Breaking 'Em In (Part 1)
There are many factors to having a good farm system. Successful drafting and a powerful international presence helps, as it gets pre-professional stars into the organization. Also important is having a teaching staff ready to develop these kids from short-season ball all through the minors. But most importantly, teams must not be afraid to implement these players into their organizational plans.
Many teams have a few good prospects waste away in the minors, as the team would much rather have a player with a well-known name playing than the young kid. But as the Braves can tell you, after going from Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur, sometimes the prospects are the best bet. This is just one of the many reasons that has made Atlanta successful over the years, as in no season was the club not playing some rookie.
This season saw an upswing in the time given to rookies. Prominent organizations have began to see the light more, and realize what kind of production prospects can give them. This increased farm system trust is a good thing all the way around, as all of the contending AL teams can tell you. In the first part of this series, which should cover all 30 teams, I wanted to look at what the minor leagues contributed to the 7 best American League ballclubs.
New York Yankees
What can two hundred million dollars buy, you ask? Apparently an extremely top-heavy team, lacking depth completely, as the 2005 version of the Yankees can attest. This was not a club built to handle injury, or worse, performance endemics. It was not prepared for Tony Womack to fall flat on his face, as many predicted, causing a call-up of their top second base prospect. It wasn't expecting Bernie Williams to be unable to continue playing the outfield, bringing a center fielder from the minors that had no business in the Majors. And it surely wasn't built to handle the injuries and inconsistency brought forth by Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano.
Still, the Yankees prevailed, and must be considered a playoff favorite with just six days of regular season baseball remaining. This can largely be attributed to the play of three minor league call-ups: Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang and Aaron Small. At last count, the Hardball Times gave the three a total of 23 Win Shares, good for nearly 8 wins. But considering their play, when the Yankees needed it the most, I have the feeling Joe Torre would say eight was low-balling it.
For example, Cano has now played more than 120 games this season, in which he was expected to gain more experience at AAA Columbus. Instead, Robinson has been thrown into the fire, and performed brilliantly. A .294 batting average, 51 extra-base hits, only 66 strikeouts. Cano has drawbacks -- Yankee Stadium, southpaws, and defense -- but he is one of the smallest problems on a Yankee team that will surely be tweaked considerably this winter.
One must also expect the Yankees will give either of the two starters a job next season. Small has pitched worse than his perfect record indicates, but it also says that he keeps his club in games. If either of the players is going to lose a job, it would likely be Small, a minor league veteran with a relief history. But this team could do far worse than to stick Small in the swingman role, using him when injuries demand it. And with this team, you know they will.
Wang likely will have a full-time job next year, even if his strikeouts call for a sophomore slump. However, Wang's propensity for the groundball, as his 2.91 GB/FB attests, might allow him to avoid such a fall. His FIP, another THT stat, is just a few points higher than his ERA. In fact, it appears that Wang will be one of the more reliable players on a volatile pitching staff next year. As Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina age, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright stay battered, and Shawn Chacon comes back to life, I think you'll find Wang become the Yanks' rock in 2006.
Other, less successful, tours were given to Melky Cabrera and Sean Henn. Both players might contribute down the road, but were rushed following minor league hot streaks. It's great to see the Yankees, an organization long removed from giving minor leaguers a chance, re-shift their organizational philosophy. Now it's just a matter of picking and choosing who to trade and who to keep, rather than trading them all. Yankees fans will like the new way better, even if the columnists in need of news and big names do not.
Boston Red Sox
Designed far differently than the Yankees, fans could have guessed before the season that minor leaguers would not be a big part of the 2005 season. They would have been right. This was a generally healthy team that was built for both injuries and inconsistencies, and have dealt with both appropriately. It is an organization that is building a farm system from scratch, and entered the '05 year with very little at the top.
One of the winter's unheralded signings was surely Roberto Petagine's return to America. After years of dominance in Japan, the Red Sox brought him back, stashing him most of the year in Pawtucket. This move could be argued, as Kevin Millar had a horrible season, and Petagine produced both in the minors and a Major League small sample. However, it looks that Petagine might just be a quad-A player, and given the leadership and experience that John Olerud provides, Roberto is expendable.
