In years past, we've presented you with a 1-30 ranking of baseball farm systems. You like to read it, we like to debate and write it. This year we've tweaked the format slightly, with a tiered structure providing you with some idea of the interchangeability of the systems that a grouped together, rather than the opaque nature of a pure list, which can obscure the relatively small (or large) gaps between the organizations. With that in mind, allow Public Enemy and Leonard Cohen to guide you through the 2016 Organizational Rankings:
“Phenomenons, phenoms, and prodigies / 20,000 maniacs just gotta be/ Human highlight flicks / They all wanna be”
These three teams have each taken a different path to the top of the mountain, which is kind of an exciting testament to baseball’s weirdness.
The Dodgers have scored huge hauls in each of the last two international periods in which they’ve played prominent roles. In 2012, they spent big on Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig, and, while in Mexico to sign Puig, came back with the much cheaper Julio Urias, now their number two prospect, as well. This past July, in a move befitting a club with an operating budget somewhere in the range of Grenada’s GDP, they began unloading trucks full of money on the doorsteps of 42 (to date) international free agents, highlighted by eight-figure bonuses for two more of their current top-ten prospects (Cubans Yadier Alvarez and Yusniel Diaz) and another $30 million for enigmatic, live-armed righty Yaisel Sierra (who didn’t even crack our list). For good measure they also traded additional (useless) bonus slots away to net more real, actual prospects – guys like Jordan Paroubeck and Chase DeJong, who have legitimate paths to big-league futures.
While the grandeur of the Los Angeles system is a testament Uncle Pennybags throwing his wallet around, that’s certainly not the end of the story. The top prospect in all of baseball was the club’s 2012 first-rounder, and two years later they popped their fourth-best prospect Grant Holmes in the same round (and number seven, Alex Verdugo, 40 picks later). They’ve had their of misses at the tops of other recent drafts, but they’ve made up for it by finding extraordinary value later on, highlighted by 24th-rounder Jose De Leon and 20th-rounder Jharel Cotton. Add in some depth from trades, and this organization can go 30-deep with any other squad in baseball.
The Braves, meanwhile, have remade their system in a single calendar year, pole-vaulting all the way from 19th to second almost exclusively on the strength of savvy deal-making. If you count the 41st pick in last summer’s draft, acquired from San Diego in the Craig Kimbrel deal, six of the organization’s top ten prospects have arrived via trade since the last out of the 2014 season was recorded. And while the recent sell-off has been an extreme example of a tear-it-down rebuild, the next tier of the franchise’s prospect ranks is similarly littered with extra-organizational acquisitions by both the present and former regimes; Tyrell Jenkins, Chris Ellis, Rio Ruiz, and Zachary Bird all lengthen the organization’s middle class. The model may be on the verge of shifting significantly, if rumors of an impending international binge come to fruition, but the foundation of the next great Braves teams has been laid on the trade market.
Finally, the Rockies have shown the world what a bunch of losing and solid subsequent drafting looks like. Seven of the club’s top ten prospects have been cultivated with top-45 overall picks in the last five drafts, and the team counts four consecutive first-rounders (all top-ten picks) among that lot. The next batch features additional draft depth led by the likes of Tom Murphy, Jordan Patterson, and Dom Nunez as well. Recent trades of Corey Dickerson and (former) franchise cornerstone Troy Tulowitzki have expanded the system with Jeff Hoffman leading the way, though the prospect infusion has been perhaps lighter than may have been expected. Still, this organization runs deep with the aforementioned draft talent supplemented by some nice apparent hits in the international market – Raimel Tapia and Antonio Senzatela look to be chief among them, with tooled-up project Pedro Gonzalez leading the next wave – and the potential for a couple additional sell-offs of big club talent lends promise for Rocky Mountain higher days ahead.
“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch / He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.” / And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door / She cried to me “Hey, why not ask for more?”
