There are a lot of ways to build a winning ballclub. The method behind the Angels’ success doesn’t get the same attention as some other techniques, but perhaps it should. They’ve won 89 or more games six consecutive seasons, including 97 and 100 the last two.
What strikes me on first glance at the Angels roster is how many key contributors are homegrown. Mike Napoli, Jeff Mathis, Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Robb Quinlan were drafted or originally signed by the Angels. Same goes for on-the-cusp contributors Brandon Wood and the recently traded Sean Rodriguez.
Starting pitching is even more dramatic. Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, John Lackey and Ervin Santana all started their pro careers as Angels. If it hadn’t been for Nick Adenhart‘s tragic death, L.A. could have gotten the vast majority of its starts from homegrown talent.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Angels have plenty of money to spend. They could afford Brian Fuentes, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, and the disastrous Gary Matthews Jr. signing isn’t going to consign them to the second division.
But $100 million only buys so much these days. In order to spend the money necessary to absorb a bad contract, fill necessary holes and still field a winning team, you need to have a whole lot of roster spots filled by homegrown (read: pre-arbitration and pre-free-agency) products.
Usually when we talk about this sort of roster construction, the team in question is the Twins, and there’s no doubt they belong in the conversation. This naturally raises the question: Which teams have been best at developing players to contribute at the big-league level?
Player development in context
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I’d like to step back and consider the various ways of acquiring players, and how these methods can contribute to a winning team.
1. The amateur draft
This is probably the best way to acquire lots of players on the cheap. Drafted players command very little salary their first three years in the bigs, and are cheaper than free agents for the three years after that. The flip side is the high risk: For every Jered Weaver, there are several early-round picks that blow out their arms or top out in the high minors.
2. International free agency
Similar to the draft, international free agents usually aren’t very expensive. The risk still is high, probably even higher: Instead of signing players at ages 18 through 22, you can ink them as early as 16. While some of the best players in baseball were acquired through this route, a whole lot can go wrong between age 16 and the big leagues.
Success in the draft and in international free agency depends on talent evaluation; success in the trade market does too, though the type of player evaluation is somewhat different. Even if you target a minor league middle infielder (like Chone Figgins, when the Angels acquired him), you have more data to work with than you did when the same player was in high school or college.
Often, then, you are pitting your own talent evaluation against someone else’s, betting that the player is more valuable than your trade partner thinks he is. Alternatively, both teams may be filling holes. The trade partners may agree on the skill level of a player, but one team may have a greater need at a given position.
4. The waiver wire, Rule 5, and minor league free agency
Statheads like me tend to geek out over these “free” ways to acquire players. It’s exciting to find a diamond in the rough, even if it isn’t much of a diamond. The upside of the waiver wire is the price; the downside is that it’s rare to find a major contributor there. If you’re relying too heavily on bargain-bin pickups, you’re probably not building a contending team.
5. Free agency
You can always buy players at retail. That’s how the Angels got Fuentes, Guerrero and Hunter. Good teams all have to fill holes this way, and the best general managers find ways to do so inexpensively, as Tony Reagins did in picking up Bobby Abreu on a one-year deal for $5 million. Unless you’re the Yankees, you can only fill so many holes with free agents.
If you had to pick one of these five areas for your front office to master, which would it be? To me, it’s a no-brainer: I want my front office to be the best drafting crew in the business.
There’s simply no better way to get lots of value on your roster without spending too much money. Sure, everything here is important, but you can get by with mediocrity in the other categories if you knock the ball out of the park with the amateur draft every June.
Now we get to the part of the article where I try to quantify stuff. In general, measuring the overall impact of a front office is a fool’s errand: There are just too many variables spread out over too many years. Guys making an impact now may have been drafted eight or nine years ago; a recent trade package can’t be evaluated until five years from now.
Recognizing the limitations of any such effort, here’s what I settled on: I want to know where each team’s 2009 contributors came from, and how much value (over and above their salaries) they provided.
Who got what
Here’s the methodology. Using Wins Above Replacement and corresponding dollar values from FanGraphs, I found the dollar value for every player who was worth 1.0 WAR or more in 2009. This introduces a bias by excluding many free agents who didn’t earn their keep, but it has two benefits: It keeps us focused on players who really contributed, and it reduces the size of the project to something more manageable.
Next, I coupled that information with the actual salary of each player and the manner in which the player was acquired. I sorted acquisition methods into the five categories listed above.
