Monday, November 21, 2011

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: Acquiring young players

The upper levels of the Minnesota farm system
dried up during the Bill Smith era.
There is, of necessity, a lot of collaboration and delegation involved in running a major league franchise. That is perhaps most obvious in the field of player development.

No one person can handle the scouting chores for 50 rounds of the draft, no one person can scour the Dominican and Japan for free-agent talent, no one person can run five minor-league affiliates, no one person can tend to the details of teaching a high-school fireballer a change up or converting a college shortstop to second base.

General managers have to delegate all that. It doesn't matter if the GM is Bill Smith or Terry Ryan -- he isn't directly running the amateur draft in June. That's the scouting director's job. The GM has laid out for the scouting department what the organization needs, what their budget to sign players is, what the priorities are -- and then it's up to the scouts to find and draft and sign that talent, and it's up to the minor league staff to develop it.

Bill Smith inherited his player development team. It wasn't precisely the team Ryan had -- scouting director Mike Radcliff moved into a different post, and Deron Johnson became scouting director -- but there was a great deal of stability, and one can assume that as the 2007 transition was planned that Smith had some say in who landed in what jobs.

We do know that the Twins under Ryan were very good at filling holes and fixing problems by promoting from the minor leagues. And we also know that didn't work in 2011.

The Twins are widely viewed as short on talent in the upper reaches of the minors. It shows in the records at Triple-A Rochester, which has lost 90-plus games each of the last two years.

What's gone wrong?

There are three ways for teams to add young talent:

  • Through the draft;
  • Signing free agents (generally foreign players)
  • Trading for minor leaguers

The Twins have drafted in the bottom half for about a decade. (There was one year in the '00s in which they drafted 14th of 30 teams). The prime picks are gone by the time they get to select; those that do slip to the bottom half of the first round generally have "signability" issues.

The Twins under Smith have actually been more willing than in the past to bust "slot" constraints to meet the price of draftees. They broke with the commissioner's office's recommended spending to sign Kyle Gibson in 2009 and all three of their top picks in 2011. Willingness to spend in the draft wasn't the issue during the Smith era.

Foreign markets
The Twins have long been big on signing players in what might be described as "underscouted" regions of the world. They were one of the first to establish a significant presence in Venezuela and Australia; they are the leaders in signing players out of Europe.

But they haven't gotten much out of the Aussie and European ventures, and, as noted during the Wilson Ramos kidnap drama, they (and most other organizations) have felt forced to pull back from Venezuela.

The Smith regime has established a presence in the Dominican Republic, a heavily scouted nation that produces a lot of talent, and Miguel Sano is a prime piece. But it will take a while for the Dominican venture to bear major league fruit.

This is an area in which the Twins have really fallen off. Ryan's reign was marked by a number of shrewd pick-ups of talent from the lower levels of other systems: David Ortiz, Jason Bartlett, Cristian Guzman, Joe Mays, Francisco Liriano. All were in A ball when the Twins acquired them; all became regulars.

Kevin Towers, then the general manager of the Padres and now with the Diamondbacks, once said that the problem with trading with Ryan was that "He knows your farm system better than you do."

For whatever reason -- luck or warier trading partners or a slippage in scouting -- that knack has left. The Twins haven't, to be sure, been in the business of trading veterans for kids very often in the past decade, and that's almost certainly part of why that aspect of player acquisition has dried up.

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