Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Three years ago, Salvador Perez was a nobody. He was an 18-year-old kid, a name without a face, just another Latin American kid signed by a rudderless organization, indistinguishable from hundreds of other Latin American kids with big dreams and bigger odds against them.

Or at least, that’s what it looked like from a distance. Within the organization, even then, Perez stood out. Maybe it was the strong arm and preternaturally quick release, maybe it was the massive legs that belied a dancer’s agility behind the plate. Maybe it was his passion for the game, his baseball intellect, his easy bilingual rapport with his teammates and his pitching staff. But there were already stirrings that the Royals may have found a gem.

Back in 2008, Joe Hamrahi, who had attended scout school under the auspices of the Royals, had already filed this report on Perez. And in May of 2009, Kevin Goldstein made his first appearance on my radio show. My final question for him for was to give me the name of a sleeper in the organization. He gave me Salvador Perez. Never mind that Perez was in the process of hitting just .189/.230/.236 for low-A Burlington, necessitating a demotion back to rookie ball. He now had a face to go with his name, or at least some skills – he was a teenage catcher with strong defensive chops. It was something to build on.

Two years ago, Perez was a name to keep an eye on, but that’s all he was. Even as he jumped to high-A Wilmington, a terrible place to hit – particularly for right-handed hitters – and batted .290/.322/.411, he hardly stood out in the organization. It wasn’t his fault – that was The Year Of The Royals Prospect. Just among his Wilmington teammates, Eric Hosmer hit .354/.429/.545 and was promoted to Double-A at mid-season. And then there were the pitchers he caught, guys like Mike Montgomery and John Lamb and Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow. They got the glory; Perez got the reflection.

A year ago, Perez was a prospect, but that was all he was. He looked like he had a major-league future, but didn’t project as an impact player, and in a Royals system being crowned as the Best Farm System Ever, that wasn’t enough – Perez was ranked somewhere between #17 and #20 on the team’s prospect list. True, he might have been considered #1 in the Brewers’ system, but that was true of most of his teammates, several sportswriters, and roughly a quarter of the KC metro area.

Seven months ago, Perez had quietly become of one of the organization’s best prospects, as much because he filled a position of need as for his talent. He showed up in spring training last year and was the talk of camp, with 1.8 pop times to second base and a rapport with pitchers that you just don’t see from 20-year-olds*.

*: Quick diversion to a (second-hand) story from last year’s camp: the first time Perez caught Joakim Soria, he took charge the way he did with every pitcher, gently encouraging Soria, chatting up his pitches, and generally acting like he was the veteran helping the kid along instead of the other way around.

Soria was a little taken aback by the way this 20-year-old from A-ball was projecting his authority, so he decided to test out the kid: without warning, he purposely buried his next pitch three feet outside and in the dirt. In one smooth motion, Perez slid over, snagged the ball out of the dirt like he was fielding a grounder, yelled out some more words of encouragement, and threw the ball back to Soria like nothing had happened. To no one in particular, Soria mouthed a single word: “nice”.

Perez had gone to Double-A Northwest Arkansas to start last season, and hit .283/.329/.427, much as he had in Wilmington – well, but not too well. He was then promoted to Omaha in July and started off hot – he hit .333 in his first 12 games.

Yesterday, Salvador Perez signed a contract that could keep him in a Royals uniform through 2019, guarantees him $7 million, and almost everyone in baseball agrees: the Royals got themselves a bargain.

In some ways, a lot has happened in the last seven months to justify the change in perception. And in some ways, not much changed at all.

What changed, certainly, is that Perez was called up to the majors in August – originally it was a temporary promotion while Matt Treanor recovered from a concussion – and forced the Royals to make him the everyday catcher. He picked off two baserunners in his major league debut. He hit .331 in 148 at-bats, and while that was somewhat of a fluke – hitting .331 almost always involves some degree of good luck – he also hit line drives on 29% of his balls in play, compared to the major-league average of 18%.

So yes, he definitely improved his stock during his audition with the Royals last year. He definitely caught a lot of general (i.e. non-Royal) baseball fans off-guard, the same people who were trying to figure out yesterday who the hell was this kid the Royals just gave a five-year contract to. But within the organization, and to fans who have watched his meteoric but steady rise through the ranks, Perez’ performance last year didn’t change their perception of him so much as it confirmed it.

