Seeing the Crown for the Jewels

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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.