From The Top: Measuring Which Farm Systems Are Closest To The Majors

In any setting that requires calculated predictions—the financial market, weather forecasting or a poker game, for example—decisions have to be made using the information at hand. The more information available and the better you are at analyzing that information, the greater certainty you can have in your decisions.

If it’s poker, that might involve knowing the betting patterns of your opponent to increase the certainty of your moves, and thus creating a better risk assessment of your next play. You might know the cards you hold, the cards on the board and have all of the percentages calculated in your head of hitting the cards you need, but that additional information of your opponent’s tendencies can only be attained by observing him play more hands.

In baseball, a team with a farm system in which the top prospects are at the Triple-A and Double-A levels means that team likely has several assets with a high degree of certainty. The more plate appearances a hitter has or batters a pitcher has faced in his professional career, the more reliable data points we have to forecast his future.

A prospect in Triple-A may have a track record of 2,000 minor league plate appearances, including several hundred in the highest levels of the minor leagues. A prospect in the short-season leagues or low Class A, meanwhile, has a much more limited body of work available to evaluate, and it is within the context of the lowest levels of the minors, where weaknesses like poor pitch recognition, an aluminum bat swing or a fringy array of pitches is less likely to be exploited.
Having more plate appearances or batters faced is helpful both in terms of being able to analyze a player’s statistics and by allowing scouts more time to evaluate a player’s tools and skills, to asses his development and to create a better forecast for the player’s future through his observations.

All that playing time doesn’t necessarily make the player more valuable; rather, it increases the certainty with which we can evaluate a player and forecast his future. That doesn’t mean Triple-A Red Sox outfielder Brandon Moss is a better prospect than low Class A Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider because Moss is closer to the majors—it means there is more certainty to which we can predict the value that Moss will provide to a major league team.

And the closer a player is to the majors, the less there is that can go wrong in his career, be it injuries, on-field problems or issues away from the field. All that said, the idea of anything being “certain” in baseball is somewhat misleading; we’re talking in terms of degrees of confidence.

So how can we measure which teams’ farm systems are the closest to the majors and which ones are the furthest? Here’s one attempt to answer that question objectively.

1. I started by taking every team’s top 10 prospects from the 2008 Prospect Handbook, or their most up-to-date rankings if players from the top 10s were traded following publication.

2. Level Score: I gave every player a “Level Score” of 1 through 5 depending on where they finished the 2007 season. A score of 5 is for Triple-A, 4 is for Double-A, 3 for high Class A, 2 for low Class A and 1 for any short-season or Rookie-level team. The difference between short-season and Rookie-level leagues is negligible here, and giving a greater score for a short-season league over a Rookie-level team would contaminate the data, as some teams have two Rookie-level teams instead of one short-season and one Rookie-level team. I set the cutoff point to receive credit for being at a level at 150 at-bats for a hitter, 50 innings for a starting pitcher and 20 innings or 20 games for a reliever. Major league playing time was counted as Triple-A playing time.

3. Ranking Score: Since a system should receive more credit for its best prospects, I weighted the top prospects with a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 weighting system, giving 10 points to the system’s No. 1 prospect, 9 points to the No. 2 prospect, all the way down to 1 point for the system’s No. 10 prospect. Although this analysis is not an evaluation of the overall quality of a farm system relative to other farm systems, this step is important because it evaluates the players within an organization.

4. Individual CTM Score: To get a weighted value of each prospect, multiply his Level Score by his Ranking Score within the system to get his individual “Close To the Majors” (CTM) Score.

5. Team CTM Score: After doing that for a team’s top 10 prospects, find the sum of every player’s CTM Score. Divide that by 55 (the sum of integers 1 through 10) to get each team’s final score. A team with 10 Triple-A prospects among its top 10 will score a 5.0, while a team with all short-season or Rookie-level players in its top 10 will score a 1.0.

After repeating this process for all 30 teams, we can see how organizations stack up in terms of their top 10 prospects’ proximity to the majors relative to one another. The abundance of text is for the sake of transparency; however, the process is quite simple.

