Monday, May 30, 2011

Happy Memorial Day!

Happy Memorial Day to all you out in the blag-o-blag! I hope you're all enjoying your well-earned holiday and the nonstop baseball action on the Tube! For me, it's Tim Hudson leading the Atlanta Braves against Aaron Harang and the San Diego Padres. It's funny to think that in my Developed Universe, Huddy would still be leading the A's... but such is the ever-changing flux of life.

It's also funny to think that TV used to be known colloquially as "the tube" (presumably because it was made of some kind of tube). I guess that's still a slang term, but generally - at least among the ever-expanding higher-tech crowd - the term "tube" (or "tubes") has now come to refer to the Internet... which is gradually replacing television as the way most Americans get most of their entertainment. Coincidence? Or is our culture somehow inextricably linked with the concept of tubes?

I've taken the holiday weekend off from my Developed Teams project (also cuz I'm spending most of my time trying to solve virtual 1940s crimes in L.A. Noire), but seeing these two teams play has given me an idea of who to write about next. Once I'm done with my slate of currently-planned programming. Long Story Short: Expect to see the Braves' and the Padres' developed teams up here sometime in the next week. You might be surprised about which current stars land on the list...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Developed Teams 2011: Oakland Athletics

Oh Boy! The A's are in town! I noticed when I saw them on my local Fox Sports affiliate, playing against the (not quite) hometown (but wish they were) Angels. In honor of this series - and because the A's are unabashedly my favorite baseball team - I'll move straight on in my Developed Teams project, to the Oakland Athletics.

First of all, to start with what I always start with: developed players still with the team = Eight (8). Not as much as the Cubs or the Red Sox, two teams with significantly higher payrolls in significantly better baseball markets. It makes sense that a team with a historically great farm system but historically poor finances has historically been forced to part with some of their best talent. But you must do the what you can with what you have where you are.

What might have been...
Rather than focus on those eight, let's marvel at the sheer outfield power the A's have traded away, most without even playing a single game for Oakland's big club. Of the 463 HR and 1,580 RBI that came out of the outfielders on this roster (Andre Ethier, Cruz, Swisher, and Ludwick [as DH here]), only 80 HR and 255 RBI benefitted the A's (all from Swisher from 2004-07). And who did the A's get via trade for these outfield talents? Milton Bradley, Keith Ginter, Gio Gonzalez / Ryan Sweeney, and Carlos Pena, respectively. ONE player who's made a significant difference in the majors. Sad showing from Mr. Moneyball indeed.

Of course it took a little juggling and creativity to get all those outfielders into my lineup, as Swisher has only played CF close to regularly in 2007-08, when he played to the tune of 30 total zone fielding runs BELOW average with the A's and White Sox. Also, while we're on the topic, Mark Teahen has played exactly 3 games at 2B in his whole career. But the only other infield options - Bobby Crosby and Esteban German - haven't played at all yet in 2011, so I would feel bad about giving them a spot.

Look at that defensive whiz...
Some of those guys to whom I did give spots are there for purely sentimental reasons. I'm looking at early 2000's throwbacks Eric "Chokey" Chavez, Jason "Yankee-steroid-apologist" Jerk-ambi, and to some extent Miguel "MVT" Tejada. But Chavez won a bench job with the Yankees out of Spring Training, Giambi's got an OPS over 1.000 to go with 6 HR in part-time duty with the Rockies, and Tejada's starting at SS for the defending World Series Champions. So as far as nostalgia goes, you could do much worse.

The three A's batters currently with the team are still struggling to find themselves and develop into their full potential. Barton, Suzuki, and Pennington are all entering the prime of their careers, all performing under their potential, and all lacking in the one aspect the A's currently need most: power at the plate. Two of the four A's pitchers currently with the team are out with injuries: Andrew Bailey since the beginning of the year and Dallas Braden for the rest of the year. Trevor Cahill (despite losing his second game last night) and Brad Ziegler have been absolutely solid in their roles.

Teammates called his 2-seam fastball "supersink"
Cahill and Braden are joined by three veterans, two of which are former members of the Big 3, and the third is a current non-member of baseball's most famous Big 4. Tim Hudson's ERA is approaching his FIP; Joe Blanton has been dubbed the "mere mortal" on a Philadelphia staff filled with greats; and Barry Zito - just when you think he's about to turn things around (the Hardball Times even published a study confirming as much), he drops off a cliff again.

