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February 8, 2013

Pebble Hunting

What it Means to Have the Best Farm System in Baseball

by Sam Miller

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In three weeks or so, Jason Parks is going to publish his organizational rankings. Rankings like these, prospect writers will remind you, are a snapshot. They capture reality at a particular moment, the publication upon which that reality immediately shifts into something slightly different or significantly different. There’s no permanent truth for prospects.

But there is the snapshot, and snapshots can be powerful. We weren't ranking organizations yet in 2004, but just before that season Baseball America ranked the Brewers the best farm system in baseball. The Brewers were otherwise in a lousy place: They hadn’t had a winning record in 11 seasons, tied for the longest streak in baseball at the time. The team president predicted Milwaukee would snap that streak in 2004, but when ownership instead chose to cut payroll to $28 million—lowest in baseball, and $35 million below the league median—the Brewers fired the team president (and traded Richie Sexson). But at least the Brewers had the snapshot of that farm system. When GM Doug Melvin wrote a letter to Brewers fans that offseason and had it published in Milwaukee newspapers, the farm system was something to feel good about:


With Manny Parra signing this week with Cincinnati, every player on Baseball America’s top 30 for the 2004 Brewers has left the organization, or had the opportunity to leave the organization, or been evicted from the organization. In one sense, the book on that class is now closed, but in another it’s still going.

In three weeks or so, Parks will declare that some team has the best farm system in baseball. This is a look at the 2004 Brewers to see what that means, exactly.

2004
29 of 30 prospects remain in the system, eight of 30 prospects on 25-man roster.

To really drive home the point that organizational talent rankings have fruitflyingly short lifespans, the Brewers top 30 has been pared down to 29 by the time the Baseball America Prospect Handbook is even delivered. Luis Martinez—ranked no. 13—is a 6’ 6” lefty starter who had made his major-league debut for the Brewers in 2003. In February 2004, the Cardinals claim him. He is traded five months later as part of a package for Larry Walker. Then Japan, then Mexico, then indy ball. His last pitch under the aegis of an MLB organization is in 2004, six months after the rankings come out.

Eight players from the 30 appear in the majors for Milwaukee, producing a total of 0.8 WARP (or, if you exclude negative contributions, 1.3 positive WARP). The best is Mike Adams (no. 27), who pitches 53 innings of relief.

The Brewers go 67-94 and finish sixth in the NL Central.

2005
23 of 30 prospects remain in the system, nine of 30 on 25-man roster.

The top of the list arrives in the big leagues: Rickie Weeks (no. 1), Prince Fielder (no. 2), and J.J. Hardy (no. 3) all debut, producing a total of 0.7 WARP in 259 games.

By this point, the farm system has begun to spawn second generations of players for the organization. Midway through the 2004 season, the Brewers had traded Jason Belcher (no. 30 on BA’s pre-2004 list) and an unranked prospect to the Nationals for pitcher Saul Rivera and outfielder Peter Bergeron, both in their mid-20s, and both approaching minor-league free agency. Bergeron left the Brewers’ system after 82 minor-league games, and Rivera after 33 minor-league innings. Belcher and his descendants, then, produced nothing for the big-league club before his line died off.

Pedro Liriano (no. 18) is waived, having produced -0.2 WARP as a Brewer. Tim Bausher (no. 19), Gilberto Acosta (no. 23), Tommy Hawk (no. 28), and Greg Bruso (no. 29) are let go before appearing in the big leagues.

The nine Brewers prospects who play in the big leagues in 2005 produce 5.0 positive WARP. Most come from Chris Capuano, prospect no. 15 and an 18-game winner in 2005.

The Brewers go 81-81 and finish third in the NL Central.

2006
18 of 30 prospects remain in the system, 10 of 30 on the 25-man roster.

Jorge de la Rosa (no. 10) is traded for Tony Graffanino, who spends a year and a half with Milwaukee and produces 1.1 WARP for around $5 million. He leaves as a free agent after 2007.

Mike Adams is traded mid-season for Geremi Gonzalez, who pitches 42 innings for Milwaukee and produces 0.4 WARP. Gonzalez is released after the season.

Tom Wilhelmsen (no. 14) voluntarily retires after a marijuana-related suspension. Ben Diggins (no. 21), attempting to regain effectiveness after Tommy John surgery, is claimed by the Astros as a Rule 5 pick, and the Astros release him almost immediately. Jeff Bennett (no. 24) is released, having pitched below replacement level in 2004 but otherwise contributing nothing to the big-league club. Greg Kloosterman (no. 26) is also let go.

Weeks, with 1.9 WARP, joins Capuano as a productive product of the 2004 prospect class. The 10 players who appear in the majors in 2006, and Graffanino and Gonzalez, produce 7.1 WARP.

The Brewers go 75-87 and finish in fourth place.

2007
13 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, seven of 30 on the 25-man roster.

