The Importance of Developing the Farm System
By Bob Toth
Incoming Cleveland Indians’ manager Terry Francona has already stressed something that has become common knowledge around the organization – the team needs to draft and develop its players much better than it has done over the last ten years.
With many question marks surrounding where the ballclub goes from here as it heads into an offseason that could see one or more of its more successful players dealt away, it is imperative that the team makes moves that are beneficial for both the present and the future.
“We don’t know what exactly the team is going to look like next year,” said Francona. “We got a lot of work to do.”
If these moves include trades, the front office needs to capitalize on them by acquiring prospects or major league ready talent. They cannot afford to miss. The importance of these trades becoming successful is obvious thanks in part to the unsuccessful trades haunting the organization over the last five seasons. Poor hauls from past efforts to upgrade the farm system have set the team back several years and forced the front office to look for substitute solutions through free agency or additional trades, few of which have panned out like one might have hoped.
Years of poor drafts have only further emphasized the importance of these trades, as they too have led to a plethora of problems for the team.
These bad drafts have minimized the internal options for both development and depth of players in the event of injuries. A team with an undeveloped or limited farm system may be vulnerable when veteran star players seek lofty contracts via free agency. Past examples of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez make the case; the pending free agency of Shin-Soo Choo, with no clear cut replacement on the roster or in AAA at present, shows that such is still a problem. If the team is one or two players away from a legitimate playoff push, a depleted system makes completing a trade significantly more difficult, as a team can only get back talent by offering up talent of similar potential value.
For a “small market” team like Cleveland, the onus on the organization needs to be on the drafting and development of quality, major league talent. The team cannot afford to go after high price free agents as options like the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, and Rangers can do within the American League. The team needs to grow their prospects from within; nurture, teach, and hone their skills; and maximize their potential when the time is right.
A team never complains about having too many good, young ball players.
It is the best kind of problem to have in baseball today.
Take a look at the Indians’ 25-man roster on Opening Day in 2012.
The starting rotation was composed of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, and Jeanmar Gomez. Masterson (Boston), Jimenez (Colorado), and Lowe (Atlanta) were all acquired through trades. Tomlin was drafted, and Gomez was an amateur free agent acquisition.
In the bullpen, Chris Perez (St. Louis), Jairo Asencio (Atlanta), and Joe Smith (New York Mets) were brought in through trades or purchases. Dan Wheeler signed as a free agent. Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, and Rafael Perez were drafted by the club or signed as amateur free agents.
In the field, Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan, and Jose Lopez were free agent signings. Outfielders Michael Brantley (Milwaukee), Choo (Seattle), and Aaron Cunningham (San Diego) were traded for, as were infielders Asdrubal Cabrera (Seattle) and Jason Donald (Philadelphia). Jason Kipnis was the lone fielder on the roster who was actually drafted.
This gave the team a grand total of six players (24% of the Opening Day roster) who were drafted or signed by the Indians who had played and developed within the organization for their entire professional careers (Tomlin, Pestano, Sipp, Kipnis, Gomez, R. Perez). Fourteen players (or 56% of the roster) were brought to Cleveland through trades.
Bringing players in from elsewhere is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, when it is a team’s only source of finding the quality of talent necessary to win ball games.
Based on the win totals and lack of meaningful October baseball games in the city since 2007, the quality of talent has not been quality enough.
The years of bad drafting have forced the Indians to look for players elsewhere. Star or quality players were dealt away to rebuild and retool the team with younger prospects, with the hopes that some of them would become the stars of the future. Santana, Brantley, Choo, and Cabrera have become every day contributors for the team through this method. Other players, like Marson, Donald, and Matt LaPorta, have participated without making dramatic or consistent contributions on the field.
“When guys come through your system and come to the big leagues, you’re going to get to know them much better than guys you sign through free agency,” said Francona. “Dealing with players is fun; dealing with young players is real fun.”
Some of the prospects acquired by the Indians over the years through trades have at least had an opportunity to grow with the organization a bit, even when they have been thrust into the action at the big league level early on in their professional careers, as was the case for Santana, Choo, and Cabrera.
Hopefully, the likes of Francona and his new coaching staff will be able to deal with some of the younger players in the organization and get to know them well enough to field a successful, playoff-caliber team in the very near future.
“I know if you put a good baseball team on the field,” said Francona, “you can win and by that I know you have to develop young players.”
To know just what it may take, for comparison’s sake, let’s look at the 25-man playoff rosters of both of the teams that represented the American League in the Championship series last week.
The Detroit Tigers’ playoff roster, unlike that of the Opening Day Indians’ roster, was composed of an almost equal balance of free agents, traded players, and drafted or amateur free agents. The strength of their bullpen – Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Octavio Dotel – were all signed as free agents from elsewhere. So to was slugger Prince Fielder. Seven players in total were brought to the club through free agency.
The starting rotation was dominated with trade acquisitions Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez. Most of the offense was, too – Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Austin Jackson, and Delmon Young. Nine players in all joined Detroit through trades.
Nine other players on the roster started their professional careers in the Tigers’ organization. Justin Verlander and Alex Avila headline the group, with Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, and Avisail Garcia also homegrown pieces.
The New York Yankees’ less-than-successful roster was skewed slightly towards free agency. Eleven players, many with lofty salaries, were brought to the Big Apple this way. The biggest of the names included two in the starting rotation, Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, and fill-in closer Rafael Soriano. The majority of their bench was acquired the same way, as was catcher Russell Martin and first baseman Mark Teixeira.
All three primary outfielders through the end of the regular season – Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher – in addition to Alex Rodriguez, were among the six players New York traded for.
Despite being known as a team able to buy as much talent as they desire, New York showcased eight players that either started their careers in pinstripes or returned to them later on. The list includes Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and pitchers Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and David Robertson. Had he been on the roster, Mariano Rivera would have also been on this list.
The Indians’ roster more closely resembles that in construction of the Oakland Athletics, without the success this season. Half of the A’s playoff roster was obtained through trades, including several young pitchers in their rotation and breakout outfielder Josh Reddick. The few draft picks on the roster are in the beginning stages of their big league careers, and the one who was not, Cliff Pennington, was dealt to Arizona Saturday as part of the three-team Chris Young / Heath Bell trade. Other recent successful draft picks from within Oakland’s farm system have been used to replenish their major league roster and their prospects in the minor leagues.
The Indians’ ability to contend long term may revolve around finding a good blend of drafted and traded prospects. The free agent market could then be utilized to supplement the roster effectively in the event that the occasional prospect did not work out or that the team needed help due to injuries.
If the farm system can be regrown to provide the depth and stability the organization needs, the Indians may just find themselves back on the path of significance.
Photo: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images