"If there's one thing we know about Oakland, it is that there is always a lot of turnover. The A's build a strong system, graduate the players, leave their system empty and then they build it right back up again. They are in that building phase as we speak." - Frankie Piliere, 2011 Farm System Rankings
I know that Oakland's farm system is going through an apparent rough patch, as evidenced by their weak ranking on Piliere's list. But this blurb by FanHouse's noted prospect expert got me wondering about the actual fluctuations in quality within Oakland's farm system. We all noted how stacked the system was after they purged their roster a couple years ago, and how weak it is now, and it's not the first time we've seen this happen. Are the Athletics following some sort of strategy here? And if so, is this system of emptying and re-loading the farm system one of the organization's most recent attempts to take advantage of something undervalued in the market?
(Side note: for those of you who are interested, I have a year-to-year look at the club's farm system at the end of the article, spanning for each season since 1998)
From what I can tell, there's definitely a pattern of building up the system only to tear it down going on in Oakland. We've seen teams build up really strong farm systems only to purge them for short-term benefits before, but we haven't seen a team execute the practice with as much consistency as Billy Beane's club.
In the late 90's, the Athletics built up an absolutely loaded farm system that included multiple franchise cornerstones: Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Ben Grieve and Ramon Hernandez all were key to Oakland's success during the early part of the 2000's. But during the club's heyday, they essentially eschewed the farm system in favor of focusing on the big league club. They managed to acquire Carlos Pena for a bit, but from 2001-2003 (during which they averaged 100 wins per season) the farm system was far from a strength.
But after the 2004 season, the club decided to reverse course and replenish the farm system by weakening the big league club. Mulder and Hudson were traded, and Jermaine Dye was allowed to leave through free agency. Combined with some successes from recent drafts, particularly Joe Blanton and Nick Swisher, the farm system was once again one of the best in the game.
The team never managed to develop into a contender, though, due to a series of bad drafts and some busted prospects (Meyer, Herrera). So in 2008, with a weak system and some marketable stars, Oakland once again set out to replenish their farm system by weakening the club in the short-term. Over the next year or so, Oakland traded Blanton, Swisher, Dan Haren, Mark Kotsay and Jason Kendall to improve the system. And unlike the Hudson/Mulder purge of 2004, this one couldn't be described as anything but a resounding success. Within a year, Oakland had one of the very best systems in the game, led by Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Mychal Ynoa, Aaron Cunningham and Adrian Cardenas.
And like clockwork, the system was emptied out to improve the big league team. Anderson and Cahill are now key parts of a quality rotation and Cunningham went to San Diego when they acquired Kevin Kouzmanoff. Ynoa and Cardenas have fallen out of favor for very different reasons, but both could still emerge as useful players in the long run. What you see is this fascinating strategy that the Athletics have seemingly developed. They spend a couple years building up the system. They let those prospects trickle onto the big league team, which eventually develops into a contender. Once those players begin to get expensive, the club trades them all away for a new set of prospects. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It's tough to say precisely how deliberately the Athletics have executed this strategy. Maybe it's just a coincidence that things have worked out this way. Maybe Billy Beane has actually devised a plan that allows his team to contend consistently as long as ownership can take some one- or two-year periods where the club isn't a contender in order to maintain a strong base of talent. I'm not totally sure. But whatever the Athletics have been doing, it's been enough to acquire some of the best farm systems in recent memory, and that's often been enough to compete eventually.
And as I said before, I've done a year-by-year analysis of the club's top prospects for anyone who's interested.
1998: The farm system is stacked. They employ the game's best prospect in outfielder Ben Grieve and another top-10 prospect in shortstop Miguel Tejada. They have four more guys on list, too: third baseman Eric Chavez (No. 30), catcher A.J. Hinch (No. 42), catcher Ramon Hernandez (No. 74) and pitcher Chris Enochs (No. 100). You can't really grasp the system's depth, but any team that places guys at 1, 10, 30 and 42 on a list of the game's top 100 prospects is obviously loaded with young talent.
1999: Grieve and Tejada graduate, but the system is still loaded with high-end talent. Chavez takes another step forward, he's ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the game. Beyond him, they have three more pitchers landing on the list: Mark Mulder (No. 27), Eric DuBose (No. 53) and Chad Harville (No. 94). The system's top tier took a small hit, but it's still a good system.