I picked my two long relievers - Vin Mazzaro and Tyson Ross - because they're young and hip and likely to make contributions to their big league clubs this year. If I were going for established major leaguers (albeit ones whose 2011 future is uncertain), I could have just as easily gone with Rich Harden (signed by the A's, but injured) and Jeremy Bonderman (unsigned).

Check out the three closers in this bullpen! Three projected closers, anyway. Bailey's been hurt (see above) and Kevin Gregg's been ineffective enough that he probably wouldn't be closing if a better pitcher were available. Strategically, it would probably be better to replace him with a lefty - him or Santiago Casilla, who's  been awful so far this year. But for the bullpen, I wanted to get all the high profile, established guys in there.

There's a lineup made up of only players developed by the A's, each one with their own story to tell. Next time, I'll feature their opponents in this four-game series - AL West rivals, the Orange County Angels of Anaheim.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Developed Teams 2011: Chicago Cubs

Because my post about the Red Sox's developed lineup was such a success (judged only by my own standards), I'll continue right away with their opponents in last weekend's interleague series: The Chicago Cubs.

To continue the tradition, let's look at the players developed by the Cubs who are still currently with the Cubs: for the record there are 11. Four of those 11 are starting pitchers - Zambrano, Wells, and Cashner were projected to start in the rotation, but the latter two have managed only one game apiece so far in 2011; the fourth, Coleman (listed as LR), has been making (rather poor) starts in their stead. Three more are relievers - current star closer (Marmol), returning former starter (Wood), and returning ever-solid setup man (Marshall).

For batters, they have former All-Star catcher Geovany Soto and future All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro. Outfielder Tyler Colvin is trying to bounce back from a puncture wound from a broken bat that ended his 2010 season. He hasn't done a good job of it so far, but I think he shows a lot of promise. The 11th player on this list, Kosuke Fukudome, brings up an issue that I could have addressed with Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima: players "developed" by a foreign country's baseball league. While it's not really proper to lump these foreign stars in with legitimate homegrown talent, I find it better than the alternative, which is to just leave them out of the project altogether.

As far as stars that Chicago let get away, the list is pretty thin. Casey McGehee has shown some offensive firepower, but he's got some world class lineup protection with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Who knows if he has what it takes to anchor an offense all by himself. Corey Patterson and Ryan Theriot both have had careers alternating between acceptable and awful. And Eric Hinske isn't even a starter for his current team (Braves). The bench is a mish-mash of also-rans and defensive replacements.

Ricky Nolasco has blossomed into a pretty great starter, but their rotation could still be in trouble considering Sergio Mitre has moved exclusively to the bullpen following his trade to the Brewers. The rest of the relievers have been very effective, some of them very surprisingly (I'm looking at you Kyle Farnsworth, in his first season closing full-time, at age 35). Downs and Wuertz: for pitchers who can only manage 1 IP per game and don't rack up a lot of saves, I suppose they're about as good as you can get.

Honorable Mentions: Darwin Barney won the starting 2B job out of Spring Training, and his .315 avg would totally earn him a spot if we were going by 2011 stats alone. Sam Fuld wowed some peeps in the early days of the season with some timely hitting and a couple of great defensive plays, but he's slowed down a bit (all except for his 12 SB). Jeff Samardzija and Juan Cruz are threatening to put together very solid seasons in middle relief. And if Jamie Moyer comes out of retirement, I'm gonna have to find a spot for him on this roster somewhere...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Developed Teams 2011: Boston Red Sox

Inspired by the historic series on ESPN and Fox, I've decided to start my developed teams project with the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs (separately, of course). Seems like as good a place to start as any. So without further ado, here's how the Boston Red Sox would look today if they were allowed to keep all the greats and near-greats that they developed through their minor league system:

10 players from this team are currently on Boston's real-life active roster (6 of whom are legitimate stars), which seems to be pretty good in terms of player retention. I don't really know how it will stack up against later teams, as I've just started this project and patterns haven't really started to emerge yet. It will generally be the case that teams use a glut of homegrown players on their roster, as they're usually both young and cheap. 2 more players (both from the bench) are still in Boston's system, but have yet to log any playing time in 2011. The fact that players of this sort are on the team at all bespeaks a relative lack of serviceable major league position players developed by Boston.

