TEMPE, Ariz. — As outrageous as it sounds, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane was actually hoping the Angels would trade for Manny Ramirez or Miguel Tejada this winter, even though such a deal would probably have assured the Angels of a third straight division title.
"I wouldn't have been thrilled to have one of those guys over there," Beane said, "but if they had given up some of the guys who were being talked about in deals, I would have been OK with that."
Beane also wouldn't have minded if slugger Paul Konerko or another free agent or two had signed with the Angels.
"Put it this way," Beane said, "I was disappointed they didn't go out and sign a bunch of older guys who would stand in the way of those [prospects] because those guys are legitimate. They have one of the best farm systems in the game. They're not just good players; they're going to be great players."
Most teams go out of their way to tout their top prospects, some to the point of overvaluing them, but there seems to be a consensus about the Angels' current batch of youngsters, a list headed by shortstops Brandon Wood and Erick Aybar, second baseman Howie Kendrick, pitcher Jered Weaver and first baseman Kendry Morales.
When Baseball Prospectus ranks five of your organization's players among the top 50 prospects in the game; when Baseball America rates seven of your players among baseball's top 100 prospects; when scouts and executives from other teams rave about your kids; when other general managers keep asking for the same players in trades, and your GM refuses to part with them, even for a player of Ramirez's caliber
"We're not hyping anyone -- we're just responding to questions about why we're not bringing in a big bat," Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman said, alluding to his oft-repeated winter mantra that he's not going to gut the farm system for one player. "That feeds the hype, if that's what you want to call it, but for me, it's not hype. We put a focus on a key element of our business, and it looks like it's going to pay off."
Though owner Arte Moreno has the money to acquire high-salaried veterans through free agency and trades, Stoneman has remained loyal to his player-development roots, which were shaped by his formative years in Montreal and honed in his early years as Angel GM under the tight-fisted Walt Disney Co.
Stoneman saw the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves underachieve in the 1980s because "they relied on free agents and trades for high-salaried players and traded away the better players in their farm system," Stoneman said. "You look at that and say, 'What's going on here?' These were two of the highest-revenue teams in baseball, and it didn't make sense that they weren't in the playoffs all the time."
That changed when the Braves hired Bobby Cox as GM in 1985 and the Yankees realized they had a farm system. Instead of pursuing overpriced veterans, the Braves started purging them -- in one key deal, Cox sent aging right-hander Doyle Alexander to Detroit in 1987 for a Class-A pitcher named John Smoltz.
The Braves drafted and developed such players as Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Chipper Jones and David Justice, who helped provide the foundation for 14 consecutive division titles and a World Series championship in 1995.
The Yankees didn't discard their free-spending, free-agent ways. But they began holding on to such talented home-grown players as Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, and they formed the core of the team that won four World Series titles from 1996 to 2000.
"Both teams did it the same way -- they recognized the importance of the draft and stopped trading away good young talent," Stoneman said. "And they stopped signing free agents who were not impact guys."
Stoneman, convinced that model would work in Anaheim, instituted a draft philosophy that was a 180-degree turn from his predecessors -- the Angels, under scouting directors Donny Rowland and later Eddie Bane, would target higher-risk, higher-ceiling kids, often choosing high school players heavy in raw talent over more refined college players who might have been closer to the big leagues but had less potential.
A perfect example: In 2004, the Angels used a 14th-round pick on Nick Adenhart, a 17-year-old right-hander who was projected as a first-round pick before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery in his senior year of high school.
The Angels gave Adenhart second-round money ($710,000), steered his rehabilitation, and this spring he spent four weeks in major league camp, showing promise with his wiry, 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame and explosive fastball.
"We try to take intelligent risks," Stoneman said. "I have a strong belief that you should go after a guy who might be an All-Star, not just a major leaguer. If you go after the safer pick, you have a chance to be an average club."