Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Meaning of the Minors, Part 4.

And finally, we arrive at the team from the last 20 years that most perfectly embodies what it is that the Royals are trying to do. That team is the 2002 Minnesota Twins.

Here is how the key members of that team were acquired:

C: A.J. Pierzynski, drafted by Twins (1994, 3rd round)
1B: Doug Mientkiewicz, drafted by Twins (1995, 5th round)
2B: Luis Rivas, signed by Twins (amateur free agent, 1995)
3B: Corey Koskie, drafted by Twins (1994, 26th round)
LF: Jacque Jones, drafted by Twins (1998, 2nd round)
CF: Torii Hunter, drafted by Twins (1993, 1st round)
RF: Bobby Kielty, signed by Twins (non-drafted college free agent, 1999)

Hell, even their utility infielder (Denny Hocking) and backup catcher (Matt LeCroy) were lifelong Twins.

At DH, the Twins had David Ortiz, who was acquired in a trade from the Mariners for Dave Hollins – in 1996, when Ortiz was still in the Midwest League. Fourth outfielder Dustan Mohr (who actually played more than Kielty) was originally signed by Cleveland, but released while he was still in Double-A before signing with Minnesota.

Of the 12 Twins who batted the most in 2002, 11 of them had never played for another team in the major leagues. We’ll get to the 12th in a moment.

Rick Reed, the surprising ace of the staff, had been acquired the previous summer in a one-for-one trade for lifelong Twin Matt Lawton. Kyle Lohse, the #2 starter, was a prospect in A-ball when the Twins acquired him from the Cubs for Rick Aguilera in 1999. Brad Radke had been drafted by the Twins in the 8th round in 1991. The closer (Eddie Guardado) and his two best set-up men (J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins) were all drafted and developed by Minnesota.

The Twins had a couple of key acquisitions from outside the organization. Johan Santana had been a Rule 5 pick (sound familiar?) in 1999, and had a breakout season as a swingman for Minnesota in 2002. And in 1998, the Twins had traded Chuck Knoblauch, their best player, for four prospects (sound familiar?). Two of them were Eric Milton, the Twins’ #3 starter in 2002, and Christian Guzman, their starting shortstop.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated the blueprint that the Twins have laid out for the Royals, and only now do I understand why Dayton Moore repeatedly brings up the Twins – even more than his own Atlanta Braves – as a model for what the Royals are trying to do. In this interview with John Sickels from last week, Moore specifically brings up the Twins, and only the Twins, in his answer to the second question.

With good reason. The 2002 Minnesota Twins won their division – and began a streak of six division titles in nine years – with the most homegrown team I’ve ever seen from a contender. Of the 22 key players on their roster (the 12 hitters with more than 150 plate appearances, and the 10 pitchers with more than 67 innings), 13 of them had signed with the Twins as amateurs. Another seven had been acquired while still in the minor leagues. Just two of their players – Rick Reed and rookie middle reliever Tony Fiore – had ever suited up for another major league team. Not one player on their roster had been signed as a major-league free agent.

Now that’s a youth movement that worked. If Dayton Moore wants a pithy answer for what he means by “The Process”, his answer should be five words: “Do what the Twins did.”

Even if the Royals do what the Twins did, it might require Royals fans to be more patient than we’d like. Of the 13 Twins who were signed as amateurs by the team, seven of them signed by 1995, and 11 of them (all but Jacque Jones and Bobby Kielty) had signed by 1997. In the interview with John Sickels I linked to above, Moore said, “When Terry Ryan took over the Twins in 1994, it took them six or seven years to get to the point where they were consistently competitive.” As it happens, it took an average of six or seven years from the time these players entered the organization until they won the division.

When Moore took over right after the draft in 2006, Luke Hochevar, Blake Wood, Derrick Robinson, Everett Teaford, and Jarrod Dyson had just been drafted. The only members of the current 40-man roster who were in the organization prior to Moore taking over are Henry Barrera, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, and the longest-tenured member of the Royals, Kila Ka’aihue (surprise!) [Correction: Mitch Maier also predated Moore's arrival.]

