Everybody loves rankings. But the rankings of MLB farm systems mean zero.

‘But Churchill, you rank and grade pretty much everything.’

I know, I do. And it’s all an attempt to provide context. But, seriously, farm system rankings mean nothing, and that’s without taking into consideration these evaluations are being done by entities outside the realm of any of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs.

The Mariners have ranked well before and it didn’t matter. Here are their yearly rankings by ESPN’s Keith Law, the best in the business.

YEAR
LAW RANK
2008 11
2009 14
2010 21
2011 10
2012 11
2013 8
2014 21
2015 21
2016 28
2017 28
2018 30

After ranking 11-14-21-10-11-8 for six straight years, the Mariners’ roster included Felix Hernandez and they didn’t get far in their efforts to end their postseason drought.

The San Diego Padres ranked No. 1 in 2012, and it didn’t matter at all. They’ve had six full seasons (the rankings come out just after the new year, prior to the season) since then and the best they could do was 77 wins in 2014.

The Reds have ranked in the Top 10 several times over the past 10 years or so and haven’t done much with it.

So what matters, then, especially in a rebuilding situation?

Player development, general roster construction, and trades made from the talent in a club’s system will make or break a rebuild like this.

Want more evidence farm system rankings don’t tell us anything?

Let’s use the Washington Nationals. They have won 90 or more games four times since 2012 and made the postseason all four of those seasons, They also have seasons of 82, 83 and 86 wins in that span.

The four 90-plus win seasons were 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, so it was spread over six years, suggesting they did it with numerous roster variations.

The Nationals farm system rankings, starting four years prior to their first 90-win season during that span (because prospects take time to develop:

YEAR
LAW RANK
2008 19
2009 29
2010 23
2011 10
2012 19
2013 19
2014 18
2015 9
2016 15
2017 22
2018 18

So how did the Nationals win so much so often over that time period?

Well, yes, they signed Max Scherzer, but that was prior to the 2015 season and they went 96-66 in 2014.

That ’14 team was led by ’05 draftee Ryan Zimmerman, ’11 draftee Anthony Rendon, ’04 draftee Ian Desmond, free agent pickup Jayson Werth, ’07 draftee Jordan Zimmermann and trade acquisition Doug Fister. The draft picks came up through the system at different times, with their arrivals sprinkled throughout the back half of the decade of the 2000s, so none of their individual yearly farm classes were all that great, despite the terrific collection of talent.

So… player development, yep.

But the next thing you’re thinking — if it wasn’t the first thing — is probably “well, they drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.”

Exactly.

Along with player development, the Nationals’ 2010 and 2011 system consisted of the likes of Strasburg, Harper and Rendon — all three turned into stars. What the Nationals didn’t develop from their own system or sign via free agency, they acquired via trade — largely by using their farm system.

The key to rebuilding and forging a sustainable winner isn’t to place high in farm system rankings. It’s to draft, sign and develop stars, and not just generational talents like Harper, but good-to-great players like Rendon. In addition, having a star — an elite prospect — or even two, doesn’t alone get a club ranked high in anyone’s farm rankings. The top prospect in baseball is in a farm system, Toronto, that is middle of the pack — 13-18 — at best.

Law ranked the Atlanta Braves No. 1 year ago, and deservedly so. But they didn’t get that ranking because they have two or three Bryce Harpers or even a Fernando Tatis Jr. or Valdimir Guerrero Jr. They have drafted and developed well, while acquiring prospects in rebuilding trades, and they’re loaded, led by arms and and up-the-middle talents with upside.

And because Alex Anthopoulos has done a great job tinkering since he replaced John Coppolella as the GM in Atlanta, the Braves are ready to explode into a World Series contender.

But ya know may not be far behind? The Tampa Bay Rays (90-72 in 2018), who ranked No. 19 in 2017, No. 14 in 2016 and No. 23 in both 2014 and 2015.

Those rankings were not determinant of a single darned thing.

So, as the Mariners try and pull off a legit, full-bore tear-down-style rebuild — however long they admit publicly it’s likely to take — remember the farm system rankings themselves mean pretty much nothing.

