When Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to finish the 2012 World Series and make champions of the San Francisco Giants, Buster Posey raced out to the mound for the first of the embraces. Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval were not far from the center of the ensuing mob scene. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner were, save Romo, the three most crucial pitchers to the team’s October run. You might see the theme here: The Giants, twice World Series winners in three seasons, are locally grown, organic even.
This is how all dynasties are built, and how any sustainable success comes about in baseball. Financial resources and astute free-agent or trade acquisitions matter, but not nearly as much as drafting well, keeping your draftees healthy, and developing them into stars. It was ever thus, but for all the attention free agency attracts these days, consider: All the best squads of the Wild Card era have been built around home-grown talent.
The 1990s Braves featured home-grown players at six positions for much of their run, and Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz all were Braves before they made their MLB debut. The roughly contemporary Yankees dynasty was built on great drafts in the first part of the 1990s, drafts that netted Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and the like, and on aggressive international investment that brought aboard Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. Both clubs have remained relevant by constantly producing star-level farm talent, from Rafael Furcal to Robinson Cano to Jason Heyward.
The Cleveland Indians had a tremendous run in the 1990s, thanks to Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, Brian Giles and Sandy Alomar, Jr. They lagged as this system dried up slightly, but after churning out Bartolo Colon and dealing him for minor leaguers Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore in 2002, they achieved a brief return to glory behind Lee and CC Sabathia, another farm hand.
Of course, the reverse is also true. The inability to generate star talent from within is a death sentence. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a home-grown superstar in Andrew McCutchen, and as a result, the last two years have been the most encouraging in Pittsburgh since 1992. In the interim, we should note, they turned out only a handful of even useful players from within: Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Kevin Young and Freddy Sanchez are the best of the tepid bunch. Aramis Ramirez may have been better than any of those, but the team dealt him at his peak, and got little in return.
The relationship between first finding, then leveraging young, cost-effective stars and long-term success on the field is stronger than even a traditionalist in love with such notions might guess. You simply can’t win without doing it consistently, and for baseball’s least champagne-soaked fan base (admittedly, one well-doused in other beverages of similar sorts), that explains a lot. The Chicago Cubs, for over two decades, were the worst team in baseball at this crucial element of roster construction, and I can prove it.
Mark Grace established himself as the Cubs’ regular first baseman in 1988. He joined the recently-established Greg Maddux and Rafael Palmeiro on that team, a crop nearly as good as the one the Cubs grew in the 1960s, headlined by Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Alas, as it had in the late ’60s and early ’70s, upon Grace’s arrival, the well ran dry.
From 1989 through May 7, 2010, the Cubs didn’t produce another true star who would live up to their billing. Kerry Wood was by far the best of that era for them, striking out over 1,500 batters in his career, but he had just two truly dominant seasons. His career was much affected by injuries and wanting command, and he was strictly a reliever from 2007 onward.
Again, that’s the best the Cubs got from anyone during the GM tenures of Larry Homes, Ed Lynch and Jim Hendry. Carlos Zambrano had two excellent seasons, too, but like Wood, was grossly overused at a young age, and might be done in baseball at age 31. Mark Prior fizzled from abuse and awful luck. Corey Patterson fizzled from an inability to overcome or correct the gaping holes in his swing. Of Cubs position players between Grace’s arrival and 2010, Patterson has a case as the best, in competition with Doug Glanville, Jose Hernandez and Geovany Soto. Two of those three did not even achieve their greatest success as Cubs.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the other 29 franchises in baseball fared over those 20 years, in the same endeavor. Players aren’t necessarily discussed in relation to the team who drafted or signed them, but under the club that made that player its own very early in his development:
Arizona Diamondbacks: Despite focusing on free agency even as an expansion team and having Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Matt Williams and Grace on their championship club, Arizona has turned out Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Brandon Webb, Max Scherzer, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Quentin and Jose Valverde in their 15-year existence.
Atlanta Braves: Mark Lemke, Ryan Klesko, Avery, David Justice, Javy Lopez, Furcal, both Jones studs, Rafael Soriano, Marcus Giles, Kelly Johnson, Jeff Francoeur, Millwood, Tommy Hanson, Brian McCann, Heyward. Somehow, the Braves never had to rebuild. This was their secret.
Baltimore Orioles: Adam Jones is among the players I find it tough to characterize as having been home-grown by any team. He came to Baltimore in trade very near MLB readiness. That still leaves Mike Mussina, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, B.J. Ryan, Matt Wieters and Jeremy Guthrie.