Moore’s first draft was 2007, when the Royals took Moustakas and Duffy with two of their first three picks, and got Greg Holland, David Lough, and Clint Robinson in later rounds. In 2008, the Royals drafted Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, Giavotella, Tim Melville, and John Lamb, among others. So if you put the starting point for the Royals’ youth movement as between 2007 and 2008, and tack on six or seven years, you wind up with 2014. If it feels like the Royals keep pushing the finish line just over the horizon, it’s because they have. Mission 2012 is now pretty clearly Mission 2013; if these numbers are accurate, 2013 might still be just a warm-up act for the real thing. At some point, foreplay loses its appeal.

The Twins came together as a contender quickly; as late as 2000, their eighth consecutive losing season, the Twins were still 69-93, even though many of the players that would be a part of their division winner two years later were already in place. Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie were starting at shortstop and third base. Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter already patrolled two-thirds of the outfield. David Ortiz was the DH. Brad Radke and Eric Milton were in the rotation. Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins were in the bullpen. Johan Santana was carried as a Rule 5 guy all year despite a 6.49 ERA.

There is an expectation, I think, that as bad as the Royals might be in 2011, the minute the cavalry arrives the Royals can expect to play close to .500. I’ve said so myself. But the Twins’ example suggests that come 2012, even if Hosmer and Moustakas and Colon and Escobar and Cain are all in the lineup, even if Montgomery and Lamb and Duffy are all in the rotation, the Royals might still strain to reach 70 wins. But the Twins’ example also suggests that even if the Royals do suffer another 90-loss season in 2012, with all their hyped young talent in place, it does not preclude the Royals from going over .500 in 2013 and winning the division in 2014.

And if the example of the Twins requires patience, it also suggests that our patience will be greatly rewarded. You have to be heartened by the fact that the 2002 Twins were just the start of something great. The Twins won the division in 2003 and 2004, and again in 2006. In 2007 they slipped to 79-83, their worst record of the decade, but in 2008 they went 88-74 and tied the White Sox for the division before losing a tiebreaker game in Chicago. In 2009 they made up for it by winning a tiebreaker game at home against the Tigers. In 2010 they won the division going away.

What is most striking about the 2002 Twins, though, is that the team built a sustainable contender entirely from within without having prospects that were nearly as heralded as the Royals’ prospects are. Frankly, they were barely heralded at all. Pierzynski and Mientkiewicz never made BA’s Top 100 Prospects list, and not only because the guys at Baseball America didn’t know how to spell their last names. Corey Koskie was never a Top 100 Prospect, and not only because he was Canadian. Jacque Jones was never a Top 100 Prospect, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why – he was a second-round pick out of USC, and hit well in both of his minor-league seasons. Neither Dustan Mohr nor Bobby Kielty did either.

Cristian Guzman made the list once, in 1999, and he was #68. David Ortiz made the Top 100 list – once, and he was #84. Torii Hunter made it – once, and he was #79. Luis Rivas, amazingly, made the Top 100 list five times – more than everyone else in their lineup combined – but was never a Top 50 guy, topping out at #55 in 1998. The highest ranking achieved by any of the Twins’ hitters was actually Matt LeCroy, who reached #44 in 2000.

The only pitchers who sniffed the Top 100 list were Eric Milton, who ranked #25 after the Twins acquired him as the centerpiece of the Chuck Knoblauch trade, and LaTroy Hawkins, who was a three-time Top 100 guy (topping out at #30) in the mid-90s, years before he would find success as a middle reliever.

I am, frankly, astounded by this. The Twins built a perennial contender almost entirely from within, without a single prospect in Baseball America’s Top 20. The Royals have FIVE GUYS in this year’s Top 20. Only two members of the 2002 Twins had ever ranked in the Top 40, and one of those was a middle reliever. I mean, Aaron Freaking Crow was in the Top 40 last year.

This is, of course, amazingly good news if you’re a Royals fan. The Twins won 94 games in 2002 with a bunch of players who would have struggled to make the Royals’ Top 10 list if they were prospects today. Almost all of their prospects had flaws of some sort.

Mientkiewicz wasn’t a Top 100 Prospect because he lacked the power typical of a first baseman. Koskie was never a Top 100 Prospect because he was always very old for his league – he didn’t reach Double-A until he was almost 24, and didn’t start in the majors until he was almost 26. A.J. Pierzynski was never a Top 100 Prospect because he was an asshole. (I kid. Sort of.) David Ortiz had no defensive value; Jacque Jones didn’t walk; Torii Hunter didn’t hit. Johan Santana didn’t have his changeup yet. Kyle Lohse and Brad Radke, like seemingly every other right-handed pitcher the Twins have debuted since, were command-and-control guys without top-shelf stuff.