These are four very strong systems that just don't quite have the depth of the tier above them. The Phillies are the outlier here, both in how they built the system, and how different they look from last Spring. J.P. Crawford is still here, and is an elite-level prospect, but the Phillies added six new top-ten prospects in the last calendar year between the 2015 draft and the Ken Giles and Cole Hamels trades. The Phillies system may lack a true impact talent past JP Crawford, but Nick Williams has a chance to get there, and otherwise they have a nice blend of arms and bats, upside and floor. The 2016 subplot to follow: How Mark Appel and Jorge Alfaro deal with their change of scenery. Those two could make this ranking look overly conservative by the end of the 2016 season.
The Red Sox haven't had a spate of top-ten draft selections like the Pirates and Twins, but they used a rare top-ten pick to snag Andrew Benintendi, who already looks like a steal. The Red Sox are this high because of an aggressive international approach that brought in their top three prospects, all top 50 guys too. This system does taper off a bit more quickly than the Phillies unless you really like Luis Alexander Basabe (and plenty of us do) and Sam Travis (which apparently is also a thing now).
The Pirates have transitioned from perennial also-rans to a consistent playoff threat while maintaining a strong system. That is no easy feat. Dilson Herrera is the most notable prospect they have traded during their run of three straight playoff appearances. During that period they have added Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco from the farm, and Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Josh Bell could all see the inside of PNC Park in 2016. The Pirates have plenty of depth here too, but overall their collection of talent bit riskier than the two teams ahead of them, considering Glasnow's control issues and Taillon's health.
The Twins would love to emulate the Pirates model. A run at the second wild card in 2015 fell a bit short, but they did it with an almost entirely homegrown roster. There is more on the way too, Byron Buxton will look to build off of a shaky 2015 debut (PECOTA is, uh, quite bullish), and Jose Berrios may not be far behind. Max Kepler's breakout last Summer turned him into a household (and Top 101) name, and we haven't even mentioned Nick Gordon or Tyler Jay, both top-ten picks, yet.
“It’s just the players, no payoffs, strictly skills / If your brain’s the same you’ll stick to your deals/ And this field ain’t about sellin’ a mil’ / With the run of the mill, so just be tellin’ the real”
This tier is like a delicious sandwich* (*not a hot dog) of depth and raw tools actualizing into talent. Houston and Milwaukee share similarly-shaped systems, though they got to where they are at present through very different means. It’s not every day you see a franchise graduate a face of the franchise like Carlos Correa and sell off a couple other would-be top-ten guys to shore up the big club for a playoff run and still improve over last year’s ranking, but…here we are. A draft bonanza restocked three of the organization’s top five, while the stratospheric emergences of A.J. Reed and Francis Martes—one out of the typecast wilderness, the other out of the near-literal wilderness that had previously been complex ball—added immediate bulk at the top. The rookie-ball acquisition has become a staple weapon in Houston’s scouting arsenal, as they’ve managed to pluck an intriguing assortment of high-ceiling talent out of nowhere to round out the back-end of trades lately: Martes, David Paulino, Joe Musgrove, and Jonathan Arauz all fit that bill. The shiny bright lights of an organizational top ten are all well and good, but the added farm value of Houston’s
tank job rebuild can really be found in it’s absurd depth; Tony Kemp got on base at a .388 clip across the high minors at 23, recently-acquired Brendan McCurry has allowed 53 hits in 91 2/3 professional innings with six whiffs for every walk, former 33rd-rounder Tyler White is likely going to force his way onto the big league roster after putting up a .422 career OBP across 1,200-plus minor league at-bats…none of these guys made our list.
The Rangers, long renowned for their adventurous spirit chasing upside to the far corners of the globe, have finally seen some fruit peak off their stubbly vines. It remains a more top-heavy system in terms of actualized baseball skills. Lewis Brinson’s have finally begun to catch up with his elite athleticism, while Nomar Mazara has made the game look just a little too easy. Beyond the top tier, there remains all of the athleticism and pie-in-the-sky projection you could ever hope for in a system. Eric Jenkins, Yeyson Yrizarri, Leodys Taveras…pick your comp for any of those guys, and it’s probably feasible to squint really hard and see it. The law of averages suggests that the sheer volume of tools stockpiled within the lower rungs of this organization is bound to keep the farm in business, and for the gamblin’ types among us, this system is a tasty bite.
