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Oct. 20, 2006

Baseball's rejuvenated farmer's market

by Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor
The New York Yankees, backed by the pocketbook of free-spending owner George Steinbrenner, touted a 2006 payroll of $200 million-plus, exceeding the GDP of many a small country. With what was considered by many to be the greatest lineup assembled in history, the Yanks looked to cruise through the raw American League and add another World Series banner to illustrious Yankee Stadium.

Nonetheless, Joe Torre and crew were not the ones enjoying a champagne shower Saturday night, as the Detroit Tigers defeated the Evil Empire in their first postseason appearance in recent memory, pulling off an unlikely three games to one upset in the best-of-five first round of the Major League Baseball playoffs. Conventional wisdom dictates that money draws talent, and talent brings winning. So what happened here?

A thrifty yet competitive team can still be built in this day and age, despite the enormous disparities in salary. By developing young prospects through the farm system, small market teams or those with economical owners are still able to compete with and even vanquish the Yankees of the world. Even with the onset of free agency and lavish contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, young talent still significantly impacts the MLB landscape.

After slaying the dragon, the Detroit Tigers are the team to beat in the American League, and their success has been centered around their young talent. Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson, and Jeremy Bonderman, all products of the Tigers' farm system, lead a top notch starting rotation, and young outfielders Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson have powered a surprisingly potent offense. In the bullpen, rookie reliever Joel Zumaya, with blazing fastballs packing triple digit heat, has been near unhittable, with an ERA of 1.96 at season's end, allowing just 18 earned runs in 62 games.

A few well-placed free agent signings were all that were necessary to lift a young team from struggle to success. Veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez along with pitchers Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones signed for moderate contracts and have all been vital to the development of this young team. The clubhouse leadership and proven experience

In Detroit's series with the Yankees, Monroe and Granderson smacked two homers apiece, Zumaya was lights out for two hitless innings and Bonderman threw eight-plus strong innings in game four to seal the deal. In their first taste of postseason action, the young Tigers were able to out-slug and out-pitch Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and other exorbitant contracts as youth and talent triumphed over dollars.

Perhaps the greatest indication of success through prospects this season was the Florida Marlins. Cost-cutting owner Jeffrey Loria initiated a major salary purge this past off-season, trimming the payroll from $60 million to a mere $15 million. Every big name on the roster was dealt away, save for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. With a total payroll close to $5 million less than the annual salary of Alex Rodriguez alone, the Marlins still managed to maintain a near .500 record and a late season push for a wild card berth.

Prior to the season's start, experts deemed Florida's personnel hardly worthy of Triple-A, poised to make a run not at the playoffs, but at the single season loss record of 134 set by Cleveland more than a century ago. To the surprise of everyone but themselves, the Marlins remained competitive all throughout 2006, outperforming both the Atlanta Braves and the hometown Washington Nationals, division rivals who entered the year with higher expectations but ended the season with results that paled in comparison.

By trading away big-name players, the Marlins were able to acquire cheap, young, prospects. During the past off-season, Florida dealt pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell to Boston for two blue chip prospects in shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Today, the deal looks remarkably one sided. In Boston, Beckett was lit up for 36 homers and an unsightly 5.01 ERA in 2006 and Lowell was mediocre at best. Down south, Anibal Sanchez threw a no-hitter and ended the year with a miniscule ERA of 2.83 and Hanley Ramirez put up 51 stolen bases, 119 runs scored, and a batting average just shy of .300. Red Sox faithful are shaking their heads in disgust, as an ace pitching prospect and a top-of-the-order talent were dealt away for two overpaid veterans.

The Marlins have also unearthed key talent through solid scouting. Second baseman Dan Uggla, acquired through the Rule 5 draft usually reserved for rejects and deep projects, is an all-star in his rookie year. Rarely do Rule 5 draftees contribute to the major league roster, much less make the all-star team. By being able to acquire such tremendous talent at virtually no cost, the Marlins have built a team to watch for the next decade.

So what does this mean for fans of the Washington Nationals? The success of the farm system around the league is probably the most hope Nats fans can draw from an abysmal 2006 season that saw yet another last place finish. Owner Ted Lerner is a firm believer in the farm system, and has assembled a staff able to build a contender from the ground up. Team president Stan Kasten was integral in the construction of the Atlanta Braves franchise, winners of a staggering 14 straight division titles prior to this season. With a well managed team and a deep farm system, such consistent excellence in the Washington area is within the realm of possibility. Keeping Alfonso Soriano at the trade deadline was a dubious move that may very well backfire, but dealing veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two pitching prospects was a step in the right direction.

The NL East, which Washington calls home, boasts perhaps the most successful prospect development in the majors. With David Wright and Jose Reyes in New York, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in Philadelphia, Atlanta's 14 straight using farm products and the aforementioned Florida Marlins, the Nats see what they are up against and know what must be done to keep up. It will take years to develop the talent needed to fight for respectability in an increasingly tough National League. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitchers Chad Cordero and John Patterson are excellent young players to build around, but talent is scarce elsewhere. With a threadbare farm system spawned through years of negligence and ineptitude, the Nationals must enter full rebuilding mode.

Washington may never see Steinbrenner South or 14 straight division titles. The next few years will be difficult, as the team struggles and fan loyalty comes into question. All around the league though, teams have seen success through well-constructed farm systems. With proper management, the Nationals can join the midst of Detroit, Florida and Minnesota, among others, and develop a farm system able to put an end to the losing ways that have plagued the area for all too long.



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  • yanks fan on October 21, 2006 at 4:49 PM
    too bad marcus thames was developed in the yanks farm system.
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