Seeing the Crown for the Jewels

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Chris Dwyer destroys some high-A batters.

There’s been a lot of buzz this week about the Royals’ future. Okay, so maybe there’s been talk since about a third of the way into the 2010 season. When your team, which normally gets no major coverage, is featured in five front page stories on ESPN’s MLB site in one day, there’s something big happening.

And that’s just what happened. Something big. The Royals’ farm system was ranked number one overall by Baseball America and Keith Law. It was widely expected to happen, but it’s sort of a surreal feeling that it actually came to pass. When you start reading about what that ranking has meant for past teams, it starts to hit you that it could be something huge.

And it should be. Every team with the best farm system (as ranked by Baseball America) from 2001-2010 went to the playoffs, League Championship Series, or World Series within five years. That means that by January of 2016, the Royals should have at least one playoff appearance. That means a winning record (this isn’t the NFL, come on) and at least a second place finish in the division. That means success like I’ve barely known in my lifetime. That might even mean that Rob Neyer becomes a fan again.

That’s all well and good, but isn’t there the slightest bit of concern that this isn’t as locked-in as the past would suggest? With Dayton Moore’s track history of questionable major league signings in mind, I started looking into what acquisitions those successful teams had to make in order to get where they were. This is what I found.

Let’s lay out the list of first-ranked teams from 2001-2010:

  • 2001: White Sox
  • 2002: Cubs
  • 2003: Indians
  • 2004: Brewers
  • 2005: Angels
  • 2006: Diamondbacks
  • 2007: Rays
  • 2008: Rays
  • 2009: Rangers
  • 2010: Rays
  • So, there’s the group. The White Sox won it all in 2005. The Indians came within a game of the World Series in 2007 and beat the Yankees on the way (remember Bug Gate?). The Rays were World Series losers in 2008 and made a return to the playoffs in 2010. And the Cubs…well, let’s move on.

    Anyway, I want to take a quick look at what other moves these teams had to make to get where they went. This is going to be long, so take it in shifts if you must.

    White Sox
    Records/Playoff Results:
    2001: 83-79
    2002: 81-81
    2003: 86-76
    2004: 83-79
    2005: 99-63, World Series Champions

    Notable 2005 additions/resigns: Jermaine Dye, Dustin Hermanson, Scott Podsednik, Luis Vizcaino, Bobby Jenks, Orlando Hernandez, A.J. Pierzynski, Tadahito Iguchi.
    Notable 2005 subtractions: Carlos Lee.

    If anything, the White Sox’ journey both strengthens and questions the Royals’ case for making something of their organizational talent. There were some trades that didn’t net the Sox much at all and some that sent them some solid pieces for the future. The 2005 lineup only included one position player under 27 (Juan Uribe) and three pitchers at 25 or 26, two of which you might know: Mark Buerhle and Jon Garland. It was spectacularly similar to the 2010 Giants to the point where some of the players even cross over between the two teams. This wasn’t a youth movement and only a few of the major role players came from previous White Sox Draft classes or even from extensive time in their farm system. That’s not to say that there weren’t players whose development within the organization played a major role in their worth to the club. It’s just that some of those players may have been traded for impact players, but they didn’t directly impact the 2005 season’s success. That’s an interesting thing to note as we move forward.

    However, also realize that they weren’t a terrible team to begin with. The year before that number one ranking, they went 95-67 and won the AL Central. In the four years before that they finished second in the division. It’s not the same situation and thus this comparison to the current Royals must be handled with some trepidation.

    Records/Playoff Results:
    2002: 67-95
    2003: 88-74 (Lost in the NLCS…)
    2004: 89-73
    2005: 79-83
    2006: 66-96

    Notable 2003 additions/resigns: Damian Miller, Paul Bako, Mark Grudzielanek, Eric Karros, Troy O’Leary, Shawn Estes, Ramon Martinez, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez.
    Notable 2003 subtractions: Mark Bellhorn.

    *Drafted Tim Lincecum in 2003, but he didn’t sign. That was in the 48th round of the draft. I guess that worked out for him.

    So, I’ll start by saying that I hope beyond all hope that the Royals don’t become the Cubs. The Cubs from 2002-2006 were the kings of signing guys who soon after left the team in some way. I want the Royals to bring in decent players, but the short-term stays of some of these guys would drive me crazy. And avoiding the whole curse of the goat thing, the long-term Cubs suffered and continue to suffer. They would make the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, winning the division, but were swept in the NLDS both times. Really, their time was in 2003, but it just wasn’t going to happen for them that year.

    After that, things crumbled for the next three years. It’s debatable whether their farm system really had much to do with the 2003 success. The only contributing player in the starting lineup that came from their organization was Corey Patterson. The pitchers were different, as Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Kyle Farnsworth all pitched in. Still, that’s five total players with sizable contributions to the success of the team. This was a team that was built from the free agent market.

    So, the Cubs don’t really present a comparable situation to what is often foreseen for the Royals either. They’re just another example that successful teams require strong contributions from outside acquisitions and savvy moves by the general manager. Add one to the “worried” column.

    Records/Playoff Results:
    2003: 68-94
    2004: 80-82
    2005: 93-69
    2006: 78-84
    2007: 96-66 (Lost in ALCS)

    Notable 2007 additions/resigns: Josh Barfield, Joe Borovsky, Trot Nixon, Kenny Lofton.
    Notable 2007 subtractions: Aaron Boone.