Ranking high doesn’t mean they’ll be good soon (or ever) and ranking in the middle — or even low — doesn’t mean they won’t.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

14 Comments

  1. Hooray for Yusei Kikuchi!!!

  2. Safety ratings in cars don’t matter at all, and I know this because I saw a minivan in a fatal crash the other day, and I saw a Ferrari and two motorcycles driving just fine that exact same day.

    There we have it. Incontrovertible proof.

  3. “So the FACT that the Padres, as I showed, had the No. 1 farm in 2012 and did nothing… you just ignore that, eh?

    The fact that Washington had bad, mediocre, decent rankings, never great… you just ignore that, eh?”

    No… the entire point of my comment is that there are examples that go both ways and that cherry picking ones to build a narrative doesn’t carry any argumentative value without any actual data or aggregate study.

    Like that was literally the whole point of my comment, and you respond sorta in a way that proves my point by criticizing examples I’m “ignoring.”

  4. Author

    “I think what people are tired of hearing is that the Mariners don’t have the prospects to trade for top talent and I think they just want to be reassured that our system is capable of acquiring a player or two down the stretch when we are competitive. More over they want to know that Dipoto didn’t just trade away Segura, Cano, Diaz, Paxton, Colome, Nicasio, and Pazos for a handful of maybes.”

    THERE ARE NO SURE THINGS.

    When clubs acquire prospects, it’s a risk. But that’s why you don’t hold back. You take as many shots as you can because some are going to fail.

    When the White Sox traded Jose Quintana and Chris Sale, they didn’t get a single sure thing. Not one.

    When the Braves rebuilt, they spent a lot of money to get Touki Toussaint, a prospect at the time. While he’s in the majors, nobody is sure he’s more than a mid-rotation arm. Still. And it’s been 3 and a half years now.

    —-

    “I feel like the Mariners added to the farm and kept themselves around a .500 team, which is the true talent equivalent of the team they put on the field in 2018. Mallex > Zunino, Omar > Colome, Domingo Santana > Gamel, but Segura/Cano/Diaz will be 10 WAR that cost less than $40M, which feels like Dipoto went with the short side of their values. I think the Mariners should’ve added two Justin Dunn level prospects and an Xavier Edwards type prospect to dream on besides the players they got especially New York, I would’ve liked that deal had McNeil been included even if it meant downgrading Dunn to Tony Dibrell and then replacing Bautista with Wahl making the return Bruce, Swarzak, McNeil, Kelenic, Dibrell, and Wahl.”

    There’s no point in talking about win projections right now. For all we know, Dipoto trades Haniger, Seager and Encarnacion between now and the Japan trip.

    And you suggesting the Mariners didn’t get enough in trades… don’t do that. Player value is not binary. This old painting I found today is worth what I can get for it, not a set dollar range.

    —-

    “I also liked Trevor Stephan and Luis Medina feeling that if Paxton was valued properly those would’ve fit as throw in prospects in the $5-7M value range. Especially since Sheffield is losing his shine, Swanson is also earmarked for the bullpen by the pundits, and while I like Dom T-W, he’s the kind of third player that allows adding Stephen and Medina as flyers.”

    The Mariners could have settled for a lesser package to get MORE prospects, but picked the better chance for impact. That’s a fact. Sheffield was by far the best singular talent offered for Paxton.

    “The other thing going through my mind is the Mariners better buy Machado and/or Harper to justify the dump. Had they left it all alone, traded Diaz for the prospect haul without Bruce and Swarzak, traded Colome for Omar, trade Zunino for Mallex, and Gamel for Dom Santana, they would be about 5+ WAR better and poised to make the playoffs with $35M to spend on upgrades in the bullpen and rotation.”

    You make all kinds of assumptions here. Once you become the GM of the Mets, you can make those assumptions, because it’ll be your vision and you’ll be the one making the decisions. What you’re talking about was not plausible. The Mets had money and prospects, but not $120m and prospects. So the Mariners made it $60m and got the Mets two best prospects — Kelenic and Dunn rather than Mauricio, Vientos and Peterson. Essentially, the Mariners bought Kelenic and Dunn.

    The Mariners’ rotation had no chance of being competitive to the level of 95 wins and many of the best players were either older (Cano, Seager, for example) or nearing free agency (Zunino, Paxton 2 years left, getting pricier and pricier every year, and getting less and less trade valuable).

