Seeing the Crown for the Jewels

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Records/Playoff Results:
2007: 66-96
2008: 97-65 (Lost in World Series)
2009: 84-78
2010: 96-66 (Lost in ALDS)

Notable 2008 additions/resigns: Willy Aybar, Eric Hinske, Trever Miller, Gabe Gross, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Troy Percival.
Notable 2008 subtractions: None.

Notable 2010 additions/resigns: Kelly Shoppach, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Hank Blalock.
Notable 2010 subtractions: Troy Percival, Akinori Iwamura, Gabe Gross, Pat Burrell, Hank Blalock.

This is the fun one. There are two stories here, and they’re very different. In 2008, the Rays improved by 31 games over the previous season. That’s astounding.* I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything quite like that again. And how did they do it? They let the sub-par players walk and brought in guys to fill gaps in the lineup that their prospects wouldn’t fill. Many people might lead you to believe that their drafting and developing made this happen. Well, not directly.

*If you think the Royals might do this, look forward to disappointment.

That 2008 team only had three regular position players on it that were brought up by the Rays’ organization: Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Evan Longoria. The pitchers weren’t much different, as James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, Scott Kazmir, and Jason Hammel were the main contributors that came from the Ray’s minor league teams.* That’s seven players, which is respectable. It’s just not the youthful farm-team-driven emergence that some people seem to believe. No, this team’s success hinged on some strong signings and trades (Matt Garza/Jason Bartlett trade with the Twins was key) the offseason or two before 2008. What happened that year was the meshing of the young guys having fun, some solid pitching, and a change of the franchise branding. Without that trade with the Twins, things would never have been the same.

*Yes, Kazmir came from the Mets. He never pitched for the major league Mets, though.

2010 was a different beast. Take Longoria, Crawford, and Upton from above and add on John Jaso, Ben Zobrist, and Reid Brignac to get the true young core of this team. They lost Kazmir, but added David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. Jeremy Hellickson gave them some solid pitching down the line. The Rays had tacked on a couple of new players from free agency and trades in 2009, but the group on the 2010 roster was much more representative of the 2007 and 2008 number one rankings. In fact, their average age was only half a year older than the team from 2008 at 27.5.

That was a supremely talented, if occasionally hitless, team that again battled the Yankees and Red Sox hard all the way to the end. Things unraveled a bit in the playoffs, though the Rays showed eventually showed some life against the Rangers. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that they ended with a record of 96-66 in a tough AL East where even the Blue Jays were trying to compete. If you look at the players they let walk or traded before or during the 2010 season, it’s apparent that they didn’t really let much go. A few of those players were high in the age column and a couple others weren’t performing well enough to justify a spot with such a great team. The two relievers they brought in were key for reinforcing the bullpen and holding down games. They were relatively small additions, but they made a difference in the end. That’s something that the Royals will have to try to do – make small adjustments to a working formula. A little tweaking of a hopefully young roster in 2013 or so and the Royals can keep the success rolling from year to year.

Club-friendly contracts always help, too.

Records/Playoff Results:
2009: 87-75
2010: 90-72 (Lost in World Series)

Notable 2010 additions/resigns: Rich Harden, Vladimir Guerrero, Colby Lewis, Bengie Molina, Cliff Lee, Jeff Francoeur.
Notable 2010 subtractions: Joaquin Benoit, Hank Blalock, Marlon Byrd, Eddie Guardado, Kevin Millwood, Justin Smoak, Rich Harden.

This was a hugely interesting year for the Rangers. They swung like Vladimir Guerrero on signing Rich Harden, who gave them a less-than-desired line and was released. They made some savvy acquisitions in Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee. It cost them quite a bit to get Lee and they lost some big players from the previous season over the offseason, but it worked out in the end.

As for whether this team was actually built from the 2009 farm system…that’s debatable. Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Julio Borbon, C.J. Wilson, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Neftali Feliz, Frank Francisco, Alex Ogando, and Matt Harrison combined to form the Rangers-drafted core. Michael Young was, of course, not even close to being a part of the farm system that was ranked first in 2009. Several of the other players weren’t in that group either. I guess that’s equivalent to the Royals using Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Joakim Soria, et al. to start things off in Kansas City. The fact remains that had the Rangers’ general manager not hit a home run with Colby Lewis and managed to get some solid production from Guerrero, things could’ve been much different. Having the AL MVP always helps, too, so a big thank you card should go to Josh Hamilton.

Nonetheless, when you consider that Rich Harden didn’t stay for the long haul and Bengie Molina, Cliff Lee, and especially Jeff Francoeur only spent part of the season with Texas, the young players achieved some astounding things. There’s a group of players there that has some amazing talent and could keep the Rangers in the playoff picture for many years.

Of course, the thought here is that surrounding those players with solid signings and trades is what makes the team. If the management can continue to do that, Rangers fans will have a lot to cheer for in their near future. Judging by the fact that the team hasn’t lost more than 91 games since 1985, there seems to be some longevity to their abilities. If they can keep the winning ways going and keep the losing ways of the 2000s behind them, there might be even more hope for the Royals’ future.

Okay, well that was a very long review of what these teams have done. I think the moral of the story is that a young core is a hugely important part of the team. If you look at the teams that went to or won the World Series (White Sox, Rays, Rangers) within five years of their anointing as farm system kings, all of them relied on a strong core of farm-raised players. The White Sox make a case sort of like the Giants’ this past season, but both the Rangers and Rays wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did without their youthful core.

What’s important to remember is that all of these successes took some solid signings and trades to shape the teams into playoff shape. Some of those moves happened the season or two before they reached the playoffs, but, other than the Cubs, those longer-term deals proved crucial to both a winning record and playoff presence. If Dayton can redeem himself from past signings and bring in some guys that contribute in places the Royals might not have prospects knocking on the door, it could mean great things. Without those free agent or trade acquisitions, its unlikely that they’ll do much more that cause a little trouble in the AL Central. Like many people, myself included, have said before, this whole Process might come down to Dayton’s ability to judge and sign quality major league talent.

There’s always the downside that some of the teams present. The Brewers and Diamondbacks reached the playoffs soon after their number one rankings, but neither made too much noise and both teams soon regressed to losing records. Even some good things come with the bad. Given good, reasonable contracts that help the team, however, the Royals could remain relevant for a while. Neither the Brewers or Diamondbacks had the type of acquired players that were likely to effectively produce long-term. That’s been revealed over the last couple seasons.

Just be sure that you’re prepared for whatever comes Kansas City’s way in the next five years. It may be great. It may also be terribly disappointing. Either way, this team is following in some impressive footsteps. If Dayton is up to the challenge of filling gaps on the roster, the Royals might just have a shot.

Oh, and don’t forget to sign Kenny Lofton.

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