The Brewers spin more prospects into new players, most notably in a trade of Doug Davis, Dana Eveland (no. 16), and David Krynzel (no. 9) for Johnny Estrada, Greg Aquino, and Claudio Vargas. It’s hard to separate the prospects’ value from Doug Davis’ value in that trade, particularly because Davis is paid more than anybody else in the trade. Eveland hasn’t had an ERA higher than 3.00 in four-minor league seasons, but isn’t a great prospect; Krynzel has stalled out at Triple-A.

Regardless, even if we credit Eveland and Krynzel as key pieces of the deal, none of Estrada, Aquino, or Vargas has a huge impact on Milwaukee baseball. They produce a cumulative 1.7 WARP (mostly Vargas) in 2007, and all are gone by 2008. The Brewers acquire only Guillermo Mota for the lot.

Ben Hendrickson (no. 8) is traded for catcher Max St. Pierre, who is released after just 10 minor-league games. Dennis Sarfate is purchased by Houston.

The core of the 2004 prospect list has matured, and the seven big-leaguers produce 17.1 positive WARP in 2007. The three players acquired for Eveland and Krynzel add 1.7. Weeks, Fielder, Hardy, and Capuano are all above-average players, while Corey Hart (no. 7) produces 5.1 WARP.

The Brewers go 83-79 and finish in second place.

2008
11 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, seven of 30 on 25-man roster.

Jeff Housman (no. 20) and Steve Moss (no. 25) are let go. Johnny Estrada is traded for Guillermo Mota, who produces 0.4 WARP in 2008 before leaving as a free agent.

The 11 who remain:

Nelson finally makes his debut. He contributes little, but now the Brewers can say the top five prospects from the 2004 list are all in the majors. Hardy has a four-WARP season and Parra a three-WARP season. The 2004 group produces 12.3 positive WARP, along with Guillermo Mota’s 0.4 WARP, though the Brewers don’t get a positive contribution from anybody outside of that year’s top seven.

The Brewers go 90-72, finish in second place, and make the playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century.

2009
Nine of 30 prospects remain in the organization, six of 30 on 25-man roster.

It’s now five years since Baseball America’s ranking came out, and the group of 30 has been trimmed down to single digits. While Fielder, Weeks, Hardy and Hart are part of the club’s core, the Brewers get equal or greater contributions from players drafted and developed after that 2004 list: Ryan Braun (drafted in 2005) and Yovani Gallardo (2004). Despite having such a strong farm system in 2004, the Brewers still must do a lot of shopping to fill out the roster: sometimes effectively (Trevor Hoffman, Mike Cameron) and sometimes not (Dave Bush, Braden Looper). Chris Capuano, injured, is non-tendered but re-signed as a free agent, though he doesn’t pitch in 2009.

Tony Gwynn, Jr. is traded to San Diego for Jody Gerut, who is below replacement level for Milwaukee in 2009 and 2010. Lou Palmisano is released.

Of the 2004 prospects, only Prince Fielder has a very good year in 2009. Cumulatively, they produce 7.1 positive WARP.

The Brewers go 80-82 and finish third in the NL Central.

2010
Six of 30 prospects remain in the organization, five of 30 on the 25-man roster.

And the cycle reaches a new stage: Spinning off the now-veteran Brewers for younger players. J.J. Hardy is traded to Minnesota for Carlos Gomez, who is below replacement level in his first year with the Brewers but whose low service time keeps him under team control for four more seasons.

Brad Nelson is released, as is outfielder Charlie Fermaint, who never appears in the majors. Mike Jones is now the only player from the 2004 group who is still with Milwaukee but not in the majors. Jones, the 12th-overall pick in 2001, is a 6’ 4” right-hander who was on three BA top 100s. Injuries shortened his 2004 season, he didn’t pitch in 2005, and he's been striking out five or six per nine innings ever since.

Weeks has his best year, Capuano returns from two years of injuries, and the five 2004 prospects in the big leagues combine for 11.9 positive WARP. (Gomez and Gerut would both lower the contribution with negative WARPs.)

The group is approaching the end of its club-controlled obligations. Weeks, Hart, and Fielder each finishes the season with five years of service time and could be a free agent after 2011. But Weeks signs a four-year, $38.5 million extension that will keep him in Milwaukee through 2014. Hart signs a three-year extension for $26.5 million.

The Brewers go 77-85 and finish in third place in the NL Central.

2011
Four of 30 prospects remain in the organization, four of 30 on the 25-man roster.

Chris Capuano leaves as a free agent. Mike Jones is finally let loose. Manny Parra has elbow surgery and misses the season. Prince Fielder, approaching free agency, finishes third in MVP voting.

Carlos Gomez contributes 1.0 WARP. He and the remaining members of the 2004 class produce 10.0 WARP.

The Brewers finish 96-66 and win their division for the first time since 1982.

2012
Three of 30 prospects remain in the organization, three of 30 on the 25-man roster.

Prince Fielder leaves as a free agent, and the Brewers collect two compensation picks, which they use on catcher Clint Coulter and outfielder Mitch Haniger. Jason Parks ranks Coulter the seventh-best prospect in the organization before the 2013 season, and ranks Haniger eighth.

