Sunday, February 26, 2012

How The Farm System Resembles Mark Twain.

Last year at this time, you might recall, the Royals were considered to have the best farm system in baseball. More than that, their farm system was deemed by many prospect experts as possibly the best they had ever seen. Nine different Royals made Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list, something no team had done before, and BA has been compiling their list since 1990. (Baseball Prospectus had ten Royals in their Top 100.) The Royals also became the first team ever to land five prospects in BA’s Top 20. By any reasonable calculation – Baseball America did one here – the Royals clearly had the best farm system of any team in at least 20 years.

A year later, and the Royals don’t have the #1 farm system in the game. This has provoked the occasional sarcastic tweet from my friends at Royals Review – best exemplified here – that maybe the Royals’ farm system wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe it really wasn’t the best farm system ever, or maybe having the best farm system ever isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The second complaint – that even the best prospects bust at a higher rate than we’d like – is certainly valid, and was addressed here (with my rebuttal – featuring a relative unknown by the name of Salvador Perez – here and here). But the notion that the Royals’ farm system was overrated last year is, to my mind, absurd.

Yeah, the Royals don’t have the #1 farm system in baseball right now. According to Baseball America, they currently have the…#2 farm system in baseball. In the organizational rankings that Baseball America includes in their annual Prospect Handbook, the Royals ranked #3 overall, behind the Washington Nationals and the Toronto Blue Jays. But those rankings went to press before the Nationals cashed in a huge chunk of their talent on Gio Gonzalez – trading away Brad Peacock (their #3 prospect per BA), A.J. Cole (#4), Derek Norris (#9), and Tom Milone. I’m fairly certain that taking out those four players would drop the Nationals at least two spots in their rankings.

(At ESPN.com, Keith Law ranked the Royals’ farm system as #5 in the majors. Baseball Prospectus has yet to unveil their organizational rankings.)

So yes, the Royals don’t still have the best farm system in baseball. But they do have one of the five best farm systems in baseball. Which is incredible, when you consider how much talent they graduated last year. TWELVE different players made their major league debut for the Royals last year, ten of whom (all but Manuel Pina and Kelvin Herrera) exhausted their rookie status. That’s ten players who are not eligible for “Top Prospect” consideration. They are:

Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Nate Adcock, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman, Everett Teaford, and Tim Collins.

That’s four starting infielders, a starting pitcher, and an entire freaking bullpen. With the caveat that it will be a decade or more before we know for sure, that’s probably the greatest rookie crop in the history of the franchise. (Oooh, oooh, I smell an idea for an article! Or five of them!)

There is a consensus that the three best prospects in the game right now are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Matt Moore, in some order, and that there’s a big gap between them and whoever is #4. But if Hosmer had been left in Omaha all season, the Big Three would be a Big Four. Hosmer was hitting .439 when he was called up – while I don’t think he would have kept up that pace, he probably would have hit something like .360 or .370, with an OBP approaching .450 (it was at .525 when he was called up), and a slugging average around .600. Fierce debates would have taken place between Hosmer’s pure hitting skills and Harper’s power and Trout’s all-around skill set. (It's worth noting that from the people I talked to, Hosmer clearly passed Jesus Montero around mid-season.)

If Moustakas had stayed in Omaha all season, he’d probably be a Top 20 prospect, like he was last year.

Forget Hosmer and Moustakas – if Salvador Perez had stayed in the minors one week longer, he’d be eligible for Rookie of the Year and still a “prospect”. (Perez had 148 at-bats for the Royals – the rookie cutoff is 130.) Perez probably would have been a Top 100 prospect this season. Look at his resume: a 21-year-old catcher with excellent defensive skills, who hit .290/.331/.437 in the high minors, then hit .331 in the majors. I could see him somewhere between catcher Yasmani Grandal (#51 on BA’s Top 100) and Wilin Rosario (#87) on BA’s list this spring.

And if Giavotella had been called up two weeks later – he had 178 at-bats for the Royals – he would have been a fringe Top 100 guy as well. Second baseman rarely get top prospect consideration – BA’s list only has two second basemen in its Top 100 – but Giavotella has hit .322 and .338 in back-to-back years in Double-A and Triple-A, gets on base at a .390 clip, and slugged .460 and .481. Kolten Wong, a college second baseman who was the Cardinals’ #1 pick last June, ranks #93 on BA’s list. Wong projects to be a tick better than Giavotella all around, but Giavotella has considerably less risk. I’m not as certain that Gio would have made BA’s list, but he probably would have made someone’s list.

Even without Perez and Giavotella, the Royals did fine. They didn’t land nine guys on BA’s Top 100; they landed five – only four teams had more. They didn’t land five guys in BA’s Top 20, but they had three guys in BA’s Top 30, a feat only two other teams matched. The Royals were the only team that did both.

