January 17, 2014
What it Means to Have the Best Farm System in Baseball, Part Two
In the late 2000s, when the Angels’ farm system (weakened mostly by promotions and a lack of early first-round draft picks) started to place low in organizational rankings, some local writers would respond with a pithy counterpoint: In 2000, the Angels were ranked 29th by Baseball America, and two years later they won the World Series. This supposeduly irrefutable refutation was trotted out so reliably it seemed likely that reporters were parroting the club's own words. You never got the sense that the Angels, as an organization, thought much of organizational rankings.
The organizational rankings, in time, thought much more of the Angels. They improved from 29th to 25th to 17th to fifth to third and, finally, before the 2005 season, they were baseball’s no. 1 farm system, according to both BA and John Sickels. Baseball Prospectus didn’t do org rankings yet, but that year's top prospects list had two Angels in the top five. The Angels had made this great leap forward while also dramatically upgrading their big-league results; as Matt Welch writes in the Angels team essay in this year’s BP Annual, “it almost felt like the Angels had beaten baseball's business cycle.”
Many years have passed since then; every part of the organization has been at various points up or down. As we did last year with the 2004 Brewers' top 30 prospects, we’re going to look at the longitudinal impact of an elite farm system to see just how long the benefits last, and how big those benefits can get.
Year 1 (2005)
Part of what made the Angels’ system so exciting at the time was that the two best prospects, no. 1 Casey Kotchman and no. 2 Dallas McPherson, were each already at the major-league level; McPherson, we wrote in that year’s Annual, was “the most polished power bat in the minors and was probably ready for a third base job in the majors two years ago.” But he flopped and got hurt in 2005, while Kotchman—blocked at first base by .273/.325/.371-hitting Darin Erstad—had a career-worst season in a repeat of Triple-A.
Six players from the top 30 appear in the majors this year, producing 1.3 WARP—or, if you exclude negative contributions, which I will do going forward unless noted—1.9 WARP. The most productive player is no. 7 prospect Ervin Santana, who debuts in May and throws 140 pretty good innings.
The Angels win 95 games and the division.
Year 2 (2006)
The consolidation year: Debuts of no. 3 Erick Aybar, no. 4 Jeff Mathis, no. 15 Dustin Moseley, no. 24 Reggie Willits; near-full-time roles for no. 5 Kendry Morales, no. 8 Howie Kendrick, no. 16 Maicer Izturis and no. 29 Mike Napoli; and finally a starting job for Kotchman. But it was an imperfect consolidation: Kotchman missed most of the year with mono, while McPherson lost his job to Chone Figgins.
Kotchman, more than probably any player here, had insane expectations around him. From one Baseball Think Factory comment thread around the time the BA rankings came out:
A persistent organizational theme begins, as the Angels debate cashing in their young talent for stars: “Ken Rosenthal's got the scoop on a sweet offer made to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada: starter Ervin Santana and shortstop Erick Aybar," MLBTradeRumors writes in July.
Four prospects disappear: No. 9 Alberto Callaspo is traded for reliever Jason Bulger; no. 18 Jake Woods, a reliever, is lost to waivers; no. 22 Anthony Whittington is released at the age of 20 with a walk rate of nearly one per inning; and no. 30 Mitch Arnold, bearer of UCL and labrum maladies, is released, briefly reappearing five years later in independent ball.
Twelve prospects appear in the majors, producing 8.4 WARP. Maicer Izturis and Mike Napoli, both unheralded relative to their teammates, are the best of the group. It should be noted here that Jered Weaver also debuts, but although he had been drafted before the 2005 organizational rankings he was not included, as he had not signed. The Angels had the best farm system in baseball and Jered Weaver.
The Angels win 89 games, finish second in the AL West, miss the playoffs.
Year 3 (2007)
Again with the trade rumors: Casey Kotchman and Joe Saunders and another top prospect for Mark Teixeira, declined. Brandon Wood or Ervin Santana for Troy Glaus, discussed. Nothing comes of either, and the group mostly stays together. Only three players fall out of the organization: no. 12 Baltazar Lopez, exiled to Mexico, where he remains active today; no. 25 Rob Zimmermann, released after his performance cratered in Double-A; and no. 26 Tim Bittner, released midseason after a third failed attempt at Double-A.
Kotchman has his best year, and Howie Kendrick hits .322, but it’s actually Reggie Willits who leads the prospects with 2.3 WARP and a .391 OBP in full-time play. The group produced 12 WARP. McPherson is a disappointment (he misses the whole year, injured) but he’s the only one. They’re so loaded they flirt with moving Erick Aybar to center field. Almost the whole unit remains intact. Life is good.
Year 4 (2008)
The dissolution begins. Kotchman is traded, mid-season, for Mark Teixeira, a pending free agent. McPherson is released. No. 10 Steven Shell is granted free agency, having failed to make it to the majors after striking out 190 (in 165 High-A innings) in 2004. No. 21 Warner Madrigal is released after an outfielder-to-pitcher conversion attempt. No. 23 Nick Gorneault, much loved by some for sexy old-for-his-level slash lines, is lost to waivers after two big-league games.
Mathis, meanwhile, is finally accepted by most of us to be what he is, not what he was. No. 6 Brandon Wood starts moving down prospect lists. Teixeira isn’t re-signed, despite the Angels’ strong wishes. He departs holding the Angels’ all-time record for OPS and OPS+, minimum 15 plate appearances. Trade rumors (unconsummated) link the Angels to Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera.
Still. Fifteen of the 30 prospects appear in the majors for the Angels; so too do Bulger and Teixeira. Even if no superstar has emerged, that’s an incredible graduation rate. They produce 18.0 positive WARP, led by Mike Napoli (3.2) and Teixeira (3.1). The Angels win 100 games. They finish in first, again.
