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October 14, 2006

Future Shock

Where Did the Tigers and the Athletics Come From?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Detroit Tigers

They lost 119 games four years ago, and last year they lost 91, causing Baseball Prospectus 2006 to opine "This year is probably a lost cause." Instead, the 2006 Tigers won 95 games in the regular season, and are one win away from the World Series. How did this happen? Let's look at how the postseason roster was built, before moving on to talk about Oakland.

Catcher:

Ivan Rodriguez (Free Agent, 2/04)
Vance Wilson (Trade, 1/05)

Before Pudge came along, Brandon Inge was the homegrown option behind the plate for a couple of years. Obviously, you can't avoid signing one of the best players at his position in the game because you have Brandon Inge. Wilson came over for Anderson Hernandez, who has done practically nothing in New York; he's your classic serviceable backup catcher who does his job well behind the plate, doesn't get on base much, but occasionally hits one out.

Infield:

Sean Casey (Trade, 7/06)
Carlos Guillen (Trade, 1/04)
Omar Infante (FA, Venezuela, 1999)
Brandon Inge (Draft, 2nd round, 1998)
Neifi Perez (Trade, 8/06)
Placido Polanco (Trade 6/05)
Ramon Santiago (Free Agent, 1/06)

The only talents here that have spent their entire careers with the Tigers are Infante and Inge. Santiago should almost count, as he came up with the Tigers, got traded to Seattle in the Carlos Guillen trade, and was subsequently re-signed by the Tigers once the Mariners cut him. Which brings us to the Carlos Guillen trade: in January 2004, the Mariners sent Guillen to the Tigers for Santiago and Juan Gonzalez (no, not that Juan Gonzalez). Santiago was released less than two years later, and Gonzalez has turned into a A-ball journeyman, so the trade netted nothing for Seattle, but just as damming was why the trade was even made in the first place. The same day the Mariners made that trade, they also signed Rich Aurilia as a free agent. Now Guillen was hardly the star he is now, but he was 28 years old, coming off his best season at .276/.359/.394, and due a mere $2.5 million. Aurilla had the outlier 37 home run season in 2001, but was coming off a year (.277/.325/.410) that was really no better than Guillen's, was four years older, and going to cost three-quarters of a million more. While nobody really saw Guillen turning into this kind of player, it's still a remarkably bad move. Looking at the rest of this list does show what a tough time the Tigers have had in developing their own infielders, as they haven't developed a good shortstop or second baseman since Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker owned those jobs for nearly two decades.

Outfield:

Alexis Gomez (Free Agent, 11/05)
Curtis Granderson (Draft, 3rd round, 2002)
Craig Monroe (Waiver Claim, 2/02)
Magglio Ordonez (Free Agent, 2/05)
Marcus Thames (Free Agent, 12/03)

Ordonez had a good season, but certainly not a $16 million season. Luckily the Tigers make up for in with a drafted player (Granderson) who is cheap for a while yet, and some nice inexpensive finds on the scrap heap. An eighth-round pick out of high school by the Rangers in 1995, Monroe spent three years in the Florida State League, but had some decent years at Double- and Triple-A, with OBPs over .350 and slugging percentages over .500. Just 23, the Rangers tried to sneak him through waivers prior to the 2002 season in a 40-man roster maneuver, and the Tigers wisely pounced.

Forgotten fact: Monroe was more of a speedster with some pop than the opposite early in his career, stealing 50 bases for High-A Charlotte in 1997, and swiping another 40 bags the following year. Thames was a Yankees draft-and-follow signed in 1997 who was floundering until 2001, when he hit .321/.410/.598 with 31 home runs at Double-A Norwich. The next year he hit .207/.297/.378 at Triple-A Columbus, and the bloom was off the rose. After another slow start he was sent to the Rangers for what was left of Ruben Sierra. He played 45 games in the Rangers' organization before they made him a free agent, and the Tigers signed him to play at Triple-A Toledo, where he exploded again, batting .329/.410/.735 in 2004 and .340/.427/.679 the following year. He's truly the definition of a late bloomer. Gomez is also a waiver claim who the Tigers re-signed after the 2005 season. Always highly regarded for his tools when he was coming up in the Royals system, Gomez was always more tools than performance before Kansas City finally gave up on him. Despite his Game Two heroics, he's not likely to ever make any sort of long-term impact in the big leagues.