Carlos Gomez emerges as a pretty good player. Rickie Weeks has his worst season, Corey Hart has one of his worst, and Manny Parra returns to the mound but isn’t much good. The group, including Gomez, produces 4.0 positive WARP, slightly less than Fielder produces for his new team.

The Brewers go 83-79 and finish in third place.

2013
Two of the 30 prospects remain in the organization: Weeks and Hart. The remnants of that group also include Carlos Gomez, who is signed for $4.3 million and could be a free agent after this season; and the two players taken with compensatory first-round draft picks.

Here’s an unwieldy chart showing all this activity, where “Mi” means the player was in the minors, numbers represent major-league WARP totals, and italics mean the player could have left as a free agent at some point before that season.

Player 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Rickie Weeks Mi 0.6 1.9 2.3 2.3 1 4 2.5 -0.1
Prince Fielder Mi 0 0.5 4 1.8 4.7 3.2 4.4 x
J.J. Hardy Mi 0.1 0 2.1 4.1 1 x x x
Manny Parra Mi Mi Mi 0.8 2.9 0.3 1.7 Inj 0.7
Brad Nelson Mi Mi Mi Mi 0.1 -0.5 x x x
Mike Jones Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi x x
Corey Hart 0 -0.2 0.2 5.1 1.1 0.1 2.4 2.1 1.3
Ben Hendrickson 0.4 Mi 0.3 x x x x x x
David Krynzel 0 -0.2 Mi x x x x x x
Jorge de la Rosa 0 0.6 0 x x x x x x
Lou Palmisano Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi x x x x
Dennis Sarfate Mi Mi 0.4 x x x x x x
Luis Martinez x x x x x x x x x
Tom Wilhelmsen Mi Mi x x x x x x x
Chris Capuano 0.3 3.1 3.4 2.8 Inj Inj 0.6 x x
Dana Eveland Mi 0.5 -0.1 x x x x x x
Anthony Gwynn Mi Mi -0.3 -0.2 -0.1 x x x x
Pedro Liriano -0.2 x x x x x x x x
Tim Bausher Mi x x x x x x x x
Jeff Housman Mi Mi Mi Mi x x x x x
Ben Diggins Mi Mi x x x x x x x
Charlie Fermaint Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi x x x
Gilberto Acosta Mi x x x x x x x x
Jeff Bennett -0.3 Mi x x x x x x x
Steve Moss Mi Mi Mi Mi x x x x x
Greg Kloosterman Mi Mi x x x x x x x
Mike Adams 0.6 0.1 -0.3 x x x x x x
Tommy Hawk Mi x x x x x x x x
Greg Bruso Mi x x x x x x x x
Jason Belcher Mi x x x x x x x x
ACQUIRED
PLAYERS
Max St. Pierre x x x Mi x x x x x
Carlos Gomez x x x x x x -1 1 2
Clint Coulter x x x x x x x x x
Mitch Haniger x x x x x x x x x
Johnny Estrada x x x 0.2 x x x x x
Greg Aquino x x x 0 x x x x x
Claudio Vargas x x x 1.5 x x x x x
Tony Graffanino x x 0.5 0.6 x x x x x
Jody Gerut x x x x x -0.5 -0.1 x x
Geremi Gonzalez x x 0.4 x x x x x x
Peter Bergeron Mi x x x x x x x x
Saul Rivera Mi x x x x x x x x
Guillermo Mota x x x x 0.4 x x x x

Whether this group was successful depends on your perspective, like anything else. All these players cost about $136 million, and they produced about 74.9 wins. The cost of a win is always debatable, and can shift based on position, team needs, whether the player is signing with his old team or a new team, and, of course, which system you use to measure wins. But if we use a $4 million/win estimate to cover this time period, recognizing that a greater percentage of the money and the wins came in the middle and later years, then we’d estimate that the Brewers got about $300 million worth of value and paid only $136 million. Tack on the surplus value of a draft pick—around $5 million apiece—plus the potential draft picks they could get if Weeks or Hart merits a qualifying offer and the potential surplus value the Brewers could still get out of Carlos Gomez, and it’s a pretty cool thing, having the best farm system in baseball, especially when it’s heavy on safer hitting prospects and when none of the top three flops.

The Brewers didn’t win a World Series with that group of 30, and if they win it now the connection to the 30 will be fairly tenuous (though not insignificant). They didn’t reel off a dynasty, or even a three-year period as division favorites. But they did snap their streak of losing seasons. They did make the postseason twice. They did finish seven games over .500 over the nine-year stretch, and 34 games over .500 from 2005 to 2012, despite having a below-average payroll in every season but two. They did entertain their fans with a superstar first baseman doing superstar first baseman things, and they did get a decent core of about five players contributing regularly for about a four-year window. At the end of it, they even get a couple players to dream on, and a couple players signed to extensions (which usually favor the club). So that’s what it means to have the best system in baseball.

Thanks to Ben Lindbergh for research assistance.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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