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.
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:
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.
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.
Jason A. Churchill
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