Got a minute? This won't take long. Just cancel your hair appointment dudes and hold your calls for the afternoon. I have some things to get off my chest about the Mariners, a team that doesn't look great to a lot of people right now but actually an organization that I have a lot of confidence in today from the rookie leagues to the major leagues. It might not be a great year for the major league Mariners in 2013, but I truly believe that it's about to get better. While the offseason has been somewhat lackluster and disappointing for many fans, the inactivity could actually be a blessing in disguise and for me, one of the most optimistic Mariners fans I know (which is to say that I have some) I think that it might actually get a lot better.
Here is what I know for certain: The Seattle Mariners have a great farm system. Some might argue that it's the best collection of prospects in baseball, John Sickels says that it is the second-best, I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that says it does not belong in the top 5. Not only is it that good right now, but it was arguably just as good going into last season as well, and has remained the same (or better) even after the graduation of Jesus Montero, and to a lesser extent, Erasmo Ramirez. (A personal favorite of mine but a bit of a surprise breakout player in terms of prospect rankings.)
Okay, so we can establish that Seattle has a great farm system but we also know that farm systems don't win World Series, Baseball America doesn't get to pick a champion, and I still think of stadiums like the ones you'd see in A League of Their Own when I think of minor league baseball. The vast majority of fans tend not to give shits about prospects unless they are Bryce Harper. "We have neither the time or the patience to find out if Brandon Maurer is a legitimate major league starter or if Taijuan Walker is an ace." is something someone might say. People didn't care about Joel Pineiro until Joel Pineiro was pitching well at the major league level. Going into 2001, Pineiro was the #80 prospect in baseball (per BA) and that's just not enough to get people to believe in you. With the failure rate of top prospects (which actually is not that bad and as you can imagine, the rate of success only goes down as you go down rankings) people even have a hard time believing in the best baseball prospects. All it takes is one Brandon Wood, and you've lost believers across the board. What are you going to do for me when it matters?
But I am going to argue that with Seattle having a top farm system for the last two years and potentially having the best system in the game right now, it is indeed an excellent and exciting sign for this franchise. Previous examples of similar runs of success in prospects has proven fruitful, even if you have to go a little bit out on a limb to pick it. Let's start with the most recent "best farm system" example: The 2011 Kansas City Royals.
Going into 2011, people were saying that the Royals might have the best farm system ever. Sickels gave out an incredible three A grades to Royals prospects (Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers) and had an additional five players with a B+ grade, all of whom were pitchers. Now, every prospect evaluator is someone you can trust more or trust less, but I would be hard-pressed to find anyone that didn't love Moustakas, Hosmer, and Myers and nearly everyone agreed that it was "Royals and then everyone else" going into 2011. Sickels was "a huge fan of Brett Eibner" and ranked him 10th in the system.
Does this sound familiar?
With a farm system bereft of talent when he arrived, Moore ended up signing a revolving cast of low-level free agents and veteran trade acquisitions to fill holes at the big league level. Few of them have turned out to be finds, and most were soon headed elsewhere. That steady stream of mercenaries should start to slow down in 2011, thanks to a system almost ready to start producing significant big leaguers.
Few people would argue that Dayton Moore is their favorite GM, or that the Royals are the model franchise, but stick with me here. That's what Baseball America had to say about Moore and their farm system going into 2011. The Royals were not yet a better team after four years of Moore and people were frustrated with his crappy free agent signings, but he had one thing: An amazing farm system. Don't screw up the farm system and possibly Moore could keep his job if the Royals make the playoffs in the next four years. Let's not forget that most rebuilds in baseball are Daisuke-paced. You've got 25 major league roster spots, most of them have significant importance, you will likely need to find a couple of elite players and a few more great ones to really compete. The Giants had Posey and Cain at the top, with a supporting cast of Pablo, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Melky, Pagan. You think that's easy to find? It takes patience and once again, developing a great farm system.
Okay, but I am talking about the Royals and "the Royals suck!" Well, yes, Kansas City was 72-90 last season and that was two years after the "best farm system ever" happened. 2011 was not a banner year for the best farm system ever and it was a noticeably worse system going into 2012. John Lamb had Tommy John surgery. Moustakas, Hosmer and Dan Duffy graduated. Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer were not good. Myers also struggled. But here's the rub: The Royals got four wins better at the major league level despite the fact that the average age of their batters dropped from 28.8 years in 2010 to 25.8 years in 2011. That was their youngest lineup since their first season in the majors, 1969, and also the youngest team in baseball that year by almost two years.
