Prospects To Pennants: The Royals Follow Other Team’s Footsteps

The Kansas City Royals have built one of the best farm systems in years, one that placed five prospects in the overall Top 20 for the first time in the 22-year history of the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list.

Now the hard work begins.

Building a top-notch farm system is tough work. But turning a group of prospects into winners at the big league level? Well that’s why being a general manager is never a low-stress job.

“The evaluation part, especially once you have them in your system, I think that’s probably 50 percent of the battle right there,” Indians vice president for scouting operations John Mirabelli said. “Having it all come together once you have identified who your core prospects are, that’s probably more difficult.”

The Royals have built the best farm system of the 21st century, but they will have to navigate a number of pitfalls to turn a successful farm system into a playoff team. In fact, a reckoning of the other top-ranked farm systems provides plenty of cautionary tales.

To succeed, there are some themes that teams can rely on. The sayings are rather simple, but if executing them was easy, more teams would be contending for playoff spots.

Rule #1: It’s Often A Small Window Of Opportunity

When the Cleveland Indians began the 2003 season, in many ways they were where the Royals hope to be in 2011. The organization had made the commitment to the future by trading away Bartolo Colon, Paul Shuey, Roberto Alomar and Jacob Cruz to restock the farm system. It resulted in a disappointing, but expected, 74-88 finish. It also made Cleveland the clear choice as the No. 1 farm system in the game heading into 2003.

Heading into 2003, prospects Brandon Phillips, Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee, Travis Hafner, Josh Bard and Coco Crisp had all gotten brief snippets of big league time to help them prepare to play full-time in the upcoming season.

The team almost completely turned over its lineup in a year, as the average age of the position players dropped from 30 to 27. The pitching staff already had C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Danys Baez to be joined by Lee, Jason Davis and others.

When it comes to turning prospects into production, it’s hard to top the Indians. Martinez, Lee, Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Sabathia all developed into cornerstone players. Players such as Crisp and Jhonny Peralta proved to be even better than expected. One of the hardest things to do is to produce impact players, Cleveland managed to acquire or produce numerous all-star caliber players at nearly the same time.

It would seem that Cleveland had pulled off the toughest aspects of the prospects to pennant checklist—develop impact players and get them to reach the big leagues at roughly the same time. But even with all that, the Indians still made only one playoff appearance.

For one thing, it took a while for the prospects to get comfortable in the big leagues. Phillips failed in a nearly full-season big league trial in 2003. Sabathia made the jump from solid pitcher to ace in 2006. Lee took even longer, as he followed up some solid seasons by spending much of 2007 in the minors trying to rebuild his approach.

But by 2005 the Indians were a 93-win team, missing a wild-card spot by two games. A disastrous bullpen led to a slide to 78-84 in 2006. The Indians bounced back to win 96 games and get within one game of the World Series in 2007.

But just when the team seemed to be hitting its peak, the Indians’ run was over. Before the 2008 season ended, Sabathia had been traded away in the final year of his contract. Lee and Martinez were dealt away a year later as the cost of keeping the team together became too much as free agency arrived. Cleveland has not had a winning record since 2007.

For a team that seemed to carry so much promise, two 90-plus win seasons and a American League Championship Series appearance seemed almost disappointing. For many playoff-starved Royals’ fans, a similar result may qualify as success, but the Indians’ eventual decline is a sign of some of the dangers of depending on a wave of prospects. Cleveland saw almost its entire core of homegrown talent reach free agency at nearly the same time.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowksi built winners in Montreal, Florida and Detroit. He’s built teams primarily through free agency and others primarily through the farm system. But as he points out, there are some hurdles to bringing up too many prospects at the same time.

“If you bring a bunch of guys up at one time, they are getting exposed to the big leagues together, but then they have that go through the process of learning to win at the big league level,” Dombrowski said. “Then you get into payroll management. They all are eligible for arbitration at the same time. Then they all are eligible for free agency at the same time.”

Rule #2: Money Does Matter

As good as the Royals farm system is now, the Expos farm system of the late 1980s may have been better. The passage of time would make some of the yarns about the Expos’ talent appear to be Bunyan-esque tall tales if they weren’t true.

Montreal had so much talent that it had to field a pair of instructional league teams. One year, the team’s front office pitched to owner Charles Bronfman the need for a third Class A team—there were too many quality players to fit on two Class A rosters. The front office wasn’t exaggerating the need for a third team, as 28 players from the Expos’ 1991 Class A clubs eventually reached the big leagues.

Over a stretch from 1989-1992, Delino DeShields, John Wetteland, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Mel Rojas were just some of the stars who settled into the big leagues for the Expos. Montreal also traded away Randy Johnson in a deal for Mark Langston during an unsuccessful pennant run in 1989.