Starting Pitchers:

Jeremy Bonderman (Trade, 8/02)
Nate Robertson (Trade, 1/03)
Kenny Rogers (Free Agent, 12/05)
Justin Verlander (Draft, 1st round, 2004)

Bonderman was a first-round pick in 2001 by the Athletics. At the time, they did not have a Low-A team, so he debuted in the California League and pitched very well for his age, with a 3.61 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 144.2 innings. He went to the Tigers in a somewhat complicated three-way deal that got the A's and Yankees, well, not a whole heckuva lot. The next year he was one of the biggest stories of spring training as he made the rotation despite just 27 minor league starts. He easily had his best season this year, and he's only 24 (at the end of October). If he continues to advance, he'll be one of the more expensive free agents in recent memory as a power righthander just entering his prime. That is the danger of bringing up players when they are 20 years old.

A fifth-round pick in 1999 by the Marlins, Robertson moved quickly through the Florida system despite some early arm problems and came over in a trade for Mark Redman. Rogers was a free agent signing this year--with 207 career wins, he's certainly one of the best 39th round picks in history. It's easy to write off Verlander as a gimme, since he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft, but that's not really the case. While he did strike out 151 in 105.2 innings in his final year at Old Dominion, he also had a paltry 7-6 record and a 3.49 ERA. It was easy to find college pitchers in that draft who were more dominant, but it was impossible to find one with better stuff. Pitchers with two offerings that grade out as 70 or higher on the 20-80 scouting scale are nearly impossible to find in the majors, never mind college. He serves as another example of why you cannot draft college players solely off statistics.

Bullpen:

Jason Grilli (Free Agent, 2/05)
Todd Jones (Free Agent, 12/05)
Wilfredo Ledezma (Rule 5 Draft, 12/02)
Zach Miner (Trade 7/05)
Fernando Rodney (FA, Dominican Republic, 1997)
Jamie Walker (Free Agent, 11/01)
Joel Zumaya (Draft, 11th round, 2002)

Grilli is another lost soul who found his way to Detroit, where he's become a useful arm. So much was expected from him early on, and most have probably forgotten that he was the fourth overall pick by the Giants in 1997 out of Seton Hall. The Giants rushed him, beginning his career in Double-A, and he didn't pitch especially well, but still had enough promise to be involved in a trade to the Marlins for Livan Hernandez. His Florida career was a mix of injuries and ineffectiveness, after which the White Sox took him in the 2003 Rule Five draft; he lasted in their system for a year before getting released and landing in Detroit. So many high draft picks either turn into stars, or turn into nothing--it's rare to see the player who sticks it out, overcomes adversity and turns into a generic major leaguer--maybe that's why I like him so much.

Todd Jones was a first-round pick 17 years ago, and is earning the biggest salary of his career at 38. Ledezma was picked Rule 5 out of the Red Sox system in 2002, and the Tigers did a good job of keeping him in the majors on a bad 2003 team before allowing him to develop in the minors again starting the next following season. Miner was a mediocre Braves prospect that arrived in last year's Kyle Farnsworth deal, and he pitched well enough at Triple-A Toledo to get a chance and did well as a fifth starter. He'll never be anything more than that, but it's nice work if you can get it. Rodney is a homegrown power arm that came along slowly but finally paid off. Walker began his career with Houston at a 10th round pick in 1992, was selected by Atlanta in the Rule Five draft five years later, and basically became an organizational lefty, bouncing to Kansas City and Cleveland before arriving in Detroit and finally getting an opportunity to shine. Zumaya is one of those unrepeatable strokes of luck. An 11th round pick in 2002 as a raw high school arm who occasionally touched 90, it's nearly impossible to find any other pitcher in history who throws 10-12 mph harder than he did in high school.

