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Baseball Prospectus 1996 on the Kansas City Royals

The folks at Baseball Prospectus put the 1996 Annual online yesterday, which is an absolute trip to read. The snarky comments are there, the confident assertions, the usual mix of hits and misses present in any sports journal of the type. In terms of the sabermetric slant, the 1996 Annual has the emphasis on OBP (though still being occasionally called OBA in those days) for hitters and strikeouts for pitchers that still dominates. Park factors are also discussed, along with aging curves, and the details of roster management. As we still see today, there is a tension between tools and stats guys, and what to do exactly with their minor league resumes.

The mid-1990s were an ugly time for the game, and the 1994 strike lingered. For the better part of the next decade, a number of small-market teams essentially stopped trying, and frustration at this fact, even though the Indians had proven defeatism was unnecessary, permeates. John Hart's now blindingly obvious gambit of signing young players to long-term deals was the hot new idea, though one that many couldn't accept. And of course, these were truly the bad old days in terms of front office composition. There's really no comparison between how teams are run now and what was considered normal in 1996. In a way, this makes things much more boring.

Just because Monday was Mariano Rivera day, here's his player comment, weighted as it is with both doubts and portents of greatness:

Skinny swingman who has good control of the corners of the strike zone. His K rate seemed to jump up a little as of late, and if that's development rather than a fluke, this kid could really be something special. Looks way too skinny to be durable, but you never know.

The Royals chapter (presumably written by a very young Rany) paints the organization as one on the rebound, headed for, well, something better, thanks to a raft of good players.The narrative thrust of the chapter is one that could have been written again in 1999 or 2008. See if this sounds familiar:

But somewhere along the way the Royals came up with the novel idea of building up their farm system, which was ranked last by Baseball America after the 1991 season, and funnelling money and time into scouting, signing, and developing players. It was a plan that required patience, a trait the Royals had shown little of in recent years, but faced with an alternative of continued mediocrity, the Royals embraced it. And in 1992 the Royals accomplished a draft coup, landing Michael Tucker, Jim Pittsley, and Johnny Damon, top prospects all, with their first three picks. The Royals, always good at developing young pitchers, started delivering them by the truckload. And led by a newly aggressive scouting plan in Latin America, the Royals even found themselves a number of good young hitters. The result of all this was apparent last year, when Baseball America named the Royals their Organization of the Year.

The star of the chapter is Johnny Damon, who BP called, "clearly the best hitter the Royals have developed since George Brett" and "another Kenny Lofton, but with a higher upside" (which essentially is what happened). Mike Sweeney is also given his due, and there's also excitement for position players like Joe Randa and Jose Offerman. Bob Boone is lauded as a great manager.

I'm sure at some level I remembered that Michael Tucker was once considered a top prospect, but I had no idea anyone ever had any juice at all for Joe Vitiello. (Here is my "Honoring Joe Vitiello" post from 2007.)

The pitching was less exciting. There was Appier of course, and Gubicza was still around, though not a tremendous asset. The following sentence is patently chilling if you're a prospect hound:

The Royals have a smorgasbord of candidates for the other three spots, but none of them are very appetizing. Chris Haney, Jason Jacome, Dilson Torres, and Mel Bunch are probably the most likely candidates to start, and if phenom Jim Pittsley is fully recovered from elbow surgery, he could have a job by mid-season.

Did they work out?

Haney? No. Jacome? No. Torres? No. Bunch? No. Pittsley? No.

And in the end, that has been the story of the last fifteen years. Although the Royals have developed one Ace starter (Greinke) and a handful of relievers, they have been shockingly horrible at producing even #3, #4 or #5 starters with the farm system. A lack of pitching made an impressive stretch of position player development irrelevant.

Here in 2011, we wake up in the same predicament. Hosmer looks precocious and polished and powerful and everyone loves him. There's also excitement for Moose, as well as lower-tier position players. And again, there's a grab bag of like 15 names of pitchers who could develop. Or not.