Making Wins Matter In The Minors Starts Trending

Tyler O’Neill was part of a revamped Mariners system that saw significant success in 2016 (Photo by Tony Farlow) Tyler O’Neill was part of a revamped Mariners system that saw significant success in 2016 (Photo by Tony Farlow)

MESA, Ariz.—This past season, as temperatures across the country began to rise and the doldrums of summer began to set in, Mariners officials needed a way to refocus their players’ efforts.

The organization, in its first year under new farm director Andy McKay, was experiencing success from top to bottom. All of its teams were contending for the playoffs, and management wanted to find a way to keep their players fresh until September.

For the answer, they injected a little more competition at each of their levels, from short-season Everett in the Northwest League to Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League.

They took every hitter in the organization and pitted them in a March Madness-style competition in an attempt to see who could rack up the most PTPAs—productive total plate appearances—each week. The winners advanced to the next round, and the champion at season’s end was honored at Safeco Field.

“We’re trying to give batters a different aspect of how they view hitting and what they can accomplish offensively rather than just getting a hit,” said Mariners hitting coordinator Brant Brown, who was coaching in the Arizona Fall League after the season. “Sometimes you had two guys on the same team going after it on a week, sometimes you had a kid from Everett going against a guy from Tacoma, so it was just really interesting.”

That was just part of the new culture McKay instilled in the Seattle system in his first year on the job, with tremendous results. Every one of the organization’s farm teams, from the Dominican Summer League to Triple-A, made the playoffs. The big league club just missed the postseason, finishing three games out of the American League’s second wild-card slot.

They weren’t the only team, however, to see results after sending a culture shock throughout their organization.

Both World Series participants—the Cubs and the Indians—have gone through makeovers in personnel and attitude over the last few years and are beginning to reap significant benefits.

The Cubs, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008 until last year’s run to the National League Championship Series, are a shining example of a philosophy manifesting itself with success. The same is true for the Indians, who were in the World Series for the first time since 1997 and were looking to continue the era of good feelings in Cleveland that started with the NBA’s Cavaliers winning the city’s first championship since 1964.

Ditto for the Blue Jays, who hadn’t made the postseason since 1993 before last season’s berth in the Division Series.

And when a culture change starts in the major leagues, it’s an easy bet that the team’s player-development staff is relaying the same message throughout the rungs of their minor league ladder.

“I think that it started for the Cubs when Theo (Epstein) took over and started just completely rebuilding the club,” Cubs prospect Ian Happ said after the opening workout for the Mesa Solar Sox. “I haven’t been with the organization the entire time, but since I’ve been here it’s been fun to watch.”

Happ says the Cubs have made a serious effort to upgrade their facilities throughout their minor league ranks. During the 2014 affiliation shuffle, they made a concerted effort to move their affiliates into the best facilities available.

Their short-season, low Class A and high Class A teams each moved into available affiliates with newer or freshly renovated stadiums. Their Northwest League affiliate moved from Boise to Eugene, their Midwest League affiliate moved from Kane County to South Bend, and their high Class A team shifted out of Daytona in the Florida State League to Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League.

Further, they invested heavily in nutritious spreads at every level of the minor leagues. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were swapped for chicken, spinach and personalized smoothies. The idea, of course, is that better-fed players perform better and have a generally improved quality of life.

Starting From The Top

If a change in culture is expected to ripple throughout the system, it must start at the top. Happ mentioned the effect Epstein had on the Cubs, and similar personnel shifts have happened in Toronto and Cleveland, too.

Alex Anthopoulos, Toronto’s former general manager, went all in at last year’s trading deadline and emptied the system of several of its high-end prospects to acquire key pieces for what he hoped would result in an AL East crown and a deep October run. The two biggest prizes were lefthander David Price from the Tigers and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and reliever LaTroy Hawkins and outfielder Ben Revere were brought in as well.

The Blue Jays secured the division, then topped the Rangers in the division series before falling to the Royals in the ALCS. It wasn’t how they wanted to finish, but the foundation had been set.

