Not so long ago, I looked back at the nine years since the Milwaukee Brewers had the best farm system in baseball to see what the impact of having the best farm system in baseball might be, on a 10-year timeline. I wasn’t totally sure what I hoped to get at or if I did get at it, but people seemed to like it and asked me to do the worst farm system of the same year, so I’ll do that now. I still don’t know what I’m hoping to get at, so we’ll see where this goes.
The worst farm system in baseball at the time belonged to the Montreal Expos, according to Baseball America, but the Expos were in a weird place and it’s hard to consider them a representative franchise. So we’re going to look at the no. 29 team instead: the Houston Astros. Since 2004, the Astros have played in a World Series, so how bad could it really be? Really, really, really bad!
28 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, five of 30 on the 25-man roster.
Like the Brewers, the Astros had already cut ties with one of their 30 before the ranking even came out, though they then reestablished ties with him: Rodrigo Rosario (ranked no. 22 in the system) was released but then re-signed with the club that winter. But another pitcher on the list, Jimmy Barrett, didn’t pitch for Houston in 2004 and was released in June.
Barrett’s ranking as the 27th-best prospect in the system gives you a pretty good sense of the Astros' talent at the time. In 2003, he was 22 and pitching in High-A. He struck out 4.9 batters per nine and walked 3.8. He was a 6’ 2” right-hander. In five minor-league seasons, he had one year with an ERA below 4.40. There’s a weird scouting report from 2003 that somehow remains online and describes his “desire for winner” as “minimal.” And he made it into the book, so.
The Astros begin the process of trying to extract some value out of a lousy system, while strengthening the club in the middle of a competitive window, by trading. John Buck (no. 3) goes to Kansas City in the Carlos Beltran move.
It’s very difficult to isolate Buck’s value in this move, as the Astros also send away Octavio Dotel (who had a year and a half left before free agency). After two years as a top-100 prospect, Buck had had a terrible year in Triple-A in 2003, then a good half-year in Triple-A in 2004. Imagine if the Blue Jays traded J.P. Arencibia and Casey Janssen as a package right now. (Janssen is signed for two more years plus a club option.) What percentage of the return would you say gets credited to Arencibia, and what percentage to Janssen? Maybe 30 percent to the catcher? Let’s say 30 percent to the catcher.
So Buck brings back 30 percent of Carlos Beltran, who a) produces 4.0 WARP as an Astro in a half season and b) carries them in the postseason. Beltran leaves after that season and the Astros get two compensation picks: they take Eli Iorg and Tommy Manzella, 30 percent of each of which will be credited to the 2004 farm system.
Through one year, the Brewers system and the Astros system produce about the same amount of value: .8 WARP for the Brewers and .3 WARP for the Astros; or, if you exclude negative contributions (as we will in the rest of this exercise), 1.3 for the Brewers and 1.0 for the Astros. Tack on 1.2 WARP for 30 Percent Beltran and the Astros have done okay so far.
The Astros go 92-70, finish in second place, and lose in the NLCS.
24 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, eight of 30 on the 25-man roster.
Four of the top 30 are let go for no return without contributing to the big-league club: Rosario and D.J. Houlton (26) are both taken by other teams in the minor-league draft, Jesse Carlson (21) is granted free agency; and Derick Grigsby (29) puts his career on hold because of depression, and never pitches again. Grigsby was the team’s first-round pick less than three years earlier. A profile of Grigsby written at the time is pretty disturbing:
On a nearby shelf is a picture of Derick taken in high school. He's smiling broadly, looking happy as can be. A beautiful blonde has her arms around him.
He seems so sad as he speaks that it's hard to imagine he's the same guy.
Has he had thoughts of suicide?
"They always ask me that at the counselor's office," he says. "It hasn't gotten that far. I could never see myself doing that. I don't think it's going to get that bad."
The eight Astros who appeared in the majors contribute 5.7 positive WARP, bolstered by strong performances by Willy Taveras and Jason Lane. That's better than the Brewers’ group, which contributes 5.0 WARP in 2005. The Astros go 89-73, win the Wild Card, and lose in the World Series.
