Blueprint for Building an Elite Farm System in Today's MLB

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Blueprint for Building an Elite Farm System in Today's MLB
Steve Mitchell/USA Today

It’s a common misconception that high-end draft picks and international signings equate to a strong farm system.

Sure, having promising young players is certainly a good start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of how a player goes from lower-level prospect to successful big leaguer. Rather, it’s what happens between those points that determines a player’s career path and eventual impact at the highest level.

There are several ways a team adds players to its system, whether it be through the draft, international signings or trades. However, all that truly matters is how those players are developed after joining the organization.

And after speaking with front-office personnel from two American League clubs, it became clear that, despite the need for a competitive advantage, there are some fundamental practices and philosophies for developing players employed by every organization.

 

Know Your Players

When a team chooses to sign a player, they are essentially investing in his on-field potential. Obviously, the extent of that investment can vary; for example, there’s a huge difference, both in terms of the financial obligations and developmental expectations, between signing a first-round draft pick for $2.5 million out of high school and signing a 25th-round college player for $5,000.

However, regardless of when a player is drafted or how much he’s paid to sign, there’s a universal need for every organization to know and understand the players in its system.

Think about it this way: Every player offers some form of potential value to his organization, whether it’s as a role player within the system, possible trade bait or future big leaguer. But in order for a player to reach his potential in any of the aforementioned roles, the organization, from top to bottom, needs to first determine what type of player it has.  

“The biggest thing is that all these coaches and instructors within the organization need to know the guys...know the guys you need to kick in the rear end and the guys you don’t,” said Bobby Scales, director of player development for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, in an interview with Bleacher Report.

“Some guys, and I know this because this is how I was as a player, are so hard on themselves but still need to be pushed along and not allowed to be their own enemy,” added Scales. “But the only way you do that effectively is by getting to know each player and talking to them on a personal level.”

Mike Radcliff also knows a thing or two about player development.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

A member of the Twins organization since 1987, Radcliff was named the team’s scouting director in 1994 and is responsible for the drafts that produced homegrown talents such as Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, Kevin Slowey, Matt Garza and Glen Perkins.

Currently serving as the Twins’ vice president of player personnel, Radcliff is in charge of the team’s overall player-development process at both the major and minor league levels, which also makes him the architect behind baseball’s top-ranked farm system headed into 2014.

“Knowing our players is probably the most integral factor (in player development),” Radcliff recently told Bleacher Report.

“The foundations of players don’t change much. ... You’re not going to change a pitcher’s ability to throw the ball, but you might change, for example, the pitches he has and how he goes about preparing for games. Yes, things are tweaked along the way, but in our opinion, it’s the mind and makeup and everything that goes into the approach and preparation that has a big impact on whether a guy ends up being successful or not.”

Both Scales and Radcliff agree that treating all players the same, even remotely the same, is a detrimental practice for any organization. Scales even called it a “recipe for disaster.”

So even though a team may employ fairly common standards—the things they do, believe and teach their players—those standards must be taught to players on an individual basis in order to foster solidarity throughout the organization.

 

The Developmental Timeline

Every organization establishes a developmental timeline for a player when he enters their system—usually once they get to know the player personally and have an idea as to how they go about their business on and off the field.

“There is a plan over time for each player, meaning there’s defined goals and plans for reaching those goals,” said Radcliff.

“When any player joins our organization, we’re technically moving them from scouting to player development,” he added. “The scouts have seen and determined what they think works, and that has to be transferred to the player-development people. So we spend a lot of time internally trying to make sure we’re on the same page there so we have the same goals and parameters along the way.”

Former two-sport star Kohl Stewart is the perfect example of a low-level elite prospect who could become an MLB superstar with proper development.

Scales, meanwhile, used a relatable analogy to stress the importance of individual developmental timelines for prospects.

“Once your kids graduate kindergarten or the first grade, they need to know how to be able to read, write, do simple mathematics,” he stated. “But you get a kid in ninth or 10th grade who can’t add and subtract, then you’re going to be in trouble and have to play catch-up. The way I look at it, the big leagues is calculus, so if a guy can’t add and subtract when he graduates A-ball, then he’s in trouble.”

Scales also went into great depth on the specific things the Angels look for over the course of a player’s development, for both hitters and pitchers.