The Brewers make for a nice hybrid of the two organizations above it, albeit with a greater and not coincidental parallel to the first. They’ve improved their standing as much as any team on this list year to year, and if the new management team in town has appeared to share some of Houston’s playbook over the past year, it may have something to do with GM David Stearns’ previous employment with that club. The new GM has done well in acquiring raw upside players like Isan Diaz and Bubba Derby on the tails of larger deals that centered elsewhere, while the Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis trades netted five prospects—including the second man on our list, Brett Phillips, as well as the number three prospect on our A’s list, Jacob Nottingham—with whom Stearns was intimately familiar from his time with the Astros. The previous organization’s emphasis on raw tools has born some interesting case studies in daring to dream, with Devin Williams, Monte Harrison, and Jacob Gatewood all tantalizing well beyond their present talents, and a bunch of teenaged projection led by Gilbert Lara promising a steady pipeline.
“And I know from your smile / That tonight will be fine / Will be fine / Will be fine / Will be fine for a while.”
First off, we would like to dispel the rumor that a certain Minor League Editor at BP strong-armed the Rays into this spot because of his love for Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with loving Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell, who along with shortstop Willy Adames, make for a very nice troika atop the Tampa Bay system. Past them you are wishcasting on the oft-injured Taylor Guerrieri, the very raw Garrett Whitley, and international bonus baby Adrian Rondon. But overall the system is a healthy mix of premium Top 101 talent, high-upside guys with experience/health risks, and close-to-ready useful pieces. It just lacks a certain zing, which keeps it from breaking into the top ten.
The Cubs took a tumble after graduating Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber. All they got out of it was four key cogs on a 97-win playoff team. Ho-hum. Losing that class would cause most systems to fall far further than this, but the Cubs reloaded in the draft (Ian Happ), internationally (Eddy Julio Martinez), and got high-upside arm Dylan Cease back on the mound. Add in a breakout season from catching convert Willson Contreras, and things are still looking rosy on the farm.
The Nationals have one of the best pitcher/position player prospect one-two punches in the game with Lucas Giolito and Trea Turner, so this ranking almost feels low. Heck, throw in Victor Robles and there may not be a system in baseball that can match that top three. It drops off fast after that though. Reynaldo Lopez may not be a starter, and Wilmer Difo likely isn't a shortstop. Past them is an unexciting melange of backend-starter and second-division types. But top-end prospect talent pays the bills, and the Nationals have plenty of that. They also have Bryce Harper, who isn't a prospect, but is younger than Difo and #8 prospect A.J. Cole.
“Manchild six-feet-five buy juvenile / Thin line between getting bucks and getting wild”
This is where the rankings start to turn a little, with a transitional blend of perpetual mediocrity and gradually-to-rapidly-advancing systems. The Reds and Indians are in roughly the same shape as they were in at this time last year, and a consistent organizational philosophy suggests we may well be having the same conversation at this time next year. Last year’s draft for Cincy largely followed the formula, as did trades for the likes of numbers two (Cody Reed), five (Jose Peraza), and seven (Keury Mella). There’s some cause for optimism, though. Additional bulk at the top of the system through those trades raised the floor, and there is added depth-acquisition potential this year as the organization’s big league overhaul continues. The number two overall pick (and three within the first 43) also bode well. Cincinnati’s predilection towards hard-throwing, no-control types is longstanding, as is the organization’s interest in stockpiling position players with incomplete, though interestingly blended, skill sets. If you get enough of those guys, you can make it work, and the quantity play appears to be in progress.
