A’s sign Emil Brown and a related long player development rant
May be an indication they’ve all but dealt Kotsay to the Braves (update: yup, Kotsay’s gone). I’m going to burn a lot of words on this.
My favorite quote from the MLB.com story:
Hitting with runners in scoring position has been a problem for the A’s in recent years, and Brown could help in that area, as well. He batted .316 (37-for-117) in such situations in 2007.”That’s obviously a plus,” Forst said, “but I wouldn’t say that was a factor in our decision to sign him.”
Hee hee hee! Oh, the A’s. You guys are so awesome.
Emil Brown’s an interesting player from a team-building and a development view. He’s a decent player, but moreover, he’s a great example of the kind of guy you can get for free if you’re paying attention. Brown started in the A’s minor league organization, then the Pirates took him in the Rule 5 draft. He kicked around the Pirates system for a while, not getting much playing time, then was traded to San Diego in 2001. In 2005, at 30, he signed a minor-league deal with the Royals and in that thin system got a full-time job and hit .286/.349/.455. And the next year he hit .287/.358/.457 — and this is a player the Royals got for free.
Then last year he sucked. He still hit left-handers pretty well, I don’t want to get into the “do righties have legitimate splits versus right-handers” argument.
Anyway, after being selected in the Rule 5 draft Emil wasn’t much of a factor on the Pirates, but his minor league lines are great: in 1998 in AA as a 23-year old, he hit .330/.395/.496 in Carolina and in AAA the next year for Nashville he hit .307/.359/.502. Then his minor league lines bounce all over the place as he goes from organization to organization.
Generally, teams, fans, and analysts are prospect-fixated, looking to the 18, 19, and 20-year old players and trying to imagine their ceiling and what players they can become. But there are plenty of players like Brown who because of injury, strange development paths, or whatever other factors are available every year and can help teams a great deal. And in those cases, teams need to look at what they can contribute instead of whether they’re 29 or 30.
A player like Brown who can help a team win games for a couple years on the cheap is extremely valuable to an organization.
Or think of it this way: draft picks are all gambles. The chances that any pick past the first few rounds will make the majors, much less contribute for a couple years, is pretty slim. Even in round two, after all the supplemental first round picks, it’s perhaps fifty-fifty that any choice reaches the majors at all.
A good minor-league free agent find like Brown contributed as much value to the Royals as the average #20 pick in the draft contributes to all his teams over his career. That’s not an exaggeration.
And these kind of finds are all over baseball. The M’s managed one with Burke last year, where they picked up Jamie Burke — a 35-year old catcher (!) — for nothing and he made for a file backstop. Over the last couple of years, there are a ton of once-abandoned prospects like Matt Diaz, or Jonny Gomes, long in the tooth with odd or neglected skill sets, or passed over for playing time for one reason or another who find opportunity and go nuts with it. Jack Cust! Once a darling of stathead prospect hounds, abandoned, found, a hugely flawed player with one skill finally finds a chance in Oakland and hits .256/.408/.504 (!) for next to nothing. And when – like Brown did last year – they fall apart, or get injured, or otherwise fall off, you’re not staring at another 3y and $24m on their contract.
It’s a huge and largely ignored facet of player development. If there was a team out there that got to draft twice, everyone would recognize that they had a huge advantage, but that’s exactly what happens in the off-season signings and no one makes a big deal about it. Teams that can sift through the minor leagues and find good gambles like Brown and give them a shot, who use their AAA team as something more than a holding pen for emergency injury replacements, have a huge advantage over their competition.
Part of that is looking at players and seeing what they can contribute, rather than what they’re not good at. Cust, for instance, offers one skill, but if you have that need, you should be extremely happy. If you’re looking for an outfielder who can carry a glove at every outfield position, steal some bases with good success, and might hit well, hey, there’s Emil Brown. Doesn’t have a tremendous arm, isn’t a fly-catching sensation, doesn’t hit for much power. But if a few years ago you had an all-lefty outfield and could use a little more speed and a right-handed backup, he’d have been great. Jamie Burke’s not a world-beating defensive catcher, he’s old enough you’d be right to be worried about his durability, but if you’ve got an almost-everyday starting catcher like Johjima… and then we could get into pitchers.
This is why I get so worked up about some of this stuff. If the Mariners are trying to compete in an increasingly competitive division with the looming threat of a rebuilt A’s team coming back up the standings in a few years, this is the kind of thing they have to get better at. Wasting a million dollars on Miguel Cairo to be Willie Bloomquist Light won’t cripple the team, but given the team’s shortcomings, and who they might have brought in that could be interesting, with some potential to contribute, you have to just shake your head.
At the very least, finding quality players like the Royals did with Brown means that a team can spend more on free agents, or spending more in the draft and international prospect development or whatever their taste runs to. Done well, it’s a whole other player development channel, potentially as valuable to a team’s success as conventional prospect cultivation on the farm.