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Assessing the Indians talent development

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Breaking down how the Indians last decade, with Brad Grant as scouting director, led to on-field success

2014 MLB Draft Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As Scott Barnsby gets ready to lead the Indians in his first draft as scouting director tonight, holding three of the first 41 picks and the most bonus money of any team in the latter third of the draft, it struck me that I feel nothing but confidence in the Tribe’s talent evaluators.

Between watching Francisco Lindor (8th overall, 2011) absolutely demolish everything in May, taking in Shane Bieber’s (4th round, 2016) strong debut, or dreaming on Nolan Jones (2nd round, 2016) after he hit three home runs in four days between May 28 and 31, I have the conviction that, even when the Indians aren’t considered to have the best depth, they have the ability to find and develop talent.

Of course, it was not always this way, but since Brad Grant’s promotion to scouting director in late 2007 the Indians drafting and player development has been revitalized. Now vice president of baseball operations, Grant’s ceding draft operations to Barnsby and, despite the transition, confidence remains because Grant’s tenure coincided with success on the baseball field. This seems like cause and effect, but what if we question our answer: Was Grant’s promotion a a turning point in the success of the Indians?

The eye test validates Grant’s work. Of the two drafts immediately before Grant took over, both stand out as resounding failures. The 2006 draft featured just 10 players who made big league rosters. Only 3 of those players played for Cleveland — David Huff, Vinnie Pestano, and Josh Tomlin — creating a total of 10.1 (1.7, 2.4, and 6, respectively) fWAR for the Tribe among them. The most successful pick was Chris Archer, whose 18.8 fWAR has all come in Tampa (though Mark DeRosa did have 1.3 fWAR in Cleveland after being traded for Archer). The 2007 draft was somehow worse for Cleveland, with just 6 of 48 picks accumulating big league service time for any team, amassing -0.2 fWAR as a group. The esteemed Josh Judy (-0.3 fWAR) is the only player selected by the Indians in ‘07 to play for the organization at the major league level.

The change upon Grant’s promotion to scouting director was immediately evident. In 2008 the Indians hit on Lonnie Chisenhall (7.3 fWAR so far) and Roberto Perez (2.8 fWAR), and in 2009 landed Jason Kipnis (19.8 fWAR). But scouting success is far more than just drafting well; after all, drafts for each team have low success rates. So, I used Scott McKinney’s method to classify Indians prospects in this century as successes or failures in order to gain a better view of Grant’s impact on the Indians.

His whole method is worth reading, but in brief it takes a players fWAR over cost-controlled years (omitting partial seasons) and classifies them as “Bust,” “Success,” and “Superior Success,” with some subcategories as well. I chose to use the top 10 prospects as ranked by Baseball America (available via Baseball Cube) for the calculation. If you care to click through to see my work, players who have not exhausted their club control are marked with asterisk; I also noted how much value the player earned playing for the Indians, how much they returned via trade (if applicable), and how much they earned for other clubs. All value is through the end of 2017, for simplicity.

In the accounting, of 64 players from the pre-2008 group, 45 represented busts, a 71 percent failure rate. This was actually very close to the overall rate of busts found by McKinney using Baseball America top 100 from 1990-2003 (69.2 percent). Likewise, the amount of successes for the Indians prior to 2008 (18/63, 28.5 percent) was very similar to McKinney (30.8%), and the amount of superior successes was also right on target (17.4 vs. 16.8 percent). When you consider that the Indians generated an additional 150.9 fWAR via trades of players acquired prior to 2008 (although those trades may have occurred after 2008), it seems as though the Indians front office has consistently provided at least average value in terms of player development.

When specifically examining the years after 2008, it is important to consider a few things. First, 15 players on the Baseball America lists are still working their way through the system and could provide future value; by eliminating them from success/bust classification, our population for evaluation is down to 32. Second, those who have made it to the major league level have had less time to accumulate WAR and may not yet be in their prime (e.g., Lindor and Jose Ramirez are actually going to get better, somehow, God willing). Finally, 4 players were traded (Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez, and Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield for Andrew Miller), returning 8.1 fWAR to the Tribe.

With those considerations in mind, the Grant years live up to their expectations. Only 14 of 32 players can be considered busts (43.7%) whereas 14 can be considered successes (43.7 percent), with 11 of the 14 successes already reaching the superior success level (34.4 percent). Against McKinney’s findings, the Grant years come out far ahead of the averages.

Of course, with so many players still winding their way through the system, the number of 2008-on busts is sure to increase. For example (though I hope this turns out differently), Brady Aiken’s struggles make him seem like a future bust, thus diminishing some of the success of the Grant era. Additionally, Grant alone did not do this, it was accomplished by a whole front office of people who have collectively excelled in terms of talent evaluation since late 2007 and translated that to big league success. That’s why the transition to Barnsby, a member of the Indians’ scouting department since 2002, feels like it will be seamless, as the organizational philosophy (and hopefully success) should be consistent.

The success of the scouting department, however, is not just perception; the numbers show that Grant’s promotion to scouting director marked a sea change in terms of successful outcomes for the Indians. And that means we can all watch the Barnsby and the Indians call out the names of some talented young men this week and imagine their debuts in Cleveland, knowing that moment is quite likely to become reality because of the talented player evaluators employed by the Indians.