Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Emulating Success: The Royals, Twins and the Small-Market Formula

I'll start off with a house-keeping item...I'd like to officially welcome Bryan Chapman as a writer to this blog. Bryan grew up in Kansas City and has been a Royals fan throughout his life. He'll be writing about mostly Royals and Cubs-related things (he’s a Cubs season-ticket holder) as well as other general baseball topics as we try to get this blog rolling again. We might have a 3rd writer coming on soon (another Twins fan) but Bryan and I are still in the process of applying peer-pressure so we'll let you know what happens.

Since this blog is now a Twins/Royals blog, I thought I would start by comparing the two teams and seeing if my beloved Twins might share some things in common with the Royals. Major League Baseball is very much a league of copycats and I think, in many ways, the Twins are following a very similar path to success that the Royals have just completed. The Royals and Dayton Moore, it can be argued, were simply following a formula for small-market MLB success that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays (and the Twins, to an extent).

In 1993 the Florida Marlins were created as part of an expansion move by Major League Baseball. Their first 4 seasons were all losing seasons and then suddenly, in 1997, the Marlins broke through and won it all. After winning the 1997 World Series, they immediately dismantled the team, lost 108 games in 1998 and started building again. All told, they had 5 straight losing seasons before winning it all again in 2003. They never spent a lot of money and created a model based on building from within and then adding key free agent pieces when the homegrown talent started to appear at the Major League level. The Tampa Bay Rays have a very similar story - they were an expansion franchise in 1998, and lost 90+ games for 10 straight seasons before breaking through and making it to the World Series in 2007 (which they lost). The Marlins and the Rays were the modern blueprint of building via the Draft and then making small free agency splashes when the time was right.

The Royals are a much more storied franchise than either the Marlins or the Rays - they were an expansion team in 1969 and had a stretch from the mid-70s to the mid-80s where they were perennial contenders. From 1975 to 1985, they finished either 1st or 2nd in their division in 10 out of 11 seasons. The rest of the story has been repeated ad nauseam over the past 6 weeks as the Royals finally broke a 29-year stretch of non-playoff baseball, went on a somewhat miraculous run through the playoffs, and made it all the way to the World Series. The story, however, starts with a change at the GM position in 2006 - when the Royals brought Dayton Moore in to help turn the franchise around.

Dayton Moore cut his teeth as a scout for the Atlanta Braves and eventually worked his way up to Director of Player Personnel Development before leaving the Braves for the GM post with the Royals. Since 2006, Moore has become been quite a controversial figure among Royals fans and is seen as a middle-of-the-road GM around the rest of baseball. He doesn't command the respect of a Billy Beane or Theo Epstein as many of his moves over the past several years have been questioned, but he's also put together a fairly young and very exciting team that could be a contender for several years. He's done it using the blueprint that the Marlins and Rays forged in the late-90s and early 2000s. The primary difference between him and his predecessor in Kansas City, Allard Baird, has been in their approach to player development. I wasn't a rabid baseball fan in the early-2000s when Baird was around, but in looking at the moves he made, it appears he viewed young talent as trading pieces to land bigger groups of young-ish talent, most notably trading away budding stars like Damon and Beltran in multi-team, multi-player deals.

Moore inherited a team that had some decent pieces in the farm system including Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and they had a mentally-shaky Zack Greinke who was just getting started in the Majors. Moore immediately set about stocking the shelves of the farm system and within 3 years he had a farm system full of players that are now on the Major League roster: Greg Holland (2007), Danny Duffy (2007), Mike Moustakas (2007), Eric Hosmer (2008), Yordano Ventura (International Signing 2008), Salvador Perez (International signing 2006), Jarrod Dyson (2006) and Wil Myers (2009). In 2009, he traded away Greinke and received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. As some of that talent started to reach the Majors, Moore started to add free agents here and there without losing many of the pieces that the Royals had developed. He traded away Myers and Odorizzi to land James "Big Game" Shields and Wade Davis (both integral cogs of the 2014 team) and also added Norichika Aoki, Jeremy Guthrie and Omar Infante. He followed the recipe perfectly – building from within and then adding the missing pieces via trades and free-agency when the window started to open.

So where do the Twins fit into all of this and, if they are indeed following the same formula, where are they in the process?

I mentioned in my opening that the Twins were one of those teams that, along with the Marlins and Rays, helped to blaze a path to winning baseball for small-market teams. All of us remember 2002-2010 and how great it was to see the Twins become a year-in, year-out contender. That success, however, was built on a pile of losing seasons which allowed the Twins to gather some blue-chip prospects like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer. The Twins brass ended up being more lucky than skilled as all of those aforementioned players arrived in the Majors at about the same time, setting the stage for several years of winning baseball in Minnesota.

Since 2010, this team has been one of the worst in baseball – there are no two ways about it. The losing, however, hasn’t been without its benefits as the Twins have been able to build a fairly powerhouse farm system that features some of the best prospects in baseball. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are at the top of the class, but the Twins have a bevy of talent in the middle rungs of the organization depth chart that could be sniffing the Majors within 1-3 years. The Twins had five of Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects and have the top ranked farm system in the Majors according to Baseball Prospectus. The Twins are essentially in the same position the Royals were about 5 years ago…a stable full of talent that they are waiting for.

It seems obvious that the Twins are at least attempting to follow the template for success that has been utilized by other similar small market teams. In fact, it could be argued that if you, as a small-market team owner, are not willing to spend a lot of money on payroll, your only real chance to compete is using the model that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays. The Twins have taken advantage of their losing ways by filling their Minor League talent pipeline. Over the last few seasons, they have also cut their payroll down quite a bit, from $113MM in 2011 to $85.5MM in 2014 (and even less in 2015), which should give them some room to dabble in free-agency once some of these prospects start to burst onto the scene. It remains to be seen whether the Twins will actually open up the pocket book when the time comes, but that’s another blog post altogether.

The question for the Twins, and that the Royals had even as recently as earlier this year is, “will this all pan out?” Sano missed most of this past season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Buxton hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all and had recent surgery that ended his Arizona Fall League season. Some of the talent that we have started to see with the Major League club, most notably Trevor May, has struggled mightily. Other unexpected call-ups have been quite impressive (Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas). There are some young arms in the system that seem to hold a lot of promise but that are still in Single-A and Double-A (Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart). There are some Triple-A arms that have lost some of the luster as time has passed (the aforementioned May and his former battery-mate Alex Meyer). In summary, there are a lot of question marks and no quick answers. This team, at a minimum, is still at least two years away from being competitive and probably at least 3-4 years away from being a playoff contender. That seems like a long time but when this is the model you’re following, patience (and some luck) is necessary.

One thing that will be interesting to watch with the Royals going forward is seeing how they handle the free agency of their own players. Many of their core players (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Holland) are still under team control for a few years, but James Shields and Billy Butler are free agents this off-season and Alex Gordon will be a free-agent next season. Will the Royals try and re-sign either Butler or Shields? Will they pony-up to keep some of these other core players on the team, or will they try and trade them away to see what they can get to keep their farm system stocked? It’s the ultimate dilemma in the small-market success formula. Spend to try and keep the winning window open awhile longer, or trade away valuable pieces for more young talent and another chance to catch lightening in a bottle…

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