The guide to sustainable farming
Sam Miller [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
March 18, 2014
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ONE YEAR AGO, on backfield No. 6 in Tempe, Ariz., where players breathe the helium that floats spring training optimism, 165 Angels minor leaguers took a knee and 55 Angels minor league coaches stood at attention. Scott Servais, the club's assistant GM overseeing player development, was in the middle. It would be his only chance all year to address everybody at once.

"How many of you here played in the playoffs last year?" he asked. Denny Hocking, the Angels' new rookie ball manager, hired from Baltimore's Double-A affiliate, was the only one who could raise his hand.

"Baseball America thinks we have the worst talent in the game," he continued. "How does that make you feel? You play in the worst organization in the game."

Third baseman Kaleb Cowart, LA's top prospect at the time, recalls looking at the faces of his teammates as Servais spoke: "They're like, Wow. Was he really just that open about it?"

But it was true. The critics had spoken, have spoken, continue to speak: Even now, a year later, Baseball America considers the Angels' future to be windswept and barren, again ranking them 30th in organizational talent.

Servais is the guy who was hired in 2011 to fix them. It's a job he's done before. As the Rangers' director of player development, he took an organization that had baseball's 28th-best farm system and in two years turned it into the best. But if that was a nifty trick -- like juggling eight balls and a chain saw -- turning around the Angels' system is like repeating it, blindfolded and on roller skates. The best routes for adding talent aren't available to him: The Angels forfeited three top draft picks to sign Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson, and the loose rules that had allowed the Rangers to sign half of Latin America and hoard draft picks have since been tightened.

Since the Angels have few avenues to acquire impact talent, Servais is left to develop it. So he recently burrowed into his home on 35 acres in Colorado to compile a guide to player development, a manual to be read by everybody from ownership on down. It would lay out the Angels' organizational philosophies and offer step-by-step development strategies for each skill a player must master. It would help modernize the Angels' player development department; it would make the team more like the one every organization in baseball wants to be -- the Cardinals.

St. Louis reached last season's World Series with a roster that featured 17 players the club had drafted and developed. None of the three other teams in the LCS had more than six drafted and developed players. The Cardinals are, as Servais puts it, "the hot team in player development." And three years ago, they gathered all their organizational intelligence into a manual: the Cardinal Way, a proprietary 117-page document. As Cardinals Double-A manager Mike Shildt told a newspaper reporter at the time, "This is the blueprint."

When I meet Servais this winter in a Denver hotel lobby, he says, "They've got it going on."

What do the Cardinals do differently?

"Well ..." He smiles. "Let me see what I've got here." He reaches into his attaché, pulls out a document -- 117 pages. It is the Cardinal Way.

"They don't know I have that," he says. I open it. A warm, golden glow envelops me.

This is really it?

"That's the secret," he says.

TWO THINGS MAKE predicting a prospect's future confounding. One is that everything beyond his next breath is exponentially unpredictable. A major leaguer might surprise you; an A-baller might conceivably do anything. One year, baseball's third-best overall prospect turns into the superstar you know as Mike Trout. Another year, he turns into the cautionary tale you know as Brandon Wood.

To understand the state of the Angels -- bloated budget, barren farm, four-year post-season drought -- you might start with Wood. "It haunts me," says Abe Flores, the Angels' former farm director who oversaw the development of Wood (and Trout). "Haunts us. We were counting on him. He was a guy we absolutely needed, and then it snowballs. That's one I've struggled with for a long time."

In 2005 Wood had one of the greatest minor league seasons ever, compiling 101 extra-base hits while playing shortstop. He went to the Arizona Fall League and hit a league-record 14 homers. That kind of production, of course, is worth much more than the runs scored. Writing for The Hardball Times in 2008, Victor Wang, now an assistant scouting director with the Indians, looked at all the players Baseball America had included in its annual top-prospects list during the 1990s. He found that elite hitting prospects were the minor leagues' safest bets: A hitter who ranked in the top 10 -- as Wood did -- produced, on average, about 11 wins more in his first six years in the majors than a typical replacement from the bench would. The website Pirates Prospects updated the research in 2012, using more recent Baseball America rankings, and the expected value of a top hitting prospect had gone up to nearly 18 Wins Above Replacement. At the going rate for free agents, 18 wins are worth about $125 million.

But those 18 wins are an average, which leads to the second frustrating thing about projecting a prospect's development. We plan for the future by averaging our expectations-30 percent chance of rain, 20 percent chance of a spade on the river, 50 percent chance Wood is worth 11 WAR -- but we play it out only once. You never catch 20 percent of a spade. So Wood was never going to be worth an average WAR. He was going to be worth one thing, and that one thing could conceivably be anything.

As it turned out, Wood started 2010 as the Angels' third baseman. He was arguably the worst player in franchise history. No Angels hitter with 200 career plate appearances has ever produced a lower OPS than Wood's .455.

The exponential unpredictability of the future doesn't stop there. Partly because of Wood's sub-replacement performance, the Angels had a losing record and missed the playoffs in 2010. Ditching Wood, and desperate to make a "big splash" that winter, the Angels traded Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells, who was booed during the first homestand and never recovered. The Angels again missed the playoffs in 2011, again spent the offseason seemingly on tilt, and committed more than $300 million to Pujols and Wilson. Each veteran underperformed in 2012, when the Angels missed the playoffs a third time. That offseason the team signed Hamilton for $125 million -- and missed the playoffs again when the outfielder flopped.

To encapsulate the snowball effect Abe Flores witnessed: The Angels will pay Wells, whom the team has long since discarded, $18.6 million this year.

IN 2011 THE Angels...
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