If anything, the 2002 Twins were just an appetizer to the main course of prospects that were coming through their system. Consider that by 2006, the Twins won the division with a team that had changed so dramatically that only one position player from the 2002 squad was still with the team, Torii Hunter. Among the pitchers, Santana had become an ace and Radke was still going strong. Kyle Lohse threw 64 innings with a 7.07 ERA in 2006. Juan Rincon, who threw 29 innings for the 2002 Twins, was a key reliever in 2006. And that’s it – the rest of the roster had been rolled over in just four years.

If you’re looking for top prospects, the 2006 Twins had them. Joe Mauer was BA’s #1 prospect in baseball – twice. Justin Morneau ranked #21, #14, and #16 in consecutive years. Michael Cuddyer was a Top 100 prospect five straight years, including a pair of Top-20 rankings. Jason Kubel was ranked #17 in 2005. Francisco Liriano ranked #6 prior to the 2006 season. Hell, even Boof Bonser had ranked #29 once upon a time.

A look at where Baseball America ranked the Twins in their annual organizational rankings is instructive. From 1995 to 2001, the Twins ranked 16th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 10th, 10th, and 15th. This was a dead-average farm system for seven straight years – the same seven years that the Twins were quietly putting together a first-place team.  But in 2002, the Twins’ ratings bumped up suddenly; they were ranked 6th, 4th, 5th, 4th, and 6th from 2002 to 2006.

The 2002 Twins were, to be blunt, an anomaly. They weren’t supposed to be that good. That the team played so well is partly a function of the fact that some of their prospects were significantly underrated. Torii Hunter was a tools goof who never hit in the minors, until one day he did. Corey Koskie put up good numbers in the minors but was too old to be an impact player in the majors, until one day he was. Jacque Jones…I don’t know why Jones didn’t get more love. Partly, the Twins played so well because they were lucky – the Twins only outscored their opponents by 56 runs in 2002, and “should” have won around 86 games instead of 94.

And partly, it’s because while the Twins’ farm system didn’t churn out any elite, can’t-miss prospects during that time frame, the farm system churned out so much talent that the Twins didn’t have any real holes on their roster either. Of the eight most-used hitters, no one had an OPS+ higher than Hunter’s 124 – but no one was lower than Guzman’s 79, and only Guzman and Rivas were under 100 (i.e. below-average hitters). While Santana was brilliant as a swingman, the Twins’ four main starters (Reed, Lohse, Radke, and Milton) were all average or slightly-above. The bullpen was outstanding – the five main relievers all had ERAs of 3.27 or lower.

And we can’t discount the impact of a managerial change before the season. Tom Kelly had been at the helm of the Twins since late in the 1986 season, and had kept his job through all eight consecutive losing seasons. As the years and losing took their toll, the perception was that Kelly became more rigid in his ways, and less accepting of the folly of youth. My memory of what happened is a little, but if I recall correctly, in 2000 things came to such a head that the Twins demoted a cadre of their young major leaguers en masse back to Triple-A.

Doug Mientkiewicz went back to Triple-A in 2000, no surprise as he hit just .229/.324/.330 as a rookie in 1999 – but was left in Salt Lake City all year even as he hit .334/.406/.524. Chad Allen, who played 137 games and hit .277/.330/.395 as a rookie in 1999, didn’t make the squad out of spring training in 2000. Torii Hunter, also a rookie in 1999, was farmed back to SLC at the end of May, after his numbers had dropped to .207/.243/.300. Something clicked, and in 55 games in Triple-A Hunter hit .368 with 18 homers; after returning to Minnesota at the end of July, he hit .332/.371/.485 the rest of the season, and turned into Torii Hunter the next season. Most notably, Todd Walker was optioned to Triple-A in the summer of 2000 after two promising seasons as the Twins’ starting second baseman, then was dumped on the Rockies in a trade.

In retrospect, the Twins were right: Walker’s bat never did make up for his glove, and Hunter might never have learned how to hit without a return performance in Triple-A. But at the time, as I recall, the atmosphere in Minnesota bordered on toxic. Following the 2001 season, Kelly retired, and was replaced with Ron Gardenhire, whose optimism and humor were in stark contrast to his predecessor. Gardenhire enters his 10th season as the Twins’ manager this spring. Kelly-Gardenhire doesn’t quite rival Alston-Lasorda, but you’d be hard pressed to find another manager duo that helmed one team for a quarter-century.

