Commentary

The road to success begins with youth

Young players at the heart of any sustained run of good fortune

Originally Published: April 1, 2009
By Peter Gammons | ESPN

Click your TiVo back to last October and the League Championship Series.

There were the league champions. The Phillies were built on layers of the scouting and development acumen of people like former assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Ryan Madson. And because they also developed Michael Bourn, they had that Brad Lidge Wall.

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
AP Photo/Charles KrupaChosen in the second round of the 1999 draft, Carl Crawford is entering his eighth season in the majors with the Rays.

The Rays were also built on drafting players, like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, James Shields and David Price, and astute trades for lower-cost players like Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Dioner Navarro and Scott Kazmir because they had the young talent such as Delmon Young to market.

The Dodgers had their platoon of cheap homegrown players (Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Broxton, Russell Martin, James Loney and Matt Kemp) and overcame some contracts that didn't work out (Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones). And when they went to get Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake to try to win but couldn't afford their contracts, they had Carlos Santana, Andy LaRoche and pitcher Bryan Morris to deal in lieu of having to come up with the cash.

The Red Sox had AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, who finished third in the AL MVP voting, and Jed Lowrie in the infield, Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield and Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen in key pitching roles. And it was all for less than the Giants were paying Barry Zito. All out of their own organization.

What Brian Cashman tried to convince his Yankee superiors was that if you fill your team with free agents and keep adding on players in their 30s, it eventually will catch up with you and the only way to replace the aged and the infirm is to go spend on another generation of players paid for what they did in the past, not their futures. Now when one looks at the Yankees -- and while they have huge future commitments to players in their 30s like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Jorge Posada -- they have begun to connect the dots from within. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner are in their starting lineup, Joba Chamberlain is in the rotation and Phil Hughes, Austin Jackson and Ramiro Pena are on the immediate horizon.

The Phillies were the fourth team for which Pat Gillick was a general manager. Two of the teams -- the Phillies and Blue Jays -- won a combined three World Series championships. Two other teams -- the Orioles and Mariners -- went wire-to-wire in first place (the Orioles in 1997 won 98 games, and the Mariners in 2001 won 116 games). Even back in the '80s, Gillick understood the importance of young players. He'd make deals in August for potential free agents, trying to load up with draft picks. He even personally flew to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to scout a pitcher. He loved the Rule V Draft, and found players like George Bell, Jim Acker, Kelly Gruber and Manny Lee in that minor league draft. When he was the Blue Jays' GM, players were reluctant to sign as free agents in Toronto; in fact, Ken Dayley was their first major free-agent signing. So Gillick tried to keep the scouting and development pipeline rolling.

The Red Sox won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series with Papelbon earning the save for starting pitcher and winner Lester, and Pedroia and Ellsbury at the heart of the matter. Obviously, cost is a factor; if the club manages a player's major league service time, it can get nearly four years of service for $2-3 million; if a club can judge talent, it can sign players like Evan Longoria, Pedroia and Lester to long-term contracts and pay them in the prime years of their careers, before they turn 30.

"There's also the energy factor," said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. "If they are properly developed and coached, integrating young players into the mix creates an energy that the veteran players feed off."

Just think about Lester and Hamels winning the clinching games of the past two World Series.

There's also the post-steroids factor. Thanks to performance-enhancing drugs, there was a time when 40 was the new 30. Today, 35 is the same old 35.

In Cleveland, in an economically depressed area whose state has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in this century, the Indians have averaged 87 wins a year the past four seasons, tying Boston for the league lead in wins in 2007.

"We have to focus on our young players," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "We know what our budget restrictions are. We have to scout and develop and make good decisions."

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCliff Lee won the American League Cy Young Award last season, six years after being traded by the Expos to the Indians.

Thus, the Indians have their self-developed players like Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez, Fausto Carmona, et al. They have made extraordinary trades for talent out of other organizations, like Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Shin-Soo Choo, Kelly Shoppach and Asdrubal Cabrera. With all their young players and a relatively lower payroll, they were able to add two modest but significant additions in the offseason: Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa.

Perhaps no teams showcased more young talent this spring than the Indians and Marlins. By the end of this season, it's conceivable that the Indians can bring in catcher Carlos Santana, outfielders Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and Trevor Crowe and third baseman Wes Hodges as contributors. The Marlins have won a world championship and have four winning records in their past six seasons. They also arguably have the best young rotation in baseball, a rookie of the year candidate in center fielder Cameron Maybin, and by midseason could have one of the best young hitters on the planet at first base in Logan Morrison. And that's before even mentioning teenagers Mike Stanton and Matt Dominguez.

The Twins annually use their scouting and development to regenerate. The Brewers built their talented team through scouting. Texas owner Tom Hicks was smacked by his urge to do a Jerry Jones Now! Thing and has had GM Jon Daniels reconstruct one of the best farm systems in the majors, offsetting Hicks' personal financial problems. Arizona systemically reconstructed its organization after the one-and-done 2001 world championship, and the D-backs are now annual contenders. The Mets have spent to try to win a championship (Carlos Beltran is not only in his prime, but one of the most underappreciated great players anywhere), but they would not be consistent contenders had their organization not produced Jose Reyes, David Wright and Mike Pelfrey, all young and all in their prime.

The ability to develop talented, low-cost players might be more important than any recent year. Cleveland has been hit hard. So could be Pittsburgh, which is digging out from 16 years of misdirection. Billy Beane is rebuilding in Oakland. Colorado's ability to produce talent has long gone underappreciated. And with Atlanta facing the potential of a hard year in terms of attendance, to see Tommy Hanson, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman assures that the Braves will soon have yet another generation of outstanding young players.

The commissioner's office has tried to convince clubs not to spend on the draft, to limit the salaries of front-office and development personnel and shrink budgets, which has hurt several franchises. The Padres are still feeling the effects of owner John Moores' going along with the commissioner and refusing GM Kevin Towers the right to select Stephen Drew and ending up with Matt Bush. The Pirates are digging out from the center of the earth because of slot drafts. Wayne Krivsky and now Walt Jocketty are rebuilding a bankrupt Cincinnati organization. The Giants are now trying to retool after giving up on development to try to win with Barry Bonds. Royals ownership for years limited signing bonuses for anyone other than their first-round picks, which left the cupboard thin. Houston is headed into a serious long-term recession because owner Drayton McLane let the commissioner's office, not his scouts, rule the Astros' drafts.

And the Orioles' dysfunction and laughable drafts are now being replaced by layers of young talent drafted and traded for by Andy MacPhail; a year from now, Baltimore's young pitching might be the talk of the AL East.

All winter long, we are told that teams' offseasons are judged by the veteran players they acquire, sirens of past performance. When the A's traded Mark Mulder to the Cardinals in December 2004, the lead on "SportsCenter" was that the A's had become the Royals; check now to see how Dan Haren and Mulder have fared since then.

Of course CC Sabathia will be a major contributor to the Yankees this season, but one NL scout said, "for the $158 million difference, [22-year-old] Junichi Tazawa might have been the most important long-term signing of this offseason. Seven years from now, Tazawa will be 29, have four prime years of his career performed for less than one year for Sabathia. CC will be 36 [in 2016]."

Peter Gammons is a baseball analyst for ESPN.