Besides the mid-season trade of Kotchman the year before, only no. 27 Drew Toussaint goes away. Later in the year, no. 14 Sean Rodriguez is a significant part of the package to acquire Scott Kazmir. (Half of Kazmir’s value to the Angels will be credited to this group of prospects, for accounting purposes.)
Meanwhile, the departure of Mark Teixeira gives the Angels two draft picks. The world will have you believe that one of those picks was used on Mike Trout—technically, administratively true, which, for the purposes of this article, would be an amazingly convenient thing. But intellectual honesty counts for something. There’s no reason whatsoever to think that Mark Teixeira leaving is what landed Mike Trout in Anaheim. Rather, it landed Randal Grichuk in the Angels’ system. So Grichuk and supplemental pick Tyler Skaggs get added to the books for this prospect class.
Again, 15 of the original 30 appear in the majors for the Angels. They, along with Bulger and Kazmir, produce 17.6 WARP, led by Kendry Morales (3.9). The Angels win 97 games and make the ALCS, where the homegrown or farm system-bolstered rotation (Lackey, Weaver, Saunders, Kazmir) is so deep that Ervin Santana moves to the bullpen. This is, horribly, also the year that Nick Adenhart (no. 20) dies.
Year 6 (2010)
The final two prospects in the system who haven’t made the majors (or been released, waived, traded or retired) do: no. 11 Mark Trumbo and no. 28 Bobby Cassevah. An incredible 21 players from this group of 30 make the majors for the Angels, and at least two others (Shell and Callaspo) do for other teams.
Meanwhile, even though no. 15 Dustin Moseley is the only player to leave between 2009 and 2010, it starts to appear that the peak for this prospect class has passed. Brandon Wood gets his first real shot at third base. His career is almost instantaneously over. Kazmir barely survives the year. Kendry Morales breaks his leg. And no. 13 Joe Saunders, no. 17 Rafael Rodriguez, and Teixeira-compensation Tyler Skaggs are shipped out for Dan Haren. Patrick Corbin is part of that deal, but we’ll assign 90 percent of Haren’s future value to the 2005 prospect class.
Fourteen prospects appear in the majors for the Angels this year, plus Bulger, Kazmir, and Haren. They produce 13.1 positive WARP, though Brandon Wood singlehandedly undoes 15 percent of that. The Angels win 80 games and miss the playoffs.
Year 7 (2011)
Mike Napoli gets traded for Vernon Wells. Nobody else leaves the system, Mark Trumbo emerges as a solid everyday player, Erick Aybar is well above average, Dan Haren gets Cy Young votes, and the 10 prospects who appear, plus Haren et al, produce 15.9 WARP. But Mike Napoli does get traded for Vernon Wells, which is the sort of generational era-shifting moment that Philip Roth would write an entire book about. The Angels win 86 games but miss the playoffs again.
Year 8 (2012)
Izturis walks, Haren leaves, Santana and Morales are traded (for Sisk and Vargas), Vernon Wells is traded (for Cayones and Sneed), and it’s down to four guys: Kendrick, Aybar, Trumbo, and no. 19 Kevin Jepsen. On the one hand, three very solid pieces to have in the organization nine full years after our prospect rankings. All, arguably, valuable commodities, with two having signed below-market extensions and one being pre-arbitration. So that’s the one hand. The other hand is the group at the farm system’s long tail: Vargas added for a year, but otherwise nobody but Grichuk had any sort of outlook, and Grichuk only barely. The 2005 prospect class produces 5.3 WARP, which isn’t nothing, but appears to be very close to dissolving into nothingness.
And, just as it looked to be coming to an end, the Angels extend the group’s lifespan. Skaggs and Santiago each has a half-decade of service time; Skaggs still offers a glimmer of hope that he could be the sort of talent that produces a compensation pick down the line. Grichuk was also included in the David Freese deal, though he’s probably only 10 percent or so of that deal. The Angels project to get about 6.3 WARP out of the group that remains, for about $21 million or $22 million. That’s a good rate. Considering how badly some of the Angels’ trades went, it’s not a bad remnant. The game’s best farm system, it turns out, produces about six below-market wins even a decade later.
This is pretty impressive. The 2004 Brewers' system, by comparison, produced 74 WARP, excluding negative totals. They produced a legitimate superstar in Prince Fielder; they had a trade (Hardy for Gomez) that landed another; they didn’t, like, partially bury Corey Hart for five years behind a massively inferior teammate and then trade him for Barry Zito; they didn’t deal with anything as awful and unfortunate as the Nick Adenhart tragedy; and still they trail the Angels by a lot. The Angels’ system simply produced a massive number of major leaguers. Twenty-one of 30 appearing in the Angels’ uniform; 16 for the Brewers. And Howie Kendrick has produced just about as many WARP (though no draft picks, yet) as Fielder did for the Brewers. Plus, it's basically just a quirk of timing that keeps Jered Weaver from really padding these numbers. Heck of a system.
The Angels also spent a lot more than the Brewers, thanks to the salary commitments they took on in the trades. The Brewers spent $136 million on their entire group, all 74 WARP. The Angels spent almost that much on Wells and Kazmir, and almost twice as much as the Brewers overall. And as impressive as the Angels' drafting and player development were, there's a real sense that opportunities were missed to extend the value of the group further into the future; that overall profit doesn't excuse a couple really wretched decisions. But we’re getting off track. The point of this isn’t to litigate a decade of Angels’ baseball ops decisions; the wins (of which there were many) and losses (too) can handle that. We’re just collecting data. We now know, with twice as much confidence, what the best farm system in baseball produces, and for how long. Control+P, Twins fans.