Treading and retreading

The main purpose of the minor leagues is to identify, filter, and develop talent for the big club. The closer you get to the show, though, the less clear that purpose is. At the Triple-A level in particular, it’s hardly a prospect paradise.

The various goals of Triple-A result in some weird lineups. On Tuesday, the Nashville Sounds, for instance, had Corey Patterson, Alcides Escobar, and Joe Koshansky batting two-three-four in their lineup. I’m not sure how to characterize Patterson’s role at this point in his career, so let’s just say that those guys don’t exactly serve the same purpose for their parent club.

In fact, we can summarize some of those functions as follows:

  • The extended roster. Think of it as the 26th through 30th (or so) spots on the 25-man roster. Your seventh and eighth starters, a reliever or two (probably with a bit of major league experience), a utility guy, and your third catcher.
     

  • Prospect finishing ground. This is why Oklahoma City’s roster includes Justin Smoak and, until recently, included Neftali Feliz. Some teams will skip prospects straight from Double-A to the bigs (as the O’s did with Brian Matusz this week), but most youngsters still spend at least a month or two in Triple-A.
     
  • Roster filler. If those other guys are going to play baseball games, they need more teammates. If one of these guys plays well enough, he can usually be promoted to the “extended roster” group, especially if he pitches. Particularly if he pitches for the Mets.

What interests me is the way different clubs balance these three competing priorities on their Triple-A rosters, and how they fill out the first and third groups. Everybody loves an underdog story, especially when the underdog turns into a quality setup man working for the major-league minimum.

A surfeit of savvy

Some teams seem to like veteran presence in their Triple-A clubhouse. After all, why waste a pick in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft when you can sign Abraham Nunez instead?

To get an idea of which teams have which predilections, I ran some numbers. I took the age of all players who had 30 or more at-bats or batters faced for each Triple-A club this year. I’ve included the average age, the median age, the average age of batters and pitchers, and the number of players who fit into each of three age groups.

Here are the results:

Org  Team              Average  Median   <26  26-29  30+  Avg Bat  Avg Pit  

STL  Memphis              25.4    25.0    20     15    4     24.8     26.1  
OAK  Sacramento           25.5    25.5    21     17    4     25.7     25.4  
MIN  Rochester            25.6    25.5    18     18    0     25.4     25.9  
MIL  Nashville            26.4    26.0    12     15    5     25.8     26.9  
CIN  Louisville           26.5    26.0    15     15    7     26.7     26.2  
SDP  Portland             26.6    26.0    17     22    7     26.5     26.7  

TEX  Oklahoma City        26.7    26.0    11     11    6     26.4     26.9  
FLO  New Orleans          26.7    26.0    17     19    8     26.9     26.6  
BAL  Norfolk              26.8    26.0    15     20    7     27.4     26.1  
DET  Toledo               26.8    26.0    13     18    7     26.9     26.7  
SEA  Tacoma               26.8    26.0    14     22    4     27.1     26.4  
LAA  Salt Lake            26.8    26.0    14     20    6     26.6     26.9  

CHC  Iowa                 26.9    25.5    21     14    7     27.5     26.2  
ARI  Reno                 26.9    26.0    16     21    5     26.9     26.9  
PIT  Indianapolis         27.0    26.0    12     22    6     26.8     27.1  
NYY  Scranton/WB          27.0    26.0    21     19   10     26.9     27.0  
TOR  Las Vegas            27.0    27.0    13     17    6     27.5     26.5  
WAS  Syracuse             27.0    27.0    14     23    9     27.0     27.0  

HOU  Round Rock           27.2    26.0    15     15    8     27.2     27.2  
BOS  Pawtucket            27.3    27.0    11     25    5     27.3     27.3  
CLE  Columbus             27.3    26.0    20     10   13     26.8     27.8  
SFG  Fresno               27.4    26.0    15     17    6     26.4     28.6  
ATL  Gwinnett             27.4    27.0    16     20    7     27.5     27.4  
CHW  Charlotte            27.5    26.0    13     17   11     28.0     27.0  

TB   Durham               28.0    28.0    11     16   11     28.1     27.9  
KC   Omaha                28.1    27.0     8     23    8     27.4     28.9  
COL  Colorado Springs     28.2    27.0    10     17   11     27.6     28.5  
NYM  Buffalo              28.6    28.5    13     15   18     28.3     28.9  
LAD  Albuquerque          28.7    29.0    13     14   16     27.6     29.6  
PHI  Lehigh Valley        28.8    29.5    11      8   19     29.5     28.2  

MLB  AVERAGE              27.1    26.5  14.7   17.5  8.0     27.0     27.2

That, my friends, is a lot of data. There probably isn't much meaningful to say about the middle 15-20 teams on the list. The difference between an average age of 26.7 and 27.5 isn't worth much. It is interesting to see where your team fits on the scale, though.

Let's go to the bullet points to highlight some notable findings:

  • Youth movements. The three youngest Triple-A teams are affiliated with the Cardinals, A's and Twins. I'm not surprised. If anything, I wouldn't have guessed that there were four players in their thirties in the entire A's sytem. Amazingly, not a single 30-something has gotten much playing time for Rochester this season.
     