The Breakdown:

Free Agent Signs: 9
Trade: 8
Drafted: 4
International: 2
Waiver Claim: 1
Rule 5 Draft: 1

The free agent signings should be broken up into two categories. Rodriguez, Ordonez, Jones and Rogers are all 'traditional' free agents who had many bidders in an open market, but they other five are all players who were really signed off the scrap heap. Santiago, Gomez, Thames, Grilli, and Walker are all players that really few others wanted, and the same could be said for Monroe. That's nearly one quarter of the roster coming from the Island of Misfit Toys, almost unheard of for a postseason team.

The trades are also pretty remarkable overall when one adds them up:

Received:
Jeremy Bonderman
Sean Casey
Roman Colon
Franklyn German
Carlos Guillen
Rob Henkel
Gary Knotts
Zach Miner
Carlos Pena
Neifi Perez
Placido Polanco
Nate Robertson
Vance Wilson

Traded:
Kyle Farnsworth
Jerrod Fuell
Juan Gonzalez (shortstop)
Anderson Hernandez
Ramon Martinez
Mark Redman
Chris Robinson
Brian Rogers
Ramon Santiago
Ugueth Urbina
Jeff Weaver

That's eight players on the postseason roster for not a whole lot. Of the players traded away, only Jeff Weaver and Ramon Martinez would have a chance of making this roster, and that would be in minor roles at best.

While only four players on the team were drafted by the Tigers, and only six in total were developed solely by the organization, their roles in the Tigers turnaround this year have been much more than just the 24% of the roster they compose. The key to this team is their ability to prevent runs (they led the league in allowing only 4.17 runs per game), and according to VORP, Verlander was the eighth-best pitcher in the American League, while Zumaya ranked fourth among relievers in Adjusted Runs Prevented.

This is a uniquely constructed team getting some important contributions from unexpected places. The Tigers' front office deserves a remarkable amount of credit for the turnaround, but whether or not this is a sustainable model remains to be seen.

Oakland Athletics

Unlike Detroit, Oakland has always been good. OK, not always, but they have had a winning record in each of the last eight years while reaching the post-season five times. Here's how their postseason roster was put together:

Catcher:

Jason Kendall (Trade, 11/04)
Adam Melhuse (Free Agent, 11/02)

Kendall is what he is at this point, a punch-and-judy hitter with a decent average and a modicum of on-base skills. Not a horrible thing, but obviously not worth $11+ million. Oakland still has one more year of the albatross that is Kendall's contract, then Kurt Suzuki should be in line to take over. Suzuki should be a little more productive, better defensively, and obviously a helluva lot cheaper. Melhuse spent seven seasons in the Blue Jays system and didn't make the big leagues until he was 28, with the Dodgers. He spent a couple years in the Rockies system, and moved onto the Cubs before Oakland signed him. It was an astute grab, not that Melhuse is anything more than a backup catcher, yet his minor league numbers always showed enough power and on-base skills to be worth more of a shot than he got early in his career.

Infield:

Eric Chavez (Draft, 1st round, 1996)
D'Angelo Jimenez (Free Agent, 6/06)
Dan Johnson (Draft, 7th round, 2001)
Mark Kiger (Draft, 5th round, 2002)
Marco Scutaro (Waivers, 10/03)
Nick Swisher (Draft, 1st round, 2002)
Frank Thomas (Free Agent, 1/06)

Chavez' career has been a strange one. The 10th overall pick in the 1996 draft out of a California high school, Chavez hit 18 home runs and drove in 100 runs in his full-season debut as a 19-year-old in the California League. The following year he exploded, batting .327 with 33 home runs in 529 at-bats split between Double- and Triple-A before his 21st birthday, and earning some consideration as the best prospect in the game. He struggled in his rookie season but was them among the top third basemen in the American League for five years before his recent dropoff occurred. Looking at the last three years, his slugging percentage has gone from .501 to .466 to .435, and the strange thing is he theoretically should be just hitting his stride, as he's still in his late 20s.