Some players are a bit ambiguous, such as those who sign long-term deals with the clubs that drafted them. In those cases, I called them free agents if they had more than six years of service time, draftees if they had less. This underestimates the benefit of those long-term deals, but it seemed more logical for this purpose.
And then I added everything up. In the following table, I’ve summed the dollar values for each team in each category. For example, the four draftees who provided 1.0+ WAR for the Diamondbacks this year (Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew and Max Scherzer) were worth a total of $58.2MM more than they were paid.
Team Draft Int'l FA Trade Waivers FA ARI 58.2 14.4 28.8 15.4 9.1 ATL 44.6 29.7 47.1 6.2 4.9 BAL 27.9 - 18.4 4.4 16.2 BOS 89.9 - 19.6 - 22.9 CHC 29.8 - 7.9 - 17.5 CIN 54.2 6.6 15.6 3.8 -4.4 CLE 27.1 10.9 59.8 - 4.6 COL 56.9 24.8 40.2 14.5 -0.6 CWS 14.7 9.3 40.4 23.8 7.8 DET 65.8 - 23.3 - 5.7 FLA 54.7 - 52.2 23.4 - HOU 14.8 15.6 17.1 - -9.0 KC 66.3 - 23.2 12.8 3.0 LAA 48.8 36.4 34.1 - 30.3 LAD 77.1 - 12.8 - 25.6 MIL 62.1 - 10.2 9.1 22.2 MIN 103.1 4.8 6.1 - 4.6 NYM 12.9 - 11.8 9.3 -12.1 NYY 25.1 19.1 11.2 5.0 15.5 OAK 35.3 - 61.7 21.8 0.4 PHI 54.8 9.5 13.1 12.1 39.8 PIT 53.0 - 25.9 11.2 1.2 SD 19.6 - 80.1 15.2 7.4 SEA 5.4 44.0 34.8 - 17.1 SF 73.6 22.7 - 20.2 -6.1 STL 40.9 - 31.5 3.9 52.0 TB 85.9 - 77.0 4.3 22.6 TEX 51.5 - 57.6 13.5 -0.9 TOR 41.6 11.9 35.3 4.9 23.2 WAS 52.7 - 25.1 7.1 -0.6
There’s a lot of data here. Let’s bullet-point some highlights:
- The Angels are among the better teams when taking all amateur signings together. What is most striking is how solid the Angels are in every category. Even if we consider the ugly Gary Matthews signing (not included here because GMJ didn’t meet the WAR threshold), they still look pretty good in the free agent category.
- Usually when we talk about amateur scouting and player development, we talk about the Twins. And that’s sure how it played out this year! Of their 15 players worth at least 1 WAR, 11 are Twins draftees who haven’t yet reached free agency.
- The Red Sox and Rays aren’t too far behind. Again, these aren’t exactly surprises. The Sox front office is often noted for its savvy. The Rays get some of the same accolades, and they have had the additional benefit of many early picks.
- The teams who received the most benefit from trades are often those who have recently held fire sales. No surprise there, with the Indians, A’s, and Padres near the top of the list. The team with the most marked trading savvy may be the Rays, who acquired Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza this way.
- The Cardinals top the list in getting value from free agency. Locking up Albert Pujols didn’t hurt.
- The Yankees aren’t particularly impressive in any of these categories. Then again, if you spend $200 million with anything close to efficiency, there’s no need to find extra value everywhere. Further, the picture could be different in a year or two: Bigger contributions from Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Chien-Ming Wang and others could rocket them up the list.
- The Marlins were the only team with no 1+ WAR free agents. I can’t say I’m shocked.
What does it mean?
All this data is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s great to get huge contributions from draftees making $415,000. It’s much harder to pick the college and high school players who will come through five years later. (That’s an understatement of epic proportions.)
What I think it does tell us is that, unless you’ve got a huge payroll or a crystal ball, free agency will only get you so far. It’s telling that the free agents I’ve considered here were worth a total of $320MM above their contracts. That’s not much—only a couple of wins per team. And I’m only counting the free agents who contributed. It’s also inflated because it counts “hometown discount” contracts like the one Pujols is playing under.
Evaluating players is hard, but evaluating very young players is harder. As with most anything difficult, the rewards can be commensurately large. Since most of us aren’t strategizing within a front office, we can take a simpler route. You want the rewards? Try being a Twins fan.