There are good systems, there are poor systems, then there’s 50 pounds of effluence, and then there’s the Marlins. Add another 50 pounds, and you’ve finally reached the Angels.
– Baseball Prospectus, 2016
Disclaimer: The side effects of reading through the entire Angels Top 30 may include drowsiness and an upset stomach.
– Baseball America Prospect Handbook, 2016
I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.
– Keith Law, 2016
The practice of farming is prohibited. All right or claim of a major league club to a player shall cease when such player becomes a member of a minor league club, and no arrangement between clubs for the loan or return of a player shall be binding between the parties to it or recognized by other clubs.
Sometimes the most important things are the things that aren’t there. Those words from the 1903 National Agreement, the peace treaty ending the brief but intense war between the National and American Leagues, were omitted from the revised agreement in 1921. And into that omission rushed Branch Rickey, who did not invent the practice of “farming” minor league players, but who perfected it with a ruthless efficiency that real farmers would only achieve much later with he generous application of pesticides. Rickey purchased not players, but teams, and in some cases entire leagues.
The 1903 farming ban codified, albeit temporarily, the American League’s declaration of independence from the National League, first issued in 1901. The farming ban was Ban Johnson’s announcement to the world that no one was going to treat his league’s players as farmhands. The ban also helped secure the loyalty of the Players’ Protective Association, an incipient union opposed to the practice (see pdf p.2), and was one factor encouraging star players to jump to the new league.
Major league owners routinely eluded the farming ban, however, and by 1920, baseball’s next crisis year, the ban was on the ropes. Wracked by gambling scandals, poor wartime attendance, and the ghastly death of Ray Chapman, organized baseball forged a new National Agreement in 1921. The new agreement omitted the farming ban, perhaps because the AL, having by that time firmly achieved major league status, lost interest in the cause of player liberty. Although Commissioner Landis despised the concept of farm systems, he was largely unable to prevent their development.
Landis failed because the economic logic of farm systems is unassailable: By owning most (though certainly not all) aspects of the production process, major league teams could greatly reduce the transaction costs inherent in developing major league-caliber players. Farm systems also limit the competition among teams for minor league player’s services. After the draft, the player is essentially under team ownership for several years, unable to work for any other team without the owning franchise’s consent.
Every major league team eventually developed a farm system, though (as Bill James has noted) laggards like the Cubs and Pirates paid a heavy price, suffering through years of mediocrity beginning in the 1940s. It is now impossible to imagine a major league team without a farm system. Or at least it was until this year. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim today stand on the threshold of an alternate future, a future in which Judge Landis won. Alone among MLB franchises, the Angels today entirely fail to benefit from the major league owners’ long twilight struggle to reduce minor league players to peonage.
I want players. Lots and lots of players.
– Billy Eppler, 2016
The Angels’ recently minted general manager, Billy Eppler, will lead the team through the next phase of its dystopian journey. To be fair, it’s not exactly true that the Angels have no farm system at all — they have minor league affiliates in thrall to the major league club, just like other major league clubs do. And those affiliates may even win a few games (so far, just a few). But the system is bereft of impact talent at any level. A handful of these guys will turn out much better than now perceived, but the vast majority won’t. The next pennant winning Angels lineup and rotation is invisible without experimental pharmacological assistance.
One way to get “lots and lots of players,” or at least a relatively large haul of good players, would be to trade Mike Trout. The idea has been debated on these pages and elsewhere, and I don’t propose to rehash the details here. One thing Eppler might want to consider, however, if he contemplates such a drastic move is that nothing of the kind has ever happened in baseball history. Nothing even close.
Trout had a 9.4 bWAR last year; no player with that high a WAR has ever been traded in the following season. Connie Mack infamously sold Eddie Collins and his 9.1 bWAR to the White Sox after the 1914 season. The woeful Boston Braves traded Rogers Hornsby (8.8 bWAR) to the Cubs after the 1928 season for a clown car of substandard players and $200,000 in a classic salary dump.
Mike Piazza was traded twice in one year after his 8.7 bWAR in 1997. First, the Dodgers shipped him to the Marlins in exchange for a pile of good but expensive players; in this odd case the salary-dumping team received a superstar, although it also unloaded a superstar in Gary Sheffield. The Marlins then Marlined it up real good just one week after Piazza put on the teal, sending him to the Mets for Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson, and Ed Yarnall. Centuries from now the Marlins will be viewed as we view the giant Moai of Easter Island: with a mixture of awe at the achievement and amazement that the people responsible failed to put their limited resources to better use.
