Expert Interview and Analysis: The Major League Farm System with James (Founder, Phuture Phillies) Part 1 of 2

Today, I'm excited to present you with an FBJ first- our first expert interview.

For our first interview, we picked a topic that most casual fans don't typically understand; the inner workings of a major league farm system.  The expert we called on for this is James, Founder of Phuture Phillies.  In my opinion, Phuture Phillies is the preeminent web site for all things concerning the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league teams.  I've been a fan of Phuture Phillies for years so I reached out to James to see if he would answer some questions that I felt like our readers might have about how the farm system works.  James replied almost immediately and I must say that he really hit the ball out of the park.

I think this two part series will give you some great insight into how the minor leagues' work. In order to keep it to a reasonable length (recognizing that many of you will be reading this on Monday morning amidst all of your weekend email) I will post it in two parts so check back in tomorrow for the conclusion.  Enjoy.


OCP - How long have you been running your blog, what got you started and what is your favorite part about running the blog?

James - I started my site in 2006.  At the time, there were no comprehensive outlets for Phillies minor league news/opinion.  Most of the beat writers and newspapers made only passing mention of the top couple of prospects in the system and it was an area that I felt I could fill in.  I was always a fan of minor league baseball and grew up close to Reading, PA so I had exposure to the Reading Phillies growing up.  I started the site on a whim and I didn't know if it would take off or if I'd give up after a few weeks/months.  But more people started reading and it just kind of took off from there.  I think my favorite part of running the site is that it constantly evolves and pushes me to find new and interesting things to incorporate into the site.

OCP - Can you explain the structure of a Major League scouting department/system?

James - Every teams front office/scouting department will have nuances but for the most part, it is a simple chain of command.  At the very bottom are the area scouts.  These guys are normally responsible for one state.  In some cases, such as a huge state like California, there may be one area guy for the southern portion and one for the northern portion.  In cases where baseball isn't
huge (Washington/Oregon/Montana), an area scout may cover 2-3 states.  Area guys are responsible for writing up reports on all of the legit prospects in their area, ranging from potential all-stars to guys who can play a few years as an organizational filler.  Those reports are normally turned in to a crosschecker, who is assigned to a particular region.  The crosschecker reads the initial report and then goes to see the prospects.  He then files a report based on his findings.   From my understanding, some teams have more layers including area crosscheckers, regional crosscheckers (North, South, East, West), all the way up.  The layers filter up to the scouting director and all of the reports are eventually given to the scouting director, especially on the guys who are probably first through fifth rounders.  The scouting director reports to the General Manager, who reports to the owner or team president.  The scouting director sets the agenda for everyone under him, in terms of the types of players to focus on.  Some proactive General Managers will go see potential first round picks.  Others will leave things completely to scouting department.  The GM has to be consulted on potential signing bonus issues and the GM has to then report that information to the team owner or president.  Chain of command and organization is obviously very important.  This is just the amateur side of things.  Teams also have pro scouts who scout talent already in the minor leagues ahead of potential trades as well as advance scouts who follow the team that the MLB team is set to play next.  Advance scouts look for tendencies and patterns and file a report, which the team then uses to prepare for their upcoming series. 

OCP - I know that the draft is your favorite time of year.  To casual fans, the draft is often an afterthought (not widely publicized).  Can you briefly explain how the draft works as well as some of the different draft strategies that you have seen and why players with a lot of talent might get passed up?

James - The draft is indeed one of my favorite times of the year.  MLB teams prepare for the draft on almost a year round basis.  After one draft ends in June, scouts then work on getting players signed, which means negotiating with players families and trying to find common ground.  Often times, teams will watch how a draftee performs during a summer league before determining what to offer, bonus-wise.  After the August signing deadline, scouts transition over to the next crop of players.  With the increase in showcase type events run by outlets like Perfect Game USA, there are almost always events to go to (to see amateur talent).  Once the college/high school seasons begin, scouts are working tirelessly to see as many prospects as they can.  Under the current CBA (which expires in a few months), teams are able to recoup compensation picks if they lose Type A or Type B free agents (determined by Elias rankings) and thus can end up with a huge collection of draft picks, necessitating tons of scouting information, as a good draft can really propel your farm system forward.  Teams follow players, compile reports and then begin to determine how signable a player is.  For a high school kid with a scholarship to a Division I powerhouse, he may require a big signing bonus to sway him away from college.  Scouts determine all of this info to the best of their ability and file their report accordingly.  Then teams draft in rapid fire succession for 50 rounds.  No team signs all of their players, and this is because of both money restrictions and logistical restrictions, as there are only so many minor league teams and you need to give guys the ability to play.  Teams generally draft a bunch of guys in the middle to end of the draft that have big college commitments; these guys are called "tough signs," and sometimes they are able to get one or two of them done before the deadline.  Some teams spend a ton of money on the draft, either by virtue of having lots of picks or having a very high first round pick (bigger bonus) and other teams prefer to not spend much at all.  Some teams target raw athleticism, while some prefer to take mostly college players who are fully developed.  Many teams prefer a blend, both in terms of types of players they target and also the probable price tags of those players.  Most draft picks taken outside of the first few rounds will never make the majors and only a very small percentage of them will become above average or all-stars.  The teams who can consistently find 5-6 major league players in every draft are the ones who are more than likely succeeding at the big league level or building up an incredible farm system, because projecting future success for 17-19 year old kids is a very tough game.

OCP - I've heard that lower level minor league players will often stay with host families and that some even sleep in the clubhouse.  It makes sense that they wouldn't be making that much money playing minor league baseball but host families and sleeping in the clubhouse sounds a bit far fetched... have you ever heard of this?

James - While I don't know all of the specifics, minor league players generally do not make much money at all. In some cases, guys do stay with host families, especially in the lower levels. Guys will often share apartments to defray living costs, and minor leaguers in general live like college students, those without huge trust funds. This is why prospects try to get themselves the biggest signing bonus they can coming out of the draft, as it will be their main income source until they make it to the majors, where the pay grade spikes considerably.



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