Up north, Cleveland has the feel of a similarly on-the-cusp system despite recent mediocrity. The organization was one of just a couple that received a nod to notable omissions in our team write-ups, in part because the system’s depth is increasingly flush with upside talent—enough to balance out the graduation of possible superstar Francisco Lindor. Unlike the recent mundane consistency—they ranked 20th in 2014—this season feels like a swing year for the Cuyahogans: it’s a volatile system for the first time in a while.
The Yankees’ forays into international waters have already improved their standing from a pure volume-of-potential standpoint, and significant steps forward by even a couple of their swollen teenaged ranks could have this system looking much more dangerous a year from now. And true to form, Oakland has managed to quickly retool its big league-minor league balance after emptying the tanks for their 2014 run. There’s been some acquisition, some lost talent, and an injection of intriguing draft picks over the past twelve months. One of the faster and looser teams with its assets, Oakland’s revolving door of personnel makes it an annually difficult crew to project out, though the current snapshot slides it in among this rising tier.
“Have mercy on me baby / After all I did confess / Even though you have to hate me / Could you hate me less?”
18. San Diego Padres (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 16)
19. St. Louis Cardinals (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 13)
20. Chicago White Sox (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 18)
21. New York Mets (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 5)
22. Toronto Blue Jays (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 10)
23. Kansas City Royals (Top Ten, 2015 Rank: 14)
This is a big mush of mediocre systems. All of these organizations looked stronger a year ago, but trades and graduations have caused them to slide down our 2016 list. The Mets dropped the furthest, going from a top-five system to a bottom-ten one. Graduating Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard will do that though. In addition, trades have thinned out the pitching depth some, and the pre-Conforto first round picks (Nimmo, Cecchini, Smith) have had some developmental hiccups. The most interesting names spent 2015 in short-season ball, and Luis Carpio is already slated to miss the 2016 season with a labrum tear. Steven Matz is currently propping up the system, but two top-30 picks should help Sandy Alderson and company reload.
Conversely, the Padres stayed the steadiest of the group. Austin Hedges graduated and Rymer Liriano regressed, but Craig Kimbrel brought back potential impact players in Manuel Margot and Javy Guerra. Like most of the systems in this tier, the Pads are very top heavy, and the talent falls off quickly after Margot, Guerra, and right fielder Hunter Renfroe. The Cardinals and the White Sox are both carried by an elite prospect at the top of their system. The Redbirds run deeper in Role 5 types past fireballer Alex Reyes, but the White Sox have the more interesting names behind Tim Anderson, as right-handers Carson Fulmer and Spencer Adams could breakout in 2016. Though as always, you can count on the Cardinals devil magic getting the most out of their college picks and low-six-figure international free agents.
The Jays and the Royals round out this tier, and their crown jewels, Anthony Alford and Raul Adalberto Mondesi, are a bit riskier and a bit rawer than those ranked ahead of them. Toronto could look a lot different a year from now with a healthy Max Pentecost and a stateside Vlad Guerrero, Jr. lurking in the system, but right now they lack both upside and depth after some wheelin' and dealin' at the deadline. The same issues mark the Royals system, but they have two AL pennants and a World Series flag flying at Kaufmann to show for it. You tend to stop caring about org rankings when that happens.
“One out of one million residents / bein’ dissident/ who ain’t kissin’ it”
There may not have been a more scrutinized front office in baseball over the past year, and they certainly earned the attention. The organizational philosophy is one that is unique to Dave Stewart’s department in the desert, and suffice to say the standing of this farm system would look a lot different right now if it were still headlined by the likes of Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair, and Touki Toussaint. But bracketing the organizational philosophy (to the degree that we can, anyway), the farm system suffered not only from exodus but also stagnation. Archie Bradley’s balky shoulder and balkier command took a bite out of his projection, while big-ticket import Yoan Lopez showed little in the way of consistency to justify his cap-busting investment. There’s some international talent floating around in the lower ranks, and raw shots in the dark like Gabriel Guerrero, Jeferson Mejia, and Colin Bray offer a glimmer of hope. But the hope, at least as precedent would now suggest, is that one of those guys emerge into a useful trade asset, not a member of the 25 in Phoenix. Vindication often finds strange bedfellows, however, and if the big club can make a deep playoff run in 2015 it’s unlikely many Snake fans will mind that their system occupies one of the lowest tiers again next winter.