Quite the opposite is the state of Jon Papelbon. After a good 2004 season, Papelbon was considered one of the Red Sox top, if a bit raw, pitching prospects. But he was anything but in the early going this year, posting one of the best K/BB ratios in the Eastern League. Papelbon was promoted to Pawtucket for only a short time before being thrown in the fire, first at his new role as a starter, and then ultimately his collegiate role as a reliever. Both roles work for Papelbon, who will probably continue to pitch in both during the 2006 season. But given his ceiling, it would be a shame if the Red Sox forced their talented prospect to make the full-time switch back to relieving.
A few short-needed times of bullpen health called for appearances from Abe Alvarez, Cla Meredith and Craig Hansen. 6.1 innings and 13 earned runs later, it's time to count those all as rush jobs.
Chicago White Sox
Despite the offensive inadequacy and pitching prowess from this season, the White Sox' needs from their minor league system were backwards this season. Besides Tadahito Iguchi, who was never a minor leaguer, the only other prospect to receive 20 at-bats was Brian Anderson. Instead, the Sox needed 2 pitchers, Bobby Jenks and Brandon McCarthy, to fill important roles.
And it has been their play that has forced Ozzie Guillen to continually use the combination. In fact, in just a short half-season, White Sox fans have been treated to watching the development of a future ace and a future closer.
McCarthy did not look like an ace until after being returned to AAA after yet another bad July stint. When leaving the White Sox after a horrible outing on July 4, the rookie right-hander had pitched 20.1 innings in the Majors, and had allowed 22 earned runs and 6 homers. The problem was clear: a two-pitch combination including an ineffective fastball and hang-prone curve. But since spending a month gaining confidence in his change up, McCarthy has become unhittable. He has given up just 17 hits in more than 30 innings, while allowing just 4 earned runs. Suddenly, White Sox fans are not only calling for Brandon's inclusion on the playoff roster, but in the cramped playoff rotation.
Jenks will also make a difference in the playoffs, as he has become Ozzie Guillen's most reliable reliever. After the all-too-predictable regression from Dustin Hermanson, it made sense for the Sox to put their hottest reliever at the closer spot. Jenks has pitched admirably, and given fantasy players a reason to drool when thinking about him as a late round 2006 steal. Big Bobby is horrible to face for left and right-handed hitters, and his one drawback -- control -- has been better of late. In fact, since August 1, Jenks has walked just 8 in 26.1 innings.
While the White Sox have fallen apart in the last two months, they have received unexpected support from their rookies. Since August began, this tandem has allowed a combined 11 runs in nearly 60 innings. The future has become the present on the south side.
Rather than working in rookies, the 2005 season has been the year for Eric Wedge to develop the players who debuted in less exciting years for this franchise. Players like Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Jhonny Peralta have become stars under Wedge's watch, while Crisp, Martinez and Hafner have only gotten better. In fact, for the first time in years, rookies were used to plug short-term holes rather than long-term ones.
The only rookie to gain any significant experience this season has been Fernando Cabrera. After Cleveland has such a horrible bullpen in 2004, Mark Shapiro worked diligently to improve that part of the roster. When Arthur Rhodes and Bob Wickman became re-born, Shapiro looked like a genius. A similar stroke came in adding depth by calling up Cabrera, who has been great through 12 games. Cabrera, like Jenks, might be the future closer of this team, given the acknowledged volatility of relievers, as recognized by the GM himself.
If there is an American League organization that understands the value of rookies, it's the Twins. Both the organization and front office were recently built through the development of minor league players. The complete foundation of this Minnesota team was built through the farm system. However, 2005 was an off year for such a philosophy, as the Twins had few holes and fewer rookies.
Luis Rivas' continued troubles did open up significant playing time in the infield. Both Bret Boone and Michael Cuddyer tried to fill Rivas' spot, but failed. While Cuddyer moved, the club was forced to play Terry Tiffee, who proved any hope of a career founded in 2004 to be false. Then, the team moved to Luis Rodriguez at second, and Jason Bartlett at short. But, this middle infield is not a winning combination. For a team that spends no money, a few dollars thrown at infielders during the offseason would be greatly suggested.
What the club does not have to worry about during the winter, however, is the pitching staff. The Twins are in the process of implementing even more young players to a rotation that could stand improvement after giving out nearly 60 starts to Joe Mays and Kyle Lohse. In their spots should be Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano. While the latter has not pitched well at the Major League level, he is one of the handful of players one must consider for Minor League Player of the Year.
