With the trailer for Moneyball being all the rage, it brings to light to the casual fan what Billy Beane and company did to turn the Oakland A's into a playoff contender on a college student's budget.
Many people have heard of Moneyball, but they might not have realized what it meant to the game, or how it worked. For the vast majority of history, baseball has been about having the best players. What Moneyball really emphasized however was having the most valuable players. If you have a Porsche and I have a Honda Civic, you might have the nicer car, but I might be getting the best value out of my car.
Since that time, trends have gone around baseball in terms of what would make a player the most valuable to his team. As a Mariners fan, I can remember how Franklin Gutierrez changed my view of the game in 2009. He wasn't an offensive force, but Jack Zdurienciks acquistion of a player who might be the best defensive centerfielder in the game had opened my eyes to having that kind of value. He would never cost as much as Torii Hunter, he would never create as many runs at the plate as Hunter, but he might be more valuable than Hunter. We could really make this work.
The trend I am seeing around the game in the last couple of years however, what you have probably noticed as well, is the emphasis on prospects. There seems to be a greater emphasis lately on the scouting and developing of young players in the game. If Moneyball paved the way for the A's to compete, then developing prospects has paved the way for the Rays to be a World Series contender for the last 3 seasons in baseball's toughest division.
The Rays have never and most likely will never be able to support a large payroll. Their players must be cheap and must remain cheap. If they signed just one $100 million contract that failed, it could ruin them. I have not read the new Jonah Keri book "The Extra 2%" yet (I imagine that it is great and will read it soon) but I know it examines how the Rays have done what they have done. Clearly they went to work on developing players that would be under team control for six seasons and using the Type A and B system to their advantage in order to acquire as much top-end talent as possible.
In this years baseball draft, they may have acquired nearly an entire farm system in the first 3 rounds, and though their "draft budget" could be high, their team budget will still allow them to operate in a viable manner.
As the Rays have been able to turn this system into 2 playoff appearances in 3 years, so too you can see other teams follow suit. The Royals and Pirates have been the laughing stock of baseball for over two decades, but both teams finally seem headed in the right direction because of their prospects. Last season, it seemed baseball had perhaps its best rookie class ever, and I couldn't imagine it would get better than that. But already this year we've seen a few potential superstars enter the big leagues for the first time.
An emphasis on prospects has allowed the Rays to compete in real baseball. It may also allow fantasy owners to compete if they're willing to sacrifice some of their established players at a chance for a future star. There have been so many good players called up since the beginning of 2010, that I have to look at each team on a division-by-division basis.
Starting with the Yankees after the jump:
The New York Yankees
Best player to debut in 2011: None
The Yankees aren't known for developing the players that they draft into stars for the New York Yankees. Instead, they usually use their financial resources on signing free agents and using prospects as trade bait. Of their current roster, only Derek Jeter, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner were players they drafted.
However, even the Yankees have used the model of valuing prospects at a higher level than they used to plus an emphasis on speed and defense players like Gardner.
Best player to debut in 2010: Ivan Nova, SP
Nova is not a great prospect or a great pitcher, but the Yankees haven't brought up a lot of great players in the last couple of seasons. They will soon, but so far Nova has been the best to debut in the last couple of years. He's been a stable starting pitcher for a team in need of stable starting pitching. You don't have to be great to win 15 games for the Yankees.
In 114.2 innings, Nova has a 4.47 ERA, 63 K's, 49 BB's, and a 7-6 record. He's still just 24 years old, but he's probably not long for the rotation once the Yankees reload through free agency and better prospects that are on the cusp of the majors.
Best player close to the majors: Jesus Montero, C
Montero has been a Baseball America top 5 prospect for two years running, and despite struggling in his repeat of AAA this year, I wouldn't say that he has been passed as the Yankees best prospect close to the majors.
Montero is hitting .287/.333/.408 with 5 HR and 25 RBI this year. The main question is "what happened to the power?" but still only 21 years old, it's too soon to panic about Montero. With Russell Martin performing well in New York, and a number of other good catching prospects in the system, it seems Montero's best value to the Yankees will be in trade. He is blocked for any chance to play 1B in New York, and he would seem a waste at DH, which would really harm his value.
I'd expect Montero to be in the majors this season, either as a September callup in New York or playing for another team. He doesn't seem to be a match in Kansas City unless he's expected to stay at catcher. If he can, perhaps a Joakim Soria deal can be worked out.
