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Houston is the new St. Louis

Posted by birdwatcher , 11 June 2019 · 739 views

As regular readers might know, I've been following the baseball moves of the Twins ever since Chief suffered through First Communion. Yep. Since the early Washington Senators under their founder, George Washington.

I'm particularly intrigued by the challenges of talent evaluation and acquisition, and all that goes into it. This intrigue was heightened enormously many years ago when my kids grew up around some other really great kids whose dad had a little something to do with running the baseball operation and I had the enormous privilege of occasionally making him suffer through an afternoon or an evening "talking shop".

Not that I learned all that much, mind you, but it did turn my curiosity into a mild obsession. I like to drill down into things like the Rule 4 draft and into what the pundits think about the system and about specific players. I don't form my own opinion about players, per se, as I know nothing at all about how to evaluate baseball talent. Nothing.

For years, I've probably been tiresome for many, because I challenge many conclusions people come to about how a player failure must mean some capability is substandard or some process is flawed. If you have ever said something to the effect that, for example, the Twins missed on a player, like the miss du jour Tyler Jay, I'll have regaled you with information in an attempt to make it a comparative discussion, where the decision itself has factual and historical context and is viewed relative to other factors influencing it.

One of my favorite pals here (and I mean that) has been accommodating to a minor extent, in that he likes us to compare the actions and results of another franchise and then he'll make an emulation argument. For years, his model go-to franchise was the most well-run organization in the business, the St. Louis Cardinals. However, the Cards are now 16th in RotoWorld's Power Rankings, even lower elsewhere I believe. Plus, FanGraphs viewed their farm system as the 26th best out of 30 to choose from. So much for comparisons these days, as the Twins, in those same rankings, are 3rd in Power Ranking and 7th in prospect rankings pre 2019 draft and pre 2019 IFA data.

Which means, for my pal, for the pat 2-3 years, Houston is the new St. Louis. Their Power Ranking is #2. FanGraphs thinks their farm system the 5th best. Ah, but the emulation argument remains his thing.

The Astros are indeed a model to admire and emulate, so that's not our issue. The issue is more one of opportunity, not execution. I have fought with my pal (okay, you know who he is, don't you?) and since he's unreasonable ;) he has not accepted my reasoning, which starts out as this: you can't run the two clubs in a race to excellence when the two aren't at the same starting line. The Astros got a huge head start in every way we can imagine, and that includes management prowess, budget, incredibly favorable draft order, injury luck, you name it.

In other words, it's been my view that it's been unfair and harsh to rip the Twins for failing to "keep up" in a race that was never on. Against the best-run operation in the game. Until now. Because now, the teams are fairly even in positional talent and prospect capital.

The Astros have a talent advantage pitching-wise, no question. This is due more than anything to a #1 overall draft choice, Verlander, deciding he wants to win and Houston's smart play and urgent need for him. A move the Twins could not have been expected to emulate. And then, due to the stupidity of Pittsburgh, whose best haul from giving up #1 overall draft pick Geritt Cole was Colin Moran, he of a 0.6 WAR in 2019. Those two transactions sure made up for Houston's failings in the Rule 4 draft with #1 overall picks in 2013 and 2014 which netted them Appel and Aiken respectively. Yep. Even the best-run operation in baseball wets the bed. Jay schmay, I say.

I can expand this stupid blog by about five pages with information (factual and germaine stuff), but instead I'll stop after giving you one set of important facts and then seeing if anyone feels like chiming in on the subject.

The subject being this question: assuming Houston fits the gold standard for how a baseball operation ought to be run (I vote yes), how close are the Twins now to emulating them? Or alternatively the success of the Rays, Dodgers, Yankees, Braves or (really?) the Padres?

The head start? Start with this: For five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, the Astros drafted in front of the Twins, beginning with the considerable advantage of getting Springer at #11 while the Twins settled for Michael at #30 in a draft the pundits viewed as not having a dozen real players to choose from in the first round. After that? They got Correa, we settled for that crappy CF Buxton. Okay, and then they screwed up and we didn't take advantage in the Appel/Stewart and Aiken/Gordon drafts. But holy moly, Bregman at #2 in a draft AND friggin' Kyle Tucker at #5 with a 5-prospect top tier group? And we took Jay #6? Bad sucky timing.

Things may even up here even more when we start seeing results fro the Kirilloff/ Whitley picks, the LewisBuskakis picks, and maybe even the Larnach/Seth Beer picks. But the point is, whether it's a little bit of luck or a lot of prowess or both, Houston launched it's build with three generational talents who pretty much stepped right in with Springer, Correa, and Bregman, whereas the Twins have had to be uber patient with their "similar" cornerstone pieces in Buxton and Sano.

When it comes to comparing the rest of the positional roster, the Twins look like they know what they're doing now with the success of homegrowns Garver, Kepler, Polanco, and Rosario viewed next to Derek Fisher, Tony Kemp, Kyle Tucker, and Tyler White.

As I used to say to my pal when he held St. Louis on a pedestal: they're excellent, they deserve to be admired and emulated, but maybe, just maybe, they'll hit a rough patch because luck is a component of this business.

So I say to my good pal when he says we should have been emulating St. Lou---er, Houston: "hey, we couldn't before, but we can now'. I just don't want Flavine to think they're better at GM baseballing than the White Sox.

  • Carole Keller, Dman, DocBauer and 2 others like this



When the Astros didn't sign Aiken, they received that pick the next year that they turned into Bregman.Luck?Competence?The Astros also have been very good at turning other team's failures into successes, largely through analytics.Other teams are trying to catch up, it makes you wonder what comes next (once every team has high-speed cameras counting RPM's, etc.)

