Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2013 Astros v. 2003 Pirates

The Astros made history this season (the good kind), by becoming the first team since 2003 to have 6 minor league affiliates make the postseason. The team that did in 2003...the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won their 82nd game last night, ensuring their first wining season since 1992. This has lead many, including respected writers Rob Neyer and Peter Gammons, to suggest that the the minor league success is meaningless, and the Astros might have a similar decade long wait until they truly contend again.

And its largely true. 6 teams making the minor league playoffs is fun, but, in and of itself, does not mean a whole lot. But there are some very key differences between the 2003 Pirates and the 2013 Astros, which I believe (hope) will make a world of difference.

For one is the question of prospects. Neyer noted that the 2003 Pirates had prospects too, but I think that sort of misses the point. Every team has prospects, and not all prospects are created equal. Going into the 2003 season, Baseball America had the Pirates rated as the 18th best farm system. Following the 2003 season, they jumped to 11th, but then dropped right back to 18th in 2005. Despite the success of the minors, they were not seen as a team with a deep farm system. In contrast, the Astros started 2013 rated 9th by BA, and will almost assuredly vault into the top 5 next season. The Astros success in the minors has been built on increased depth and premium prospects.

So what was the Pirates success built on? Age. The average age of the Pirates 2003 AAA team was 26.6 for pitchers and 27.4 for batters. The offensive leaders of the team included 27 year old John Barnes, 32 year old Mike Gulan and 32 year David Doster. On the pitching side, the leaders in IP included 29 year old Nelson Figueroa,  25 year old Ryan Vogelsong and 30 year old John Wasdin. They weren't the oldest team in the league, but they were far from the youngest. The AAA success was not guided by prospects, but rather was primarily lead by journeyman much older than their league. The same is true throughout the Pirates' system that year.  Their minor league affiliates were consistently among the oldest in their league, all they way down to short season ball.

The Astros on the other hand, made the playoffs in AAA with a offense that was a full three years younger than the Pirates 2003 squad, and a younger pitching staff too. No one over 26 got more than 300 PA, and the innings leaders were all under under 25. They were by far the youngest team in the league. The success of the AAA squad was built on prospects, performing well. The same is true for most of the system. The minor leagues were having great success against older competition.

I think I'll let Baseball America's JJ Cooper explain the significance of this.

Winning in the minor leagues does not correlate strongly with prospect depth or major league success. Less talented but more experienced players can often trounce younger, but more talented, teams. But as farm directors and other front office officials are quick to point out, they do see a development benefit in winning at the minor league level. And when you win with a young team, that is a good sign of organizational depth and talent.
The Astros are winning with young talent. Triple-A Oklahoma City finished with the PCL’s best record (82-62) with the youngest lineup in the league and a pitching staff that equaled Memphis as the youngest. Double-A Corpus Christi finished with the best record in the Texas League (83-57). It did so despite the fact that the average age of its  lineup was nearly a year younger than any other team in the Texas League, and the pitching staff was also the league’s youngest. Only in the short-season New York-Penn League and the Rookie-level Appalachian League did the Astros make the playoffs with one of the older clubs in the league.
So, yes, the Pirates of 2003 proved that minor league success does not necessarily translate to major league wins. I'm not excited for the future of the Astros because they had 6 teams in the playoffs this year. I am excited about the future of the Astros because they are building a solid core of prospects, who are performing well in the minor leagues, primarily against older competition. That they are performing well enough to bring their teams to the playoffs is just another sign that the rebuild plan is working. 

***The Batguy here. Aaron and I were working on similar posts on this subject without the other knowing about it. What resulted was that my drafted post works as a bit of an epilogue to his fine work on the subject. So, instead of deciding whose post to go with, we took a lesson from that adorable taco commercial girl and said "Why not both?" Here's my part***

As Aaron mentioned above, that 2004 farm system was ranked 11th by BA. So what happened? Let's look at this player by player.

Jason Bay had several very good years with the Pirates. He was the 2004 Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 2005 and 2006. He should be the cornerstone of several Pirates playoff runs. But that's not how it happened. In 2008 Bay was traded to Boston in a three team deal that netted Pittsburgh Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris, Craig Hansen, and Brandon Moss. Bryan Morris may turn out to be a decent reliever, but that will be all the Pirates have to show for this deal.

Freddy Sanchez also had some good years with Pittsburgh. He led the league in doubles in 2006 and was an All-Star in 2006, 2007, and 2009. Nothing like having a cornerstone middle infielder to drive you to the top of the standings. But that's not how it happened. Sanchez was traded to San Francisco for a minor league pitcher who's no longer with the organization.

Paul Maholm had some up and down years with Pittsburgh before he was granted free agency after the 2011 season. He had some success in 2012, but he's essentially a league average starter.

Ryan Doumit took a little while to come around, but he's turned into an often injured player who swings a pretty good bat while being not abominable as a catcher and playing a little outfield, too. The Pirates let him go as a free agent after 2011.

Matt Capps was/is a pretty good late inning reliever. The Pirates panicked after a really bad 2009 and let him walk in free agency. He, of course, was an All-Star in 2010.

Zach Duke burst onto the scene his rookie season in 2005, but quickly flamed out, though he did make an All-Star team in 2009. That's the year he led the league in losses. Duke was lost to free agency long after he was lost to ineffectiveness.

Ok, scratch the player by player part. This is taking forever and I don't think we care that much about failed Pirates prospects. I'll just sum up.

The bottom line is that a few of these players did go on to have good runs for several seasons, but were then traded for what amounts to a bag of magic beans. Some of them just flamed out; it happens with prospects. What really kept Pittsburgh from joining the ranks of respectability for so long was that, after 2004, their farm system went to pot. By 2008 they were ranked 26th. They failed to keep their pipeline stocked with good prospects, so their talent quickly ran dry. If they had been able to complement Bay, Sanchez, Doumit, and McLouth with a couple more waves of young talent we probably would have seen them breaking out around 2007/2008, instead of selling off those players and trying to start over. Again.

A strong list of 20 prospects is nice, but a one year snapshot of the state of the farm system isn't very predictive. (Yes, I get that that statement seems to go against some of the other posts I've made. Maybe the atrocious major league season is weighing on me more heavily right now.) History tells us that a number of our current top 20 is likely to flame out. It remains to be seen if Houston will be able to keep the system well stocked so Luhnow's plan of having wave after wave of young players stepping up to the Big Club will pay off.