    *The Indians also drafted Tim Lincecum, but in the 42nd round of the 2005 Draft, and didn’t sign him (obviously). What might have been…

    The first thing to note is that all three teams so far had Kenny Lofton at some point in that five-year stretch. So, step one for the Royals should be to bring him back out of retirement.

    The second thing to realize is that the Indians were actually really good from 1995 to 2001. They made the playoffs six times and went to the World Series twice. They weren’t slouches in any way. They just sort of fell off the radar for a couple seasons after that.

    As far as that 2007 team goes, four of the starting position players came from the Indians organization. A whopping four pitchers from their organization were important contributors. The Indians of 2007 are a close estimate of where the Royals probably hope to be. They want a strong core of young talent (most of those Indians were 28 or younger) that they can surround with some decent free agent or trade acquisitions. Obviously, asking the Royals’ young pitchers to be CC Sabathia or the 2007 Fausto Carmona (sounds like an awesome car) might be asking a lot. Nonetheless, the Indians got that out of their young players. It’s not a stretch to think the Royals could look for the same contributions from two of Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy, or Jake Odorizzi.

    However, the Indians’ success also relied on some heavy input from non-Cleveland-raised players. Casey Blake, Paul Byrd, and Jake Westbrook all had solid contributions, as did “relieving Rafaels” Betancourt and Perez. Without those guys, the team likely wouldn’t have done what it did. It’s less of an impact here than with the Cubs or even the White Sox, but it’s still there.

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    Tags: AL Central Arizona Diamondbacks Baseball Chicago Cubs Chicago White Sox Cleveland Indians Danny Duffy Dayton Moore Eric Hosmer John Lamb Kansas City Royals KC Mike Montgomery Mike Moustakas Milwaukee Brewers MLB Royals Tampa Bay Rays Texas Rangers Wil Myers

    • Chris

      It seems like the big issue is now going to be ‘the process’ by which prospects are turned into regular contributors. It seems to me that the Royals, in Moore’s tenure, have preferred to give playing time to mediocre veteran retreads while real prospects rot on the bench or in AAA. If the team is going to lose now, win later: exactly how many games is Jeff Francoeur going to play? How many starts are going to go to Jeff Francis?

      • Gage Matthews

        You’re absolutely right, Chris. That has been how Moore and Yost have handled things in the past. I want you to look at last season, though. They played Ankiel (when healthy), Podsednik, and Guillen quite a bit. Then, when their value was high enough from that play time, Moore traded them and picked up as least somewhat useful pieces for each of them. This past offseason, they signed Francoeur (as we all thought they would) and then brought in Melky Cabrera, which they’ve admitted was before they thought they’d get Cain in a deal. Both of those guys could potentially be turned for other young guys. If Cabrera doesn’t cut it and no one is interested in him, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore lets him go.

        Basically, you’re right that that’s how things have been handled. But do you think they’d really play Betemit over Moustakas if Moustakas was showing great ability? They’ve been playing guys with trade value over AAAA and back-up players like Mitch Maier and Kila. While they definitely have use, they’re never going to lead a team to a championship. I think there’s a pointed difference between the past and the future, namely that there will be guys who could absolutely deserve the play time.

        And I don’t understand the problem with Francis? Who’s he blocking? Montgomery, Lamb, and Dwyer, who aren’t ready? Yost himself said they only have three starters who are absolutely locked in right now, so if the young guys that are closer to the majors, like Duffy and Teaford, show that they deserve a chance more than, say, Davies, they could very well get it.

        I get the pessimism. I also have the pessimism. But I think this year will start to define how things are really changing. The beginning will be if Cain shows up in Spring Training, beats out Cabrera, and starts in CF on March 31. That’s the first signal of 2011 that things are different.

        That’s a long-winded reply, but I think that’s everything.

      • Gage Matthews

        Okay, I’m going to answer again now that I’m further removed from working out and not amped up like Mike Aviles after shoulder surgery.

        Chris, you’re right. That’s exactly what it’s been. But, like I said before, I want to make clear that the players being blocked before either weren’t ready to contribute or were put at a disadvantage while guys like Pods, AnKiel, and Guillen built trade value. That’s changing now. Francis really isn’t blocking anyone (if anyone blocks young guys, it’ll be Chen) and after watching the Royals get rid of Juan Cruz last seaosn, I have a feeling that they’re more willing to ditch non-producing players.

        You may very well still be right. But when the new guys deserve to play, I think they’ll make room. I just have a feeling. It’s partially inspired by the way Yost and Moore have been talking lately (including at Digital Digest) and partially by my own slowly-growing optimism. I hope you’re wrong and that doesn’t happen, but I guess there’s still probably a 60% chance that it does, at least in 2011.

      • Michael Engel

        I’ll add that Moore is setting up his farm system to 1) be major league ready and 2) to be successful long-term.

        Some of the guys in the minors could probably do just fine, or at least average, in the majors, but service time considerations are enough incentive to keep them in the minors for further refinement. Duffy, Montgomery, Moose et al aren’t going to be difference makers in 2011 and playing them right away just adds days to their service clock. That could mean the difference between moving Moustakas or letting him walk a year earlier than you would need to by delaying him a month or two.

        I’d rather see guys playing every day in Triple A than sitting on the bench (like Kila for his first stint up last year), but once they make it up, they’ll be in the lineup.

        The last few players to make major league debuts for the Royals have been Dusty Hughes, Victor Marte, Kila, Jarrod Dyson, Greg Holland and such. That’s a much different crop of players than the top ten guys we have now.

        It’s frustrating, but at least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not 2005 when the cupboard was bare at both the major and minor league levels.