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March 3, 2014

Painting the Black

The Prospect Proximity Rankings

by R.J. Anderson

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Last Wednesday, Jason Parks released his 2014 organizational rankings, the culmination of a winter spent grading prospects based on their abilities and upside. Using Parks' rankings, we know which teams have the most talent on their farms; today, let's find out which teams have the most talent closest to the majors.

Proximity to the majors is always a talking point with prospects. Yet it surfaces less frequently during conversations about the strength of an organization's minor-league system. Although each team has young players they could call upon tomorrow if needed, there are teams whose best prospects are further along the developmental path than others. Those teams should be better positioned for the short term. A team with a ready-to-go no. 4 starter can use that pitcher if it needs a stand-in due to injury or poor performance. If he's considered surplus, the team can trade him for immediate help. A team with a potential no. 4 starter two or three years away would still find a taker if they looked, but might have to take a lesser return.

In order to make this as objective as possible, a point system was implemented. If a prospect played in the majors last season—even for a single at-bat or inning pitched—then he was credited with half a point; a prospect who showered in Triple-A's sewer water received a full point; a prospect with Double-A teams in his travel log received two points; and so on, all the way to prospects who didn't play, for whatever reason, receiving eight points. The fewer points a team tallied, the closer to the majors their top 10 prospects are. The median sum, for reference, was around 32 points.

Before revealing the results, here is the contractually obligated disclaimer: having an advanced group of prospects does not necessarily trump having a less-advanced group with more upside. Each team's place on Parks' list is included (as "rank in strength") to provide context on that front. Likewise, each team's capsule includes a one-line statistical breakdown on its talent distribution, and has a list of prospects who Parks estimated could reach the majors during the 2014 season or have already had a cameo in the Show.

First the teams with the least immediacy in their top 10s:

26. Braves: 36.5 points, ranked 24th in strength
Breakdown: 90 percent played below Triple-A (the exception had a single plate appearance above it).
On the verge (top 10 rank): C Christian Bethancourt (no. 2), RHP J.R. Graham (4), and 2B Tommy La Stella (6)

Technically the Braves and Twins tied for this spot, but Atlanta gets the nod because Parks crowned Minnesota as the best system in baseball. Always known for their developmental savvy, Frank Wren's bunch has graduated plenty of MLB-worthy players to the majors in recent seasons. Two or three more players should reach the majors this year, with La Stella owning the best shot at taking a permanent role. All the little feller does is hit, which is one more thing than Dan Uggla did in 2013. Another poor start by Uggla could force the Braves to cut bait and hasten La Stella's arrival.

27. Padres: 37.5 points, ranked 11th in strength
Breakdown: 60 percent played below Double-A or didn't play at all.
On the verge (top 10 rank): RHP Matt Wisler (no. 2), RHP Burch Smith (6), RHP Casey Kelly (7), 1B/OF Alex Dickerson (9)

No team was hurt more than the Padres by the penalty against prospects who didn't play at all. Had Casey Kelly and Rymer Liriano spent last year in Triple-A rather than missing the campaign due to elbow woes, San Diego would have finished in the top five. Instead the Friars come in at 27th despite an impressive collection of pitching. Josh Byrnes has accumulated enough prospects (Wisler, Smith, and Kelly), still-young former prospects (Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin), and intriguing veterans (Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross) to give the Padres plenty of depth on the mound should the injury bug feed at their camp again.

28. Diamondbacks: 37.5 points, ranked 15th in strength
Breakdown: 70 percent played below Double-A.
On the verge (top 10 rank): RHP Archie Bradley (no. 1), SS Chris Owings (2), and RHP Jake Barrett (7)

Kevin Towers is one of 15 general managers who can say his top two prospects should be ready for showtime before the season ends. Though Bradley—arguably the second-best arm in the minors—is more impactful, Owings has a clearer path to the roster. At the moment, Owings is locked in a competition with Didi Gregorius to determine Arizona's Opening Day shortstop. Not long after Towers and crew decide between Young Derek Jeter and Young Craig Biggio, they could opt to promote Barrett, a quality relief prospect whose set-up could elicit comparisons to Mike Adams.

29. Nationals: 39 points, ranked 18th in strength
Breakdown: 30 percent reached Double-A, and none higher than that.
On the verge (top 10 rank): RHP A.J. Cole (2) and OF Brian Goodwin (3)

Mike Rizzo doesn't have the strongest system or the group closest to the majors, but his core is youngish and he has a(nother) potential frontline starter on the way. How Cole and Goodwin fit into the 2014 or 2015 puzzle is unclear: maybe Denard Span's team option is declined with another poor season, or the Nationals decide to move Jordan Zimmermann in advance of his date with free agency following the 2015 season. Otherwise, expect both to be popular names when Rizzo talks shop with other teams.

