Norfolk’s Harbor Park
“Night baseball isn’t an aberration. What’s an aberration is a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. They tend to think of themselves as a little Williamsburg, a cute little replica of a major league franchise. Give me the Oakland A’s, thank you very much. People who do it right.” George Will on the Chicago Cubs
Baseball is back and I am very happy as spring returns and winter fades away as I can again watch baseball again live or tape delay. Sure it is pre-season and the teams are still sorting out rosters but Spring Training is something that I look forward to every year. I was actually hoping to get to Florida this year to take in a bit of the Orioles camp in Sarasota but thanks to a nasty Kidney stone I was pretty much knocked out of it. Work will be too busy and Holy Week is coming so I will have to wait until opening day at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.
Joey Gathright bunts for a hit against Atlanta’s Gwinnett Braves in 2009
There is something about Spring Training as you watch the teams, study the roster reports and look at potential line ups pitching rotations and relief pitching staffs. It is also the time that we begin to see how the personnel changes, signings, departures and prospects look up close. It is a time when teams and players get to know each other again. I follow the Giants, Orioles and A’s very closely as well as looking most of the other teams as I look trough team sites, ESPN, Yahoo Baseball and sports blogs.
The statement of George Will the political columnist and avid Cubs fan speaks a lot of truth. The Cubs for years have either been penny pinchers or spent money like a drunken sailor with little to show for it. Since Jesus will come when they win the World’s Series next I think it likely that they will continue to be just what Will said they are “a cute little replica of a major league franchise. Some teams spend their money be it large amounts or small wisely and know how to win. Others spend money with no return throwing good money after bad on horrible deals every season and reaming losers.
What really interests me in baseball is not just the Major League teams but their Minor League affiliates. Of course I have a close up view of the Orioles AAA International League affiliate the Norfolk Tides from my pew in Section 102, Row B Seat 1 and 2 a Harbor Park. One of the things that I follow closely are the prospects as well as former Major League players as they move between the Majors and Minors as well as how they figure in trades.
A lot of people simply follow the big name players on contending teams and I admit that there is nothing wrong with that. However, my view is that you have to take a look at a team’s farm system in relationship to the Major League team that it supports and feeds. The depth and talent found in a teams’ Minor League system is vitally important to a team’s success or failure. Let me follow this with a few examples.
Mariano Rivera- Raised in the Yankee System
Let’s begin with the New York Yankees. They are often portrayed as a team filled with “hired gun” type free agents who the pay an ungodly amount of money to obtain. Yes the Yankees are committed to winning and they will pay top dollar to get the best in baseball. Teams that want to win make the commitment to doing it. Those that are content to be in the middle of the pack or lower don’t. It is that simple. Like him or not George Steinbrenner knew what he was doing. However this is only part of their formula for success. They also have also chosen to invest a lot in an excellent farm system. Many of their top players came out of that system including Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. Their current middle relief staff, which had for many years been a weakness, is now stocked with solid pitchers who came out of the Yankee system. The depth of their system also allows them to use it to sweeten up trade deals with other teams. If you want to win consistently you have to have the depth in the Minor League system in case you need it.
David Wright: One of the Few Bright Spots for the Mets
So now we go to the other end of the spectrum. The New York Mets also spent a huge amount of money on big name free agents. However, because the Mets invest almost nothing in their Minor League system it has been consistently the worst in baseball for years. Likewise the mid to end of season implosions show just how bad the Mets system is. For example the Mets treated their farms teams so badly since the arrival of Omar Minaya that their flagship affiliate, the Norfolk Tides ended their relationship with the Mets at the end of the 2006 season to become part of the Baltimore Orioles system. The Mets system has few prospects and at the upper levels is stocked with older Minor Leaguers and worn out Major leaguers looking for one last year in the sun. The Mets initially had to move the team to New Orleans for two years and then were able to market themselves to Buffalo when Cleveland moved their AAA affiliate to Columbus Ohio. The team was the worst in the International League last year and Buffalo fans that for years enjoyed high caliber ball players and young prospects became angry. Little good is being said about the Mets in Buffalo even now and since the Mets have depleted what they can spend, and few Minor League prospects they have little bargaining power to reach out and deal for the top tier free agents.
Brian McCann, one of the 18 “Baby Braves” who took the Braves to the 2005 NLCS
We move to another team that does things right with regard to this is the Atlanta Braves. The Braves have been consistently good for many years winning 14 Division titles and a World Series. In that amazing run where they won more than 90 and sometimes over 100 games a season almost every year they often dominated to National League. The team is stocked with home grown talent. I have seen the Braves minor league teams at the AAA and AA level and am well acquainted with their system. They too are usually really good, very good. That minor league system has produced great players including Chipper Jones. Do not forget 2005 when the Braves beset by injuries called up a large number of Minor league players from Richmond and Mississippi including All Star catcher Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Ande Marte, Kelly Johnson and 14 other rookies and the “Baby Braves” as they were known helped take the Braves to the playoffs. The system had to recover from that and it has now because the Braves invest in it and those players are beginning to make an impact in the Majors.
Billy Beane the GM of the Oakland Athletics
Another team that knows how to use a farm system is the Oakland Athletics. The A’s after being very competitive using very little money for years fell on hard times last year, but one of the keys to their success was their reliance on top prospects in their Minor League System. Over the years that system has produced some great players and more than likely will do so again. The A’s system is built on the principle of Saber metrics which looks at numbers crunched by statistics geeks and has for the most part served them well. The A’s General Manager Billy Beane has revolutionized the game for small market teams that want quality on a limited budget. Many former A’s cut loose when they would become too expensive now star on other Major League teams. The system is discussed in the book Moneyball.
The new “Baby Birds” Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold along with Luke Scott great Oscar Salazar after a Home Run
A few years back the Orioles realizing that they could not compete dollar for dollar against ht Red Sox and Yankees began at the single A level to build a premier farm system. Each year the best have moved up into the system to AA and AAA levels. Last year the Norfolk Tides started out on fire and when the Orioles ran into major injury problems they called up a lot of minor league players including Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Brad Bergeson and Chris Tillman. The Orioles have built their system in stages and that building process went through the 2009 season. Many of those called up were not quite ready for the majors but many are looked upon as future All Stars, especially their deep well of pitching talent that most teams could only dream about having.
Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard who I have seen play as a Reading Philly and Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons before he went to the Majors
When I look at teams I always look at their minor league system and their prospects because that system and those prospects are the future of the team. Teams that are consistently bad typically have bad minor league systems. I have been watching minor league ball in person regularly for almost ten years. As such I have seen many of today’s biggest stars including players like Ryan Howard, Felix Hernandez, Jason Verlander, Heath Bell, Grady Sizmore, Victor Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jhonny Peralta, Brian McCann, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Jonathan Papelbon, many of the current Baltimore Orioles as well as countless others.
The relationship of the Major League team to its farm system is of paramount importance. If a team does not invest in their minor league affiliates and make good draft choices and trades they will seldom do well even if they have a decent team at the beginning of the season. Without quality prospects in the minor league system they will not have personnel readily available for call up on short notice in case of injury, not will they have depth to trade for quality players if the need them.
This is one of the things that make the game of baseball so different than other sports with the possible exception of NHL Hockey and its farm system. The relationship and the development of players at the minor league level have a direct impact on the Major League club. This is part of why I am so passionate about this game.