
The 1991 Atlanta Braves. I’ve written about the ’91 Braves almost as much as I have written about the 2006 Tigers, so let me keep this brief. The key point to understand about the Braves is that while they were building the elite farm system in all of baseball in the early 1990s, most of that talent had not arrived in Atlanta by 1991, making their pennant-winning team that much more impressive. Yes, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery were drafted by the team, John Smoltz acquired when he was a Double-A pitcher going nowhere, and Ron Gant and David Justice were key hitters in their lineup.
But what propelled that team from last to first was one of the greatest defensive makeovers of all time, at least until the 2008 Rays came along. The Braves signed Terry Pendleton to a four-year contract that belongs on the Top 10 list of “worst-looking free-agent deals that worked out beyond everyone’s wildest imaginations.” Rafael Belliard, perhaps the worst hitter in major-league history to last 17 seasons in the majors, played shortstop. Sid Bream played first base. Otis Nixon was brought in to run everything down in left field. And as a result, the Braves went from dead last in the NL in runs allowed in 1990, to third-fewest in 1991.
Greg Maddux would sign in 1993, Javy Lopez came up in 1994, Chipper Jones in 1995, Andruw Jones in 1996, and the Braves were on their way. But at least at the beginning, the Braves were not an entirely home-grown team.
The 2007 Colorado Rockies. The Rockies were not only on a stretch of six straight losing campaigns before 2007, the franchise had never won more than 83 games in a season. And with two weeks left in the season, it didn’t look like they’d win more than 83 games in 2007 either, before they won 21 of their next 22 games, the last seven in the NLDS and NLCS, in one of the greatest closing kicks of all time. (They then got a swift reminder as to which league was superior at the time, getting swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.)
Dan O’Dowd had learned his lesson from the debacles of the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle signings, and the Rockies were largely homegrown. In contrast to the Royals, however, the Rockies’ prospects had matured over a wide timeframe. Troy Tulowitzki was a rookie in 2007, but Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday were both 27, Brad Hawpe was 28, and Todd Helton was 33. On the mound, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook were a pair of home-grown aces, and the Rockies got a big second-half lift from rookies Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. Closer Brian Fuentes had been acquired as a pre-rookie in a 2001 trade of Jeff Cirillo, but Manny Corpas was the only other homegrown reliever in the pen.
The Rockies fell below .500 again in 2008, but won 92 games and the NL Wild Card again in 2009, and are now a perennial pre-season contender in the division.
The 1995 Cleveland Indians. Speaking as a baseball fan, what John Hart and his front office did in Cleveland ranks as my favorite rebuilding process ever. From 1982 to 1993, the Indians had 11 losing seasons in 12 years. In 1994, they were over .500 and nipping on the White Sox’ heels when the strike came – giving us just a taste of how good they were about to be. In 1995, they won 100 games. In a strike-shortened season. Their 100-44 record was the highest winning percentage by any major league team since the 1954 Indians went 111-43. They would go on to win five more AL Central titles over the next six years.
At DH, the Indians had brought in 39-year-old Eddie Murray, who had his last great season, and behind the plate they had brought in 38-year-old Tony Pena to caddy for Sandy Alomar, who wasn’t an Indians farmhand but had won the Rookie of the Year award in 1990 after the Indians acquired him and two other players for Joe Carter. One of those other two players was Carlos Baerga, the starting second baseman.
At first base, the Indians had Paul Sorrento, who they had traded Curt Leskanic and Oscar Munoz to acquire prior to the 1992 season. At the time Sorrento had less than 200 major-league at-bats. In center field, there was Kenny Lofton, who the Indians acquired as a pre-rookie at the 1991 winter meetings for catcher Eddie Taubensee (who had been a Rule 5 pick the year before!), in one of the most lopsided trades of the decade.
The other three guys in the lineup were all drafted by the organization: Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle. If you’re looking for an absolute best-case scenario for Messrs. Moustakas, Hosmer, and Myers, well, you found it. Eight of the nine regulars in the Indians’ lineup were either drafted by the team or acquired before they had batted more than 200 times in the majors.
I don’t have the time or the expertise to do it myself, but if you were to come up with some sort of formula to rank the greatest lineups of all time – based not only on what the hitters did that year, but on what they did over their careers – I’d be surprised if the 1995 Indians weren’t near the top of the list. They had two clear Hall of Famers in Thome and Ramirez, two guys who played at a Hall of Fame peak for a period of time in Lofton and Belle, and even Baerga looked like a future Hall of Famer at the end of that season, with a .305/.345/.454 line and 971 career hits, as a second baseman who was just 26 when the season ended.
The pitching staff, though, was mostly acquired. Only two starters – Charles Nagy and Chad Ogea – were homegrown, as was key set-up man Julian Tavarez. Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser were savvy free-agent signings, and Jose Mesa was a failed Orioles starter turned elite – for a time – closer. John Hart did a masterful job of supplementing a historic wave of offensive talent from the minors with veterans who filled in the holes with average performances. But the team was not a pure youth movement.
So to review: six of the nine franchises that built a playoff team after years of losing proved to have staying power. More notably, five of the six teams that were built mostly with young talent would go on to make multiple playoff appearances, with the only exception being the 2003 Marlins, a team that isn’t representative for a variety of reasons.
That brings us to the final franchise, the only team in the last 20 years that can claim to have built, almost entirely from within, a contender out of a perennial loser. That team is…worthy of its own column. Check back here tomorrow for more on that team, and the lessons that Royals fans might be able to take from them.