Boston Red Sox: The period under study was a gathering, glorious crescendo for Red Sox player development. Mo Vaughn gave way to Nomar Garciaparra as the golden child. Garciaparra gave way to Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek, they to Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon.
Chicago White Sox: Frank Thomas was the best hitter in baseball during the mid-1990s. Robin Ventura was a well-rounded player. Magglio Ordonez, Mark Buehrle and a battalion of role players carried forward their legacy.
Cincinnati Reds: After Barry Larkin, the system coughed up only average or slightly worse players for a while, like Sean Casey. That set the Reds back. They rebuilt enough to go get Ken Griffey, Jr., though, and then the hits started coming. Phillips, Adam Dunn, Johnny Cueto, Ryan Hanigan, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce. Big hits.
Cleveland Indians: We discussed them above. Traded Sabathia, Lee, Phillips, among others, for too little, but have stayed afloat with deals in which they robbed Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana from teams while those guys were mere prospects.
Colorado Rockies: A system a little too boom-or-bust, with big splashes like Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton and Dexter Fowler interspersed with some bad misses. Even so, they got a great season out of Ubaldo Jimenez, sold high on him. Once upon a time, they also spat out Juan Pierre and Eric Young.
Detroit Tigers: Another 1990s horror story explained by failure to promote from within. Travis Fryman and Brandon Inge rate as two of their best positional products of the era, along with Tony Clark. Justin Verlander really turned the tide of the franchise.
Houston Astros: Craig Biggio came up shortly after Grace. Jeff Bagwell came after that. Then they just needed to fill in a bit. Lance Berman, Adam Everett and Roy Oswalt became critical components of latter-day Astros contenders.
Kansas City Royals: Finding and acquiring talent have rarely been the Royals’ problem. Their somewhat self-imposed austerity has simply kept them from getting to enjoy the fruit of that harvest. Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, all had their best years elsewhere. Things are starting to turn for the better, and the team is locking down more of their talented assets. Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar led the way on that score. Escobar came over from Milwaukee when Kansas City traded Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young winner.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Jeter Weaver. John Lackey. Erick Aybar. Ervin Santana. Francisco Rodriguez. Jim Edmonds. Darin Erstad. Tim Salmon. Garrett Anderson. David Eckstein. Howie Kendrick. Chone Figgins. Troy Glaus. Although not great at leveraging them, the Angels know how to turn out well-rounded, athletic players.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Mike Piazza was sheer luck. Mark Grudzielanek fell into their laps. The first and best pioneers of the Pacific Rim do deserve credit for Hideo Nomo’s development into a dominant starter. The end of the 1990s and the very early 2000s were not good to their machine, but the new bumper crop–Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley–gave the front office a lot to work with.
Miami Marlins: Belching up superstars is a very cool thing for a farm system to do, even if it comes at the cost of some consistency. The Marlins struck gold with Charles Johnson, Livan Hernandez and Edgar Renteria, but those turned out to be small fish. Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett were the big ones.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ben Sheets was as good as Wood, but also as injury-prone. Geoff Jenkins typified the 1990s Brewers farmhand: moderately athletic, stuck at a non-ideal position, but a very good batter, not just a hitter. Then, with little warning, the Brewers figured it out. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart. All four are better than Jose Hernandez. Gary Sheffield was a big hit the year after Grace took over at first for the Cubs.
Minnesota Twins: Scott Erickson and Brad Radke became the very models of a modern Twins pitcher. Justin Morneau won the 2006 AL MVP, although it probably ought to have gone to erstwhile teammate David Ortiz. Joe Mauer won the award in 2009, more deservedly. From Marty Cordova to Torii Hunter to Denard Span, when the Twins have been good, it has been because of their home-grown talent..
New York Mets: David Wright and Jose Reyes are a tier unto themselves for the period under study. Like the Cubs, the Mets had to build around a smaller than ideal corps of cost-controlled star power, making for creaky rosters and short success cycles despite abundant resources. Unlike the Cubs, the Mets had two genuine superstars to make up for that.
New York Yankees: Again, we discussed them above. It should also be noted that GM Brian Cashman has, when prudent, been as willing to trade young talent for proven production as to trust that young talent to ride out developmental storms. This was never so apparent as when he sent Ian Kennedy, Phil Coke and Austin Jackson to the four winds in return for Curtis Granderson.
