How important is winning in the minor leagues. A number of organizations think that establishing an environment of success spills over to the majors and your major league team is much more likely to be successful if the guys coming up from the minors are used to winning.
Still, pitchers are on strict pitch counts, and even yearly counts in innings, guys are promoted mid-season to the next highest level of the minors or to the majors. Guys are also allowed to struggle as they work on things because, well, it is only the minors and development is more important than winning.
So, while teams LIKE to see their minor league affiliates win because it stimulates fan interest and revenue for those teams which make those minor league franchises stronger and more viable, the development of the players and the success of the MAJOR LEAGUE team comes before winning.
Given the above, what I am about to write is actually worth about as much as a US penny. Still, it's exciting because something of historical proportions is occurring in the Indians' minor league system.
As I write this (Columbus game about to start today), here are the records of the Indians four full-season affiliates:
Lake County 21-12
That's an overall winning pct. of .674 and, while I haven't verified it, probably easily leads all clubs in overall minor league wining pct. this year. The last time the Indians led in minor league winning pct. was 2002. Normally teams who lead the majors have winning percentages of between .570 and .580. Now, we have a long way to go with the full-season teams and our short season teams in Mahoning Valley and in Arizona haven't even played a game so things may change drastically, but given that that highest composite (for all a major league team's US minor league affiliates) minor league winning percentage in the last 20 years was .603. This makes what the Indians' affiliates, all of whom lead their divisions, are doing right now is truly historic. But does it necessarily mean success in the majors going forward?
I can tell you that in the last 20 years the highest winning pct. a minor league organization had was the San Francisco Giants in 2009, with a .603 winning pct. I don't know how much it had to do with it but the Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Of course, the second highest winning pct. in that period was by the Royals in 2001 at .597 and they only had one winning year (2003) in the 10 years following that 2001 season. The Yankees had a .596 winning pct. in 2006 but it's the Yankees and their major league success is built on dollars, not prospects, so the translation of minor league success to major league success is a harder calculation with them.
So, what does this mean to the future of the Cleveland Indians? Who knows. Clearly our top prospects are not having outstanding years. While Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier are showing flashes, neither looks, right now, like they will help us this year. Guys like Justus Sheffield, Mike Clevinger, Bobby Bradley and Erik Gonzalez are having solid seasons and looking like future major leaguers, but none is putting up eye-popping, lights out numbers. They just look solid. Other prospects are putting up good nmbers, too, and some like Mike Papi, are disappointing. Others like Rob Kaminsky are slowed by injury and young guys like Triston McKenzie, Luke Wakamatsu and Juan Hillman are stuck in suspended animation in extended spring training.
If you examine the rosters of our minor league teams it is not like we are doing this exclusively with minor league veterans. Those rosters, except for Columbus, are generally filled with prospects and some suspects (i.e. prospects repeating levels, some for the 3rd or 4th times). Still, they are mostly OUR guys, guys we either drafted, signed as amateur free agents or acquired in veteran-for-prospect trades. Looking at those rosters critically, there are lots of prospects or relatively young guys who are biding their time in the minors on those rosters. Here is my list:
Columbus - 14 prospects or young players (like TJ House, the now injured Giovanny Urshela and now recently promoted Tyler Naquin) biding their time
Akron - 9 prospects plus 4 on the DL (only 2 guys who are minor league free agents, the rest are players developed by the Indians and, in most cases, signed originally by the Indians)
Lynchburg - 15 guys I think are prospects and EVERY guy on the roster was drafted or signed by us as an amateur player
Lake County - Frankly, this is our weakest roster. Using Baseball America as a source, only 3 of the guys on the Lake County roster are in our top 30 prospects and I see only about 7 guys who I would count as real prospects on this roster. Still, we only have one guy over the age of 23 and while most of the guys on this roster are a little old for this level (average roster age 22 years with MOST of the guys actually 22 years old), it's not like this team is extremely old for this level. Most of this roster is relatively young to professional baseball so it's not like this team is winning due to prospects or even suspects being backed up at this level making them too advanced for this level. And we all know that older guys who are new to professional baseball can have more upside than you would, a priori, think.
Will this year be reflective of success in the future by the Indians? Who knows but, looking at the rosters, it is EXTREMELY likely that guys from these rosters will make an impact in the majors in the next 2-3 years. If that impact is as extreme as their teams' winning percentages this year, the Indians could be looking at extended success. Let's hope that success is similar to that of Giants teams I mentioned above.