  • 21 "prospects." It's too much to assume that anyone under 26 is a prospect, but especially when it comes to relief pitchers, players of that age do still have some potential. The teams with the most under-26s are the A's, Cubs and Yankees. The A's we've already discussed, and the Cubs always seem to have a lot of young (if not spectacular) pitching ready to deploy. The Yankees are something of a surprise, though.
     
  • Few "prospects." It's disappointing to see the Royals so close to the bottom of this list. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with having an old Triple-A club, but it doesn't seem like a good characteristic for a organization in rebuild phase. Maybe I'm uncharitable, but I do wonder what function Tim Hamulack, Brian Buchanan, or Tim Raines Jr. serves for that club right now.
     
  • Veteran presence. The Mets, Dodgers, and Phillies have the oldest top affiliates. That's pretty much what I expected, though it does represent something of a shift in the Dodgers organization in the last few years. The Phillies take things to a whole new level, with half of their Triple-A players in their 30s. In fact, when Japanese teams scout for American players, they may well start in Lehigh Valley. Check out Tuesday night's lineup:

    I didn't even look for a particularly egregious one. That was the first lineup I found. For some of us, tracking the minors reminds us how old we're getting. Thank you, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, for reminding us of our youth.

Clearly, the age distribution of a Triple-A affiliate isn't some hidden secret of success. In every segment of the table above, you'll find major league clubs having great, middling, and poor seasons.

As long as you have some MLB-ready pitching ready to step in and a few prospects to keep fueling the organization, maybe the "filler" really is just that. If so, consider this an open letter to Dayton Moore. I can fill a roster spot like nobody's business. And I'm still under 30!

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Comments

  1. Mike said...

    I think this has been going on for a while.  You see more and more guys getting called up to stay from AA and more guys filling in from AAA.  A few years ago, a White Sox team official was quoted that there is more talent in AA.  He said that AAA ball was for aging vets that couldn’t give it up and were looking for one last shot.  The organization was basically using AAA as an extended roster.  It would be interesting to run the same numbers on AA teams.  I bet there are very few guys over 25, much less over 30 in AA.

    I think there may be some value to having prospects compete against and be around those guys that have been in the big leagues, but maybe not as much as being around them in the big leagues.

  2. Dylan said...

    Just looking at the list, a couple of things from the middle 20 do stand out. The Jays and Cubs bith have over a year difference in the avg age between their hitters and pitchers(Cubs tied for 5th youngest pitching staff), while the Indians and Giants have a large difference in the other direction(Giants 5th youngest lineup).

  3. Mark said...

    It struck me that the penultimate paragraph is looking at the wrong place to measure correlation between ages at triple A level and major league success.  It might be more interesting to look at Triple A average ages from 1 or 2 years ago and compare that to the success of Major League teams this year.

  4. ecp said...

    The Royals have few true “prospects” in AAA because the bulk of them are so young (most under 21) and are in AA or lower.  Remember what a mess their minor league system was when Allard Baird left, and what their draft philosophy was under Baird.  It takes time to rebuild a system in shambles, and it has to start at the lower levels before filtering up higher.  Their best prospects now have largely all been drafted within the last two years, and their best first-rounders between 2000 and 2006 are currently in the majors.  For that reason, AAA is mostly populated by organizational filler.  Give it a couple more years and you’ll see that change.

  5. Jeff Sackmann said...

    @Mark: Maybe.  I mean to look at that one of these days.  That said, since teams don’t leave their prospects at AAA for very long, most of the rosters are some form of roster reserve/org filler.  It’s really just the difference between getting spot starts from Luke French instead of Nelson Figueroa.

    Also, I suspect that the age distributions reflect organizational philosophies.  When Omar Minaya needs a 5th starter in AAA, he consults a different list than does, say, Doug Melvin.

    @ecp: It isn’t a matter of true prospects, it’s a matter of who Moore chooses to be that organization filler.  I’d bet 80% of AAA players have less than a 10% chance of being better than replacement level … it’s a matter of who you hire to be that filler.

    If you’re the Phillies, I understand going older.  Injuries strike and you’d rather have a known quantity like Jason Ellison to plug in as your 4th or 5th OF.  If you’re the Royals, though, what’s the point of having Brandon Duckworth and Tim Hamulack in reserve?  If you need a 1B/DH-type, why sign Brian Buchanan, who has to have closer to zero upside than anyone else in all of Triple-A, when you could find some TTO guy in the indy leagues?

  6. Shawn said...

    AAA does seem to be becoming more and more the “extended bench.”  Especially in these days of short benches.

  7. FireDayton said...

    “If you need a 1B/DH-type, why sign Brian Buchanan, who has to have closer to zero upside than anyone else in all of Triple-A, when you could find some TTO guy in the indy leagues? “

    Exactly, but the Royals are content with filling their minor league rosters with former Braves or guys that their scouts used to like. You can tell there is zero statistical analysis involved, almost every guy they pick up has some background or connection to a member of the Royals front office and scouting department. It’s a joke in KC right now

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