So pardon me if this seems obvious, but rumors of the Royals farm system’s demise are greatly exaggerated. It’s still terrific.

Look, many of the Royals on last year’s Top 100 saw their stock drop during the season. While Hosmer and Duffy and Jake Odorizzi took a step forward, and while Moustakas held steady, there was a lot of attrition from the other guys. Mike Montgomery was an enigma all season, featuring his usual nasty stuff but also sporting a 5+ ERA all year. John Lamb blew out his elbow and won’t be back on a mound until June or so. Christian Colon was a huge disappointment after being picked #4 overall. Chris Dwyer stopped throwing strikes, and Wil Myers struggled all year with a knee injury before picking it up in the Arizona Fall League.

But even those disappointments come with silver linings. When it comes to Tommy John surgery, a prospect delayed is not a prospect denied – Lamb is likely to be at 100%, if not this year than in 2013. (Kevin Goldstein ranked Lamb in his Top 101 despite the injury.) Montgomery did feature his usual stuff, and while evaluations of him are all over the map – Goldstein didn’t rank Montgomery in his Top 101 – he’s still seen as a potential ace if everything comes together. Myers not only hit the crap out of the ball in the AFL, but scouts were uniformly convinced that, with his knee finally healthy, he looked like the top prospect he was the year before. Among the nine prospects in BA’s Top 100, only Dwyer and Colon lost a significant amount of their prospect luster. That’s the nature of prospects – two out of nine is an acceptable rate of attrition.

Myers, Montgomery, and Odorizzi were all repeat Top 100 guys this year, and they were joined by a teenage breakout player from Latin America (Cheslor Cuthbert) and the #5 overall pick in the 2011 draft (Bubba Starling). They were nearly joined by another breakout Latin American, Kelvin Herrera, who according to BA’s Jim Callis was one of 10 prospects who just missed the Top 100 list.

Do the Royals have The Greatest Farm System Ever anymore? No. Were they supposed to? Of course not. They were supposed to graduate a lot of that talent to the majors last year, and they did. And with that talent in place, they outscored their opponents after the All-Star Break. If you had told me, prior to the season, which Royals would have lost their rookie eligibility, I wouldn’t have guessed that the Royals would rank even as high as 3rd on Baseball America’s organization rankings this spring.

What I find interesting is that, because the Royals graduated so much talent last season – some of it ahead of schedule – they are unlikely to have many prospects come up this year. Which means that, with a year for all these prospects to ripen and mature, the Royals’ farm system is likely to be as good, if not better, a year from now.

Mike Montgomery, who BA ranks as the Royals’ #1 prospect, is likely to lose his rookie eligibility this season, unless the Opening Day rotation somehow replicates last year’s outfield in terms of both health and effectiveness. (Hint: it’s not going to happen.) But after Montgomery? Take a look:

#2: Bubba Starling. If Starling, who has yet to make his pro debut, plays in the majors this season, either something has gone spectacularly wrong or something has gone spectacularly right. Probably both.

#3: Wil Myers. Myers certainly could earn a promotion by mid-season, if he goes to Omaha and picks up where he left off in the AFL. But between Gordon, Cain, and Francoeur, there’s no room at the inn for Myers. Unless Francoeur tanks completely – always a possibility – or there’s a serious injury, Myers is probably going to stay in Omaha until September.

#4: Jake Odorizzi. A breakthrough performance from Odorizzi is possible, and if you talk to the Royals, you’ll get the impression that it’s very possible. But for him to get called up before August, he’d have to step forward significantly and a couple jobs would need to open up and he’d still probably have to wait his turn behind Montgomery. The odds he loses his rookie eligibility this season are no more than 25%.

#5: Cheslor Cuthbert. He’s awesome, but he’s also 19 and probably starting the season in Wilmington. In a best-case scenario he might be ready for the majors late in 2013 – when he’d only be 20 years old.

#6: John Lamb. I love Lamb and he has the polish to move quickly once he returns from Tommy John surgery…but that won’t happen until June at the earliest, and it sounds like the Royals are being very conservative – bordering on too conservative – with his timetable. If he’s on a mound in June, I could see him being ready for the majors in September – but he’ll still be rookie-eligible at year’s end.

#7: Kelvin Herrera. Along with Montgomery, the most likely guy on this list to lose his eligibility this season. Herrera’s essentially ready for a bullpen spot today, but the Royals’ bullpen depth gives him an uphill battle to claim a spot in spring training.

#8: Jason Adam. Slated for Wilmington this year, and it would be considered a success if he reaches Double-A by year’s end.

#9: Chris Dwyer. I honestly have no idea where he’ll be by the end of the year. He could be back in rookie ball trying to figure out how to throw strikes. He could be in the majors, throwing 97 from the left side as a one-inning reliever. But the odds he throws 50 innings in the major leagues this year are slim.