Oakland Athletics: Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were about as stout a group of young stars as the game has recently seen. Prior to that generation, the A’s had struggled to find traction. They basically had a hangover from the end of the 1990 World Series through the tail end of that decade. Swapping those elite young guys is a tight-rope walk Billy Beane hasn’t always managed to keep both feet down on, but it’s what the job demands in Oakland.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies reflect the proportional power of developing cheap talent. They were bad in the mid-90s, with no good young players of whom to speak. Then, as they slowly added (now Scott Ellen, now Placido Polanco, now Bobby Abreu, now Vicente Padilla), they crept back into relevance. Once they hit the draft jackpot with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, they were off an running.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Discussed above, but let me add now the Matt Capps/Evan Meek corollary. Young talent matters least, at least as a predictor for long-term organizational health, in the bullpen.
San Diego Padres: Like the Royals, the Padres very often have bevies of young and solid players, but they struggle to pay them and often make bad trades in getting rid of them. Roberto Alomar netted them plenty 20-plus years ago, but they got fleeced in Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez trades. They have tremendous minor-league depth even now, but the lack of institutional memory or leverage points is troubling.
San Francisco Giants: Draft well, win big.
Seattle Mariners: How the Mariners squandered so much talent so relentlessly in the 1990s is beyond me. Griffey and Omar Vizquel debuted together on Opening Day, 1989, but Vizquel would eventually be dealt for Felix Fermin. Alex Rodriguez. Edgar Martinez. Randy Johnson. A lot of what happened in Seattle was about money, and the Cubs would never have made at least two of those trades. Of course, the Cubs never had that dilemma. They never had talent like these guys in the first place.
St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols will always be the poster boy. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are perhaps as important to St. Louis’ latest mini-dynasty, though. Just get three team-controlled superstars together, and you’ll go a long way.
Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria’s gloriously team-friendly early extension helped swing the balance of power in MLB even further toward those who draft well and scout well, because it has helped touch off a trend of signing elite players long before they hit free agency. The Cubs haven’t been able to overcome their shortcomings in the draft and Latin America because Longoria, James Shields and similar players don’t hit the open market. The Rays have their own problems, in that their budget limitations leave little room if and when some players upon whom they depend (Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena) reach free agency, anyway. But they work hard to maintain the depth of prospects to fill those holes, while still mining their own system for breakout potential.
Texas Rangers: Once the team that snagged Kevin Brown, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez, the Rangers did miserably little to maintain their farm strength from 1995-2005. Since then, though, they have rebuilt the high-upside framework and emphasis on athleticism that made them elite 20 years ago. Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz all help typify the Rangers’ prospect preferences, and all are major reasons Texas might be the best team in baseball since 2010.
Toronto Blue Jays: John Olerud. Fred McGriff. Right there, within three years of Grace’s debut, the Jays had produced more value from within at one position than the Cubs would in the next 15 or so. McGriff became a huge part of the package to bring Roberto Alomar to Toronto. Since the two World Series titles, Toronto has lost some of its luster in terms of constantly plugging holes from within. They rallied recently, but it’s clear their pitching is still not deep enough to carry the franchise forward.
Washington Nationals: Pedro Martinez got his chance to start, instead of being his brother’s long man in LA, in Montreal, and took to it nicely. Javier Vazquez also launched a great pitching career from Quebec. Larry Walker. Moises Alou. Delino DeShields. Marquis Grissom. The changing economics of the game and the timing of the 1994 strike killed the Expos’ chances, not a dearth of affordable, talented players.
There you have it. No one was as bad at building consistently from within from 1989-2009 as the Cubs. The Cubs had not one fringe Hall of Fame candidate they brought up for those 20 years. Virtually everyone else (save the Pirates, basically) had at least two such players.
It’s changing. Starlin Castro debuted on May 7, 2010. He’s a star, and the team locked him up on a very palatable deal this summer. There are three or four guys with ceilings about as high in the system now, so within a few years, the Cubs could achieve dominance. Usually though, this kind of systemic problem takes a while to iron out. Free agency is a quick fix, but the Cubs don’t need that now. They need to study the Giants’ model, and plan on pouncing when they get the opportunities the Giants had in 2010, then again last month.Next post: 33 Notes on 12-player Trade Between Toronto Blue Jays and Miami Marlins
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