The most important statistic associated with Perez isn’t .331, it’s 21. As in, Perez was 21 years old last year. If Perez had been 23 years old, he’d project today as a solid everyday catcher in the majors, possibly an above-average catcher at his peak. But he wouldn’t project as a star, and while this five-year contract would look like a sensible piece of risk mitigation by the Royals, it wouldn’t be perceived as a coup.

But he wasn’t 23 years old. He was 21. The rate of improvement in a position player’s baseball skills at that age are dramatic, and a performance of Perez’s caliber at that age is almost unprecedented. As I wrote a few months ago, Perez had the best offensive performance ever for a 21-year-old catcher with at least 100 plate appearances. But forget his performance – the mere fact that he was catching in the big leagues at all was remarkable. Jeff Zimmerman covered this at Royals Review, but here’s a list of all the catchers since 1980 who had 100 plate appearances in a season at the age of 21:

Rich Gedman
Joe Mauer
Brian McCann
Orlando Mercado
Yadier Molina
Dioner Navarro
Salvador Perez
Ivan Rodriguez
Mike Scioscia

Orlando Mercado is the black sheep of the group; I don’t recall that he was ever considered a top prospect, he hit .197 as a rookie, and he never hit in the major leagues. Dioner Navarro generated as much controversy over his abilities as any prospect I’ve ever covered – he hit .341 for half a season as a 19-year-old in Double-A, but scouting reports were very mixed, and he never hit over .300 at any other minor league stop. He’s had his moments in the majors, but has been disappointing overall, held back at least in part by concerns about his focus and work ethic. But everyone else on that list had a long, and in most cases stellar, career in the majors.

Perez wasn’t just 21 last year – he was a young 21. His birthday is May 10th, meaning he’ll still be 21 for the first month of this season. Eric Hosmer was also 21 last year, but he turned 22 in October – Perez was, by over four months, the youngest player on the Royals last year. As I’ve written out repeatedly, when talking about players in their teens or early 20s, the difference between an October and a May birthdate matters. (And in case anyone was wondering, Perez is Venezuelan, where birth records are kept much more securely than they are in the Dominican Republic.)

Perez’s age also explains why his breakout performance wasn’t all that shocking. He played in a full-season minor league when he was still 18 – he didn’t play well, but it’s rare for a player to impress his organization enough to even get the opportunity at that age. He debuted for high-A Wilmington when he was still 19, and played well. Last year, he started in Double-A at age 20 and didn’t miss a beat, and was in the majors three months after he turned 21.

Before last season ended, I postulated that after Hosmer, it was Perez – not Mike Moustakas – who was the most important young player in the organization. No one questions his defensive skills, which are above-average at worst and project as potentially Gold Glove-caliber. He has a reputation for having a fierce work ethic, a reputation which certainly isn’t hurt by the immense strides he has made as a player the last few years. Really, the only question about Perez’s future is how he will hit. Most see a guy who can hit .270-.280, and who ought to develop into a 12-15 homer hitter in his prime. That’s a good hitter for a catcher, but with his free-swinging tendencies and his lack of speed, that’s not a star.

Statistical analysis doesn’t help us a whole lot with projecting a player’s desire or his ability to call a game, or even with his defense. (Although statistics are certainly helpful in quantifying the value of what Perez has already done.) But statistics are highly useful for trying to project a player’s offense, and fortunately, this is where the statistics would argue in Perez’s favor. Perez isn’t really a .331 hitter, but we can translate his performance for all of 2011 and say that he was roughly a .280/.315/.415 hitter (that’s approximate – my copy of Baseball Prospectus 2012 should be delivered to my home today. The problem is that I’m currently in a hotel in Arizona.)

And we can use statistical analysis to project a 21-year-old hitter forward and say that, by the time Perez is in his mid-20s, there’s a good chance he will have blasted his way past those projections of him being a good #7 hitter. I think Perez can hit .280 with 12 homers this year. By 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s flirting with .300 annually, and hitting 20-25 home runs. That’s the power of a favorable date of birth.

