Nothing in baseball beats winning the World Series. It's the ultimate fulfillment of purpose. Fans of the team celebrate in the streets, yelling, waving team flags, live-tweeting, and generally acting like they just overthrew a small South American dictatorship. ¡Viva nuestro equipo de béisbol!
Having the best farm system in baseball doesn't necessitate calling out the riot police, but developing talent from within can be and usually is a significant step along the road to a party in the middle of the street. This is especially true of teams from smaller cities that might not have the money to strengthen their deficiencies through free agent raids each off-season. The equation goes something like this: good minor league talent + a few years + a dab of luck = winning. Toss a few canny trades on there and break out the cheap beer, foam 'we're #1' fingers, and riot gear.
Just three years ago the Kansas City Royals had the best farm system in baseball. That's nice, but every year someone is the best in baseball. With the Royals, it was more than that. What the Royals had was the best farm system in years. Some argued it was the best over a longer time period. Five years. Ten Years. Longer. This wasn't coming from a Royals fan's Facebook page, either. This analysis came from people who knew what they were talking about. Baseball America. Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs. People in the game.
In 2011, Rany Jazayerli wrote at Grantland,
"Baseball America -- the acknowledged arbiter of minor league greatness -- unveiled its Top 100 Prospects list. [Nine Royals prospects] were on the list. No team had ever landed nine players in the Top 100 before. Both Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine ran features about the team's farm system. The Royals were finally relevant again. Well, the Royals weren't relevant, but the dream of what they could be was. They were the Dippin' Dots of the major leagues -- The Baseball Team Of The Future!"
Everyone agreed: The Kansas City Royals had one of the best farm systems of all time. Plug that into the equation, wait a few seasons, and let the winning commence!
Well, that was a few seasons ago. Talent takes time to percolate up to the major leagues, but as it does, you'd expect the Royals major league team to get better.
That's improvement in a literal sense, but at that rate the Royals won't reach 92 wins until 2025. At least then they'll be able to fly their jetpacks to their playoff games on the moon. The outlook for this season fits roughly on that timetable as well. Baseball Prospectus projects Kansas City to win just 76 games, ahead of only the terrible Twins who, it should be noted, weren't labeled terrible just for alliterative purposes (though I won't deny that played role). Finishing ahead of the Twins isn't some grand accomplishment; it's almost a bare minimum. This season hasn't been played yet, so the Royals could buck that projection (for better or worse), but things aren't looking particularly promising in terms of reaching the postseason for the first time since 1985.
Weren't the Royals supposed to turn those minor leaguers into major league wins? What happened to all that talent?
The Royals had eight different players ranked as five-star prospects, the highest ranking according to Baseball Prospectus, between 2009 and 2012. For perspective, that's a huge amount. They were:
- Mike Moustakas ('08, '09, '10, '11)
- Eric Hosmer ('09, '11)
- Mike Montgomery ('10, '11)
- Wil Myers ('10, '11, '12)
- Aaron Crow ('10)
- Tim Melville ('10)
- John Lamb ('11)
- Bubba Starling ('12)
Of those eight, only Moustakas has contributed significantly to the major league team (i.e. has been well above replacement level). The former second overall pick in the draft received a $6 million signing bonus, so it goes without saying, though clearly I'm saying it anyway, that much is expected from him. Last season was his first full one in the majors, and it was the proverbial mixed bag. For a player renowned for his bat, it was maybe a bit strange that much of Moustakas's value came from his glove. That isn't to say he won't be a productive hitter going forward -- he's just 24 this season after all -- but in almost 1,000 plate appearances he has a career OPS of .696. In his current form, he's a fine player but not a star, and so far he's the best of the bunch.
Hosmer was supposed to be the other part of the duo that sent opposing pitchers scurrying back to the showers. Not yet. The first baseman has showed the pop, patience, batting average, and the defense to be a star. Unfortunately he's shown only a few of those skills per season. Like Moustakas he's still quite young (23 this season), so there is still time to develop and, as they say, put it all together. But until he's done it, he hasn't done it yet.
Beyond Moustakas and Hosmer, Crow is a decent-to-good bullpen arm, while Lamb, Starling, and Melville are all still in the minors. None is doing much to make anyone think they'll be an above-average major leaguer any time soon. Which isn't to say they won't -- but the odds were much more in their favor a few years ago.
The final two on the list, Myers and Montgomery, were dealt to Tampa Bay (along with two non-five-star prospects) for two seasons of James Shields and five of Wade Davis. That isn't nothing. The internet, on the whole, has killed the Royals for that trade, primarily due to the star-potential of Wil Myers (though the sheer tonnage of prospects the Royals gave up is also a point of contention). But if the above shows us anything, it's that prospects, even great prospects, even the best prospects, don't always emerge as useful and productive big leaguers. Specifics of the deal aside, cashing in questions for some certainty isn't necessarily a bad strategy.
So far, the greatest minor league system in recent memory has netted…
- a young, above average third baseman
- a young, promising first baseman
- two trade chips to acquire two middle-of-the-rotation arms
- a decent reliever
- two raw and injured minor league pitchers
- a raw center fielder in the low minors who is as likely to be roaming a cubicle in an office building in five years as he is roaming centerfield in Kauffman Stadium
The natural state of a baseball prospect is volatility. Some players make huge leaps in progress, while others forget skills they had supposedly mastered. Some learn at a steady pace, some take large developmental leaps, and others stagnate after a period of progress. Guessing who will fit which mould takes skill, expertise, experience, and not an inconsiderable amount of luck.
And then there are injuries. Look at any draft class and one position will dominate above all others in terms of sheer volume: pitchers. This is in part because of the importance of good pitching in the game, but mostly it's because eight of every seven pitchers get injured. Okay, that's a bit of an over-statement. But pitchers are drafted by the ton because injuries are so frequent. Even the Royals' all-world minor league system wasn't immune, as Montgomery, Lamb, and Melville all had injury problems stall their progress.
So, in retrospect, were the experts wrong about the Royals system? Maybe. But it's difficult to give an unequivocal yes to that question. Scouts grade on talent and projection. Just because a player doesn't make the cut doesn't mean he didn't have the skills -- or ability to develop those skills -- to do so.
All that theorizing is fine, but where does it leave the Royals? Maybe Moustakas can take a big step forward this season and become what he was predicted to be. Maybe Hosmer can take the good and drop the bad from his first two seasons and join him. Maybe one or two of the stalled guys gets a second wind and makes it to the show. Maybe Wil Myers, though now in Tampa, can become the perennial All Star so many think he will be. (Not that that last one would help Kansas City.) Those things could all happen, and may still happen, but will they? As the Royals have learned, as with all minor league projections, if I said yes I'd just be guessing.