21 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, 12 of 30 on the 25-man roster.
Three Astros—no. 14 Tommy Whiteman who is, in fact, a white man; no. 24 Todd Self who is, in fact, his self; and no. 28 Tony Pluta who does, in fact, have a tone—are let go. Otherwise, it’s a year mostly of promotions. Top prospect Taylor Buchholz makes his debut, and by the end of the season all nine of the Astros’ top prospects from 2004 (including Buck) have qualified for big-league pensions. Twelve of the top 15 have. That’s a very different question than “how much value has the system produced,” but it’s not a bad record up to this point.
Of the 12, only Taveras is making much of a difference. He produces 2.9 WARP. The rest of the 2004 class produces just 1.1 positive WARP, led by Chris Burke (no. 4). Iorg and Manzella are playing in the minors, too.
The Astros go 82-80, finish second in the NL Central for the third year in a row, but don’t get the Wild Card this time.
12 of 30 prospects remain in the organization, six of 30 on the 25-man roster.
In one offseason, the class of 2004 almost totally disappears. Most prominently, Taylor Buchholz, Willy Taveras, and Jason Hirsh (no. 8) are traded to Colorado for Jason Jennings and Miguel Asencio. Buchholz was the best prospect in the system in 2004, and Taveras has, at 5.4, more major-league WARP than the rest of the system combined, so it’s a real gutting.
Jennings and Asencio, unfortunately, do nothing. Jennings produces 0.0 WARP in his single year with Houston and brings back no compensation when he leaves as a free agent. Asencio plays one year in the minors and is released.
Also released: no. 13 Mike Gallo, who appeared on the big-league squad in 2004, 2005, and 2006 but produced -0.5 WARP; no. 15 Ezequiel Astacio, who also appears in the majors but is below replacement level; no. 18 Cliff Davis, who is out of baseball at age 20; no. 20 Scott Robinson; and no. 23 Charlton Jimerson, after a couple appearances in the big leagues.
Mitch Talbot is traded (along with an unexciting 25-year-old in Double-A named Ben Zobrist) mid-season for Aubrey Huff. Huff produces 0.3 WARP for Houston and leaves as a free agent, with no compensation tied to him. Including Huff and Jennings, the farm system produces a total of 1.7 WARP in 2007. The Brewers farm system produced 19 WARP the same season.
Five of 30 prospects remain in the organization, one of 30 on the 25-man roster.
To put the above in perspective: the Brewers still had 11 of their prospects in 2008, and were getting direct contributions from seven of them.
Matt Albers (no. 9) is traded as part of a big package for Miguel Tejada; his importance in the deal is minor, so we won’t give the system credit for any of Tejada’s production. Jason Lane (no. 2) is traded for cash considerations to San Diego. At 3.3 WARP, he’s the second-most valuable member of the 2003 class, to date. Josh Anderson (no. 18) is traded for Oscar Villarreal, who produces -0.7 WARP in his lone season as an Astro.
Somewhat trickier is the trade for Jose Valverde. That costs Houston Chris Burke (no. 4) and Chad Qualls (no. 7) and also Juan Gutierrez, who isn’t part of the group of 30 we’re looking at. Gutierrez would ultimately close a bunch of games for Arizona, but at the time I think he was just a live arm coming off a bad year at Triple-A. From the Annual the offseason of the trade:
the D'backs would be happy to just get a good year from him in middle relief.
Burke was a post-hype sleeper and Qualls was a rubber arm who had established himself with three pretty good years of relief, so I think we can call them 80 percent of the perceived value going to Arizona in this trade. So the system has produced 80 Percent Valverde.
Fernando Nieve (no. 5) is the only remaining prospect who appears in the majors, and he produces 0.1 WARP in 2008. Eighty Percent Valverde is worth 0.9 WARP. At 1.0 WARP, then, the system badly trails Milwaukee’s 12.7.