To this point, I’ve written thousands of words on Perez the player, and nothing on the contract that he signed. Well, really, what’s there to write? It’s a tremendous deal for the Royals, the rare contract that combines terrific upside with virtually no risk. Perez will make $7 million over the next five years, and isn’t guaranteed a penny after that. Even if Perez’s 2011 turns out to be the biggest tease ever, and he settles in as nothing more than a good catch-and-throw guy who hits .260/.300/.330 in the majors, he’ll be paid about what a decent backup catcher makes on the open market.

Perez’s contract runs through 2016. At the end of that season, he will have made less money in his career – all the way back to his signing bonus in Venezuela – than Bubba Starling was guaranteed on the day he signed. Starling was worth $7.5 million even though there’s a lot of risk with him – how could anyone argue that Perez, who has already earned the job of everyday catcher in the majors, isn’t worth $7 million over the next five years?

If Perez hadn’t signed this deal, he would make roughly the major-league minimum over the next three years, or about $1.5 million. By signing this deal, the Royals essentially locked in his first two arbitration years at a total of $5.5 million. If he reaches the low end of his projections – the .270 hitter with 10-12 homers – he’d earn roughly that amount in arbitration. If his bat develops from there, the Royals may save millions.

(By the way, anyone notice how Perez is getting paid more than the major-league minimum the next few years? The Royals have not back-loaded the contract as much as you might think. This is a smart thing, because the Royals have the payroll space now, whereas in 2 or 3 years, when Hosmer and Moustakas reach arbitration eligibility, the Royals will face pressure to keep payroll costs down elsewhere.)

But of course, the real savings come in the option years. The Royals can keep Perez for his final arbitration year, as well as his first two years of free agency, for about $20 million in total. The upside here – if Perez turns into an All-Star – are tremendous. Yadier Molina, who is a pretty good comp for Perez overall, is about to earn something like $14 million a year on a long-term deal with the Cardinals. The Royals have the option to keep Perez for less than half that – and considering inflation, free market salaries will likely have gone up considerably more in five years.

The downside here – Perez turns into a good-not-great catcher – is that the Royals would have the option to keep Perez at roughly free-market prices, but they’d only have to commit to him for one year at a time. The odds that the Royals don’t pick up Perez’s options at all are low, and mostly limited to catastrophic occurrences like a severe injury or something. (I hate to even mention this, but given what happened to another young, right-handed hitting Venezuelan catcher this winter, when Perez goes home can we get him a security detail at all times?)

Put it this way: this is probably the most unambiguously good move of Dayton Moore’s career. Very limited downside; very substantial upside.

This contract is unprecedented in so many ways. Start with this: the Royals now control Salvador Perez’s employment for the next eight seasons. Since George Brett retired and the days of the “lifetime” contract (which really weren’t lifetime contracts, but whatever) ended, I’m quite certain the Royals have never had a player under contract eight years into the future.

The longest case of club control I can think of is when Joakim Soria, early in his second full season in the majors, signed a long-term deal for three years with three club options – keeping him under control for six years plus the remainder of the 2008 season. Both contract bought out two years of free agency and bound the player to the Royals for the first eight full seasons of their career, so let’s compare the two contracts:

Year   Perez       Soria

0      ML minimum
1      $0.75M       ML minimum
2      $1.00M       ML minimum
3      $1.50M       $1.00M
4      $1.75M       $3.00M
5      $2.00M       $4.00M
Option Years
6      $3.75M*      $6.00M**
7      $5.00M*      $8.00M
8      $6.00M       $8.75M

*: Plus incentives worth up to $5 million over the 3 seasons combined.

**: Or a $750,000 buyout. Perez’s options do not appear to have a buyout.

Perez’s contract guarantees him less money than Soria’s did. If both players had all their options exercised, Perez would make less than Soria. There’s essentially no way that Perez will make as much money as Soria will over the same number of years. This despite the salary inflation that has occurred between 2008 and 2012. And this despite the fact that Soria is a closer, while Perez is an everyday catcher.

There’s a reason for this, of course – Soria had proven himself as an elite player, and had done so for longer than Perez. But even an elite closer isn’t worth more than an above-average everyday player. Basically, by being willing to sign Perez now – with just 39 games of major-league playing time to his credit – the Royals were able to lock in an even bigger discount than you see in most long-term deals to young players.