Because of all of the talent, the Expos were able to look to tomorrow and compete in the majors at the same time. In spring training of 1991, Buck Rodgers made it clear that he was quite happy with veteran center fielder Otis Nixon, who stole 50 bases in 1990. But if Montreal kept Nixon as the starter, it would have only one spot for both Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. The manager may have wanted to keep the veteran, but Nixon was traded to the Braves so Walker and Grissom could play together. The two quickly turned into key pieces of the lineup.

But just as the Expos seemed to be turning the corner, the front office turned over. Bronfman sold the team in 1991.

“I asked Charles, please give us two more years. Stay with it just two more years,” then Expos scouting director Gary Hughes said. “He said, ‘Gary, I’ve been hearing two more years for 22 years. With all due respect, I’m moving on.’ ”

When Bronfman sold the team, the front office soon left as well. General manager David Dombrowski left after the 1992 season to take over the expansion Florida Marlins, bringing most of the front office with him.

Even with the front office turnover, the Expos kept on building a winner. DeShields ended up being traded to bring in Pedro Martinez.

Montreal finished second in the National League East in both 1992 and 1993, winning 94 games in 1993—but in the days before the wild card they were still three games out of the playoffs. Then the strike in 1994 kept Montreal’s 74-40 team out of the postseason, seeing as how there wasn’t one. The Expos had the best record in baseball at the time of the stoppage, but by 1995, Walker and Grissom and rotation ace Ken Hill were gone. They had become too expensive for a team trying to cut salary.

If the strike had not happened, some argue that the success in Montreal might have helped save baseball in that city. Instead, the Expos’ long climb to the playoffs ended just when they seemed positioned for success. The Expos hadn’t made every right decision (keeping Randy Johnson would have given Montreal a rotation to envy), but they largely evaluated properly and built a team to last. Unfortunately for them, many of their players did some of their best work after they had left Montreal.

Rule #3: One Wave Of Prospects Isn’t Enough

The Diamondbacks offer a reminder that success can sometimes happen too soon. Arizona fully embraced the need to rebuild in the mid-2000s. Just three years after winning the World Series, the Diamondbacks dealt away Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Craig Counsell on their way to a 51-win season in 2004.

With a significant influx of trade pickups to go with some high-priced draftees like Justin Upton and Stephen Drew, Arizona quickly developed into one of the best farm systems in the game. Upton, Drew, Chris Young, Carlos Quentin, Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds all broke into the big leagues during the club’s surprising run to the 2007 National League West title.

Even with the influx of lots of position-player prospects, Arizona’s run to the National League Championship Series could be credited to excellent bullpen work, solid starting pitching and plenty of good luck. Arizona allowed 20 more runs than they scored during the regular season—not exactly what you would expect to see out of a 90-win team.

The pitching may have gotten Arizona to the NLCS, but the long-term strength of the young team was expected to be the young position players, so Arizona made a couple of big moves during the following offseason to try to build on its success. The Diamondbacks traded away two of their top three prospects (Carlos Gonzalez and Brett Anderson) and three more prospects among their top 15 (Aaron Cunningham, Chris Carter and Greg Smith) to bring in righthander Dan Haren. Carter himself had just been acquired by trading away Quentin, who was discarded after a poor 2007 season.

In hindsight, Arizona tried to make the final push to a title too soon. They would have been better off holding on to their prospects.

Haren lived up to every expectation by going 16-8, 3.33 and 14-10, 3.14 over the next two seasons, but the 2008 Diamondbacks ended up right around .500 even though the position players hit better and the pitching was nearly as good. But a team that went 32-20 in one-run games in 2007 went 22-23 in similar situations in 2008.

By 2009, the Diamondbacks’ window had already closed (remember Rule #1). Brandon Webb went down with a shoulder injury, depriving Arizona of an ace it couldn’t replace. The rising costs of the position players (including an ill-chosen long-term extension for veteran Eric Byrnes) forced the team to start spending less on the bullpen, which quickly went from being a team strength to a weakness.

Where Gonzalez and Anderson would have given the Diamondbacks a second youth infusion, instead Arizona was left with a nearly barren farm system, compounded by some poor drafts in 2007 and 2008. With few prospects to promote to the big leagues or trade, Arizona didn’t have many options to improve without spending significant money—something they weren’t really capable of doing.

“It’s important to see when those waves are coming,” said A.J. Hinch, formerly a farm director and manager for the Diamondbacks and now the Padres’ director of pro scouting. “If the wave is coming in 2011 and it’s empty after that, the system can go from being a great one to a bleak one very quickly. The most impressive ones are staggered from Triple-A down to Class A to the rookie levels. The great farm systems have replacements coming soon behind (the first wave).”

