When a team starts to struggle, it's natural to ask "how exactly did we get here?" Yes, bad trades and free agent signings probably played some role. But more likely is that a team just got older, players left via free agency, and the club was unable to produce youngsters to replace that production. It's a failure of drafting and development.
Yesterday, I wrote about how long it takes before we know for certain that a team had a bad draft. It's a long damn time, and it's subject to revision as more players debut and develop. But the more we look at teams who are struggling to stay relevant now, the more we can see that many of their problems are rooted in bad drafts.
Consider the Twins in 2011. After a hugely successful 2010, the club suffered from major injuries to its star players, and diminished production from veterans. It slowly began turning over its veterans and handing jobs to younger guys, but the cupboard was largely bare. There wasn't another Johan Santana or Joe Mauer ready to go. There was only Brian Dozier and Kyle Gibson.
Since then, the Twins have restocked. Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Nick Burdi, and Eddie Rosario all either have contributed at the Major League level or are almost ready to. Combined with the Twins' international successes, it puts the Twins on the cusp of righting a ship that was headed the wrong way for a very long time.
You can also look at the Tampa Bay Rays. After a decade of awfulness, Tampa became one of the most impressive young teams in the Majors, led by first round draft successes like Evan Longoria and David Price, and later round selections like Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jake McGee. Then they supplemented that core with good trades.
But it's been a different story since 2008, when the club whiffed on the first overall pick, taking Tim Beckham. The 2009 draft didn't yield any usable major leaguers at all, and they seem to have botched the early rounds in 2010 as well. They did hit it big with Kevin Kiermaier in the 31st round, but that's exceptionally lucky. Since Steven Vogt in the 12th round of 2008, Kiermaier and maybe Mike Mahtook are the only players they've drafted and signed who have broken through.
The Rays have stayed afloat thanks to good trades that netted guys like Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza, and Drew Smyly, but without the pipeline of talent flowing into the Majors, the Rays have been essentially unable to get themselves above .500. Perhaps 2011 first round pick Blake Snell, who was promoted for one start earlier this year, can break that streak of regrettable choices. Or maybe it can be Richie Schaffer, a first rounder in 2012.
But until one of them starts turning heads in the Majors, and Tampa starts to get some return on their highest picks, the Rays are going to continue to be also-rans. Just like the Twins have been. If you're going to maintain any kind of success, that pipeline from the draft to the Major Leagues has to be open.