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Friday, September 20, 2002

Penny-wise, But Not Pound-foolish

The Royals try something new, maybe even for the right reasons.

Player development isn’t easy. But it’s considered relatively cheap, and it’s
often cited as the only way for small-market teams to compete. So when the
Kansas City Royals announced they’re dropping their fall instructional league,
for a savings of $200,000, skeptics rolled their eyes at cheapskate owner David
Glass.

While there’s no disputing Glass’s legendary baseball frugality, the story
isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface. Several factors—including some
that are actually related to baseball—contributed to the Royals’ decision.

First, let’s back up and examine what the instructional league does. Held
from mid-September through the end of October, the instructional league allows
teams to give personalized instruction to some of their youngest top prospects.
Danny McCormack, Scouting and Player Development Coordinator for the Oakland
Athletics, said it gives the front office “an opportunity to ingrain our
philosophy into ... first-year players. With players that are coming back, it
gives us an opportunity to work on fundamentals, hitting philosophy, that type
of thing.”

McCormack said managers in the lower minor leagues don’t get to do as much
teaching as they should, with games being played every day. So the instructional
league “gives our roving instructors and our director of player development an
opportunity to work with first-year players. If we didn’t have this, we really
wouldn’t have an opportunity to put our strength and conditioning program into
effect,” he said.

The instructional league can be costly, according to McCormack, but it’s
worth it. “We feel in the long run the value overrides the cost. Hopefully it’s
a high return on the dollar.”

In other words, an instructional league is exactly the kind of thing a
low-revenue, small-market team should be clamoring for. So the Royals’ penny
pinching was greeted with wave of disbelief among the organizations critics.

But the Royals say they have other reasons for dropping fall ball—besides
the financial savings. Muzzy Jackson, the Royals’ Assistant General Manager for
Player Personnel, said the uncertainty of the labor situation and money worries
contributed to the decision. But he also said the team’s new facility in
Surprise, Arizona, is still under construction, and that made playing fall ball
difficult.

Instead, the team will hold an abbreviated instructional period in the
spring. “We’re going to bring guys in a little early and try to get them some
additional fundamentals,” Jackson said. “We’re losing five weeks of development
in the fall and gaining back three in the spring.”

Even though he wants to resume the fall instructional league next year—and
thinks the Royals will do that—Jackson believes there are good basebal reasons
to push the instructional league to spring. “At the end of the season a lot of
guys are tired,” he said. Starting spring training early allows the one-on-one
instruction to take place when pitchers and position players are more fresh.

The Anaheim Angels agree. They will also experiment with dropping their
instructional league this fall. Tony Reagins, Director of Player Development for
Anaheim, said the uncertainty of the strike served as the catalyst for the
team’s decision.

The Angels will bring in several top prospects for spring training about ten
days early. “We’ll see how this course of action goes,” Reagins said. “At that
time of year [the fall], pitchers are pretty tired and position players are worn
out, so we just want to see if this works better.”

Reagins calls the spring instructional session a “test run” to determine
whether the organization can overcome the “fatigue factor” inherent in fall
ball. Other teams could soon follow—not for financial reasons, but for baseball
reasons.

Nobody claims to know for sure whether dropping fall ball is a good idea,
but it’s not clear it’s a terrible idea, either. If three weeks of spring
instruction turn out to be more productive than five weeks in the fall, the
Royals will have earned praise for doing something right—challenging
conventional wisdom and trying something different in the name of better
baseball operations.

 

David Brazeal Posted: September 20, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 2 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Voros McCracken Posted: September 21, 2002 at 12:49 AM (#606372)
I'm actually staying fairly close to the new facility in Surprise and I go by there from time to time to see how things are coming along. It doesn't look to me like all the infrastructure will be completed by February (Parking, roads and other stuff like that) but the parks and the auxiliary fields look like they should be plenty ready. Then again I'm not expert on such things, so maybe I'm way off.

When I went by there the other day, I saw the Rangers doing something on one of the finished auxiliary fields (I'm assuming it's instructional league stuff), so I'm wondering if the the different fields are assigned to the the two different clubs, and the Royals fields aren't completed yet. I'm guessing the Royals probably could find space to do stuff there, but it'd be less than ideal and I'm guessing for the reasons above they've decided to switch gears at least for this year.
   2. Michael Posted: September 24, 2002 at 12:50 AM (#606406)
Of course, it's not an either/or situation. There doesn't seem to be a reason that a team can't have an instructional league, and also bring in some prospects early to spring training. You want to make sure the players are rested for the regular season, but why don't teams try both? Maybe have some pitching prospects come in early to spring training like the Royals are doing, but also have instructional league to work with even more players.

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