The new Killer B's could find their way into the majors this season given the Yankees current pitching situation in the rotation, but is it too soon? It still seems likely that the Yankees will do their usual and pursue the best starting pitcher on the trade market in the coming weeks. However, it's not impossible that one of these two will be in the Bronx before too long.
Banuelos came into the season as the better prospect (BA #41) but has struggled lately. He has posted a 6.62 ERA in 4 June starts and in his last start went 3 innings, 3 K's, 3 BB's, 5 hits, and 5 ER. Overall he has a 3.49 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, and a 56:35 K:BB ratio in 59.1 innings.
Betances (BA #43) has thus far had the better year in AA Trenton. He 3-2, 1.76 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 66:27 K:BB ratio in 56.1 innings. He has consistently prevented runs all season, though the walk rate is a concern. He has walked 4 or more in 5 of his last 8 starts.
Betances is outperforming Banuelos, but it should be noted that he is also 3 years older. It's likely that Betances could see the majors sooner, while Banuelos would be better in the long-term. I wouldn't be surprised to see both of these guys in New York, as they have a place to play unlike Montero.
Long-Term: Gary Sanchez, C
Some believe that the best player in the whole system is 18-year-old catcher Gary Sanchez. He was #30 on BA's list going into the year, high praise for a player so young. He's currently hitting .267/.342/.436 in single-A Charleston with 5 HR and 25 RBI in 165 AB's. His strikeout rate is at 27.3%, so that is something he will have to work on, but he is walking over 10% of the time.
He might be overshadowed a bit by other Sally League teenagers Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Jurickson Profar (who are all outperforming him at the plate) but if the belief is that he can stick at catcher long-term, he'll easily continue his rise up prospect boards.
Boston Red Sox
Best Player to Debut in 2011: Jose Iglesias, SS
It's not much of a debut (6 games, 1 start in May) but Iglesias got to taste the big leagues this year. He is known for his glove first, and his glove second. At this time, most are hoping he can pick it enough as short to make up for a lack of hitting. Still only 21-years-old, there's time for him to become an above-average hitter, but in fantasy leagues you wouldn't expect anything from Iglesias in the near-term. He probably won't provide what even an Elvis Andrus can provide in terms of stolen bases and runs. The Red Sox are happy with Lowrie at short and will allow Iglesias to develop in the minors. I wouldn't be surprised to see him traded at some point for a player they believe could push them to the World Series (Hanley Ramirez as an example of this happening in the past, and Iglesias is not Hanley Ramirez. At least not offensively.) He's currently hitting .222/.255/.233 in AAA. Shouldn't be ignored how young and inexperienced he is.
Best Player to Debut in 2010: Ryan Kalish, OF
Kalish was a high school player drafted in the 9th round of the 2006 draft because of signability concerns. The Red Sox and Yankees are two teams that see "signability concerns" as an oxymoron. He was moving up prospect boards quickly, hitting #96 before the 2008 season, but his number dropped considerably that season. It was understable, considering he was still coming back from a broken wrist thanks to an errant pitch in 2007. But he fell off the top 100. He came back to have a good 2009 and 2010, displaying potential 20/20 ability. He played 53 games for the Red Sox last year and hit .252/.305/.405 with 4 HR and 10 SB.
The Red Sox are set long-term in two outfield positions with Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, but with JD Drew hitting free agency after the season, there's a good chance Kalish could find his way back to the majors. He'd be a good long-term addition to any fantasy lineup thanks to playing for the Red Sox and displaying good power and speed in the minors.
Best Player Close to the Majors: Anthony Ranaudo, SP
While it is unlikely that Ranaudo would see the majors in 2011, and there are a few other guys who could belong here (such as Iglesias and Kalish) Ranaudo might still be the best prospect in the system and could move quickly. The 6'7 pitcher did well at single-A Greenville (4-1, 3.33 ERA, 50:16 K::BB in 46 innings) and is performing even etter in high-A Salem (1-3, 2.78, 1.14, 17:8 K:BB in 22.2 innings)
Ranaudo could find himself in Boston sometime next season and be a potential fixture in the rotation by 2013.
Potential Long-term Stars: Miles Head, 1B and Brandon Jacobs, OF
Two more young exciting players in the Sally League. Head is hitting .341/.414/.606 with 14 HR, 49 RBI in 62 games. Jacobs is hitting .323/.397/.529, 9 HR, 39 RBI, 14 SB in 57 games. They are both 20 years old which makes them both some of the youngest players amongss the league leaders. These are two guys to keep an eye on for long-term keepers, maybe Jacobs is a bit ahead of Head at this point.