“But let's leave these lovers wondering / Why they cannot have each other / Let's sing another song boys / This one's grown old and bitter.”
If I wasn't using Leonard Cohen lyrics, “same as it ever was” would also suffice for the Orioles. Once again the system is topped by high-upside arms that can't stay on the mound, and you'd have no confidence the organization could develop them into quality major-league starters if they were healthy anyway. Both Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey took their turns in March, but Harvey was quickly dispatched to minor league camp, and Bundy will be slowly stretched out in the major league pen, as he is out of options. The two threw a combined 22 innings in 2015 (all by Bundy). Past them is a collection of first basemen, future first basemen, and unspectacular pen arms.
On its face, this is a fun mismatched pair of a tier. The Giants have had a lot of success developing arms over the years, while the Orioles have flailed around with superior depth and quality of pitching prospects. San Francisco's well of arms have run dry recently, so they switched to turning the Joe Paniks and Matt Duffies of the world into quality regulars. No team has had more development success out of farm systems consistently-ranked in the bottom ten on lists like these. We shouldn't even bother ranking the Giants at this point.
“You better ask yourself / What do you want, what do you need, what will you find/ Don’t be afraid, don’t fall asleep, open your mind/ I hope this rhyme gets you in time and space, come to a different place / Where you hear spiritual lyrical knowledge and you’re face to face/ like welfare, and these [teams’ player development departments] they need help there.”
Somewhat quietly, and with a consistent justification of win-now motivation, the Tigers have operated for a while now as a poor man’s Diamondbacks in regards to the farm system. Investment in big league free agents as the primary allotment of resources, scoop up a ton of international projects with lower-mid-level bonuses, and then trade anything that emerges as useful in bulk to acquire additional 25-man pieces. And while you’re at it, draft a bunch of high-upside arms that probably won’t pan out. But the script started to flip just a little bit last June, as Detroit popped some higher-floor upside plays instead of the usual pure-upside gambits. Seattle, meanwhile managed to do little to address a system that was on the decline last winter. The lack of a pick among the first 59 selections hurt the club’s ability to inject new talent, while a trade equilibrium netted little in the way of additional upside. Steps in the wrong direction by three of the four top prospects on our list—Alex Jackson, Luiz Gohara, and D.J. Peterson—completed the turd sandwich* (*also not a hot dog) that was 2015 for the Mariners’ system.
“There's torture / And there's killing / And there's all my bad reviews.”
The nicest thing you can say about the Marlins system is that they are consistent. Once again they slot in as the 29th-best farm system in baseball with right-hander Tyler Kolek topping the system. This list was compiled before Kolek's elbow started barking, but even if he was already slated for Tommy John, the Marlins would still have a lockdown on no. 29. I mean, have you seen the system below them? And it isn't all bad news as Miami has a few interesting names in the top ten (Naylor, Soto, Garrett) who could change the conversation around the organization with strong full-season debuts in 2016.
“I ain’t seen a winner yet, you? / The confused crowd booed the whole crew”
There are times when you just kind of run out of ways to describe something, and the state of the Angels’ system defies much in the way of analytic vigor these days. It was a dry system before Billy Eppler up and shipped the organization’s top two prospects east for Andrelton Simmons, and now the dusty, parched remains don’t really even stick to your boot when you walk across it. The 2015 draft brought a solid-if-unspectacular catching prospect that many considered an over-draft, along with an intriguingly athletic but unrefined toolbox of a center fielder with the first two picks, but neither is likely to knock on any big league clubhouse doors any time soon. The Angels both lack anything with even remote projection to impact talent and much in the way of useful organizational depth in the high minors, making it a clear choice for the lowest rung on our ladder this year after threatening the position in 2015.