Which organization has the best farm system in baseball? This is a fairly pedestrian question that’s normally answered with an amalgam of various and sundry top 10 lists in tandem with thumbnail estimations of depth and projectability. Depending on which tools you’re wielding, evaluations of this nature can be all shades and hues of accurate.

Another common approach to this question is to look at the cumulative records of each system’s affiliates. If nothing else, it’s objective, and it’s this tack that informs my attempt at ranking the farm systems. But my angle is not without modifications.

Baseball is reducible to components beyond the run, but it’s the run–both scored and prevented–that is the fundament of the game. It’s also the run that forms the basis of many of the more useful metrics you’ll find at Baseball Prospectus. A team’s run differential plays a vital role in determining its record and is even more instructive, when plugged into the various flavors of the Pythagorean run formula, in predicting a team’s performance in forthcoming seasons. However, this method is most often confined to the major league level. So why not use run differential to evaluate an organization’s minor league system? (Rhetorical; don’t answer.) This may not resolve abstract notions of “best” and “worst,” but it will bring us reasonably close to knowing, and it’ll do so by dint of objectivity.

In the table below, you’ll see the aggregate run differentials (RD) for each organization’s six minor league affiliates. A system with more runs scored than runs allowed will have a positive RD figure, and a system with the opposite arrangement will have a negative RD figure. Although the results are sorted by RD, cumulative record and winning percentage are included, as well. You may notice that there are discrepancies in the number of games played within each system. This is owing to the fact that the four rookie-league circuits (Appalachian, Pioneer, Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues) play schedules of varying lengths. The results:

Team          Affiliate RD        Affiliate Record          Affiliate Win%

1. Pirates      +503                    399-288                 0.581
2. Indians      +436                    406-299                 0.576
3. Royals       +357                    353-317                 0.527
4. Athletics    +324                    369-324                 0.532   
5. Mariners     +315                    363-326                 0.527
6. Blue Jays    +265                    370-327                 0.531
7. Rangers      +190                    377-312                 0.547
8. Braves       +77                     340-344                 0.497
9. Twins        +57                     343-339                 0.503
10. Reds        +56                     335-362                 0.481
11. Angels      +3                      353-340                 0.509
12. Mets        -2                      352-348                 0.503
13. Yankees     -2                      342-341                 0.501   
14. Astros      -2                      350-350                 0.500
15. D-Rays      -7                      345-349                 0.497
16. D-backs     -20                     366-346                 0.514
17. Rockies     -24                     361-351                 0.507
18. White Sox   -39                     344-354                 0.493
19. Red Sox     -46                     339-345                 0.496
20. Dodgers     -51                     332-352                 0.485
21. Orioles     -74                     368-389                 0.486
22. Marlins     -105                    345-342                 0.502
23. Tigers      -141                    332-358                 0.481
24. Padres      -157                    339-372                 0.477
25. Cubs        -242                    324-360                 0.474
26. Cardinals   -267                    313-381                 0.451
27. Brewers     -277                    322-365                 0.469
28. Giants      -331                    314-377                 0.454
29. Phillies    -335                    317-369                 0.462
30. Expos       -474                    300-386                 0.437

What’s not surprising is that ballyhooed systems like the A’s, Indians and Blue Jays rank quite high. What is surprising is that the Pirates’ system easily tops the loop according to RD and winning percentage. To put a finer point on it, the Bucs’ system was just about 1,000 runs better than the exhaust-sucking Expos’ system this past season.

It’s also worth noting that American League systems occupy 10 of the top 15 spots and six of the top seven. But that really doesn’t capture just to what degree the junior circuit is shaming the National League in terms of player development (remember that AL and NL affiliates are co-mingled in all the minor leagues). The AL’s overall RD is 1,638, while the NL’s is -1,651. Also in terms of RD, NL systems occupy the bottom seven slots in the rankings above. It’s probably no coincidence that the AL, at this juncture, is the league far more open to using advanced statistical analysis in matters of player acquisition. No wonder the AL is taco-ing up (my preferred alternative to the hopelessly played out “cowboy up”).

Once-strong systems like the Cubs, Padres, Marlins and Expos are in a down cycle, while the Royals may be poised for some strong years to come in the AL Central. And man-on-the-street notions of the Cardinals’, Brewers’ and Tigers’ systems are fairly spot-on.

Other ruminations on the data…

  • The Indians and Pirates were the only organizations to post a winning record and positive run differential for every affiliate.

  • Best single affiliate: Lake County, the Indians’ low-A club in the Sally League, rolled up an RD of 249. Also meriting plaudits is Toronto’s NY-Penn League affiliate at Auburn, which posted an RD of 237. What’s especially impressive about Auburn is that they’re a short-season club and hence had only 74 games to build such an impressive differential. Lake County, by comparison, played 140 games–almost twice as many.

  • Worst single affiliate: High Desert, the Brewers’ Cal League outfit. High Desert’s RD was a grisly -272, easily the worst of any minor league franchise. Also plumbing the depths was Vermont, the Expos’ affiliate in the NY-Penn League. Vermont’s RD was -212 despite playing a schedule roughly half the length of High Desert’s.

  • Although the Angels on balance had a positive run differential, on a micro level only one affiliate, Provo of the Pioneer League, was in the black in terms of runs. Provo’s huge differential of +197 was enough to overcome the negative differentials of the five other Angel affiliates.

  • Double-A Birmingham of the Southern League (White Sox) finished nine games over .500 and made the playoffs despite a run differential of -13. In a similar vein, A-Beloit (Brewers, Midwest), posted a 75-61 record and made the playoffs with a -4 run differential.

  • On the other end of the continuum, Triple-A Omaha (Royals, PCL) finished 70-73 in spite of a strong +50 run differential.

  • In what’s an oddity of perhaps historical proportions, the hitters for Triple-A Sacramento (A’s, PCL), recorded more runs scored than strikeouts. They were the only team in the minors this season to do so.

  • As though the Expos needed something else to stick in their highly trafficked craw, they were the only organization with a negative run differential for every affiliate.

I’m not submitting that leading this list in RD is tantamount to having the best farm system in baseball, but I am saying it’s close. An organization’s RD can be modestly inflated by strong seasons by journeymen at the Triple-A level, but those aren’t sweeping considerations. It’s worth tracking these rankings in the coming seasons to see how performance at the highest level squares with what affiliate RDs say about the future. In the meantime, taco up.

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