Best Player to Debut in 2010 Part One: Kyle Drabek, SP
Drabek was the centerpiece of the deal for Roy Halladay and considered a potential #1 or #2 starter in the big leagues. He made 3 starts in 2010 and did well for himself with 17 innings, 12 K's, 5 BB's, and a 4.76 ERA. Okay for a small sample size from a 22 year old. He made the rotation coming into the season and the hope was that he was done with his minor league career.
Unfortunately it hasn't gone that way. In 14 starts he went 4-5, 5.70 ERA, 72.2 innings, 48:52 K:BB ratio and 9 HR allowed. Drabek's awful (awful) K:BB ratio got him demoted to work on his command and control. In his first start after getting sent down he went 4 innings, 8 hits, 4 ER, 3 K's and 7 walks. Drabek is still a good prospect but this has gone about as bad as it could go.
Best Player to Debut in 2010 Part Two: JP Arencibia, C
Arencibia got a similar cup of coffee in 2010 (hitting 2 HR in his debut) and also made the team out of spring training this year. He has performed well for a catcher and is hitting .229/.281/.453 with 10 HR, 9 2B, 3 3B, 34 RBI. He's a power-first hitter and may never help you in batting average, but for a catcher you take what you can get. He should remain a top 10 option for the near future.
Best Player Close to the Majors: Brett Lawrie, 3B
Lawrie has the potential to be an elite fantasy player, especially if he can stick at third base. He seemed to be on the cusp of a callup until he fractured his hand and is still working towards recovery.
In 52 games this year, he's hitting .354/.415/.677 with 15 HR, 49 RBI, 11 SB, and 51 R. The Rogers Centre is a hitters park, and a lineup with Adam Lind and Jose Bautista could do wonders for Lawries RBI and R counting stats. I wouldn't be surprised to see Lawrie end up as an elite run producer in the short-term, perhaps as soon as late this year, or early in 2012. The biggest issue right now is the hand, and you never like to see a hitter as hot as Lawrie miss time with injury while his rhythm was going so good.
Top 2010 Pick Alert: Deck McGuire, SP
The Blue Jays made McGuire the 11th overall selection in last years draft. The 22-year-old is doing quite well in his professional debut: 5-3, 3.07 ERA, 70:29 K:BB ratio in 70.1 innings, 59 hits allowed in the Florida State League. He recently struck out 10 in 5 innings (though he did allow 2 HR) It's the type of production that could get the pitching prospect a promotion this season, and perhaps he'll be playing in Canada some time in 2012.
Best Player to Debut in 2011: Zach Britton, SP
Britton really started to open eyes with his performance in the minors over the last 2 seasons and jumped to #28 on BA's list going into the year. A good spring training performance allowed Britton to take one of the open rotation spots and while it was expected for him to be sent down once some injuries settled, he was too good to send down again. Thus far he's posted a 6-4 record, 3.10 ERA, 51:31 K:BB ratio in 87 innings. The strike out and walk numbers aren't dazzling, but he's still performed very well with a 3.89 FIP and 3.88 xFIP. So his ERA isn't that far off from where you'd expect it.
Britton could develop into a more classical top-of-the-rotation starter but so far he's just been "very good for his age."
The O's have a handful of potential rotation answers for the coming years with varying degrees of success.
Arrieta debuted last season and is considered to have the lowest ceiling of the foursome. His K/9 number shot up to 7.5 this season from 4.7 last season. That's good. His bb/9 number has remained steady at 4.3. That's bad. In 33 major league starts he has a 4.57 ERA in 183.1 innings. I would consider him a spot starter in fantasy at best.
Tillman looked like the steal of the Erik Bedard trade and rated the #22 prospect going into 2009. He has mostly sucked in the big leagues however. Sorry for the lazy use of the term "sucked" but that's the best way I can describe it. His K/9 ratio has never come close to what it was in the minors, and he's still ineffective in limiting free passes. He had shown flashes this year, but ultimately sent back to AAA, where he's been okay in 4 starts, but he's always been fine in the minors. Will he ever do good in the majors? My guess is that he still has potential as a #2 or #3 starter, but most likely settles into a back-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Matusz was the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft and considered the best of the bunch. The lefty hasn't been a lights-out ace, but has performed very well at this stage in his career. He has missed most of the season with injury and debuted against Seattle on June 1st. He performed well against Seattle and Oakland, but who doesn't? In his 3rd start, against Tampa, he gave up 5 hits, 4 walks, and 4 ER in 1.1 innings. He has thus far been quite bad overall, but the sample size is limited and he's still getting his feet wet in 2011. I still expect him to wind up as a #2 starter, with some potential to be an ace.
