Well thankfully the Rays pulled out the win last night, otherwise it would have totally ruined this column. Anyway, I realized, or it’s possible that in his incessant nasally non-stop mostly incoherent rambling Buck Martinez mentioned it, that both of these teams are built, for the most part, on players they brought up from the minor leagues. Not too many big trades or signings, mostly guys that each team drafted. I wanted to look at each team and see how old each guy is, how many years he has played in the majors, and how long ago they were drafted.

So, let’s use as an example, Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies starting catcher, who is 29 years old. He debuted in the majors in 2006, but played sparingly. So I’ll say he’s had 2.5 years of MLB playing time, the next column listed. Obviously, this is an approximation. He was signed as an amateur free agent after the 1998 season. I’m going to use that as equivalent to the 1999 draft, so he was “drafted” 9 years ago, which can be seen in the last column. Another player in here is Shane Victorino, who was acquired in the rule 5 draft. Although he didn’t grow up in the system, he really didn’t play much at all before coming to the Phillies, so while technically not home grown, he was acquired as a prospect, not a full time player. He counts.

A couple of things are important here. First is the sheer number of players that have come from this system. 6 of the 8 starting position players and 3 of the 5 starting pitchers. The bullpen is another story, but for the most part, this Phillies team was assembled by drafting not by trading or signing. It’s interesting because Philly is a big market which allows for a big payroll, but they are succeeding without signing too many big name Free Agents.

Most importantly is how much time it has taken for these players to mature enough, and the team to get enough other players, for the Phillies to make the World Series. This isn’t the first year they were good, they also won the NL East last season, and were pretty effective in 2006 as well. But to get to the World Series, they have a team where the average player who was drafted by Philadelphia was drafted over 8 years ago – 2000 – and started playing in the majors almost 5 years ago, meaning a debut in early 2003. That’s a long time.

Phillies Key Acquisitions:

3B Pedro Feliz, RF Jayson Werth, SP Jamie Moyer, CL Brad Lidge

They supplemented this core with some solid players. Other than Lidge, who had some problems closing out game in Houston, they really didn’t grab any stars. Feliz is a glove man with some power who gets to first base less than a Jonah Hill character. Moyer had a great year, but he’s not really a star anymore and probably only has another 10 or 15 years in the league. Werth was a platoon player until he got to Philly. No big time signings here.

Who won the AL?

Wow, what a series the ALCS ended up being. After a few heart attacks, the Tampa Bay Rays pulled off a huge win for the franchise. As everyone knows, they have quite a few home grown players as well. I counted guys like Dioner Navarro (~100 games outside of TB) and Matt Garza, who had a few appearances with the Twins before coming over, because of how little time they played before coming to Tampa and how young they are. I also included Rocco Baldelli, who may not have been a key part of the regular season, but is still a big part of the franchise, and has been a key part of the playoff run.

This is definitely a young team, and evidenced by the age of these guys that came up through the system. Throw in David Price, Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar, you see how the Rays are good now and will probably be good for quite a while. This is a team that has gotten good quicker than the Phillies. One of the reasons they are so good is those last 4 names on the list – 4 quality starting pitchers have come from the TB minor leagues. That shouldn’t be surprising, this team won on pitching. They finished 9th in the AL in runs scored, but 2nd in runs allowed. Pitching and defense got them to the World Series.

Rays Key Acquisitions:

1B Carlos Pena, Aki Iwamora 2B, Jason Bartlett SS, Gabe Gross RF, Cliff Floyd DH, Troy Percival CL

Much like the Phillies, this team’s biggest free agent is probably their closer, who was also suspect when he came over. Almost the entire infield came from outside of TB, but none of them were big timers. Barlett came over in the Garza trade to shore up the defense. Floyd and Percival have been mentioned as veterans who have helped in the clubhouse. Their best player here is Pena, and he has been great, but he was not a big name signing at the time.

What This Means for the Nationals

The Nats have a mix of young players that have been drafted or acquired by the Rule 5 draft, or traded for before they really got a chance in the majors. This is the kind of team that, if they find success, would be considered “home grown”. While their drafted players haven’t seen much MLB time, players like Flores, Milledge, and Dukes are all, like Shane Victorino, really getting their first chance with their current team. Because of that, I’m going to include them. I’m going to leave out the trio of young middle infielders, because I have yet to see any evidence that they can be key parts of this team winning. One or two may stick around to be a utility guy, but I am talking about guys who have shown they are more than that. Here is what I’ve come up with

This can be tweaked in a million ways of course. I debated on including both relievers, because I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Cordero’s health, and Hanrahan and been good for such a short period of time. But I tried to stick with big contributors in 2008, hence the lack of the Chief and Hill. I think Balester has shown he can contribute, so I’m leaving him up. I could also bring down the average years by including guys like Detwiler or Burgess or Maxwell if I think they’re gonna be here some day. But regardless you can see that there are a few things of note.

First of all, the age is low. That average of 23 years old – most majors leaguers start to hit their prime in their late 20s. 27 is the key age for breakouts. Secondly, the MLB service time is low. Key players on this team have barely sniffed a full season. Finally, the years drafted is low as well.

Comparing this to both of the World Series competitors, a few things come to light

  • The Nats (7) have less key players on this list than the Phillies (10) or the Rays (9) – and I probably could have thrown in a few more than the Rays.
  • The Rays”years” numbers compare favorably with the Nats for 2009. But everyone knows that the Nats aren’t winning anything next year.
  • The Rays have 4 starting pitchers on that list, which helped them get good so quickly. Starting pitchers are expensive, if you can grow them yourself, its helpful. Pray for Lannan, Balester, Jordan Zimmermann and Detwiler. (And Stephen Strasburg?)
  • The Rays show you how good drafts do pay off. The Nats passed up that opportunity this season, hopefully they will take advantage of the #1 and #10 pick in 2009. Otherwise, this kind of rise may not be possible.
  • If most major leaguers peak at 27, its quite possible that the Rays will be better the next few seasons. Keeping guys at the end of their contracts will be key, they still don’t have the money that other teams (Nats, Phillies) have.
  • Signing big name free agents isn’t the only way to make a World Series champion, as this year will prove once again.

If the Rays depress you for doing it so quickly, the Phillies should give you heart that maybe the Nats are doing the right thing. It just takes time. The Nationals are 3 years away from where the Phillies are in terms of those “years” categories. That’s 2011. And the Nationals are coming from a completely barren farm system a few years ago, so it may take longer. If this is going to be a home grown team, fans are going to have to be patient. Maybe more patient than any of us realized 2 or 3 years ago when the team started talking about this plan.

In relation to the Rays – this Nats team is not going to be the Rays next season. Not only did that team draft a crazy amount of talented young pitching, they failed with young pitching too. They tried out Seth McClung, Doug Waechter, and Dewon Brazelton, too. It wasn’t as out of the blue as it looked.

For their part, Washington needs to keep drafting good players, and hopefully get a strong rotation of guys they drafted, with some strong key position players. It’s possible that those position players are already there with Duke, Milledge, Flores and Zimmerman. Then the team can fill in the missing pieces with signings and trades. The missing pieces are much easier to fill in when they don’t have to be #1 pitchers or the best hitter on the team.

By Charlie