2000: Chavez moves up to the big leagues, but some pitchers continue to develop and they hit on a couple new guys. Mulder moves up to No. 12 in the game, Barry Zito comes in at No. 41 and Jesus Colome at No. 53. A couple of young position players slip into the end of the list as well, with Mario Encarnacion and Adam Piatt slotting into the 90-100 range.
2001: They don't have a top-15 prospect for the first time since 1996; the system takes a dip for the first time after the graduations of Grieve, Tejada, Mulder, Chavez, Zito, Hinch and Hernandez over the past couple seasons. They still have some quality position prospects in Jose Ortiz (No. 34), Jason Hart (No. 59) and Ryan Ludwick (No. 81), as well as pitcher Justin Miller (No. 84), but it's no longer one of the very best in the game. BA offers organizational rankings online for each year since 2001, and the A's came in 11th.
2002: They slide down in the rankings, to No. 19. They have an elite prospect in first baseman Carlos Pena (No. 5 overall), but depth is an issue. The only other top-100 prospect in the organization is outfielder Eric Byrnes.
2003: The slide continues, as they move down to No. 22. Pena was traded to Detroit after an underwhelming stint in Oakland, and the club has just one top-100 prospect: pitcher Rich Harden, slotting in at No. 29.
2004: Harden graduates to the big leagues, but a couple of recent first round picks help to pick up the system. 2001 first round pick Bobby Crosby slots in at No. 32, and 2002 first rounder Joe Blanton comes in at No. 43. The club's 2002 draft class, famously depicted in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, begins to have an impact on the farm.
2005: The club trades twin aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder to replenish the farm system, and in doing so moves the system up to No. 8 in BA's rankings. Nick Swisher, the No. 15 overall pick in 2002, emerges as a potential star and comes in at No. 24 on the top-100. Daric Barton, acquired from St. Louis in the Mulder deal, and Dan Meyer, acquired from Atlanta in the Hudson deal, both slot into the top-50 as well. There's some added depth as well, with Javier Herrera (No. 68) and Huston Street (No. 97) also making the list.
2006: Tons of graduations, and the system drops all the way to No. 26 on the rankings list. Barton still leads the system and he ranks No. 28 in the game. But Dan Meyer totally falls apart, Swisher and Street both graduate, and the system can't really bounce back from that. Herrera (No. 74) and shortstop Cliff Pennington (No. 83) also reside on the list, but it's probably not where Billy Beane expected the system to be after trading so much talent the year before.
2007: The farm's second valley continues, as the club slots in at No. 27 on BA's rankings. Barton drops down to No. 67; Herrera and Pennington both fall off the list, replaced by Travis Buck (No. 50) and Kurt Suzuki (No. 89). They're still reeling from the disappointing Mulder/Hudson trades (outside of Barton and Dan Haren) as well as some underwhelming draft classes.
2008: The system gets some reinforcements as the club trades Haren and Swisher to replenish the system, but BA doesn't totally buy into the improvements and ranks the system No. 27 once again. I honestly don't get why they're so low, though; Carlos Gonzalez (No. 26), Gio Gonzalez (No. 26), Brett Anderson (No. 36), Daric Barton (No. 48) and Fautino De Los Santos (No. 60) all were among the top-60 prospects in the game.
2009: BA finally comes around to the Athletics, and in a big way. They move up 24 spots in the rankings, up to No. 3, despite losing Barton and Carlos Gonzalez. Anderson (No. 7) took another step forward and was joined by Trevor Cahill as two of the eleven-best prospects in the game. Mychal Ynoa (No. 54) and a few more trade acquisitions, Aaron Cunningham (No. 55), Adrian Cardenas (No. 74) and Chris Carter (No. 76), all joined those two on the top-100. Oh, and Gio still slipped in at No. 97. Between the two elite pitching prospects and all of the depth, this system was clearly among the best in the game.
2010: The system takes a major hit as Anderson, Cahill, Cunningham and Gonzalez graduate to the majors and Ynoa goes down with an elbow injury. They get a boost from trade acquisition Michael Taylor, 2009 first-round pick Grant Green and 2009 fourth-round pick Max Stassi, but it would take a lot more to bounce back from losing two top-15 pitching prospects.
2011: After an up-and-down 2010, the A's are in a similar position going into 2011. Carter is still regarded as one of the best power-hitting prospects in the game, Green had a nice season in the CAL, and the club added Michael Choice, Yordy Cabrera and Aaron Shipman through the draft. But Taylor took a huge step back, Jemile Weeks continued to have durability issues, and Stassi batted .229 in Single-A. The lack of impact potential among the system's pitchers is a particular area of concern.