Oakland Athletics History Shows Developing Farm Prospects Equals Championship Teams
For years, before and after the advent of baseball’s free agency, the road to a competing team was to have a minor league system that would develop its players, eventually leading to championships. Rather than “buy a team” and risk enormous amounts of money to roll the dice on superstars who made their name through other teams, smart baseball executives agreed that the best path to long-term success was to have a minor league system that finds, cultivates, and develops future players of elite-level talent to ensure MLB viability.
The relationship between a successful minor league system and success couldn’t be more evident than with the Oakland Athletics organization and their championship/winning years since their 1968 arrival. Similarly, the A’s losing records both last season and this season can be tied to that lack of farm products on their roster.
When the A’s won the first of five consecutive AL West Championships in 1971, which included three straight World Series from 1972-1974, the entire field was made up of A’s farm products, sans Mike Epstein at first base. The team produced and then featured a lineup of Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, and Dick Green around the infield, with Joe Rudi, Rick Monday, and Reggie Jackson in the outfield. Even the pitching staff of Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Vida Blue, and John “Blue Moon” Odom, with Dave Duncan and Gene Tenace behind the plate, combined with a bullpen of Rollie Fingers and Paul Lindblad in the bullpen, all came through the A’s minor league system. (Monday was later traded for Ken Holtzman in 1972, and Duncan, along with George Hendrick, was dealt for Ray Fosse in 1973.)
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The next dynasty occurred in 1988 when the A’s again made three straight World Series appearances and were in the ALCS four of five years. While those teams were a mix of acquisitions and farm products, there was a presence from those that came through the Oakland system: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss, Terry Steinbach, Tony Phillips, Mike Gallego, Stan Javier, Luis Polonia, and Lance Blankenship on the field, and pitchers Curt Young, Eric Plunk, Greg Cadaret, and Todd Burns on the mound. (A’s product Rickey Henderson later returned to the team in 1989 after a deal to the Yankees for Polinia, Plunk, and Cadaret.)
In 2000, the team was rife with Athletics products. In addition to the Big 3 of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder, the A’s fielded names such as Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Ramon Hernandez, Mark Ellis, Ben Grieve, and Eric Byrnes in the batting order. Through the winning years of 2000-2006, others that came up from the minors and stayed for a couple of seasons also sprinkled the lineup.
Even the 2012-2014 contending teams had Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Eric Sogard, and even Daric Barton, along with pitchers A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Sean Doolittle, Dan Straily, Jerry Blevins, Brett Anderson and Sonny Gray, who came up from (at least parts of) the A’s farm system. Out of these names, only Doolittle and Gray are still on the A’s current active roster.
So far, 2016 only features one position player, Billy Burns (who was mostly a Nationals product anyway), who came up from the A’s Triple-A minor leagues. While prospect Tyler Ladendorf (batting a whopping .050) is on the roster, he’s only up due to injuries and isn’t expected to stay. Starter Sean Manaea (1-3. 7.03 ERA) and reliever Ryan Dull are the only other Athletics’ products on the A’s 25-man roster..
For the A’s to get back into serious contention with a future of staying competitive year in and year out, the front office needs to reinvest in its minor league system and not bring prospects up too early. Too often, prospective players have been dealt, leaving a void in the minor league system with no one serious waiting in the wings.
One other bit of advice for the A’s front office is when those special players do arrive, the organization should hold on to them (flashing back to the Donaldson and Cespedes deals that also saw Addison Russell depart).
“The more you know about your past, the better prepared you are for the future.” – Teddy Roosevelt.