First, Monday, October 7, 2013 was a fantastic day of playoff baseball.
Second, and relatedly, we spend a lot of time on here discussing whether young players can grow up to be big leaguers and when they get there, what kind of players they might become. Both things certainly matter for teams and fans.
And then in the 8 o’clock hour eastern a replacement level player – Jose Lobaton – put one over the right-center field wall to force a game four in Tampa. Lobaton homering off Koji Uehara, who had not allowed a home run in over three months is as improbable as it gets. Lobaton, entering the playoffs owned a career MLB batting line of .228/.311/.343 in 564 PA, a little over half of which (311) came in 2013. He had a career WAR of 0.9, as his 2013 mark of 1.4 lifted him out of negative territory for the first time. The Padres waived him in 2009.
Lobaton was never a Top 100 prospect in baseball, nor did he ever make Baseball America’s Top 20 list for either of his two organizations (Padres or Rays) or for any league in which he played. BA did call him the Padres best defensive catching prospect in 2007 and 2008.
Uribe is a different kind of surprise in that he’s been a big leaguer for the last 13 years and has put together on of his best seasons in 2013 at age 33/34 (he turned 34 in July) when most players are declining. Uribe’s 4.1 bWAR this season exceeds his previous career best of 4.0 set nine years ago in 2004 when he was worth 4.0 bWAR with the White Sox. (A side note: a 4.1 bWAR and a 4.0 bWAR is essentially identical as any measurement error swamps the one tenth of one win – one run – difference.) Just once in the intervening period has he been worth three wins. He’s coming off a 2011-2012 period with the Dodgers where he “hit” .199/.262/.289 for an OPS+ of 54 (where 100 is league average) in his age 31/32/33. He’s made a cool $40.3 million dollars for his 18.3 WAR since 2001.
Uribe was a well-regarded prospect in the years preceding his big league debut. BA had him ranked as the Rockies #6 prospect before 2009, and as the team’s #2 prospect before 2001 when he was the #94 prospect in baseball.
BA even nailed that Uribe’s power mattered (from their pre-2001 writeup):
He even has shown power in two years at full-season Class A, hitting a total of 22 home runs. …Uribe has basestealing speed and showed a better feel for the art last year, getting caught just five times. He has plus power potential for a middle infielder.
He followed that up by earning the #5 prospect award in the PCL, and the circuit’s best infield arm in 2001. That season, he hit a healthy .310/.340/.530 in 74 games in the hitters’ paradise of Colorado Springs and then .300/.325/.524 for a 98 (!!) OPS+ in 72 games for the Rockies in the days when Coors Field was still Coors Field.
Stars, Baby, Stars
While Lobaton and Uribe are surprises, the pedigree of some of their contributing teammates is not.
On the Rays, Evan Longoria, who was the third overall pick in the 2006 draft launched a three-run homer. Later that same draft, the Rays went overslot ($400,000) to sign Alex Cobb, who started the game. He landed between #14 and #21 on BA’s Rays ranking before every season from 2008 through 2011. He was a perennial in the back half of his league’s Top 20 lists.
The Dodgers too relied on elite amateur talent. Clayton Kershaw, who allowed just two unearned runs in his six innings on three days rest, is not just the best pitcher in the National League. He was also a first round pick, seventh overall, four spots behind Longoria in 2006, who signed for $2.3 million. Per BA, he was his League’s top prospect every year from ’06-08 and one of the Dodgers top two prospects the whole time.
Carl Crawford, who homered twice was an elite prospect for the Rays, earning top rankings before his $142 million from the Red Sox. Way back when, he slipped out of the first round in the draft to the Rays at #52 overall, who paid him $1.245 million to skip a football scholarship to Nebraska. The pre-draft writeup is fun:
OF Carl Crawford is one of the two or three best athletes in the draft. He has a rare package of speed and strength and has committed to Nebraska as an option quarterback. In tryouts for scouts, he hit a number of mammoth home runs. ….
Hanley Ramirez, who had a quiet night Monday going 1-for-3 with a walk, was one of baseball’s top prospects, placing either #1 or #2 in the Red Sox and Marlins’ systems for four straight years from 2003-2006 sanwiched around the trade to Florida with Anibal Sanchez and two other prospects for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota.
What’s the Point?
Yes, Uribe and Loboton were unlikely heroes. “Don’t forget the work of the stars” does not feel like an egalitarian position. And it’s not. But do not forget that the stars’ performance helped create the opportunity for their teammates to earn top billing for a night.
As far as the stars go, their talent shone brightly as amateurs, or at the latest (Ramirez), in the low minors. These are first-rounders and well-regarded international signings making good, although sometimes not for the team that drafted them.
And to bring it back here, player development always matters. The draft matters. Organizations that get it right go to the playoffs. Organizations that complement that star-level talent with useful pieces win titles.