In fact, their roster is so weak that they couldn't even fill a whole 9 spots with current major leaguers - as you'll notice, flameout prospect Brandon Moss (you might remember him from the Manny Ramirez deal?) is currently languishing in the Phillies' AAA affiliate. And David Eckstein on the bench is still an unsigned free agent. But the rest of the lineup should make up for the weak links. Jacoby Ellsbury has bounced back from an injury-wasted year, and Dustin Pedroia should follow suit soon. Kevin Youkilis plays third base in real life (IRL), but I had to shift him to first due to a surplus of infielders (Freddy Sanchez won a batting title in '06 while playing third base... let's just ignore that he hasn't played there since).

The hottest player who Boston let get away is clearly Hanley Ramirez, who played exactly 2 games for the Sox before starting off an All-Star career following a trade to Florida. He's currently off to a slow start, but like Pedroia we should count on him to improve. Also headed to Florida in that same trade is Developed Boston's 5th starter Anibal Sanchez. This brings up an interesting quality of these teams: players who were developed by a certain team, but who never played any games with that team. The bottom three starters in Boston's rotation share this quality.

Carl Pavano was drafted by the Red Sox and made it all the way to AAA in their system before being traded to Montreal for Pedro Martinez the year before his debut. Jorge de la Rosa was signed by Arizona, but only pitched for them for one year before jumping ship for the Mexican Leagues for a year. The Red Sox then picked him up, developed him all the way through AAA, then sent him to Milwaukee (by way of Arizona) again a year before his debut. The same situation happened with their nos. 2 and 3 setup men, Francisco and Betancourt respectively.

You'll notice two starting pitchers in relief pitcher slots. I felt no need to punish teams that have developed an excess of starters by relegating their nos. 6 through 8 or 9 to fantastical Developed AAA teams. So on teams that deserve it, I've given them a little extra flexibility. If we were going on 2011 stats alone, Justin Masterson (5-2, 2.52 ERA) would clearly replace Pavano (2-4, 5.30), but as I said before I'm going more on pre-season predictions, which are more permanent and requires less keeping track.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Developed Teams 2011, an intro.

On the Rockies vs. Phillies game on ESPN, the commentators made a point about how Todd Helton has one of the longest active careers having played with only one team. It's been more than 14 years since Helton first picked up a bat and strapped on his first baseman's mit for the Colorado Rockies, and he hasn't put on a different uniform since.

I don't remember who the other players on that list were, but Helton's very impressive career got me thinking about team loyalty. When an organization signs an amateur player and shepherds him to the major leagues, there is a natural bond that forms between the player and the team. Whatever might happen to that player after his debut, there's never any doubt as to which team found that player (whether through the draft or a free agent signing) and made him major league ready - for what team he is a "homegrown" player.

Similarly, if a prospect spends significant time getting "developed" in one team's system and then is traded to another team just prior to his debut, I'd say the bond falls with the "developing" team, rather than the debuting team. Furthermore, the developing team doesn't necessarily have to be the drafting team, if a young player happens to be traded soon after being picked up. There's no set science and a lot of it has to do with feel and instinct.

Now, with that concept of developed teams in mind, imagine a world in which all active players still played with the teams that developed them. No trades, no contracts - just all rosters set up this way for a single season - let's call it this season. What might that look like? Who would have the best teams? Where would the best players be? And which teams have been the best not only at developing the best players, but holding on to them as well?

I have to make a confession: I'd been thinking about this issue even before I heard the ESPN blurb about Todd Helton. Long before, in fact. This idea of homegrown teams goes all the way back to an old baseball periodical I used to read back in the early 2000s. Then they made another appearance in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups, which I read thoroughly. I've even recreated these "developed teams" in several different points in history using video games as a simulator. (In the past, I've done this experiment with All-Star Baseball 2001 for the N64 and MVP Baseball 2005 for the PS2. You may think I have too much time on my hands? Not so: I just complete the project really really fast.)

I am currently in the process of completing this experiment with current rosters, with the hope of using MLB 11 The Show this time around. As you can imagine, I'm using the default rosters - no reason to get myself HACKZD by downloading roster updates on a compromised network. Concurrently, I will be putting an inordinate amount of weight on preseason rankings rather than tracking each player's progress through the 2011 season.