Baker was not the caliber prospect of Liriano, or even J.D. Durbin, but has looked good since Spring Training. He has looked better since the All-Star break, after which his MLB ERA is just 3.19. He is even more guaranteed than Liriano, as the Twins care more about success than development as they attempt to rectify their position in the game's weakest division.
Los Angeles Angels
Before the season, we would have figured the Angels would lean on any of their offensive prospects most heavily in 2005. With Bobby Jenks off the team, Ervin Santana returning from injury, and all other pitching prospects far from sure bets, the Angels figured to be forced to patch up pitching staff holes on the waiver wire.
Instead, when a spot opened the red-hot Ervin Santana grabbed it, making 21 league-average starts during the season. He wasn't the best of the Angel pitchers, like other players on this list, but he gave them a start every five days when it mattered the most. Santana has also been better in 13 starts since the All-Star Break, during which he has a 3.69 ERA. Despite a WHIP of 1.40 and a lacking K/9, Santana has found success in the Major Leagues. He has much to improve upon, but will be counted on to make 30+ starts next season.
None of the other Angel rookies were of long-term help this season. Dallas McPherson was supposed to be that player, but injuries led to a very disappointing rookie campaign. In a sense, we saw just what we expected from Dallas in his 200 at-bats. A low average (.244), especially against southpaws (.196), a lot of strikeouts (64), and rather unimpressive defense. But he also hit for very good power with the team, showing very good potential. Having McPherson slowly move from a platoon to a full-time role is probably the best idea in 2006, when he makes his second trial at a full Major League season.
Other contributions came from Maicer Izturis and Casey Kotchman. Izturis played a lot of third base with McPherson out, which was not a good idea considering his horrible bat. Izturis also gave Cabrera quite a bit of time off at shortstop, which is where he's best suited to play. Look for a more utility-like career starting in 2006. Also look for Kotchman to get 500 at-bats, as the team saw his production from May 1 on, and benched Steve Finley in favor of Kotchman. He has responded well, showing great plate discipline and better power than he ever did in the minors.
With this club, rookies have not come with small sample sizes. Instead, the A's have depended on them like few other teams have: to account for about 20% of the production on the team. Luckily for Billy Beane and Oakland fans, he picked four good players to hang his hat on.
Enough cannot be said about Huston Street, and his meteoric rise to the Majors. In just a year, Street went from being one of the NCAA's most dependable closers, to becoming one of the American League's best. His stuff is completely lacking when compared to the great closers, but like Bob Wickman or Eddie Guardado, he always gets the job done. This fearless nature -- coupled with Street's .163/.220/.203 line against right-handers -- explains his success in 2005.
Joining Street on the pitching staff is Joe Blanton, who also is making a seamless transition to the Majors. After a good-not-great season in Sacramento last season, Oakland entered the year unsure if Yabu, Cruz or Meyer presented better starting options than Blanton. False. Instead, Blanton has the best starter ERA for a pitcher who began at least 20 games, thanks in part to a 2.63 ERA since the All-Star Break. His season record, as well as his month-by-month splits, show a pitcher who has been guilty of inconsistency, a fault Blanton should look to improve upon next year.
But Blanton's consistency issues pale in comparison to Nick Swisher, who must be considered one of the game's most hot and cold hitters. During Spring Training, there were rumors that Nick had lost his swing, which nearly cost him his job in 2005. He was even benched in May after starting the year with just 22 hits in 104 at-bats. But things improved for Swisher considerably as both the weather and A's heated up, as his June and July stats were fantastic. His .951 OPS in July was one of the best on the team, powered by the plate discipline we had seen in AAA. But alas, it appears that Swisher will close out the season with two sub-.700 OPS months. His patience has been good in both, but a .154 average in September will not cut it in a pennant race. Swisher has shown the ability to become a star in this league, but only showing up two months out of the year will eventually land him on the bench.
Unlike Swisher, Dan Johnson did not enter the year thinking he had a job. Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo promised to have his spots, so it appeared the reigning PCL MVP would be shipped back there. But when the 1B/DH combination had problems with both injury and performance, Beane looked to his prospect that was his surest bet. And Johnson has taken off without looking back, with his only prolonged problems being this month (.205 in September). Johnson's propensity for contact, in addition to his patience and power, should make him an All-Star candidate in the coming years. To do so, however, he must be able to boost his ISO against southpaws, which was just .105 vs. LHP this year (as opposed to .264 vs. RHP).
Are any of the players mentioned above your choice for Rookie of the Year in the American League?