Oct 25, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals first basemanEric Hosmer
(35) hits a double against the San Francisco Giants in the fifth inning during game four of the 2014 World Series at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Guthrie throwing five quality innings, Eric Hosmer plating the lead on an RBI single, Greg Holland and Wade Davis closing out the Royals second world series win since the Reagan era – this is the picture of successful player development.
First round pick and Baseball America darling? Check. Unheralded minor leaguer who breaks out? Check. Veteran addition brought in for cachet of prospects? Check. Supplemental free agent boost? Check.
Talent evaluators were right four years ago when they declared that the Royals, armed with arguably the best farm system of the last decade, could contend in short order. They could not have been more wrong in how contention would look.
The vision of a fresh crop of mashers and aces growing effortlessly out of a strong farm system, the vision applied to Kansas City in 2011, the vision now surrounding the prospect-laden Astros and Cubs, is a myth with little basis in baseball history and little relevancy to the 2014 Royals.
In 2011, nine Royals made Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list, the most representatives from a single club since the list began in 1990. Now that Kansas City has finally reached World Series, only three remain: Mike Moustakas, statistically the second worst offensive third baseman in baseball since 2012, Eric Hosmer, the sixth worst first baseman by wRC+ in 2014, and Danny Duffy, who posted a 2.55 ERA in 24 starts this year but has made just two relief appearances this post-season.
This Royals roster is home-strung, but it’s patched with foreign and discarded cloth. Three of those nine prospects – Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery – were traded to Tampa for ace James Shields and reliever Wade Davis. The rest of “Nastier Boys” trio, which has given up just 3 runs in 32.2 postseason innings, are comprised of a former 10th round draft pick (Greg Holland), and an unheralded Dominican signing (Kelvin Herrera).
Long overlooked for his short stature, game two starter Yordano Ventura signed for just 28,000 out of the Dominican Republic. Catcher Salvador Perez signed for just 65,000 and never appeared higher than 17th on BA’s top 30 Royals prospect list. The poster-boys of the Royals’ defensive revolution, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, were originally Milwaukee imports. Omar Infante’s veteran presence was bought on the open market.
This formula of ball-club building – collecting a trove of prospects, hope a few big ones pan out and some small ones break out, trade a couple for established star, and fill in the scraps on waivers and free agency – is not unique to Kansas City. It’s being followed across baseball.
Take the Pirates, the Royals’ sole rival in misery for two decades, who reached 94 wins and redemption in 2013. They actually had more success in developing prospects than Kansas City, bringing up Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker. But Pittsburgh also relied heavily on the contributions of free agent pick-ups Russell Martin, A.J. Burnett, and Clint Barmes, flipped prospects for Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd at the deadline, and benefited heavily from the unforeseen success of left-hander Jeff Locke.
It’s how the original 2010 Giants were built, when first rounders Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Buster Posey joined free agents Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell, and the surprising Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, and Pablo Sandoval to bring the Giants their first championship in 56 seasons. It’s how the 2014 Giants were built too.
This motley strategy is to some degree not a strategy at all, but a result of luck. Some prospects pan out, some don’t. There’s little rhyme or reason to it and anyone who says they knew Greg Holland would turn into the game’s premier closer and Eric Hosmer into a (so far) mediocre first baseman is lying.
Attributing the Royals’ rise to chance, though, would be an insult to the team and General Manage Dayton Moore. Moore spent years overhauling the team’s player development department, expanding Kansas City’s operations in Latin America and spending above slot on the draft. This World Series run is the result, and there is something to be learned from how he got there.
1) Breadth and Depth. The high-attrition rate for prospects means that it’s not enough simply to have a few hyped youngsters. “Live arms” and “toolsy hitters” are scouting cliches at this point, but they are the prospects that become Kelvin Herreras and Salvador Perez’s, or at the very least Terrence Gores.
2) Major League experience is unmatchable. The high-attrition rate of prospects renders major league experience immeasurably valuable. Moore traded his ace, Zack Grienke, four months after the Mariners traded theirs, Cliff Lee. The Mariners got four “respected” prospects, which three years later have a combined wins above replacement of 1.1. The Royals netted Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, who had already appeared in a combined 235 major league games and in 2014 alone, combined for 307 hits and a WAR of 7.4.
3) No prospect is untouchable. For small-market teams priced out of free agency, trading prospects can be the only reliable method of acquiring established talent. The Royals pulled the trigger on Wil Myers, their “untouchable” prospect, and promptly watched Shields and Davis combine for 299 innings and a 2.67 ERA in 2014. As shown by the trades of Johan Santana, Cliff Lee (all three times), Roy Halladay, these veterans often perform magnitudes better in a single season than the prospects ever do.
4)Patience, Patience, Patience. Last summer, with Duffy, Hosmer, and Moustakas all injured or struggling and the rest of the 2011 prospect class on the Rays or in the Minors, troves of fans and writers wrote off the promise of three years ago. It was a view with significant merit, but nevertheless, a year later, the unheralded members of that class and veterans acquired through it have brought the Royals to the Fall Classic.
Rebuilding teams from across the leagues are actively applying these philosophies. After three years of stockpiling picks and prospects, the Twins spent 75 million dollars last offseason to sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The Cubs made a run at Cole Hamels this summer and appear poised to sign Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, or Shields come offseason. Few major prospects exchanged hands this past trade deadline. Instead, teams like the Red Sox negotiated returns centered on young major leaguers and A-ball lottery tickets.
After 29 years as the face of failure, the 2014 Royals, home-grown, imported, and improbable, have become an archetype of winning.