Long-Term Stud Alert: Manny Machado, SS/3B
Machado was the best high school hitter in last years draft outside of once-in-a-generation Bryce Harper. Potentially, if he sticks at SS, he might become more valuable than Harper himself. Machado was rolling right along until he missed most of May with an injury. He hasn't been so good since he returned, hitting .182 with almost no power in 55 June at-bats.
Still, Machado is one of the top prospects in the minor leagues, and the O's could have a baseball superstar by 2014. It's still going to be a long wait for fantasy owners however.
Best Rookie in 2011: Jeremy Hellickson, SP
Finishing off with the team that started this article (which was started eons ago apparently) we look at the Rays. Hellickson debuted in 2010, but his significant time is coming now. He was the #6 prospect going into the season and his career minor league numbers back that up: 49-16, 2.71 ERA, 580.1 innings, 634 K's, 137 BB's.
Hellickson has pitched well this season, but could be due for some regression. Though his ERA sits at 3.09, his K's and BB's haven't been as good as he could have hoped for. His FIP sits at 4.11 and xFIP at 4.44. Only a .224 BABIP against worries me for Hellickson in 2011. He's had good starts and bad starts this season, but still needs to refine his game. I expect him to be a #1 starter eventually because of how good he was in the minors, but that might not come until 2012 or 2013. Remember that David Price was not a stud right off of the bat either.
Best Player to Debut in 2010 and Best Player Close to the Majors: Desmond Jennings, OF
As of right now it seems to be a mystery as to why Jennings is still in the minor leagues. One of the top prospects in baseball, he's currently being "blocked" by Sam Fuld, who has hit .169/.224/.254 in his last 40 games. Jennings on the other hand .283/.375/.461 in AAA this year with 12 stolen bases. He's still got plenty of potential to be a future star, and the Rays could use his bat in the lineup everyday. If they are holding out because of Super Two status, that's just ridiculous because most baseball people agree that with the rash of recent callups, nobody called up at this point will reach Super Two, even if Super Two still exists after the collective bargaining agreement is re-done.
He should, emphasis on should, be in the big leagues before July. He'll provide stolen bases, runs, hits, and a little bit of power but not as much as Carl Crawford gave them.
Best Rookie in 2012 (Probably): Matt Moore, SP
Moore is yet another example of superior scouting and know-how of the Rays front office. An 8th round pick in 2007 out of high school, he's got a career strikeout rate of 12.7 across 420 innings. He shot up to #15 on BA's top 100 going into the season after striking out 208 in 144.2 innings last year. He's most likely competing with Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran for the title of best pitching prospect in the minors right now and he's definitely the best lefty in the minor leagues. He's struck 103 and walked only 23 in 77.2 AA innings which gives him a career low of 11.9 K/9.
He might taste the majors this season, but it's more than likely that he'll make the rotation for good in 2012.
Rising SS of the Future: Hak-Ju Lee, SS
It's funny how well the Rays have survived despite some really bad misses on players like Tim Beckham. Beckham could still develop into a decent shortstop in the major leagues, but he's fallen way behind some other Rays prospects, including another shortstop in Lee.
Lee had a good enough season last year to jump to 92 on the BA top 100. He was traded to Tampa in the Matt Garza trade and looks to be an absolute steal for Tampa. What's new?
He's hit .356/.431/.489 in 53 High-A games. His .920 OPS is 7th best in the league, despite being amonst the youngest players in the Florida State League. If things continue to go well, he could be a very good fantasy shortstop by 2013 or 2014.
So I thought that cutting down this article to each division would make it go by faster. Obviously, it still turned into quite a long piece so it's best to draw some conclusion.
My personal belief is that the best of the bunch is: Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Brett Lawrie, Zach Britton, Manny Machado, Brian Matusz, Matthew Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, and Desmond Jennings. I like guys like Gary Sanchez a lot, but don't believe we know enough about him at this time.
The Rays clearly have the best prospect group on the division and when you add in their 2011 draft picks it will give them an even bigger advantage. The Yankees however might have the best crop of prospects they've had in a very long time. How they use that to their advantage will be interesting.
I think the rest of the division is doing well, but I'd say Boston might be the furthest behind thanks to their acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez last winter. If I had to rank them it would be:
1. Tampa Bay
2. New York
The O's would get more credit for some of their graduated players, but overall the Blue Jays have a deeper and more talented farm system. The Rays likely have the top farm system in the game right now, thanks to the graduations in Kansas City as well as some of the struggles their pitchers have gone through.