“Once you get out of A-ball, I think you need to have an understanding of what kind of hitter you are,” contends Scales. “There are three types of hitters in the games: There’s power guys, contact guys and gap-to-gap guys. We look at whether a guy has an idea of strike-zone discipline, as in knowing what pitches are in the hitting zone and what aren’t, and whether he’s able to really grind out at-bats and wear a pitcher down.

“Those are things that, when a guy graduates levels, you kind of look for, because those are usually the players who can work through struggles. And if a guy has a tendency to do that early on in his career, then he’s likely going to do it later as well.”

As for pitchers, Scales offered: When he’s in A-ball, we’re looking at whether he can locate his fastball. At Double-A, can he move his fastball around the zone and does he have a secondary pitch that can be thrown for a strike. When he gets to Triple-A, now you’re knocking on the door, so can he execute a game plan...can he locate all his pitches.

“More importantly, on the days when he doesn’t have his quality stuff, it’s about whether he can still find a way to get outs. You’re going to have more days when you don’t have your best stuff for whatever reason, so it’s important for a pitcher to still be able to compete.”

Yet, regarding both types of prospects, Scales went on to note, “Some guys are just different animals and have the ability to compete, others have to be taught how to compete.”

Therefore, with so many different components and possible outcomes in a player’s development, it’s imperative that his timeline be adjusted along the way in relation to his progress (or lack thereof).

“The challenges we offer our players really is based on our understanding of their character—who they are and how they go about their business—and we make sure that matches their tools and physical ability,” said Radcliff. “But obviously those plans evolve and change along with the players.”

While there may not be a surefire way to develop a future big leaguer, organizations such as the Angels and Twins both adhere to general guidelines with their prospects.

But once that guideline or timeline is in place, then it’s up to each team to do everything in its power to maximize the potential of its players.  

 

The International Advantage

In my conversations with Radcliff and Scales, both men stressed the importance of finding and developing international prospects.

Under Major League Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement, which was ushered in prior to the 2012 season, each team is designated a specific spending pool for international prospects. However, before an organization is willing to throw its allotted money toward teenage players, they must first have both the means and resources in place to develop them.

This is a fundamental problem for some teams, says Radcliff. 

“With many organizations there’s an inherent conflict between international scouting and player development—they don’t get along and point fingers and basically aren’t on the same page,” he said. “We spend a lot of time making sure that all of our phases and departments understand each other and make decisions together.”

The Angels embody the inherent conflict described by Radcliff, as they’ve fallen behind the curve internationally in recent years, which in turn has hindered the organization’s capacity to effectively scout and develop foreign prospects.

However, Scales believes the process will become easier with the team’s new facility in the Dominican Republic.

“Unfortunately we were in a situation that wasn’t very good,” he admitted, “so the improvements we make down there will be immense. 

“We want to have better facilities for our young men housed there and hope it helps us sign better international players. Before it was basically viewed as an outpost; now it’s a second facility—everything about it, from the players to the coaches, are important to our success here in the States. It will allow players to train in an environment similar to how it is here in the United States.”

On the other side of the spectrum are the Twins, who, as a result of the ongoing competition among teams to both discover and sign top amateur players from Latin American countries, have found an advantage by exploring lesser-known international markets.

“Our success with international prospects is a product of great scouting,” Radcliff said. “Any successful international department has to find a niche to an extent—there has to be some way to find a little separator because every organization is putting a dollar sign on the muscle. There’s no draft part where you sit around and wait to see who gets to you.”

Steven Senne/Associated Press/Associated Press
Max Kepler

In 2009—albeit several years before the implementation of the aforementioned CBA—the Twins signed 16-year-old Max Kepler out of Germany. More recently, the organization inked left-handed pitcher Lewis Thorpe, also 16, out of Australia in July of 2012, shortly after the commencement of that year’s international signing period.

However, developing young, inexperienced players such as Kepler and Thorpe comes with a highly specific set of challenges for the organization.

“For guys like Kepler and Thorpe, who come from Germany and Australia, it requires some extra time and patience for them to settle in,” said Radcliff. “They have to get used to the culture and we have to provide them with an environment in which their skills can catch up.

“Those guys are part of the system and they’re equal in every way as they go through player development, but they require a different approach on behalf of the coaches and everybody else. Even just their bodies...that’s a whole process in itself. Max Kepler played on weekends only in Germany forever. Now he’s over here and has to get his body ready to play everyday. That’s basically a one- to two-year process alone just to get him integrated into the player-development system.”