#10: Yordano Ventura. See Jason Adam.

So of the Royals’ ten best prospects this year, only two are unlikely to be eligible for next year’s prospect list. That also goes for almost every Royals prospect between #11 and #20, whether it’s Jorge Bonifacio (slated for Kane County) or Elier Hernandez (17 years old) or Noel Arguelles (headed for Double-A) or Brett Eibner (Wilmington) or the half-dozen guys the Royals gave $700,000 or more to in last year’s draft. Christian Colon could bounce back and hit .300 in Omaha…and if he does, he’ll still be blocked at shortstop by Alcides Escobar and at second base by Johnny Giavotella.

In other words, the Royals’ farm system is likely to take a significant step forward this season, simply because they’re likely to graduate little, if any talent, to the major leagues. Meanwhile, they have a ton of teenage prospects who have yet to make a dent as professionals, either because they were drafted last year or because they were signed out of Latin America and are only now reaching full-season leagues. They also have the #5 pick in this year’s draft, who will almost certainly be on next year’s Top 100 list.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Royals are the favorites to have the #1 farm system in the major leagues next year. That would probably be the Blue Jays, who have a better system right now, and who – aside from #1 prospect Travis D’Arnaud and maybe Deck McGuire – are not likely to graduate many of their prospects either.

But I think the Royals are in excellent position to have a Top-5, if not Top-3, farm system yet again next spring. Having a Top-3 farm system as ranked by Baseball America for three straight years, unlike having nine prospects in their Top 100, is not unprecedented. However, a look at the teams that have done it since BA started ranking organizations back in 1984 is instructive. Three franchises have had Top-3 farm systems for three years in a row:

Los Angeles Dodgers, 2004-2006. There was a time, not long ago, when baseball analysts of all stripes sang the praises of Logan White, then (and now) the Dodgers’ scouting director. Guys who were top prospects with the Dodgers during that time include Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, and Jonathan Broxton. (Clayton Kershaw, who was drafted in 2006, didn’t factor into these rankings.)

The Dodgers’ farm system has since fallen on hard times, possibly due to the fact that they have one of the worst owners in the history of baseball. But it’s worth noting that said owner – Frank McCourt bought the team in 2004 – didn’t keep the Dodgers from winning the NL West that year, or winning the wild card in 2006, or winning the NL West and going to the NLCS in both 2008 and 2009.

Florida Marlins, 1997-1999. This is a weird example. The Marlins had a fantastic farm system going into the 1997 season, and several of their best prospects, including Luis Castillo, Edgar Renteria, and Livan Hernandez, came up that season and helped the Marlins win a world championship. After the season, owner Wayne Huizenga order the team stripped bare, which caused the team to lose 108 games in 1998, but did replenish the farm system in time for them to have a Top-3 ranking again before the season began. They did a good enough job of restocking the system – and benefited from sucking so bad in 1998 that they had the #2 pick in the 1999 draft, which they used on Josh Beckett – that they won another world championship in 2003.

But I’m not sure there’s a lesson to learn here, unless that lesson is that it’s awfully easy to build up your farm system if you’re prepared to tear down your major league roster. Then again, you could learn that just by looking at the Oakland A’s over the past four months.

New York Mets, 1984-1986. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a franchise that went from rags to riches on the backs of its farm system. The 1983 Mets won 68 games, despite having the Rookie of the Year, former #1 overall pick Darryl Strawberry. But they had the best farm system in the game, headlined by a pitcher named Dwight Gooden, who struck out 300 batters (!) in the minor leagues in 1983, at the age of 18.

In 1984, Gooden was Rookie of the Year (he only struck out 276 batters) and the Mets won 90 games – although they were very lucky that year, as they were outscored. But along with Gooden and Strawberry, they had Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell and Rick Aguilera and Kevin Mitchell, and they had the depth to trade a bunch of guys for Gary Carter, and they stole Bobby Ojeda and Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling, and in 1986 they had one of the greatest baseball teams of all time.

Three franchises have had Top-3 farm system for more than three years. They are:

Montreal Expos, 1991-1994. It still makes me angry to think about this. The 1994 Expos didn’t just have the best record in the majors, they had one of the most talented teams of the last generation. Pedro Martinez. Larry Walker. Marquis Grissom. Moises Alou. Cliff Floyd. John Wetteland. Mel Rojas. Sean Berry. Ken Hill. Mike Lansing. Darrin Fletcher. Kirk Rueter. None of those players were older than 28 that season. Bud Selig has had a long and generally successful reign as Commissioner, but killing baseball in Montreal will probably go down as his most unforgivable act. Yes, even more than the strike that killed the 1994 World Series. (Granted, one begat the other.)