“It was last year, and it started with a few of those big trades that Anthopoulos made,” said outfielder Anthony Alford, one of the few prospects who made it through that July still with the organization. “That kind of turned it around. It felt like it started up there—we saw them winning and it motivated us to focus on winning more.

“That’s been the main focal point from Triple-A all the way down, to do something to help the team win. It kind of changed the environment in the locker room to just focusing on winning.”

When Anthopoulos’ contract expired after the season the Blue Jays replaced him with Ross Atkins, the Indians’ farm director at the time. Atkins in turn hired Rangers international scouting director Gil Kim to be their new farm director.

That also forced change in the Indians front office. GM Chris Antonetti was elevated to president of baseball operations, moving Mike Chernoff into the GM role and naming Carter Hawkins their new farm director.

Big things were expected of the Indians last season, but the team finished just one game better than .500 and missed the playoffs. This year, however, they blitzed the competition, won the division handily and finished with the AL’s second-best record.

Indians outfield prospect Greg Allen, who was nearly traded to the Brewers at midseason in the proposed Jonathan Lucroy deal, has noticed a shift in organization during his time in the system.

“Our big league team has been able to do some special things this year with the way that they’ve played this season and getting into the playoffs, just they way that they’ve gone about it,” Allen said. “I think that’s filtered down to the guys in the minor league system.

“I had a chance to be on two pretty good teams this year (high Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron) and we were able to do some special things.

“Being part of that atmosphere and seeing the work put in in the offseason and spring training, I think our organization as a whole and the way they’ve tried to go about different things and (we’ve seen it) produce and get results on the field when it mattered, and that’s been fun to be a part of.”

The Mariners, too, made a change at the top and saw quick results throughout the system. After years of languishing toward the bottom of Baseball America’s farm system rankings, the Mariners replaced farm director Chris Gwynn with McKay after 2015.

Part of the Mariners’ new philosophy is physical, but another aspect, outfielder Tyler O’Neill said, is a renewed sense of care for the players as individuals. O’Neill first met McKay in Seattle in the offseason and the two went out for dinner together.

“He talked to me about the new philosophy and wanted me on board,” O’Neill said. “That’s where things started for us. You can really tell that they care about us, and it’s a good feeling to have your bosses backing you and those kind of guys behind you so we can play and do our thing.”

Winning As Development

A long-debated question in baseball involves whether winning in the minor leagues correlates to success in the major leagues. While there’s no definitive answer, the conventional wisdom now is that it certainly can’t hurt.

And when players are gathered in spring training, they’re taught that winning as a team is part of their development as individuals.

“It’s mainly about winning,” Alford said. “The way I look at it, if you just focus on helping the team win you’re going to have success. You’re not getting caught up in your own numbers and stuff. That’s what they tell us: Just do something to help the team win.”

In addition to their first World Series win since 1908, the Cubs also won minor league championships this year in Eugene and Myrtle Beach. The Indians also got a championship when Double-A Akron swept the Eastern League finals. The Blue Jays’ high Class A Dunedin team won its division but fell to Tampa in the Florida State League playoffs.

Winning records might not necessarily make for better prospects, but it does give players experience in pressurized situations.

“It was amazing just going through that playoff run with Akron, and even those last few weeks of the season when we were in that playoff hunt and we were getting down to those last few games when weren’t sure we were going to make it in or not,” Allen said. “We had to take things on a day-by-day basis on focus on what you can control that day.”

The Mariners, too, believe that teaching players how to win can be as helpful in their development as honing their skills as individuals.

“I think one of the bigger things that I’m sure all organizations talk about, but we were really forthcoming with letting them know that winning was also a part of developing,” Brown said. “In some cases you’re like, ‘Well, we’re developing, we’re not too worried about the records,’ and there are some positives to that, where we really try to push the envelope with the understanding that you’re always happier when you win.

“It establishes a better environment when you win, so we just try to push that a little bit more than we had in the past.”

Changing an organization’s culture can be a long, arduous process. It involves getting hundreds of people to believe in a new idea. If it works, however, the payoff can be what everyone seeks: championships.

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