    What you’re suggesting is what the club has been doing — just trying to add a piece here and there.

    What was NEVER going to happen is the club luring Harper or Machado, or adding two top-rotation starters. Patrick Corbin wasn’t coming to Seattle. Seattle wasn’t going to be able to trade for Carrasco or Kluber.

    What you’re suggesting was same old same old. Adding 5 WAR doesn’t = five wins in the W-L column — Cruz gone, Span gone, players decline, players improve, injuries are different from year to year — and the roster didn’t start the offseason as an 89-win team looking for 5-7 more wins. Realistically, it started as a .500 team looking for 15 more wins.

    That was never remotely plausible in the slightest.

    “I mean I looked at the rankings from four years ago and saw the Red Sox and Astros as the top two farms.”

    So the FACT that the Padres, as I showed, had the No. 1 farm in 2012 and did nothing… you just ignore that, eh?

    The fact that Washington had bad, mediocre, decent rankings, never great… you just ignore that, eh?

    “Which is why I suggested that actual data would have been useful. Both sides can pick compelling examples. And yes I did read it all.”

    I used ACTUAL DATA. And it was useful. No way to cite every example. As soon as you get even a few over a 10-year span that support the theory, you have more than a theory.

    Fact is, a farm ranking means nothing, good or bad. If it did, the Padres would have turned into something between 12 and 18, and the Nationals would be mediocre to decent right now, rather than a club winning 90-100 almost every year.

    Fans get too locked away in farm system rankings. This thread is proof.

  5. I mean I looked at the rankings from four years ago and saw the Red Sox and Astros as the top two farms.

    Which is why I suggested that actual data would have been useful. Both sides can pick compelling examples. And yes I did read it all.

  6. The other thing going through my mind is the Mariners better buy Machado and/or Harper to justify the dump. Had they left it all alone, traded Diaz for the prospect haul without Bruce and Swarzak, traded Colome for Omar, trade Zunino for Mallex, and Gamel for Dom Santana, they would be about 5+ WAR better and poised to make the playoffs with $35M to spend on upgrades in the bullpen and rotation.

  7. I think what people are tired of hearing is that the Mariners don’t have the prospects to trade for top talent and I think they just want to be reassured that our system is capable of acquiring a player or two down the stretch when we are competitive. More over they want to know that Dipoto didn’t just trade away Segura, Cano, Diaz, Paxton, Colome, Nicasio, and Pazos for a handful of maybes.

    I feel like the Mariners added to the farm and kept themselves around a .500 team, which is the true talent equivalent of the team they put on the field in 2018. Mallex > Zunino, Omar > Colome, Domingo Santana > Gamel, but Segura/Cano/Diaz will be 10 WAR that cost less than $40M, which feels like Dipoto went with the short side of their values. I think the Mariners should’ve added two Justin Dunn level prospects and an Xavier Edwards type prospect to dream on besides the players they got especially New York, I would’ve liked that deal had McNeil been included even if it meant downgrading Dunn to Tony Dibrell and then replacing Bautista with Wahl making the return Bruce, Swarzak, McNeil, Kelenic, Dibrell, and Wahl.

    I also liked Trevor Stephan and Luis Medina feeling that if Paxton was valued properly those would’ve fit as throw in prospects in the $5-7M value range. Especially since Sheffield is losing his shine, Swanson is also earmarked for the bullpen by the pundits, and while I like Dom T-W, he’s the kind of third player that allows adding Stephen and Medina as flyers.

    Ideally, I’d like to see the Mariners trade Seager and Leake for Wil Myers and Xavier Edwards with the M’s paying Myers $5M plus 1/2 of the 2019 salaries for Kyle and Mike while the Padres pick up the difference in 2020-2022 of the Myers and Seager deals.

  8. Author

    KURT,

    I never said clubs don’t need good young talent. I specifically stated and illustrated with the Nationals that the RANKING isn’t what matters.

    ZACHARY,

    “I’m a bit confused. I see a bunch of anecdotes, but I wonder if the overall data actually supports the argument that these rankings don’t link up with future wins at all. Without the data, it almost just seems like an argument saying that “wins correlate with wins” better than rankings correlate with wins, which is of course always going to be true.”