Let's not forget that we are talking about the Kansas City Royals. The team that lost 100+ games four times in five years between 2002-2006. The team that has one winning season (83-79 in 2003) since the 1994 strike. The team that was a joke for how many great prospects they shed rather than the ones that they managed to groom and keep in house. They became the model for what-not-to-do for other small market clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays, an organization that quickly learned how to hold onto their best prospects at a reasonable rate for a long period of time. If Kansas City had done that with their young players that would go on to be successful, maybe we're never talking about Dayton Moore and the Royals. But we are, and I'm arguing that it actually hasn't turned out that bad, and that maybe on some level Yuniesky Betancourt and Jason Kendall are understandable in retrospect. Moore was once quoted as saying:
"If you have 20 pitching prospects," he said, "you might get four or five to the big leagues."
That sounds pretty logical for a guy that seemed to make so many illogical moves. Sure enough, he was perfectly prepared for his stable of "surefire arms" to possibly implode to only finish with a 20-25% success rate. At this point the most successful of those pitchers was Danny Duffy, and even he had Tommy John surgery last June. All of which led up to what one might call "the last godawful trade" when Moore sent Myers, Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi and Patrick Leonard to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. Now, what that trade did was send the Royals best prospect and likely 2nd-best prospect to Tampa and dropped the KC farm system down to likely a lower-third ranking in baseball and bereft of the star-level and near-major-league-ready-level talent that it once had. Not empty mind you, with Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling, Yordano Ventura, and Adalberto Mondesi still in fold, but young, and young always means "we will see."
Conversely, they did get Shields and he is immediately their unquestioned best starter and the Royals would have never had the opportunity to get Shields if they didn't have that deep and talented farm system. Of course, many argue that you've just traded wins in your lineup for wins in your rotation, and that one of those players is cheaper and has four more years of definite team control, but there's also a counter-argument: I am almost positive that Shields is a 4 WAR starting pitcher. With the exception of 2006 and 2010, that's pretty much what he has been, somewhere between 3.7 and 4.9. I like Myers as much as the next guy, but he is certainly less of a guarantee at the major league level and we already went over why that's a risk for all prospects. Additionally, the acquisition of Davis likely means that Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Will Smith are actually competing for ONE rotation spot. Yes, just one spot for one of those pitchers. Imagine that, Chen as your #5 starter instead of your #1, and Duffy likely returning midseason. People didn't like the trade for Kansas City also in large part because it seems like they are putting in all of their chips with a very low chance of making the playoffs but I'd also contend that playing in the AL Central and having the additional wild card actually does give them a chance and an even better one next year.
Remember: two or three elite players and a few great ones. Alex Gordon could qualify as elite. Billy Butler and Shields could qualify as great. Could Hosmer and/or Moustakas and/or Davis break out in 2013? I would not say that it is impossible and it is almost all because of the Royals strong farm system from 2010-2012. Either way, this does not in any way resemble the Royals we were used to seeing for the last 15 years. This is a young and possibly exciting ballclub and maybe they do shock the world and win 90 games. It could happen. Now, what does any of this have to do with the Mariners?
I'd contend that the 2012 Mariners major league team was similar to the 2011 Royals and that the development at the major league level and minor league level is similar. Let's start with the major league level:
- Seattle went 75-87. They aren't contending, but they improved by 14 games from the 2010 team that went 61-101.
- Seattle had an average age of 27.1 in their lineup, their youngest since 1989.
- Seattle, like the Royals, has one elite player. They also have several that could be great.
- While Hosmer and Moustakas have had their struggles for KC, it's too soon to give up on them, just like we saw with Gordon. Moustakas and Hosmer have both also had flashes of greatness at the major league level at a young age. Jesus Montero was not good last year, but it's too soon to give up on him and could still be a great hitter even if he's only a DH. Kyle Seager had a breakout year and could be one of the future "great" players. It's too soon to give up on Ackley, who has shown flashes. Michael Saunders could be one of those players with potential to provide a key role on a good team. Even Justin Smoak has hope remaining, I believe.
Seattle is not here to contend in 2013. Oh sure, they will try to win every game just like every other team, but they will probably fail more often than they don't. They might be a surprise team, but it's more likely that they could stay right where they are or even fall back a bit. The 75-win mark actually sounds reasonable to me, even if the projections might say it's more like 68, I heartily disagree with those. I am but a mere biased mortal but I can't see this team getting worse, at least not significantly worse. The rotation lacks depth to a near-terrifying degree at the moment, but it still seems unreasonable to expect Hector Noesi to make the team. 75 wins seems about right, and that's perfectly okay. Why?
Because in baseball you have to have patience and when you've got a farm system as good as this, patience tends to pay off. And I don't mean the 2011 Royals, who still have more work to do, but what about other "great" farm systems?
