Sports are full of copycats. When someone wins with a particular technique, style of play or type of roster construction, everyone else rushes to try it out for themselves.
Copycatting is popular in virtually every sport. Dick Fosbury wins Olympic Gold by breaking out a new way of high jumping and soon kids everywhere have learned the "Fosbury Flop." On the gridiron, Bill Walsh wins a couple of Super Bowls and GMs fall all over themselves to find a coach who can implement the West Coast Offense for their franchise.
The same holds true in the game of baseball. After all, looking at the most recent champion for direction is a sporting tradition that goes way back - even before the days when athletes asked out of games to rest up from promoting their record label's latest hip-hop album.
When it comes to deciding how important it is to have a good farm system, however, how much can we really learn from recent World Series Champions? If we simply look at the lovable "idiots" in Boston we'll see that having a solid streaming farm system is essentially worthless. The BoSox featured only two players on their roster who had begun their pro careers in the Red Sox organization, and one of those was named Curt Schilling who spent over 15 years playing for other teams before being reunited with the Sox last off season. So, with the singular exception of Trot Nixon, the Red Sox relied entirely on the talent acquired via free agency and trade acquisitions to make their run.
Before you get too carried away with the success in New England, consider the success of top three teams in the American League at producing their own talent.
The Minnesota Twins led the AL with 15 players - an amazing 60 percent of their entire 25-man roster - that were homegrown, including most of the starting lineup. Quality contributors like Corey Koskie, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Brad Radke are all in-house talent. Teamed with a few smart acquisitions this group brought home a division title this past year. Oh, and it cost less than $60 million dollars to put together.
Right behind the Twins sit the AL West champion Anaheim Angels. With their payroll just under $115 million, the halos were not exactly the definition of a small-market team. Still, the Angels roster sported 14 players who came through their strong farm system. Darin Erstad, Garrett Anderson, Troy Percival, Tim Salmon and Francisco Rodriguez are the major names, besides the injured Troy Glaus.
Clearly, with two division winners leading the ALin producing talent from within it must guarantee some level of success right?
Actually, and unfortunately, it's not quite that simple and here's why.
Coming in third in our little survey is none other than our hometown Seattle Mariners with 13 players who developed in their own system. If Bret Boone, Raul Ibanez, and Ron Villone qualified, the Mariners would have led the league but that trio came back to the team as major league free agents, so the M's settle for third place here. Edgar Martinez, Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro headline the Mariners list. I won't mention how well this unit performed, but let's just say it wasn't pretty.
What have we learned thus far?
We have learned that we have a Red Sox team that achieved the peak of baseball success with limited support from the farm system.
Next we have three teams that were stacked with home grown players, and two of them won their divisions. Oh yeah, the other one finished second to last in the league with 99 losses. Kind of puts us back at square one doesn't it? Now the question must be asked; Can we learn anything about the effect of a MLB club's farm system?
Of course we can, but for starters, it's clear that the importance is subjective.
True, there is more than one way to skin a cat. An organization can win without home grown talent, and as the M's proved this past summer, a team can certainly fail with talent that originated and developed within their system. A strong farm system, however, will always be an asset, and in the opinion of many, is the best guarantee of consistent success that an organization, outside the Bronx anyways, can enjoy year in and year out.
Essentially, a good farm system greatly effects an organization in three specific ways; affordable talent, depth, and tradable assets. How do each of these areas benefit an organization?
This one's pretty obvious. Any Mariner fan can recall what it was like to see No. 24 roam center field, Alex Rodriguez develop into a the game's greatest superstar or to admire Edgar Martinez's legendary consistency and grace. In fact, of the four Hall of Fame caliber players who have spent a significant portion of their careers in Seattle, three of them were home-grown, with Randy Johnson being the lone exception.
What some may not always realize is the bang the M's got for their buck with those four. During A-Rod's 1996 campaign when he was infamously robbed of the Most Valuable Player award, he posted an incredible 1.045 OPS which would have easily led the AL this past season. Since he hadn't even hit arbitration yet, he was also paid the league's minimum salary.
This doesn't just apply to the M's, it applies to any club. Would you rather have paid Mark Texeira $2.38 million to post his .929 OPS (on-base + slugging), 38 home runs and 112 RBI this year, or Carlos Delgado a gaudy payday of $19.7 million to produce 32 home runs and a relatively mediocre .907 OPS? There's no argument, Texeira was by far the better value.
Good, young, relatively cheap players give teams the ability to spend big money on established talent.
Many believe Seattle should just plug in Bucky Jacobsen's $300,000 salary at designated hitter and allocate their entire stash of available payroll that they could spend a portion of on a DH, to land Adrian Beltre, among other options. Jacobsen may not put up Edgar-esque numbers, but the chances of the 29-year-old being at least major league average is well worth the risk.
For $300 grand, major league average is more than valuable.
The effect a minor league system has in the area of depth on a big-league roster a little more subtle, but just as important. One of the biggest keys to the Twins success was their ability to plug young, capable players in whenever a regular got hurt, traded or lost to free agency, which was quite often over the last couple of years.
Shannon Stewart goes down? No problem. Lew Ford steps in and produces immediately. Likewise, infielder Terry Tiffee and outfielder Jason Kubel admirably filled what could have been gaping holes on the Minnesota roster. Thanks to their quality farm system, the Twins never missed a beat and went on to win another division championship.
In contrast, Jason Giambi went down and the Yankees were forced to give 253 at-bats to Tony Clark before the M's bailed them out and released John Olerud. Clark's .297 on-base percentage didn't cost them a division title, but when Olerud got hurt in the ALCS, ripping the defensive confidence from the Yankees infield, and the Yankees proceeded to drop four straight, thanks in part to shoddy defense.
I'm not saying it was Clark's fault that they Yankees blew a 3-0 lead, but they really shouldn't have had to use a bench-quality player in that situation. An organization that places a priority on the farm system, unlike the Yankees, would have had much better options than Clark.
Remember all those trades the Mariners almost made when they were in contention? Pick your favorite pitching prospect, at some point we were rumored to be shipping out Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, Rafael Soriano or Clint Nageotte for whatever slugger was available that season. Pat Gillick never did pull the trigger on any of those deals, but the potential was there to deal players from our farm system to bring in an impact major leaguer to help.
The A's are the quintessential example of a team that develops talent with half the intention of trading it. Billy Beane always seems to be able to pull off a deadline deal to bring in whatever his squad needs to make a push that season.
From bullpen help like Jim Mecir and Octavio Dotel to outfielders like Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, the A's have used their minor league assets to supplement their roster virtually every year since Beane arrived.
Am I alone as a Mariner fan who gets frustrated that a small market team like the A's always seems to be able to help their team while the Mariners continue to fail at the deadline? For the A's, it's the result of an intentional plan to draft players that will quickly have trade value – or value to their major league roster. Their plan obviously works very well for them.
By no means is developing a strong farm system the only way to build a baseball team. There are other models that work, as the Yankees and Red Sox championships demonstrate.
Still, a strong farm system is a benefit to any franchise, and almost essential to those in small to medium markets that are on the cusp of contending. Cheap talent, depth, and tradable assets are key components that any team can use no matter how big or small their budget may be.
If the smartest of baseball people were running an organization, they would likely put a major emphasis on domestic and international scouting, hire the best available coaches, managers, instructors and scouts to help maximize the development of the talent available to be drafted and signed.
The finances it requires to build a strong, solid farm system is minute compared to the expense of not having one and the smartest know how to utilize such an approach.
And you can copy that – all you want.
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