But to bring this back to the Royals: if you want to argue that having the best farm system in baseball is no guarantee of success, I won’t disagree. If you want to argue that it will be difficult for the Royals to win unless Dayton Moore starts spending his free-agent dollars more effectively, I’m on your side.

But if you think that the Royals can’t build a contender simply by staying the course that they’re on, well, that’s where I disagree. Yes, it would be nice if Moore would sign actual valuable players with his discretionary dollars. But even if he doesn’t – or even if he doesn’t sign any players in free agency at all – the Royals can still win in 2013 or 2014. I know this, because it’s been done before. And it was done by a team that, while it had impressive depth in minor-league talent, had nowhere near the kind of star-level prospects the Royals do.

I look at the Royals having the lowest payroll in the majors this year, and I see a golden opportunity for them to flex some financial muscle over the next few years. But many fans, scarred by the early years of the David Glass Era, are unwilling to believe that any money will be spent. I disagree – the Jose Guillen and Gil Meche contracts are proof enough for me – but even if you believe that Glass is still a skinflint, he can’t be any worse than Carl Pohlad was for the Twins at the turn of the century.

In 1999, the Twins had the second-lowest payroll in baseball. In 2000, they had the lowest payroll. In 2001, they also had the lowest payroll. Not that Pohlad needed any encouragement, but he actually had his own perverse incentives to keep payroll down. The Twins were openly talked about as a candidate for contraction unless they got a new stadium - and by keeping payroll down, Pohlad could argue that the team’s low payroll was the only way to keep him from losing millions on the team. Yet despite all that, the Twins won the division in 2002. With the fourth-lowest payroll in the major leagues.

If your minor league system produces enough talent, not even the cheapest owner in baseball, the man who was rumored to be the inspiration for C. Montgomery Burns, can keep you from winning.

Does that mean The Process will work? I can’t answer that. I just know that it can work. I know this because it’s worked before, for a team that had less talent and fewer resources than the Royals do now. There are going to be speed bumps and detours along the way, and I guarantee you that at some point, something will happen that will test our faith in the youth movement.

But there’s every reason to believe that the process – lower case “p” – that has brought six division titles in nine years to Minnesota is about two years away from delivering similar results to Kansas City. It won’t happen this year, and it may not happen next year. And maybe it won’t deliver six division titles in nine years. But better times are just around the corner. That’s a process I can believe in.

15 comments:

Michael said...

Chills Rany. I have so much optimism already, and you just elevated it a whole lot more. Now if we don't win the division by 2014 I'll be severely disappointed. :)

Charles said...

Michael,
It's possible, of course, for the process to have worked beautifully well and for the Royals not to win any division titles through 2015. How? Let's say Detroit or Chicago starts spending like a Steinbrenner and it works perfectly for them... They win 104 games, the Royals win 97.... In the East two teams beat the 97 total.... Royals still miss.

I'm not saying that this would be at all likely. It's possible however... I think the correct way to interpret is this: given the minor league talent that has been accumulated a failure to have any 90 win seasons before 2017 would have to be deemed a total failure.

Joe Royal said...

A great end to the saga of the meaning of the minors and fitting for the spring training optimism. Here, here for baseball weather, it looks wonderful out there!

Ed said...

I live in the Twin Cities and was a Twins season ticket holder who went to 60 games a year (even when they stunk) back in those days (before marriage and kids).
You're right about Tom Kelly. He hated those young kids. He was furious with Mientkiewicz because he turned down a September call up to go play on the Olympic baseball team one year. He took shots at him all the time even when Doug was in the minors. Gardy coming in was huge.
But don't forget, in 2001, the Twins shot out of the gate and went like 13-2 in their first 15 games of the year or something like that. Guzman was actually an All-Star in 2001. The Twins held the lead all season, until getting swept and destroyed in a 4 game series in Cleveland in early August. They didn't come out of nowhere completely in 2002.
I remember seeing a slow progression, even if wins didn't reflect it. In 1999, they would routinely get killed 7-2, 8-3, etc... Then in 2000, they lost a lot more close games. They still lost like 99 games, but they were more competitive. Then 2001 came along and they took off.

Tim said...

Thanks, Rany. This just made my day.

Jacob said...