Atlanta Braves, 1992-1996. There are two amazing things about this stretch. The first is that it began after the Braves came within a Lonnie Smith baserunning error of a world championship. The second is that it actually undersells how strong the Braves’ farm system was. The Braves were ranked by Baseball America as having one of the 7 best farm systems in baseball every year from 1992 to 2005. Fourteen straight years with one of the seven best farm systems in baseball? That’s almost as impressive as making the playoffs 14 straight years.

Toronto Blue Jays, 1987-1989 AND 1992-1995. The Blue Jays also ranked in the top 6 in 1990 and 1991, so they had a top-6 farm system for nine straight years. (They had a top-7 farm system every year from 1986 to 1997.) After blowing the AL East in 1987, they bounced back to win the division in 1989 and again in 1991. They then won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the Royals to these teams, because some of them were winning at the major-league level by the time their farm systems received acclaim. The Braves had been to the World Series in 1991; the Blue Jays had won 86 games in 1986, and won the AL East in 1985. And while the Marlins and Dodgers were both under .500 the year before their farm systems reached the top, they both made the playoffs (and the Marlins won a championship) in their first year. The Royals, despite the #1 farm system in the game last year, went 71-91.

But the other two examples provide some comfort. The Mets were 68-94 in 1983, much as the Royals were 67-95 in 2010, and that was actually the Mets’ best record in seven years. (Sound familiar?) Yes, the Mets went 90-72 in 1984, but they were outscored by 24 runs on the season. (Last year’s Royals were outscored by only 32 runs all year.) In 1985, the pitching arrived, and the Mets won 98 games while outscoring their opponents by 127 runs.

And then there are the Expos. The 1991 Expos went just 71-90, but they already had some key building blocks in place – notably, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, and Delino DeShields were all rookies in 1990. But behind the ageless Dennis Martinez, the rotation featured such luminaries as Chris Haney and Brian Barnes and even Oil Can Boyd. A year later, they had traded three prospects for John Wetteland; traded incumbent first baseman Andres Galarraga to St. Louis for Ken Hill; replaced Galarraga with rookie Greg Colbrunn; promoted Moises Alou to the majors; and watched as Mel Rojas and Jeff Fassero emerged as impact relievers. They won 87 games in 1992, and were on their way.

I understand if this article seems overly optimistic, given that most of these teams began their stretch of farm system dominance in nearly as big a hole as the Royals were in a few years ago. And I certainly understand if this article seems wildly premature, given that the Royals still need to prove that they can maintain a Top-3 farm system for another year. But, having proven the point last year that an elite farm system is almost always a gateway to contention within a few years, I felt compelled to point out this year that sustained excellence from a farm system is not only a gateway to contention, but in most cases, to sustained contention.

I told Soren Petro on radio a few weeks ago that I thought the Royals were a good bet to have multiple playoff appearances during what we’ll call the Hosmer era, and I’ll stand by that. An analysis of historical comps to the Royals has me confident that between 2012 and 2017, the Royals have a better than 50/50 chance to win at least two AL Central titles. The fun won’t necessarily begin this year; the Tigers are still the divisional favorites. But the anticipation certainly will. Our Time, indeed.

5 comments:

jaredlaunius said...

Help me understand the Mark Twain reference. Because people think it's overrated but it's really underrated? Because Twain never reached his steamboat captain ceiling? Because the Royals are ahead of their time in their satirical capacity?

As always, priceless research. Thanks for a productive 15-minute work break.

jaredlaunius said...

Because "Kansas City Royals" is a pseudonym for Samuel Clemens? Because the Royals aren't racist? Because both were really good before I was born? Because both are water-based beings?

This is fun.

Brett said...

@jaredlaunius

It was Mark Twain who is credited with first saying "the report of my death was an exaggeration." (Often misquoted as "the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.") Rany is saying the same about the rumors of the Royals' farm system's demise.

Gaines said...

Rany,
Thanks for another entertaining and insigthful read. That the Royals still have a better farm system than most other teams (top to bottom anyway) should go without saying at this point. Thanks for an explanation as to why this is so.

Also, I wanted to say that I realize this must be a difficult time for you and your family with regard to what is going on in Syria. I hope that your family is safe and I am sure that people, even though they may have different religious beliefs, are praying for the people in that country. Thanks for your continued writing on a comparatively non-consequential subject such as the Royals, when your heart is most likely engaged elsewhere. I would personally enjoy a piece from you that talks about what people in Syria are really facing.

Thanks

Joe Royal said...

Rany, I want to shout these words to you:

I AM VERY EXCITED!!!!!!!

Also, please finish up the pitchers report cards. I am always interested in hearing about Hocheavor, since i have been following him since my freshmen year of high school--wow.

P.S. love the Mark Twain reference lets have more literary allusions.