    No, you think all you see is anecdotes, but that’s because you take “farm sysrem rankings don’t matter’ to mean “good young talent isn’t necessary.’

    Far from reality and far from what I said.

    I even illustrated with FACTS that Washington had mediocre farm rankings yet built their current contending roster largely on good young talent.

    Proof that the rankings are garbage.

    Really sounds like you stopped part way through, only read the title or are responding to tweets or comments.

    It’s pretty clear in the paragraphs above.

  9. I’m a bit confused. I see a bunch of anecdotes, but I wonder if the overall data actually supports the argument that these rankings don’t link up with future wins at all. Without the data, it almost just seems like an argument saying that “wins correlate with wins” better than rankings correlate with wins, which is of course always going to be true.

  10. You are saying they dont need food farm systems, but the teams with good farm systems and crappy records are temas that don’t spend. You reference Washington as a bad farm system, but thats not true, they just dont let it backup like Atlanta and in all your players you listed you forgot Felipe Vazquez (Rivero), Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Souza, Ramos, Stammen, Cole, etc. The point is not that they didn’t have good farm systems, they did and still do, but more importantly these rankings are a snapshot of today and players are constantly evolving and devolving throughtout each season. Whenever we had players peak in value previously, Zduriencik would sit on them until they busted. A good GM sits on his stud prospects like Harper, Strasburg, Wilson Ramos, Rendon, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, etc. But when he knows a player may be about to stumble he trades them. The gold thing about Dipoto is he’s smart enough to bank the good prospects like Kelenic, Sheffield, White, Dunn… Also the broken prospects who lost value but could still rebound Lewis, Carlson… But if he sees weight issues like with Gohara, development issues like Alex Jackson, D.J. Peterson, etc. Or if they are severly undersized like Niedert and as aresult could end up in the bullpen. Most importantly, if you obsess over one of his players to the poi t you let your guard dow, he will fleece you like when he got Segura and Haniger for peanuts and promises. I think the biggest problem for Dipoto is that he doesn’t adjust his perspective on a players value. He traded Segura to the Phillies for a similar return to what the D-backs got from Seattle for Jean. He did great in the Smith for Zunino trade, but only because he convinced them to sell Smith for approximately the same as what he sold Mallex to Tampa. My point being that if everyone wants to ask what they rank now and they respect your opinion enough to ask for it, don’t write an expose on their drupidity for caring. Instead just tell them your opinion and caveat it with why you dont think it’s important and what you think will be more indicatice of their future success. Overall, I think they have some really good prospects and the players they have are high floor and lower ceiling players as opposed to the guys that had huge red flags like weight (Montero), contact skills/strikeouts (Zunino), homerun power/bat speed/foot speed (Smoak). Kelenic looks like as close to a cant miss prospect as there is from his skills to his polish, as well as his size and his results in low A. Sheffield and Dunn concern me more than the other top prospects, but they look to be serviceable at the MLB level. I would’ve rathered McNeil over Dunn and Bautista. Also, I’m hoping Kyle Lewis takes off as a prospect, so Seattle can dump him on another team, when they need to add more mlb talent.

  11. Great point, well illustrated. The M’s have to address their poor player development. It shouldn’t be a case of training/coaching good-to great players or trading good-to-great players. In MLB, you have to do both well. In 2016 the Ms farm system was ranked low, but each of the teams finished with great records. While from the M’s perspective, it was nice to see their affiliates win, but a winning farm system doesn’t guarantee a winning MLB team. And we’re not even getting into costing against the caste of high payroll MLB teams.

  12. My question would be, do you see any of the good to great talents in the system? I know many are saying that Sheffield is a #3 type starter. I would personally say his ceiling is higher than that. I also believe that Kelenic and potentially Rodriguez have star potential. I think that the next tier can be good players in White and Lewis along with Dunn (who I think could surprise by being a bit more than projected).

  13. Author

    It seems most everyone that comments on this story is missing the point.

    The RANKINGS do not matter. You do need young talent to get started. The RANKING doesn’t matter.

    That’s why I used successful teams not having good farms as examples.

  14. But it does make them more fun to think about. More hopeful that they’ve changed their paradigm.

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