And that’s about it for the top 200 player-seasons. So Eppler would be piloting the S.S. Anaheim into uncharted seas if he traded Trout; there is no comparable trade out there by which one could even vaguely assess his value. That doesn’t mean Eppler shouldn’t try, but he shouldn’t try too hard. Trout is still just 24, and it is conceivable that the next pennant winning Angels lineup could still have him in it. No other GM in baseball history has seen fit to trade a player of Trout’s caliber; Eppler should be wary of being the first.
There is another way, pioneered by a team just a few hours north on the 5. In 2002 the San Francisco Baseball Giants made it to the World Series with a team that GM Brian Sabean had built around Barry Bonds. Bonds, for you youngsters out there, was the Oughties’ Mike Trout, though I suspect that both men would bristle at the comparison. Drug-fueled or not, Bonds dominated the game like few ever have, yet Sabean labored mightily to get Bonds into the World Series. Ultimately, Sabean achieved this not by tending crops in the blazing fields from dawn to dusk, interrupted only by a cholesterol-laced dinner at noon. Your 2002 Giants had exactly one (1) player with a bWAR over 1.o who had come up through the Giants farm system. That was Russ Ortiz, a pitcher many may remember as a failure because the red crystal in his palm began glowing right after his age 30 season, but up to that point he was a reliable innings eater with roughly a league average ERA.
So here’s the point:
Giants total 2002 bWAR: 50.6
Giants 2002 bWAR from home-grown players: 5.3
Yeesh. Tony Torcato. Damon Minor. Trey Lunsford. Yep, they’re in the 5.3, and they’ll be gleefully wielding flaming pitchforks in Scouting Hell. The news wasn’t all awful — Joe Nathan is in that 5.3, as is the aforementioned Ortiz. But it’s safe to say that the 2002 Giants are a team that Judge Landis might have liked. Well, you know, except the PED part.
So how did Sabean do it? If you haven’t guessed the answer, you probably should consider taking some of those self-paced training courses you’ve been blowing off. He signed him a passel o’ free agents (including Bonds himself, of course, as well as Reggie Sanders (3.5 bWAR in 2002) and Benito Santiago (2.6)). And he traded. Oh, did he trade. Jeff Kent was the most critical acquisition, amassing a 7.0 bWAR in 2002, which, as the alert reader will quickly grasp, exceeded the entire Giants farm produce by a wide margin. Here are the other significant guys Sabean dealt for:
David Bell (3.2)
Kirk Rueter (3.0)
Robb Nen (2.5)
Jason Schmidt (2.3)
Tsuyoshi Shinjo (1.9)
Kenny Lofton (1.7)
Tim Worrell (1.5)
That’s 15.9 bWAR for those of you keeping score at home, and adding in Kent brings the total to 22.9, or just under half of the Giants’ 2002 total. The best players traded away for those guys, by far, were Matt Williams (cumulative 12.5 bWAR after being traded for Kent) and Bill Mueller (11.8 cumulative bWAR after being traded for Worrell). Given that Williams brought Jeff Kent, the only clear mistake in hindsight was Mueller, an outstanding but aging and fragile player who put together some memorable late career seasons after being traded for Tim Worrell. That trade may not have worked as Sabean would have hoped, but it was defensible at the time.
So the Chapter 7 condition of the Angels’ farm system doesn’t necessarily prevent Eppler from remaking his roster. But it does severely constrain his efforts; the players Sabean traded away for the most part didn’t pan out, but he was able to convince other baseball executives that they would, executives who get paid good coin to see through exactly this kind of B.S. (those are Sabean’s initials — it’s probably a coincidence). Eppler doesn’t even have enough talent on the farm to fake it.
But the current Angels major league roster has some useful bits in addition to Trout. Kole Calhoun, Andrelton Simmons, and Garret Richards (albeit currently with a UCL subject to manufacturer recall) aren’t exactly a “core,” but they’re not a bad franchise starter kit. Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney (albeit currently with a UCL subject to manufacturer recall) offer some hope that young Angels fans might see a quality start before they have their first legal beer. And Josh Hamilton’s $26 million of dead weight exits the ledger after this year. The Angels will be paying Albert Pujols until humans colonize the Alpha Centauri system, but other than that, their contracts aren’t awful.
So one plan might include trading some (though certainly not all) of the above-named players, especially Calhoun, who is developing into an advanced hitter at a somewhat advanced age. It will also include signing free agents in bunches, more than Sabean did. Harder to do now than in the past, given that teams seem to be locking up their top-tier young players with greater frequency, but this is why scouts get paid (or should get paid) the big dollars. Some franchise (do I smell fish?) will undervalue its own talent, and Eppler must be there to pick up the pieces.
Or he can trade Trout.
I’m glad I’m not Billy Eppler.