The farm system is the most important piece of a baseball organization. The success of a major league roster is totally dependent on the success of a minor league farm system, unless you've got an organization that just pays for players like the Yankees. A farm system has two functions: to provide talent directly to the major league roster, and to have talent on hand that other teams will covet in order to make trades to further improve your big league roster.
We all know that the Braves' success over the last fifteen years is directly tied to scouting and player development. I've written about it in a new book, and we've talked about it over and over again. The consistency of this franchise is all tied to the farm system. If the farm system wasn't churning out talent, there's no way this team could have won fourteen straight division titles.
But here's the funny thing: isn't what's happened to the Braves this summer what is supposed to happen? I mean when a team has a farm system, isn't it supposed to spit out talent to help its big league roster? What's the point of having a farm system if it doesn't work?
The problem is, of course, is that most farm systems don't work. And the question that many baseball executives search for is why some do and most don't.
But is it really that difficult?
Most don't work because ownership simply doesn't put the money and importance into the player development end. They'd much rather blow $25 million on some mediocre pitcher like Russ Ortiz (Hello Diamondbacks) than to sign a less heralded pitcher and put the extra money in the farm system.
In 1987, when Ted Turner finally convinced Stan Kasten to take over the Braves, Kasten in turn convinced Turner to get out of that free agent frenzy. Turner had wined and dined Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton, Dave Winfield, Floyd Bannister, and Rich Gossage, only to see all of those top free agents sign with someone else. Then in the winter of 1984 Turner finally hit the jackpot when he signed Bruce Sutter, the best closer in the game at that time.
But Sutter bombed. He got hurt and was never the Bruce Sutter that we saw dominate in St. Louis. The Braves were on the hook for a lot of money, and Sutter only saved 40 games and pitched in 112 games in just three of the six seasons he was paid for.
So Kasten told Turner, "Look instead of spending two million a year on a free agent, put that money in the farm system." Turner agreed, and Kasten hired more scouts, formed more teams, and laid the groundwork for what has gone on for the last fifteen years.
In other words, management made a conscious decision to make scouting and player development a priority. Winning would not be compromised, but development would be the most important element in creating a successful franchise.
Wow, now that's brain surgery. Not to take one thing away from Stan Kasten, who deserves more credit than he usually gets for this dynasty. But is this really that complicated? I don't think so. Yet so many teams just don't get it.
Of course, there are other elements involved in creating a winner. You must have patience. You must have faith in your player development personnel. You must have scouts in the field looking in every corner of the world for talent. And you must have a plan in place and stick with it - no variations whatsoever.
But for some reason, most organizations just don't get it.
The Braves do get it however, and that's why they just keep winning. Let's take a look back eight months ago. At that time, the Braves had only one outfielder: Andruw Jones. Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero had just been traded, and J.D. Drew had left to go spend time on the Dodgers' Disabled List. Ryan Langerhans, at that time, was an unproven outfielder coming off a fine season in AAA. That's it. That's all the outfielders the Braves had.
Now the Braves had faith that Langerhans would either be a solid fourth outfielder or, if they were lucky, could develop into a decent starting outfielder. Then they also knew they had three minor league outfielders who they believed had the talent to play in the big leagues. The question was not if Jeff Francoeur would be ready, but just when. And they also believed that either Kelly Johnson or Billy McCarthy could be ready to contribute at some point this season.
So instead of signing Magglio Ordonez, which many people clamored for, or instead of trading for Kevin Mench or Austin Kearns, which was rumored, General Manager John Schuerholz just decided to be patient. He instead signed two aging free agents to be around just in case those four young players were not ready to go. And so Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi were signed to one-year, low-risk contracts.
Schuerholz told me in February that it was not going to surprise him at all if Francoeur made the team out of Spring Training, so he knew what was ahead. He knew how talented Francoeur was and what impact he might make on this team. He also knew that if Mondesi and/or Jordan did not make it, he might have some solid options available in the minor leagues.
But the work started many years ago. It started in the spring of 1998 when the Braves found Langerhans in Texas. Then two years later, in the spring of 2000, John Flannery, a Braves' scout in Texas who was also involved in scouting Langerhans, watched Kelly Johnson hit every morning before high school in a batting cage. Then the next year J.J. Picollo, the Braves' scout at the time in the mid-Atlantic region, found Billy McCarthy at Rutgers. And that same spring was the year several Braves' scouts, Roy Clark, Dayton Moore, Paul Snyder, and Al Goetz, fell in love with a kid they'd draft the next year. Yeah, that Francoeur kid.
This is all a process. It starts with the scouts, is then turned over to the development folks, and then you just have to have faith in the kid. It really is what is supposed to happen. Teams are supposed to rely on their farms systems. So when the Raul Mondesis of the world don't work out, there are reinforcements. Or when a Johnny Estrada goes down, there is help on the farm. It's what every team dreams of, but few have it come true.
When other teams look at the Atlanta Braves this year, with eighteen rookies and twelve players making their major league debuts, they must shake their heads. How can they do it? And not to take anything away from the Braves at all, but is it really this difficult? Is it really this perplexing to understand how to create a winning and successful franchise?
It must be. And that makes you want to shake the hand of every man responsible for making the Atlanta Braves exactly what they are: the best franchise in the game of baseball.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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