While some organizations pursue international prospects they believe can make an impact at the highest level in relatively short order, the Twins’ approach is designed for long-term success. 

“Good scouting takes more time and it’s hard to separate yourself from the other 29 teams in a year or two,” asserted Radcliff. “But over five, six, eight or even 10 years, we think good scouting and a good process will give us a chance to add more talent at the end of the day. In our mind, we’re able to make better decisions if we go about our business correctly, taking our time to add talent rather than worrying about a big spending spree.”

 

Developing Elite Prospects

Developing a young player isn’t always a challenge. Sometimes a team simply is blessed to have an elite talent in its system—the kind of player who blows past all developmental expectations en route to an ahead-of-schedule arrival in the major leagues.

Amazingly, the Angels and Twins both possess a player who fits that bill.

For the Angels, that player obviously is Mike Trout, the 22-year-old phenom who finished second in the American League MVP voting in each of the last two seasons.

When I asked Scales about the Angels’ handling of Trout during his ascent toward the major leagues, he struggled to describe the role of the organization in the superstar’s development.

“Mike is so good so young,” exclaimed Scales. “I think that any time you try to put Mike Trout in the same sentence as 'minor leagues' it’s not really fair.

“Let me put it this way, I believe in God, and I think he put Mike on the Earth to fly through a system and be in the big leagues for a long time. He was born to play baseball and be as good as he is. That’s what he’s supposed to do on this earth. When you’re that good, that’s just how it is.”

But when pressed about how the organization specifically influenced Trout’s greatness, Scales eventually conceded (sort of).

“The things he does, like playing hard every single day and being a leader to his teammates, those are things we can help him train for. But the rate at which he absorbs things and applies them to the game so flawlessly, that’s what you can’t measure or simply ask a player to do.”

The Twins, on the other hand, are in the midst of developing a pair of potentially elite big leaguers in outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano.

Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, took the minor leagues by storm last season, as the 20-year-old batted .334/.424/.520 with 49 extra-base hits and 55 stolen bases in 125 games between Single-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers. Following the season, he was named by Baseball America as the 2013 Minor League Player of the Year.

Meanwhile, Sano, 21, made tremendous strides in his development last season at a pair of advanced levels, batting .280/.382/.610 with 30 doubles and 35 home runs in 123 games between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain. Unfortunately, Sano will miss the entire 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last week. 

When asked specifically about his club’s prized prospects, Radcliff acknowledged both players’ immense natural ability and tools, but also their capacity to apply what they’ve learned since joining the organization.

“First of all, Byron [Buxton] is a guy who has more natural talent than most everyone else,” stated Radcliff. “The most impressive thing around here regarding Byron is how he processes information, how he takes in coaching, how he’s learned so quickly and applied what he’s been told immediately.

“Miguel is somewhat similar. He has a great, great desire to be a great player; he’s not just a big, talented kid. He has the ability to apply coaching and immediately turn his talent into substantial production.

“That’s a big part of why they have been able to move so fast: They have character traits, personality, intelligence and baseball IQ that allow them to apply their tools and skills that make them successful players.”

But with both prospects nearing the major leagues, the Twins also face a growing expectation to thoroughly develop both players and ensure the realization of their respective potentials.

Yet, Radcliff suggests that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“That’s good pressure to have,” he said, amid modest laughter. “Guys like myself and the scouting department don’t see that as pressure, but it’s certainly a challenge.”

Still, there’s only so much a team can control in the development of a future star; when a player possesses such tremendous natural ability and tools, like a Trout or a Buxton or a Sano, it’s crucial for an organization to create an environment that facilitates across-the-board growth.

Though it may seem like a minor component in a much larger picture, how an organization caters to the needs of its top prospects may ultimately determine whether a player develops into an impact big leaguer, or simply just a good one.

 

Parting Thoughts

While there isn’t an exact blueprint for building an elite farm system, every team has certain practices and beliefs it feels are vital toward its future success.

Radcliff summed it up perfectly by stating, “We know our development of players is paramount to our team having success. Every team understands that long-term success comes from building your own players."

Developmental timelines will evolve and need to be adjusted along the way, but the initial assessment of a player by team personnel will always serve as a reference point and therefore follow him throughout his career.

For the Angels and Twins, that lengthy process begins with knowing the players in their organizations on a personal level. After that, it’s a collective effort between player and team to ensure that progress is made and specific goals are met en route to reaching the major leagues.

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