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General : : Professional
Is the Farm System for Winning or for Developing Players?
Anup Sinha        
Published: Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Perfect Game contributor Anup Sinha has written a book with longtime MLB scout and executive Bill Lajoie entitled CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie.

The book has been pre-released and is available through the Xlibris.com (https://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=70062) bookstore.

Bill Lajoie was the architect of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers as well as an indispensable right-hand man to John Schuerholz (1990s Atlanta Braves) and Theo Epstein (2000s Boston Red Sox) during their terrific World Series runs.

Here is a second excerpt (pgs. 266-268) from the book’s WISDOM section as a preview for PGCrosschecker readers. We will post two more excerpts weekly.

Q: Is the Farm System for Winning or for Developing Players?

A: It’s For Developing Players by Teaching Them How to Win.

“Lajoie and Hoot Evers did it better than farm directors today. Yeah, I think so. I say that with no equivocation whatsoever.” -- Lance Parrish, former Tiger catcher and 1st-round pick

“When you’re developing players, you should always be developing in their mind; ‘What do I have to do to win?’” -- Pat Gillick, 3-time World Series Champion GM

The purpose of the farm system has been debated for more than 60 years. Most farm directors today will tell you it’s about developing players instead of winning.

Lajoie’s philosophy combined the two. The goal of the farm system was to produce winning major league players. The best way to produce winning major league players is to develop them through winning. In a sense, you try to have your cake and eat it, too.

If you have prospects and they’re winning, then you can’t ask for more. That’s exactly what the Detroit Tigers minor league teams did after Lajoie started flooding the system with talent as scouting director from 1974-1978.

The record is startling, at every level from top to bottom.

The rookie-level Bristol Tigers won the 1974 Appalachian League championship behind future major leaguers like Lance Parrish and Mark Fidrych. The High-A Lakeland Tigers won back-to-back Florida State League championships in 1976 and 1977 while developing future major leaguers like Lou Whitaker, Roger Weaver, Pat Underwood and Dave Tobik.

The AA Montgomery team won three Southern League championships in a row from 1975-1977. Alan Trammell was a part of the last two, teaming up with Whitaker to turn double plays in 1977. Dave Rozema, Jack Morris, Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson played on the earlier squads.

AAA Evansville was always competitive, winning both the 1975 and 1979 American Association World Series. Mark Fidrych was a product of the 1975 champs while Kirk Gibson, Dave Stegman, Dan Petry and Tom Brookens were among the future major leaguers developed in 1979.

Through Bill Lajoie’s great drafting and the wisdom of farm director Hoot Evers, the Tigers managed to have their cake and eat it, too. They developed major league players and they did it through winning in the minors.

Winning a minor league championship means nothing if it’s done by older players who have no upside to play in the big leagues. Just the same, having a losing team of prospects is also counterproductive.

The primary goal of any franchise is to win at the big league level and you have to train your players accordingly. It’s not simply developing their tools, but teaching them how to play winning team baseball. If all they know is losing and they don’t play to win in the minors, how can they play to win in the majors?

The Tigers had a manual that applied all the way from rookie ball in Bristol, Va., to Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Everybody had to learn how to bunt, how to move runners along, hit the cutoff man, take signs, adjust to game situations, and on and on. Lajoie put a premium on teaching his minor league players the fundamentals and how to perform the little things necessary to win games. Everybody had to go through the rigors of cold and hot weather and such because that’s just what they’d experience if they got to the big leagues.

It sounds simple, but not many teams do it that way. They tend to coddle their prospects and develop their tools, but there’s very little of teaching them how to win, how to handle game situations, and how to overcome adversity. To compare it to raising children, there isn’t enough tough love coming down from the management.

You occasionally hear of high-round draft picks from California that teams don’t want to send to the cold weather Midwest League in April because they want them to be comfortable. Or they’ll let prospects skip certain team drills because they want to make sure they don’t get hurt. They rush them through the minors without teaching them the virtues of toughness and perseverance. Then they wonder why their prize pitcher can’t win a big game in October.

Often teams are lax to discipline their top prospects for fear of discouragement. One of the best high school pitching prospects of this generation lasted to the 19th overall pick in the 1997 draft even though his hometown Detroit Tigers picked first overall. Lefty Ryan Anderson was considered by many scouts to have Randy Johnson-like upside. The flame-throwing 6-foot-10 Anderson blazed through the Seattle Mariners system, but had a series of run-ins that were brushed aside by the club.

Perhaps the most appalling was in the Arizona Fall League when MLB executive (and Hall of Fame player) Frank Robinson fined him for chewing tobacco. Anderson handed Robinson a wad of money and rudely suggested Robinson apply it to future fines because he wasn’t going to stop chewing.

Anderson’s lack of discipline eventually carried over to the mound. He went down with a labrum tear before the 2001 season; Anderson never made it back because he lacked the disciplined work ethic to endure the required rehabilitation. They had to perform surgery on his shoulder three years in a row. Had the Mariners shown tough love from the beginning, could Anderson have turned out differently?

Just like players have to condition their arms and legs, they must also condition their head, and they must condition themselves to win. If you treat the minor league season as just a series of exhibitions and you keep giving out candy breaks, the players will carry that same lackadaisical attitude when they get to the big club.

Lajoie believes that winning and playing as a team are something that must be taught in the minors when the players are young and impressionable. That’s the only way it’ll stick. Winning and developing players go hand in hand.

CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie will hit Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble in March, but is already available for purchase from Xlibris.com at https://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=70062. Anup Sinha can be contacted via e-mail at Nupester@aol.com.