In 1999, Jimenez was one of the brightest shortstop prospects in the game after batting .327/.392/.492 at Triple-A Columbus as a 21-year-old. He had a harrowing car accident in the offseason and has never been the same, floating to the Padres, White Sox, Reds, and Rangers before getting signed this summer by Oakland. He's still a solid performer with plus speed and good contact skills, and he'll probably last a while in a utility role. Johnson lasted until the seventh round five years ago because he was a college senior and an unathletic first baseman, but at the same time, all he did was hit in the minors. This year was a disappointment, and it's important to note that at 27, he's not on the same time frame, nor is his leash as loose, as most second-year players. Kiger is obviously only on the roster because of the Mark Ellis injury. He's 26 years old, and this year was his third at Double-A, so that's all you need to know. Picking up Scutaro on waivers three years ago has proven to be an enormous move, as he's done yeoman's work filling in for an injured Bobby Crosby over the past couple of years. While on the surface he looks like a bit of a journeyman, Scutaro has consistently put up solid-to-very good numbers in the minors, with a career line of .297/.375/.439. He did very little with the Mets in 111 big league at-bats before getting waived and picked up by Oakland, but his performances at Triple-A Norfolk (850 OPS in 2002, 921 in 2003) should have convinced them that he has some sort of value. Scutaro turns 31 at the end of the year, and his play over the past three months has probably extended his career by at least two years.

Swisher has simply gotten better every year since being drafted 16th overall in 2002 out of Ohio State, and it wouldn't shock me in the least if he was Oakland's most productive hitter next season. While he rarely played there in the minors, A's officials always insisted he had Gold Glove potential at first base, and he'll likely stay there after beginning his career as an outfielder. Thomas was easily the free agent bargain of the year, and arguably the team's most valuable player in the regular season.

Outfield:

Hiram Bocachica (Free Agent, 2/06)
Milton Bradley (Trade, 12/05)
Bobby Kielty (Trade, 11/03)
Mark Kotsay (Trade, 11/03)
Jay Payton (Trade, 7/05)

Bocachica was signed by the A's prior to the 2005 season, and then re-signed before this year. A first-round pick by the Expos (remember them?) as a shortstop out of Puerto Rico in 1994, Bocachica was always a decent offensive performer without a defensive home after committing 58 errors in his full-season debut. The Dodgers, Tigers and Mariners all attempted to find some way to turn him into a utility player, and to his credit he's developed a little bit of power to go with what is already plus speed and a good approach. At 30 years old, he's obviously running out of time, but he has enough skills to earn a few more shots at a bench job.

Bradley had a solid season, but the player he was traded for, Andre Ethier was a little bit better and still improving. One has to assume that the A's would like that one back. Kielty had an interesting entry into pro baseball. Undrafted out of college in 1998, he went to the Cape Cod League, earned MVP honors in front of hordes of scouts, and ended up being the subject of a free agent bidding war that was won by the Twins. Gaudy walk totals made him a bit of a stathead favorite early in his career, but an inability to consistently hit right-handed pitching has limited him to a bench role. The Athletics gave up Ted Lilly for him, which is a bit much. Since the trade, Kielty has a three-year WARP3 of 6.7, while Lilly is at 14.4.

Kotsay has been in decline offensively the last two years, but is still an outstanding defender in centerfield, as anybody who saw the fourth inning of Friday's game can attest to. At the same time, the A's did give up Ramon Hernandez to get him, which all relates to the Kendall conundrum. A first-round pick by the Mets in 1994 who was arguably the most productive bat on a Georgia Tech team that included Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek, Payton is now in the 'professional hitter' phase of his career, and only cost the team Chad Bradford.