The Cardinals haven't had a top 10 draft pick since 1998.Their highest slot in that stretch was 13th (twice).It shows how successful they've been over that time frame.I think they're still the 'gold standard', it's just that the Astros are now the 'Bitcoin standard' :-).

    • birdwatcher, Dman and DocBauer like this
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birdwatcher
Jun 12 2019 08:53 AM

 

When the Astros didn't sign Aiken, they received that pick the next year that they turned into Bregman.Luck?Competence?The Astros also have been very good at turning other team's failures into successes, largely through analytics.Other teams are trying to catch up, it makes you wonder what comes next (once every team has high-speed cameras counting RPM's, etc.)

The Cardinals haven't had a top 10 draft pick since 1998.Their highest slot in that stretch was 13th (twice).It shows how successful they've been over that time frame.I think they're still the 'gold standard', it's just that the Astros are now the 'Bitcoin standard' :-).

 

 

Great comment and valid observations IMO. 

 

I agree about the Cards. "Medocrity" in the standings doesn't neccessarily mean management is mediocre, even when that mediocrity is more prolonged. It can happen if you go a long stretch without finding your next Matt Carpenter in the late rounds, losing a sure-fire prospect or an ace to accident or injury, etc.

 

Credit goes to the Astros for sure. They have been innovative early adopters of a few of the most revolutionary technological tools and of analytics. And it's certainly the case that some teams are not very well-run. But generally, when a highly profitable billion dollar business sees an economic advantage or necessity that will enhance or protect their profits? They'll make the investment. I think Pohlad Companies took a hard look at the business finally and saw that the threats of not investing in the business outweighed the penny-wise approach that Terry Ryan favored. But you're right, teams will close the gap. They closed the gap against the Cards and they're closing the gap against the Astros IMO.

 

Draft order is huge.

    • DocBauer and snap4birds like this
Excellent post birdwatcher. Houston is a great franchise to emulate. Their model to success recently I would argue is being copied by half of the teams in the AL!

Their road to get there had some rough patches... They caught a lot of flack and lost fans when they opened 2013 with a $22 million payroll. And $44 million in 2014. Of course they also played terrible baseball to earn the high draft picks. A World Series title heals those wounds quickly though!

The Twins are closing the gap on Houston in the analytics department. There's a couple of success stories now unlocking potential in MLB players...

The next box I want checked off the list is making an impact trade. Houston wouldn't be as desirable to emulate without taking advantage trading for Verlander, Cole, Pressly, etc.
    • DocBauer likes this
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birdwatcher
Jun 13 2019 07:55 AM

I'm with you, vanimal. I'd add that I care more that they exhibit a habit of using the trade market as an integral part of a strategy to increase (player) asset value system wide.

 

From my perspective, the impact of the Verlander and Cole and Pressly trades is two-fold, and they're both important. The obvious one is they are moves that are resulting in the ultimate goal being reachable. But the second impact is that none of those trades negatively impacted their strengths, other than perhaps creating some financial limitations regarding future moves.

 

That, I think, is a separator for the Astros. If "financial flexibility" and prospect capital values erode in a big way, success at the MLB level is very hard to sustain. We don't need to look outside the ALC to see four examples of this being played out in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City.

 

Avoiding impact trades and FA signings that become NEGATIVE impact trades that set an entire franchise back by years? This is why I get the reticence about being on the hook for a Machado or depleting the farm system for a Sale.

Awesome blog post Bird! Were it up to me, it would be placed on the front page here at TD. I also like your references to you and chief making me feel young at 53. LOL

While you use St Louis as the gold standard, and deservedly so, you also mentioned other organizations such as TB, the Dodgers, etc. And that's important to note. Let's think about the dreaded Yankees for a moment. Some people forget how they underachieved for several years until Steinbrenner stepped back and let a good baseball guy run things.

Pure finances be damned, in any sport we can find teams that were model franchises and then ran to ruin when ownership and management changed. And we've seen teams suddenly rise when changes took place.

In regard to the Twins, because that is the gist of your piece, there have been tremendous changes taking place. Despite the FO being in their 3rd year on the job, I mentioned in a different post that this is really only their 1st or arguably 2nd season fully in charge. Meaning everything from analytics to a new ML manager and coaching staff to milb staff to the draft or even how they run ST has changed dramatically! I was SO impressed about bringing in an actual catcher coach, to all catchers getting BP and instruction BEFORE slaving away behind the plate, to the rapid pace of practice and instruction rather than just being old school and having a "lazy" approach to things.

Patience is not a word fans like, especially when your team bas been substandard for a few years. But what changes and patience brought us to now? A surging team with one of the best records in MLB with a solid staff and deep, versatile and devastating lineup that is young except for Cruz. We also have one of the best and deepest milb systems to speak to the future, as well as offering trade opportunities to add to the roster.

What I'm really liking about our FO is how they can see things beyond just normal numbers or rankings. Example #1, not too many people were on board with the Cron signing. I was. But he's even better than I ever thought be would be. Example #2, I was SO not on board with Perez. But despite a few so-so performances as of late, did anybody really see what they saw?

You are absolutely on track when you reference draft choices and selections. And Houston had opportunity and perhaps a bit of luck on their side. But still, the MLB draft is the biggest crapshoot of all professional sports. You still have to be smart, and not just with that 1st pick.

Falvey and Levine spoke about building an entire organization for sustainable success. And despite some recent struggles, St Louis is an example of that through the years. As are other teams you mentioned. When I look at what they have done and accomplished to this point, I have real belief and trust. This is not some "just got lucky" team. This is a team built on talent we have been "patient" with and some really smart additions. It is a system with enough depth of talent to sacrifice a few pieces to add to the one weakness.

Nothing is built overnight. But the Twins just might be building something now to be mentioned in the same conversation as St Louis, Houston and others. In other words, a model franchise.