Just because something happened once does not make it a good model to base a franchise on. The most prudent course is to play the odds. And, by far, most good teams develop rosters using prospects, FA, and good trades.

Most prospects fail. Even highly touted prospects have a high rate of failure. Especially pitchers. Therefore, it is not prudent to base the fortunes of a franchise on an improbable model of success.

No one is arguing that developing prospects is not important. It is vitally important. But so is signing good FAs, making good trades and putting together a strong roster. And GMDM has not been good at any of these things so far.

The last four articles seem like more of an exercise in cognitive dissonance than empirical fact.

Michael said...

Jacob, in small market baseball, this is about the only way to build a winner. Rany has shown that more than one team gas done this, its just that Minnesota had the best luck. Sure, we'll most likely gave to supplement the roster with free agents, but those signings will be of less importance to winning than they have been in the past when we didn't have the talent coming from the farm.

Michael said...

And Charles, I'm one of the bigger supporters of Dayton Moore on this site, and even I won't give him till 2017 to have a winning team! That would be 11 straight years of futility if we gave him that long! If we still have 90+ losses in 2013, and have a bad first half in 2014, that's when I'd make a change.

LedZepp28 said...

I'll preface this by saying I am not a Royals fan, just a baseball fan who is interested to see if this Royals rebuilding plan works out, and I think this is a great blog. But I don't get the comparison to the 02 Twins as your ideal to shoot for. The later Twins teams (with Mauer, Morneu, etc.) and the mid 90's Indians are want you want to emulate IMO. The 02 Twins simply got lucky, and if not for the talent infusion that followed, would not have sustained the sucess of 02.

What this article fails to mention or acknowledge was that the 02 Twins were not a great team, they just won a weak division. No other team in their division that year was over .500, and 2 of the 3 worst teams in the AL were in their division. With the unbalanced schedule in effect, it's not hard to see why the Twins won the division - someone had to. In fact, the Twins went 50-25 against the AL Central that year. The Twins were below league average in runs scored a game that year, and a bit above league average in both ERA and ERA+. Hardly the blueprint for a 94 win team.

For all the great analyis in other areas of this blog, I am just surprised that a lucky team like the 02 Twins is the supposed perfect embodiement of what the Royals are trying to do. Whereas the rebuilding job in Clevenand in the mid-90's with a combination of good young prospects, shrewd trades, and good signings of complementary veterans is not.

Rany said...

Jacob and LedZepp28,

I actually agree with you for the most part - the 2002 Twins were not a great team by any means. They were a slightly above-average team that won 94 games thanks to an easy division and some Pythagorean luck.

But at the same time, the 2002 Twins were an above-average team built entirely from their farm system - WITHOUT ANY ELITE PROSPECTS. That's what is so striking about them.

They're not a perfect comp for the Royals' youth movement, but I find the comparison fascinating because if the Twins could build an 85-win team without a single elite prospect, it stands to reason that the Royals could do a lot better with The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever (TM).

Jacob said...

LedZepp28,

The Indians are not a model because no one has any confidence that GMDM can make shrewd trades, and good signings of complementary veterans. It certainly is possible, but so far GMDM has been terrible with FA signings and his trades have been a wash.

I am not a cynic and I really want the Royals to be good. But basing all of our hopes on prospects seems a lot like buying a lottery ticket.

And if we as fans are relying on the same guy who made the Yuni trade and who signed Guillen to surround the prospects with good pieces, we are probably going to be disappointed.

Dixon said...

Rany, I'm printing off these "Meaning of the Minors" posts, sealing them in a canister, burying said canister in my garden, only to be dug up in 5 years, so I can torture myself re-reading them, reminiscing about what could've been.

God, I hope you're right. Well, I know you're right....I just hope you're RIGHT. Right?

Kenneth said...

NITPICKER ALERT - you said we'd be suprised .. step 1 to admitting you actually are a Royals fan .. caring about what is said about the team !

Jacob G. said...

Most disturbing part of the article is the idea that we may have a player like Pierzynski on our roster. Can't stand him!
(Wait. Rany was looking at skills not personality you say? Thank goodness).

Kevin said...

One correction -- Mitch Maier was in the system prior to DM taking over. In fact, after jettisoning Zack and DDJ, Maier is now the longest tenured player -- he had a cup of coffee in 2005 with the big club. Only player we have now who had any IPs or ABs prior to Moore taking over.