Starting Pitchers:

Rich Harden (Draft, 17th round, 2001)
Dan Haren (Trade, 12/04)
Esteban Loaiza (Free Agent, 11/05)
Barry Zito (Draft, 1st round, 1999)

You see Harden and you think that's a 17th-round steal, and in a way it is, but he was a draft-and-follow. Huge credit to Oakland for seeing the potential, but he cost more than a 17th-round pick normally does in the end, so he shouldn't be graded solely as such. He has the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in the league, but it's all going to come down to health, which remains a pretty big 'if' for Harden, who has thrown only 175 innings over the past two years. While it's hard to see him becoming a star, Haren is certainly an above-average starting pitcher, which is a rare enough commodity in itself. He's just one part of the lopsided Mark Mulder trade, which more than makes up for the disappointing returns from dealing Tim Hudson to Atlanta. Loaiza serves as an innings-eater, which is not enough considering his $6 million salary. Zito was the ninth overall pick in the 1999 draft, and the second college pitcher selected. The first was Kyle Snyder, so it all worked out (at least for Oakland) in the end.

Bullpen:

Joe Blanton (Draft, 1st round, 2002)
Kiko Calero (Trade, 12/04)
Justin Duchscherer (Trade, 3/02)
Chad Guadin (Trade, 12/05)
Joe Kennedy (Trade, 7/05)
Kirk Saarloos (Trade, 4/04)
Huston Street (Draft, 1st round, 2004)

Normally in the rotation, Blanton gave up a .322 batting average to opposing batters after the All-Star break this year, which is the primary reason he's the odd man out in the playoff rotation. While it took Blanton just over two years to get to the majors, his inability to maintain his high strikeout rate from his minor league days is a cause for concern. Calero is yet another piece of value from the Mulder trade, and top prospect Daric Barton has the potential to be more important to Oakland's future than either Calero or Haren.

Duchscherer took almost six years to reach the majors after being drafted in the 8th round by the Red Sox in 1996. His numbers in the minors were consistently good, with very low walk rates and decent strikeout rates, but his stuff was (and still is, frankly) unimpressive. Some are still at a loss as to how he gets it done, but uncanny command and a keen understanding of his craft seem to be the key. The Texas Rangers really screwed up twice in March of 2002, first they traded Duchscherer to Oakland for Luis Vizcaino, and instead of hanging on to Vizcaino, who has had a solid career as a reliever, they traded him three days later to the Brewers for Jesus Pena, who would never reach the majors again.

Acquired from Toronto in the offseason for minor league outfielder Dustin Majewski, Gaudin had a solid year out of the bullpen, and even picked up a couple of saves, but with more walks (40 unintentional), than strikeouts (36), it's hard count on him long-term. The A's traded for Kennedy (and reliever Jay Witasick) late in the 2005 season when they were desperate for arms, and luckily only gave up future bench player Omar Quintanilla and Eric Byrnes (whose future should also be on the bench). It's easily to assume that even the A's aren't thrilled that they've had to use Saarloos for 281 innings over the past two seasons. With an outstanding changeup but mid-80s velocity, Saarloss is forced to pitch backwards, which is exceptionally difficult at the big league level, and in these 281 innings, he's given up 319 hits, walked 107 and struck out just 105.

The A's bullpen works, but it's anything but a by-the-book relief corps. Nobody throws hard except for Street, and he doesn't throw with nearly as much oomph as your standard big league closer. That lack of classic power velocity dropped him to the 40th overall pick in 2004, despite the fact that he's one of the greatest amateur closers in the history of the game. The A's believed that Street's makeup and guile brought all of his pitches up a grade, and they've been proven correct.

The Breakdown:

Free Agent Signs: 5
Trade: 11
Drafted: 8
International: 0
Waiver Claim: 1
Rule 5 Draft: 0

Like the Tigers, the number next to the free agent category is highly deceptive. Loaiza is the only one to actually have a real long-term contract. Thomas cost Oakland a grand total of $500,000 this year, and the remaining three were guys looking for work as opposed to teams looking for them. For the most part, this team has been built by trades and draft picks, with one-fifth of the roster coming from their own first-round picks, an impressive total. The A's are not major players in the Latin American amateur market these days, and it shows, but it's surprising that they haven't worked harder there considering the fact that some believe there's a significant market inefficiency there.

In the end, the team is really a tribute to the ability of the front office to create a winning team on a limited budget by eliminating weaknesses, as opposed to creating overwhelming strengths.

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

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