Going into 2007, the Tampa Bay "Devil" Rays had never won more than 70 games. They didn't even win 70 games in 2007, they went 66-96. However, they did have the "strongest" farm system in baseball: Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, Jeff Niemann, Jake McGee, Elijah Dukes, Wade Davis, Matt Walker, Jeremy Hellickson, and Joel Guzman making the top ten for Baseball America.
In 2008, they went to the World Series.
The Rays used Young to acquire Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett from the Minnesota Twins. (I'm not saying this is the same as the Myers trade, but there are similarities. Young was the headliner of that deal and Garza was considered to be a "#3 or #4 starter" after not living up to expectations in Minnesota.) Maybe Tampa hasn't won a World Series, but they stuck with their prospects, made a few deals, and have won 90 games in four of the last five years. Players like Hellickson got better, while funny enough players like Brignac, Niemann, and Dukes failed. You know that some of your prospects will massively disappoint, which is why it's so important to be talented and deep. That's where the Mariners are at right now.
Go back a little bit further and look at the pre-2007 Arizona Diamondbacks farm system that included: Justin Upton, Chris Young, Carlos Gonzalez, Miguel Montero, Micah Owings, Mark Reynolds, Brett Anderson, and Max Scherzer. The Diamondbacks lost 111 games in 2004, and they went to the NLCS in 2007. They have struggled to stay consistent, but that farm system has directly contributed to two playoff trips in six years.
Upton, Young, and Montero have been contributors for Arizona at the major league level. Scherzer was dealt for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. Anderson and Gonzalez, along with Chris Carter (acquired for Carlos Quentin fron the White Sox, another prospect of the era for the D'backs) and others, were used to snag Dan Haren. Then you've got the players acquired for Upton, Jackson, Haren, and that 2006-2007 system keeps on giving. The 2013 roster is just a crunkload of residue from having one of the best farm systems ever.
Other popular picks for great farm systems include the 2005 Dodgers (Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin, Jon Broxton, Matt Kemp, Trayvon Robinson (!)) and 2004 Milwaukee Brewers. An interesting note about the Brewers was that 2004 was considered to be a "disaster" with injuries to JJ Hardy and Mike Jones, with struggles from Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder. But in 2005, they went .500 and though the development of this team was slow, they did make the playoffs twice, something they hadn't done since 1982.
I think we've done a good job of establishing that great farm systems have produced desirable results. Though none of the teams mentioned have won a World Series (uhh, let me wipe the sweat from my brow and pull my collar out as I type that) they've all been much-improved ballclubs. And when you get to the playoffs, it's anyone's game. So can we also establish that the Mariners have that level of farm system? I think so.
Mike Zunino replaces Montero as the top hitting prospect in the system, but with a much higher likelihood of remaining at catcher. Zunino was given an A- grade by Sickels, and rates as the top prospect in Seattle by Fangraphs, Baseball America, and Sickels. He has a strong case as a top 10 prospect overall.
Taijuan Walker is ranked 2nd in the system by Sickels, Fangraphs, and Baseball America, while Baseball Prospectus ranks him 1st. Walker also got an A- grade from Sickels. Though he struggled in the second half, I won't forget that Walker, the youngest pitcher in the Southern League, was arguably also the best pitcher in the league in the first half. He bounced back for a nice playoff performance and still has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in the minor leagues. He also has a case for being a top 10 overall prospect.
Danny Hultzen comes in at 3rd on all four lists. Same story as Walker: Amazing start, poor finish, but I don't forget what he brings to the table in terms of skill and that he had a time where he was dominant. It really seems like if he can cut down on the walks, that will be the one thing separating him from major league success and that success could come as soon as the second half of this season. He was given a B+ grade by Sickels, but with this note:
I will be honest, I am not comfortable with Hultzen's grade or his placement here and may revise it significantly before the book goes to press. I think it is a mistake to dismiss his Triple-A struggles too cavalierly. His command was just too poor at that level for us to ignore, especially given his past reputation and track record. I'm nosing around about this one and gathering more info and opinion, so stand by.
Of course its troublesome, but it's really hard to tell if this is a serious issue or just a hiccup along the way. Truth be told, the most important thing to remember about great farm systems is that they are great because you already know that you will have players that fail to live up to expectations. But when you have depth you have more chances to fail and succeed. All of the examples above had players that were major disappointments but you also had at least a couple in each franchise that turned out great. You shouldn't expect Walker, Hultzen, and Paxton to all turn out great. You can hope for that, but realistically you're just happy if one of them turns out great, one never makes it at all, and one turns out okay. The most important thing in that sentence would be "one turns out great" and don't worry about the rest of it. It's like saying that the Mariners get 12 scratch tickets, the Cardinals get 12 scratch tickets, the Royals get 3 scratch tickets and the White Sox get none. Now in my experience with scratch tickets, everybody loses in this scenario, but the point is that you get more opportunity for failure and more opportunity for success. You will have more failures than the average club, but only because you had more opportunity. Hultzen might not make it, but he would be the best pitching prospect for most major league teams. He could likely fall into the top 15-25 range on most Top 100 lists.