Two of 30 prospects remain in the organization, one of 30 on the 25-man roster.
The Astros also have the remnants of the system in Iorg and Manzella, still playing their way up through the system, and 80 Percent Valverde, who teams up with Paulino to produce a total of 0.8 WARP for the big-league club in 2009.
The Astros go 74-88 and finish fifth in the NL Central, behind Milwaukee.
One of 30 prospects remains in the organization, one of 30 on the 25-man roster.
McKeller disappears, so only Paulino remains. Except that Manzella makes his debut, so he’s in the math now; and Valverde leaves and gives the Astros two compensation picks, which they use on Mike Foltynewicz and Michael Kvasnicka. So the system is nearly dead! But the system is alive anew!
Not that Manzella, or Paulino, or anyone else is doing much. Paulino and Manzella combine for 1.2 WARP, compared to the Brewers’ 11.9 WARP. The Astros go 76-86 and finish in fourth place, a game behind Milwaukee.
Zero of 30 prospects remain in the organization.
Paulino is traded for Clint Barmes, who produces 1.3 WARP—the most the Astros have drawn from the 2004 prospects since 2007—before leaving as a free agent. Tommy Manzella plays and is worth -0.4 WARP.
It’s notable here that the Astros, eight years later, still had one of the worst farm systems in baseball. There is a lot of blame to go around: the Astros didn't get any first-round pick in 2003, 2004, or 2007; they traded prospects for veterans; and, whether it was a drafting thing or a development thing, their top picks in this decade were mostly disappointing. Going back to 1998: Mike Nannini, Mike Rosamond, Robert Stiehl, Burke, Grigsby, Brian Bogusevic, Iorg, Maxwell Sapp, Jason Castro.
Those are causes that can’t be totally separated from the farm system the Astros started with. Without a good farm system, they had to constantly fill holes from outside the organization. The cost of filling those holes is usually young talent, either in swaps of players with six years of club control for players with one or two (or fewer) years of club control; or in free agent compensation picks.
So the Astros never really recovered their farm system until now, nearly a decade after the 2004 group. Here’s how the organization has ranked each year since 2004, with Kevin Goldstein’s rankings replacing BA’s starting in 2007:
- 2005: 22nd
- 2006: 20th
- 2007: 28th
- 2008: 29th
- 2009: 30th
- 2010: 28th
- 2011: 28th
- 2012: 26th
In 2012, the Astros don’t get a single at-bat or inning from a member of the 2004 prospect group, or from any player acquired directly or indirectly for a member of the 2004 prospect group. Manzella plays in the minors but is waived and no longer with the organization. Two third-generation players remain in the system: Foltynewicz and Kvasnicka, both drafted as compensation after the departure of Jose Valverde, who was acquired in a trade for the 2004 Astros’ fourth- and seventh-best prospects. Here’s the unwieldy table:
Foltynewicz was ranked this year by Jason Parks as the 10th-best prospect in the system (Kvasnicka has stalled in A-Ball) so there is still hope that the Astros can get some value out of that original group of 30. But the difference between the Astros’ system and the Brewers system since 2004 is, so far, stark:
Total WARP (prospects plus return for prospects)
Total positive WARP (excluding all negative-WARP seasons)
Of course, the Brewers had to pay a lot more money to their players as they got more service time, so, lastly, here’s the money spent on salaries (estimated) to produce these WARP:
Brewers: $136 million
Astros: $39 million
For $97 million in extra payroll, the Brewers got (to date) 62.5 more wins, in an era in which wins cost (on average) just around $4 million apiece.
The Brewers still have Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart signed, Carlos Gomez (in return for J.J. Hardy) signed, and two draft picks that produced legit prospects in the current system. Which means they could actually still get more value out of their 2004 farm system from 2013 on than the Astros got in total.
These teams’ results might not be typical—there is no typical—but, generally speaking, this is what it means to have the worst farm system in baseball.
Thanks to Ben Lindbergh for research assistance