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In defense of player development


And no, unlike the guy from Network, I'm not having a mental breakdown. Much. But I am having a bit of a problem with some of the offseason planning (and trade talk, though that's passed) some of the commenters are doing.

I'm going to try not to point fingers but instead to make a clear, logical, impassioned case for why, for lack of a better term, the Tigers are doing this whole "building a contender" thing wrong and what can be done to help arrest the fall.

First, however, a few caveats. First, I do want to see the Tigers do well. I want a World Series desperately--in fact, I want more than one. But I am a minor league writer. it's in my best interest to see the Tigers with a strong farm system. So I am going into this with a biased perspective. But hey, at least I tell you.

I'm not opposed to making trades, even if they involve top prospects. The Cabrera trade? Do it. Smoltz for Alexander? Sure. If Detroit has the ability to trade prospects, even blue-chippers, for players that will help us compete in the long-term, then so be it. That's one of the functions of a farm system.

That being said, there are two points that need making. First, that a thriving farm system is absolutely crucial to the long-term health of an organization. Teams with good farm systems contend year after year -- think the Angels or the Theo Epstein-led Red Sox. Second, prospects are risky, but the risk is low and the reward is high.

The first point is the more controversial, though it shouldn't be. Teams with good farm systems have three advantages over those with mediocre ones. First is depth. Take Philadelphia, for instance. The reason they shopped Jayson Werth for big-league help was because they have a blue-chip replacement in-house in Domonic Brown. The bonus there is that if they suffer an injury in the outfield (like they just did), they can plug in Brown to solve it. The Rays have the same insurance in the outfield and the rotation with Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson, respectively. But even teams without blue-chip prospects can improve their fortunes with a deep farm club. If Detroit had a prospect, any prospect, heck, even Mike Hessman at third base, losing Brandon Inge wouldn't hurt as badly. Or if we had some outfield depth in the minors (besides Casper Wells and Ryan Strieby who both have some problems to work through) maybe the Maggs loss wouldn't hurt as much.

Second, teams with good farm systems can develop superstars instead of spending millions of dollars in the free agent market or trading for them. These superstars are often cost controlled for their primes- take a look at players like Troy Tulowitzki from Colorado, David Wright from New York or Felix Hernandez from the Mariners. Guys like this cost a ton of money as free agents. Take Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford. You're talking $20 million per and five years as a starting point for these guys. Yes, they're very good players, but that's a lot of risk to take (more on this later). With Justin Verlander, for instance, we got four very good years for under $4m. That allows room to sign more expensive players, whether free agents or extensions -- and no, there's nothing wrong with having a big contract or two on the books. The key is to make sure you don't have too many (so there's no risk of crippling payroll for, say 3 years, because of injuries or ineffectiveness).

Third, teams with good farm systems have the ability to trade those blue-chippers for stars and rental players. Having three or four very good prospects allows you to make a big trade while still preserving depth in case of emergency. Philly, for instance, traded three very good players in Kyle Drabek, Travis d'Arnaud and Michael Taylor for Roy Halladay and their system was still ranked fifth by Baseball America's farm system rankings. The Rangers did the same thing with the Cliff Lee trade (and Jorge Cantu, but Lee's the big one). The reason they can afford to do that is because they have strong systems. The Tigers could have acquired Dan Haren, yes, but at the cost of our best two prospects and what little remains of our starting pitching depth for the future. We could acquire Adam Dunn, but the same problem exists. You want good reasons to have depth? Take a look at the Red Sox, who were able to deal Hanley Ramirez (among others) for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. And they still produced assets after the trade, including studs like Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia.

The other argument people constantly make regarding prospects is that they are no sure thing. Prospects are risky- even first round picks can miss the majors. Anyone remember Dan Moskos (4th overall, 2007) or Pete Kozma (18th overall, 2007)? I get the risk factor, and a lot more than people understand. I've seen favorite prospects fall by the wayside because they just couldn't cut it (James Skelton broke my heart, so to speak). And yes, the Tigers have gotten lucky in recent trades (most of the Cabrera package turned into busts, though I still hold out hope for Cameron Maybin).

That doesn't mean that young players are not a worthy investment. Teams get six years of control for players that do make it to the big leagues: two or three at the league minimum and then three or four with costs capped by the arbitration process. It is also significantly easier to develop superstar talent than it is to buy it. Many of the best free agents go to New York and Boston simply because that's where the money is, and those who don't have a ton of leverage. Successful prospects have little leverage for at least two years and often three. I think it was Michael Lewis that compared the first six years most players spend in the Major Leagues to baseball's version of indentured servitude.

Younger, cheaper players mean more money for the owners, but more importantly more money for the free agent market and player development. And controlling above-average players at low rates means that you can afford to spend a little more on veterans that don't have huge upside or to extend a very good player that is about to hit free agency. And if you have a system that is churning out top-flight talent it doesn't matter so much if your GM ties up payroll with bad contracts for, say, 3 years.

Some people will respond by saying, "David, I understand prospects are a good thing, and can turn into good players, but you yourself admit that we should sign free agents with the money we free up. And as you know, we're freeing up a ton next year!" Those same people will therefore use that as a justification to sign a ton of free agents in the offseason next year. Ah, but building teams via free agency seldom works. And while signing one or two free agents is fine (I've suggested 4/30 for Ordonez, and 5/60 for Beltre), building a roster with them seldom works. The reason? Free agents are known quantities- insofar as we know their ceilings. But nobody knows when players, even good ones, will collapse.

Like a pitcher with a No. 2 ceiling signed to a seven-year deal. Or an impact outfielder. Or a great third baseman. Or a Hall-of-Fame caliber outfielder. Or a great leadoff guy. Or an ace pitcher. Or a 22-game winner. I'll stop here, but I could go on. t

Hey, take a look at all the extensions that Dombrowski handed out. They looked good at the time too (except for Willis, of course). Please, please, please don't suggest to me that free agents are "proven." This is baseball, people, a sport in which a player can lose all ability to play in an instant, and it happens so often that it has an instantly recognizable name. Free agents have less risk than prospects, yes. But they're also post-peak players for the most part and are signed at the beginning (or often in the middle) of their decline years. That's risk too. Players fall off the edge- even the best. And it's funny to see fans who have suffered through three years in which the Tigers have had a payroll constrained by players like this- free agents-to-be that didn't do so well.

So yeah, Jacob Turner may never become an ace, but if he doesn't we're out his $4.7 million bonus. $4.7 million won't buy you a year of Placido Polanco, let alone an impact player. You could make four deals like that for the price of Cliff Lee, maybe five. And that's only if Turner collapses entirely. If he becomes a No. 3 starter, that's still valuable enough to make the bonus look good. There are even middle relievers that get $4.5mm per year, so even if that's his ultimate outcome we still don't lose. And if he doesn't pan out at all, we're out, what? 5 million bucks? As compared to being out 50 million if we trade for Danny Haren and something goes "pop"?

In the end, I think that if we truly want a Tigers team for the ages we have to be willing to wait on the talent we have. Personally, I don't want some pansy one-off team that uses every single year to try to rebuild itself back to its former glory only to end up in some hellish place stuck bouncing between first and worst with little success in between. I want a team that will win CHAMPIONSHIPS. Plural, as in more than one. And I want a team that owns the Central pennant for 10 years. And it won't happen until we give the farm system what it needs.