Whether they are used as trade chips to fill holes or as inexpensive replacements to keep payroll in check as the previous wave of prospects become expensive, it’s important to always have more talent ready to step up.

“If you have a core of guys on the cusp, it’s important to get that next group and move them along as quick as you can,” Mirabelli said. “If you can see that coming. When you see that coming, it’s imperative to be aggressive to get them seasoned.”

Rule #4: Stick With Your Plan

If there is any team that serves as the Royals’ main model, it’s the Minnesota Twins. The Twins never had the run of futility that the Royals have had, but they did have a string of eight-straight losing seasons from 1993-2000 and were used as an example of a team that could be contracted.

General manager Terry Ryan was given the difficult task of replacing Andy MacPhail when MacPhail (who won titles as the Twins GM in 1987 and 1991) left for the Cubs in 1994. The Twins didn’t put together a winning record until Ryan’s seventh season.

The Twins stuck with Ryan despite the struggles, but since then, Minnesota has had winning records in eight of the past nine years and has made six playoff appearances. Ryan stepped down after the 2007 season having built a consistent winner.

“Look at the continuity Terry Ryan has developed in Minnesota,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “They didn’t hit on all their first rounders, but they have created a great culture there and a great identity. It’s to be admired. We’re trying to do it our way, but you have to have those kinds of models.”

Minnesota is also a shining example that teams can be consistently successful with modest payrolls and few trips into the free agent market. The Twins’ 2002 playoff team won the AL Central without any significant free agents. The Twins’ 2009 and 2010 playoff teams had almost entirely turned over the roster, but the same theme remained—there were no significant free agents as the club was built through the farm system and wise trading.

Rule #5: Know Your Own Players

If there is a constant theme repeated by nearly every veteran front office official, it’s that organizations have to properly evaluate their own players.

Scouting is always difficult, but scouting your own team’s players should be easier simply because you have so much greater exposure to your own players than anyone else does.

“You can’t make mistakes on your own players. You have no excuse. You may miss on a high school player because you didn’t realize he had an off-field problem. But in your own organization that’s unforgivable,” said John Boles, a former Royals, Marlins and Expos farm director who also managed Florida for parts of four seasons.

It’s not always easy. When the Indians were getting their prospects ready for the big leagues in 2003, Phillips was ranked as the system’s top prospect. Cleveland gave him nearly a full season in the big leagues in 2003 and he fell flat. Phillips’ .208/.242/.311 season didn’t exactly make much of an argument for a full-time job in 2004. He was sent back to the minors for 2004 and again in 2005.

Phillips was asked to battle Ronnie Belliard for a job on the Indians’ roster in 2006. In the end, the Indians chose to keep Belliard, meaning they had to trade away Phillips for nearly nothing as he was out of options. Cincinnati picked him up for relief prospect Jeff Stevens, installed him at second base and watching him blossom into a Gold Glove second baseman and a 2010 all-star.

A year later, the Indians faced a similar decision with righthander Jeremy Guthrie. Again, they decided to let him go, only to watch him become a solid starter for the Orioles. Guthrie is 38-48, 4.15 in 812 innings over the past four seasons.

In many ways, the pressure of winning makes many of those calls tougher. If Cleveland had still been in the rebuilding mode, they likely would have kept Phillips and Guthrie around, but the allure of potentially making the playoffs overrode concerns about the future.

“I think both of those guys—we didn’t make the right call, but both of those decisions, we were in kind of those years where we were trying to take the next step,” Mirabelli said. “Can we carry Guthrie in the bullpen? In another (rebuilding) situation, we may have said, ‘Yeah we can carry him.’ ”

Making decisions of when to give up on a player or when to stick with him a little while longer is one of the big decisions a GM and his staff has to make.

“It’s very easy to over-evaluate a player and not give him enough time, but it’s also easy to give him more at-bats or innings pitched than you should,” Hinch said. “That’s the competitive advantage we’re looking for—knowing your own players—knowing when to make adjustments.”

Whether Kansas City will manage to navigate the pitfalls that have tripped up other teams is still to be determined. But other teams executives acknowledge that the Royals have built a pretty special farm system thanks to its impact talent, depth and the match between position players and pitchers.

“I look at Kansas City, it looks like they are in a great spot,” Mirabelli said. “You look around their diamond. Center field appears to be answered now. They’ve kind of timed it right as far as their position players and pitchers. Now they have to bring it all together. It’s about pitchers staying healthy and bringing those core guys together at the same time. Even if you have everything lined up, now it has to come together.”

Now the hard part begins. After all, a high organization talent ranking only matters if you make it pay off on the field.

“Farm systems are always a great debate, because ultimately they are still prospects,” Hinch said. “Until you get to major league level, you don’t know what you have in hand.”