I'll be posting these developed lineups as I complete them and deem them worthy for publishing. They will be done quickly and in no particular order. I will address and attempt to explain certain ambiguous decisions where the developing team isn't crystal clear. Hopefully, as I hope for every project I do for this blog, it will be fun for me and interesting to read about. Only you, the readers, can be the judges.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Top 50 Prospects

One of the most exciting aspects for the more forward-thinking fans of professional sports is analyzing who has the best chance to become the stars of tomorrow. Some of us are content to gape in awe at today's All-Stars and league leaders and admire their amazing talent and the impressive numbers they put on the board in the present. But, as the Roman Emperors knew all too well, glory is fleeting, and today's franchise players are tomorrow's journeymen, and it's always nice to keep an eye on those who will take up their mantle.

With that in mind, I'm going to take a look at MLB's list of Top 50 Prospects heading into the 2011 season. And, since we all have a short attention span, I'm going to focus my look on those players likely to spend significant time in the majors in 2011. To do this, I will look at the 2010 Top 50 list (that's as far back as my research goes) and try to determine some patterns.

21 of the Top 50 prospects in 2010 spent significant time at the Major League level last year. 11 of those 21 spent some time at AAA in 2009, the last year contributing to their ranking. 9 of the remaining 10 peaked at AA. And 1 special pitcher made it to The Show without even one full year in the minors. Bonus points if you can name that pitcher. I'll give you a hint: he's not on the Top 50 list for 2011, as he will likely miss the entire year following right elbow surgery. That's right, not one of the Top 50 2010 jumped directly from any level of class A to the majors.

Moving ahead to the 2011 list, let's start by looking at holdovers from last year. There are 21 members on the '11 list who also made an appearance on the '10 list. Since my research only goes back a year, I can't be certain as to how making an appearance on two lists in a row affects chances of success in the Majors. But thinking it through logically, it shouldn't bode well. Prospects are only valuable insofar as they quickly graduate from prospecthood into Major League playerness. The longer someone remains a prospect, the less chances he has to be part of a Major League team. But on the other hand, if someone is twice recognized as a top prospect, shouldn't that be a clear sign that the talent is there? We'll just have to wait until 2012 to find out.

Looking back at my observation about Class A ballplayers, there are 14 players on the 2011 list who peaked at Class A or lower. I would say that we could rule these guys out immediately, except that 3 of these guys are among the 21 holdovers from last year. We'll have to see how these two interplaying statuses affect their chances of reaching the big leagues.

10 players on the 2011 list spent at least a little time in the Majors in 2010, vs. only 7 players on the 2010 list who reached the bigs in 2009. 6 of the 2010 7 made meaningful contributions to their 2010 clubs. Looking at the 2011 10, I see 8 who were slated to start with their 2011 clubs (according to the all-important Sports Illustrated predictions). Here's the full 10, organized by placement on the 2011 prospect list:

Hellickson and Drabek have settled in as solid starters for their teams. Minor, SI's pick to start the season as the Braves' 5th starter, appeared in just one game before losing the job to Brandon Beachy (who has been absolutely lights out). Chapman and Sale have been languishing in the non-Save-earning depths of their respective bullpens - the former dazzling and the latter struggling.

Domonic Brown would have started the season for the Phillies had he not broke his hand. Desmond Jennings had a more uncertain role - the Rays' acquisitions of Johnny Damon made the baseball world question whether the highly touted outfield prospect was as ready for action as we all thought he was. Freeman is barely holding onto the starting job in Atlanta and Arencibia is slugging pretty well for a Catcher, which plays right into Toronto's game plan. And Alonso is blocked at First Base by a dude better known as the NL MVP last year. He and Brown are the only two members on this list without any time in the Majors in '11.

Of the remaining 40 players on the list - all with no major league experience - only 3 saw playing time in April: Michael Pineda (SP, SEA), Zach Britton (SP, BAL), and Brandon Belt (1B, SF). ALL of those 3 were first timers on the list. To attempt to put that number in perspective: out of those 10 players charted above, 5 were first-timers on the list in '11. Keep in mind, though that we've only just passed the first half of the first third of the season, so a lot of these guys will still make it to The Show before we wrap up the playoffs.

I hope that sufficiently breaks down at least some of the more familiar names on the list. I would expect even casual fans to have heard of the likes of #1 ranked Mike Trout, fierce phenom Bryce Harper, and sure-to-be-fast-tracked-to-the-majorsDustin Ackley, but the rest of those minor league guys likely won't reach prominence until they're called up for the first time. Until then, we can only wait, watch the list, and think about the future...