James Paxton would have his fair share of teams that he'd be the best pitching prospect for, but he's the consensus number three pitching prospect in Seattle. He comes out 4th overall on the lists for Sickels and Baseball America, and while the others had poor second halves, Paxton was the opposite. After returning from the DL midway through the year, he pitched exceptionally well down the stretch and actually stopped walking everybody (15.7% BB in April and May, 7.5% BB in July, 9.7% BB in August.) Paxton was #61 on MLB's top 100 list.
Number four prospect for Fangraphs and Prospectus is Nick Franklin. He's another case of a player that had a poor second half, hitting .240/.306/.412 after his promotion to Tacoma. But he was also 21 at AAA and remains a player that could be ranked in the top 50-75 range. That makes five players that should have no trouble making a top 100 list this year.
In addition to those players, the system continues to be strong. If you took out the top five, you could still make an argument that it was as good as the current Royals system that Sickels ranks as the 20th best in baseball. Carter Capps is perhaps the top relief prospect in the game. Brad Miller is arguably a better hitter than Franklin, and his bat could play at multiple positions. He's one of Sickels favorite players:
His numbers in the Cal League were not an illusionary result of High Desert, and he continued raking after being promoted to Double-A (wRC+ 151, OPS +24 percent, SEC .326 in the Southern League). If anything, people are still underestimating his bat. Miller also has better-than-average speed and is an effective stealer.
As far as Brandon Maurer, at this point all he has to do is keep doing what he already did last year (3.05 FIP, 3.20 ERA) and remain healthy and he could be the fourth legitimate "#3 or better SP prospect" in the system right now. That's where that "If you can get 20-25% success rate" really becomes an important factor. Add in consensus top ten Mariners prospect Victor Sanchez (typically right around the #10) and that gives Seattle one more shot even though Sanchez could be 4-5 years away at best. Don't forget that the Rays had a young Hellickson at the backend of their top 10 list or that the Diamondbacks used their backend prospects in trades for established players. I
Additional players around the top 10-15 for Seattle include Stefen Romero, Patrick Kivlehan, Gabriel Guerroro, Tyler Pike, Timmy Lopes, Stephen Pryor, Luis Gohara, and Julio Morban. There are also a number of other players at the lower levels that you just don't know about, they could also breakout. It's not like you would expect these last bits of players to come up and be regulars, and in some cases they probably won't make the majors at all, (well Pryor already has) but the point is that you got a few shots, a few more shots than the other guys. For that reason, the Mariners have a good chance, a very good chance, at turning the system of the last two years into possibly many years of future success. Maybe it's sort of like a microcosm of what I mentioned about having major league success but at the minor league level: A couple of elite prospects, a few great prospects, and a handful of very good prospects. That is absolutely what the Mariners have right now on the farm. Whether it takes awhile like it did with the Brewers or is immediate like it was with the Rays, we don't know yet, but it gives me a high level of hope that Seattle is capable of making the playoffs in 2014 and that they will be good for a significant period of time after that.
A few of these guys will probably be traded. A few of these guys will fail. (Hopefully players in those last two groups are one in the same.) And a few of these guys, most likely, will pan out. You can't expect all of this to fall perfectly into place because it just doesn't work that way, and you shouldn't expect Seattle to win a ton of games in 2013, but I think that soon the patience is going to pay off. Recently we learned that Zduriencik was already trying to move a couple of his top prospects for a hitter that as recently as 2011 was a star. This is pretty much the norm for many clubs that have had a system this good and it hasn't necessarily hurt any of them in a major way. For the Rays, it was the best thing they could have done with one of their top young players. The good news is that when you have a system good enough to trade two top 50 prospects and not be crushed by it - you have a system that's still very good after you lost two of your top five prospects.
That's where the Mariners are at right now and I think history has shown how beneficial this is. The M's have a very good shot at fielding a contending team for awhile and the future should be very bright even if the offseason seemed bland due to a lack of exciting moves, they've still shed a few older and ineffective players and thanks to having a strong system (and having Upton block a trade) you could say that they actually did improve over the offseason by just being themselves. See your mom was right, just be yourself. Or be the Royals? (I don't know how I managed to find a comparison to Kansas City as being a good thing, but after 4,000 words I'm sticking with it. And I said good things about Dayton Moore? Fuck!)
Maybe things don't look great today, but I really do believe that it's about to get better. Significantly so.