(The Royals should probably thank Matt Moore for setting a precedent in this regard. Moore signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Rays with the same framework this winter – 5 guaranteed years, three option years. Moore is guaranteed $14 million over the next five years. As good as Perez is, Moore is indisputably the best pitching prospect in baseball – it’s no insult to Perez that he got half as much guaranteed money. If Perez is half the player Moore is, he’ll be a good one.)

Here’s something to consider – the all-time list of most games caught by a Royal:

Mike Macfarlane: 798
Brent Mayne: 620
John Wathan: 572
John Buck: 562

Here’s the list of the highest career bWAR by a Royals’ catcher.

Darrell Porter: 17.3
Mike Macfarlane: 13.1
Fran Healy: 3.8
John Buck: 3.4

If Perez earns out his options and starts for the Royals for the next eight years, he will almost certainly be at the top of both these lists – and with room to spare. This might sound ridiculous when talking about a player with all of six weeks of major-league experience, but if Salvador Perez is not the best catcher in Royals history when all is said and done, then something went wrong.

(Perez, with 1.1 bWAR last season, already ranks 12th all-time among Royals catchers. With a good year in 2012, he could jump all the way to third.)

When the press release was sent out, heralding a “major announcement” about the “contract status” of a Royals player, the assumption was that Alex Gordon had finally agreed to terms. When it was revealed that the press conference had nothing to do with Gordon, there was certainly a lot of disappointment, myself included. And I still think I’d be even more excited about a Gordon extension – depending on terms – than I am with the real news. Royals baseball in 2018 and 2019 is a hazy event that I’m hardly thinking about, whereas the presence of Gordon’s bat in the lineup in 2014 and 2015 is a very real thing that will have very tangible effects on the team’s ability to contend in those two years.

But in its own way, Perez’s contract should have at least as much impact on the course of the franchise as Gordon’s would have. And certainly, the two contracts are not mutually exclusive – the money guaranteed to Perez is so minimal that it should have no impact on the Royals’ ability to afford Gordon.

When the Royals drafted Moustakas and Hosmer with back-to-back top-3 picks in the draft, we knew what the deal was: by drafting Boras clients, the Royals knew that even if they got them signed and even if they developed into stars, the odds that the Royals would ever get them to sign long-term deals, the sort of deals that revived baseball in Cleveland in the mid-90s when John Hart pioneered the concept, were slim-to-none. The Royals knew this winter that if they were going to lock up a player long-term, it wasn’t going to be their third baseman or first baseman. It wasn’t going to be a pitcher, for obvious reasons. Johnny Giavotella was too unproven, and the Royals had too many alternatives at second base. Lorenzo Cain was too old.

Salvador Perez was none of those things. He played a key defensive position, and played it well. He was extremely young. He had no real competition for his job anywhere in the organization. He was the perfect guy to approach.

More than that, he was the perfect guy to trade the potential for untold riches for lifetime security. I’ve mentioned the St. Petersburg Paradox before, which is the notion that people prefer a guarantee of a small amount of money over the potential for large sums of money, because the marginal utility of the small money is greater, i.e. the first million dollars you make will generate more happiness for you than the second million. This notion works best, of course, with people who don’t already have a ton of money. One of the things that makes Boras clients relatively impervious to long-term deals is that he’s usually already earned them a huge payday when they were drafted. Hosmer got $6 million when he signed; assuming he’s been reasonably responsible with his money, he should be set up well even if his career goes completely south.

But Perez? Perez’s signing bonus as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela was so small that I can’t locate it. He made about $100,000 after the Royals called him up last August, and that probably represents well over half his lifetime earnings. The cost of living in Venezuela is less than in America, so Perez might have quite reasonably decided that a guaranteed $7 million today means that he and his family are taken care of for life. What 21-year-old wouldn’t want that?

So as much as this deal looks like a bargain for the Royals, that doesn’t mean it can’t be win-win. Perez guarantees himself and his family a lifetime of security. The Royals ink a potential star catcher, a player they adore and who they think can be the catcher on a championship club, at a significant discount. The rest of us get to invest in a Salvador Perez jersey with the knowledge that he will likely be here for the rest of the decade.

I love happy endings. Especially when they may lead to the beginning of something even better.

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.