30. Blue Jays: 39.5 points, ranked 13th in strength
Breakdown: 50 percent played in Rookie ball, with just two players in Triple-A or above.
On the verge (top 10 rank): RHP Marcus Stroman (no. 1), LHP Sean Nolin (5), and C A.J. Jimenez (6)

Last winter's most active trader carries the lightest load. In the R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes deals, Alex Anthopoulos moved four prospects who debuted in 2013 or are expected to do so in 2014: Travis d'Arnaud, Jake Marisnick, Noah Syndergaard, and Anthony DeSclafani. Perhaps the Jays should have abstained from those blockbusters and maintained their depth, but their boldness and willingness to join the race (rather than run on the treadmill) are appreciated. Unfortunately, a young farm is the result.

Now the teams with the most immediacy in their top 10s:

5. Yankees: 25.5 points, ranked 23rd in strength
Breakdown: Only two played in Triple-A or higher, but four spent time in Double-A.
On the verge (top 10 rank): C Gary Sanchez (no. 1), RHP Jose Ramirez (2), C J.R. Murphy (3), OF Slade Heathcott (4), and OF Tyler Austin (5)

The days of the Big Three and the Killer Bs have passed, but Brian Cashman could graduate a solid rookie class thanks to good international work and a few savvy draft picks. Cashman's offseason additions left four of the five listed players without clear shots at the roster. Ramirez might be the exception should David Phelps struggle, and even then he'd need to contend with Michael Pineda and others. It should be noted the Yankees are one of three AL East teams on this side of the ledger.

4. Marlins: 25 points, ranked 19th in strength
Breakdown: 50 percent played in Double-A or higher, with two prospects reaching the majors.
On the verge (top 10 rank): LHP Andrew Heaney (no. 1), OF Jake Marisnick (3), LHP Justin Nicolino (7), RHP Anthony DeSclafani (8), and LHP Brian Flynn (9)

The Marlins have earned a reputation for moving their prospects quickly over the years—last season alone saw Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Derek Dietrich exhaust their prospect status—and it's worth watching to see whether Dan Jennings continues the tradition. The spring training hype machine has already seen talk about Heaney, the club's top pick in 2012, making the Opening Day rotation. Colin Moran, who Jennings popped last June, might not be far behind, either. Both should don the orange, black, yellow, and blue sometime before the 2015 All-Star Game.

3. Rays: 24 points, ranked 26th in strength
Breakdown: 50 percent played in Triple-A or higher, with the top three reaching the majors.
On the verge (top 10 rank): LHP Enny Romero (no. 1), RHP Jake Odorizzi (2), RHP Alex Colome (3), SS Hak-Ju Lee (4), and OF Kevin Kiermaier (8)

Andrew Friedman and the Rays are unlike their in-state counterparts, as they promote their prospects at a slow, calculating, often tedious pace. Recent graduations and unproductive first-round picks have left the Rays on the sorry side of the farm system rankings for the first time in a while. Even so, Friedman has myriad young arms to call upon should he need a starting pitcher, with Durham's rotation comprising five legit prospects—just don't expect to see too much of them this year.

2. White Sox: 23 points, ranked 21st in strength
Breakdown: 60 percent played in Double-A or higher, with two reaching the majors.
On the verge (top 10 rank): RHP Erik Johnson (no. 1), RHP Chris Beck (4), SS Marcus Semien (6), and 2B Carlos Sanchez (7)

If the White Sox are to surprise people this season by edging out the Royals or Indians, they'll need Rick Hahn's offseason acquisitions—most notably Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu, and Matt Davidson—to perform beyond their collective experience. Johnson, though not acquired this winter, is another part of that. The able-bodied right-hander won't develop into a front-of-the-rotation starter, but he's a safe bet to take a spot in the middle of Chicago's rotation for years to come. Pair Johnson with Chris Sale, a healthy John Danks, and Jose Quintana, and perhaps the White Sox will be up for the task.

1. Red Sox: 21.5 points, ranked fourth in strength
Breakdown: 70 percent played in Double-A or higher, including three in the majors.
On the verge (top 10 rank): SS Xander Bogaerts (no. 1), OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (2), 3B Garin Cecchini (3), RHP Matt Barnes (4), LHP Henry Owens (5), and RHP Allen Webster (7)

It's not enough for the Red Sox to win the World Series and retain their key players, as they also maintained an enviable collection of near-ready prospects. Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. could start the season in the majors, depending on what Boston elects to do with Stephen Drew and Grady Sizemore, while the rest aren't far off. Factor in the club's payroll flexibility and Boston's situation is enviable. Ben Cherington has done well to position the Red Sox for long-term success.

Special thanks to Jason Parks and the prospect team for their hard work and expertise, as well Craig Goldstein and Mauricio Rubio for research assistance.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Prospects,  Scouting,  Minor Leagues

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