Finding a common thread among MLB's best teams

Top 5 clubs show player development, smart talent assessment can be key

February 7th, 2016

Baseball people spend a lot of time thinking about successful organizations. Specifically, is there a common thread running through them? Can success be traced back to spending, drafting, managing or some combination of everything?

With that in mind, let's look at baseball's winningest regular-season teams the past three seasons:

• Cardinals (287-199)

• Pirates (280-206)

• Dodgers (278-208)

• Royals (270-216)

• Nationals (265-221)

One notable thing is that three of these five teams are cautious spenders. The Cardinals seldom get involved in big-ticket free agents. The Royals and Pirates never do, unless it's for one of their own -- Alex Gordon or Andrew McCutchen.

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Another characteristic is patience. The Bucs averaged 94 losses in Neal Huntington's first five seasons as general manager. The Royals averaged 92 in Dayton Moore's first six seasons on the job.

Six seasons. Roll that one around in your mind. One of the most difficult things about this crazy business is staying patient.

In the past 16 years, the Cards have had two general managers and two managers. In other words, when in doubt, stay the course.

Royals owner David Glass and his team president, Dan Glass, stuck with Moore when it was not a popular thing to do. To continue to believe in a guy when so many are whispering otherwise in your ear -- and, in some cases, screaming -- is tough.

These are competitive people. They are accustomed to winning regardless of the arena.

When Moore was hired in 2006, he sat down with his bosses and outlined a plan. He said the Royals had no chance of competing without a great farm system, and Moore intended to build one.

But it would not happen quickly, and the path would not always be smooth. Young players are like that. Most disappoint.

Progress was slow in Kansas City -- but there was progress. Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and others made their way through the system, signaling better days ahead.

Moore also won the trust of his bosses by making smart trades and reasonable free-agent signings, even with a payroll in the bottom half of baseball's 30 teams.

When the Royals finally turned a corner, they turned it with breathtaking results. Since June 22, 2014, the Royals are 158-99, including the postseason. That's 28 more victories than the next-closest American League team (Blue Jays) and 17 more than the next National League club (Cardinals).

Kansas City has done things a certain way. The club's defense and bullpen have been so good that it has prompted others to reconsider its core beliefs on roster building. Maybe it's not just about starting pitching and three-run home runs.

The Royals will always have challenges. Almost every season, there will be some tough budget decisions and some losses from the roster. In this offseason's case, Ben Zobrist, acquired by Kansas City at the 2015 non-waiver Trade Deadline, signed with the Cubs.

But Moore has made several smart moves, and after 30 years, the sport has been born again in one of the country's great baseball cities.

The Pirates have followed a similar path. They weren't immediately successful under Huntington, and plenty of fans, columnists, etc. were more than ready to pack their bags.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting saw a larger picture. He understood that the Bucs had to do things a certain way. That meant player development, and when the club ventured into free agency, it had to be more about baseball expertise than money.

Did Francisco Liriano still have productive baseball left in him? What if we give him time to heal and put him with our brilliant manager (Clint Hurdle) and pitching coach (Ray Searage)?

(In three seasons with the Pirates, Liriano is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA and has averaged 170 innings. In the four seasons before that, he was 34-45 with a 4.85 ERA and an average of 155 innings.)

The Pirates have gone from 20 consecutive losing seasons to three straight postseason appearances. It's perhaps the highest tribute to the job Huntington and Hurdle have done that Pittsburgh fans are grousing about not getting past the NL Wild Card Game the past two seasons.

Never mind that they lost to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta or that the franchise couldn't even dream of a postseason appearance before Huntington arrived. The Bucs gave a generation or two of their fans almost nothing to cheer about. Now, they've built expectations, and that's a good thing.

Finally, the Cards. They have superior ownership, terrific management, a core of winning players and innovative revenue streams. They're in a city where every day of the year is baseball season, and they've been so successful that the bar for measuring success is the World Series.

The Nationals and Dodgers are somewhat different from the Cardinals, Pirates and Royals. Both of them spend more money because they have more revenue.

However, they also understand that they have no chance of going to the postseason without a productive player development system. Both the Dodgers and Nats say they're committed to building a champion in the more traditional way.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo built his organization on the core belief of collecting as many young power arms as possible. The Dodgers have toned down their spending, seeing their player development as good enough to infuse the roster from within.

Despite the money, the Dodgers and Nats have yet to have the postseason success they hope for.

Maybe the larger point is that the formula for success hasn't changed all that much. There are new and better ways to arrive at decisions, but the bottom line is -- as Branch Rickey taught generations of executives -- player development and smart talent assessments. In the end, those two things are what winning is about.