Subjective Tweaks

This analysis is of course imperfect. A polished, refined player will likely progress through his system more quickly than will a more raw player at the same level. However, rather than getting bogged down in making those kinds of subjective assessments for 300 players, I have used playing time as the objective measuring stick.

I did inject my subjective decisions when I felt it was necessary. Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw made an unusual jump from low Class A to Double-A, but only pitched 24 innings in Double-A. Even though he never pitched at high Class A, I gave him a 3 for his Level Score, as it’s almost certain that Kershaw will begin the year again in Double-A. I did the same for Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, a strong candidate for the 2008 rookie of the year who received a Level Score of 5 despite falling 14 at-bats short (including his playoff at-bats) of the Triple-A qualifications.

One of the problems this year with evaluating 2007 draft picks is that, likely because of the new Aug. 15 signing deadline, 2007 first-rounders recorded the least amount of playing time among any class of first-rounders in at least the last decade. While college draft picks ascend through the minor leagues more rapidly than their minor league counterparts do, most college and high school draft picks who are good enough to rank in their team’s top 10 will start the 2008 season in low Class A, so they received 1s for their Level Scores. Some players, such as Rays lefthander David Price and Nationals lefthander Ross Detwiler, will start the 2008 season at higher levels, so I adjusted their scores accordingly.

Of the 300 prospects used in this analysis, I made subjective decisions on about 10 of them, or around three percent. The other 97 percent is accounted for by playing time.

I also did not include Japanese free agents, though that mainly only affects the Cubs. While these players fit Baseball America’s criteria for eligibility in the Prospect Handbook, they will start their careers in this country in the major leagues, and this analysis is intended to be for teams’ farm systems. Counting them would be the same as counting free agents like Carlos Silva and Tom Glavine toward a team’s CTM Score.

1 Dodgers 3.89
2 Yankees 3.76
3 Astros 3.71
4 Indians 3.69
5 Reds 3.64
6 Red Sox 3.58
7 Rays 3.58
8 Rockies 3.58
9 Cardinals 3.55
10 Twins 3.38
11 Pirates 3.33
12 Mariners 3.31
13 Athletics 3.20
14 Cubs 3.11
15 Orioles 3.09
16 Angels 3.05
17 Padres 3.05
18 Brewers 3.05
19 Marlins 3.00
20 Diamondbacks 2.91
21 Braves 2.85
22 Tigers 2.71
23 White Sox 2.62
24 Royals 2.62
25 Rangers 2.60
26 Phillies 2.55
27 Nationals 2.45
28 Mets 2.44
29 Giants 2.07
30 Blue Jays 1.89

Overall, the CTM tool generally matches perception, as the Reds and Dodgers top 10s are among the closest to the majors, while the Giants and Blue Jays are on the opposite end of the ledger. Don’t fixate on an individual team’s exact score or specific ranking. It is more beneficial to consider the general area of where a team ranks, be it the upper-level, mid-level or lower-level. The Cubs (3.11) at No. 14 and the Marlins (3.00) at No. 19 should essentially be viewed as equals within this context.

Before we take a look at some of the more interesting teams, I want to reiterate that this is not a ranking of the quality of a team’s farm system. You can find that in your copy of the 2008 Prospect Handbook. It is also not intended to measure the magnitude of the contributions expected of those players or assess players in the 11-30 range of a team’s top 30, which is where teams like the Red Sox, Rays and Rangers separate themselves with excellent depth in the farm system.

Now let’s have a look at the teams at the top of this list.

Dodgers: Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton form perhaps the top collection of players with one to three years of service time in the major leagues. Their farm system ranks second among National League teams in the Prospect Handbook, with its top five prospects already in Double-A and ready to join the team in Los Angeles very soon.

Yankees: While the Yankees’ strategy in recent years has been to be the major player in an expensive free agent market, a more recent shift in strategy toward cultivating homegrown talent finally has the organization’s top prospects on the bubble of breaking through to the majors.

Astros: Seeing the Astros score this highly on the talent location spectrum was the biggest surprise to me, at first. But when a team gives away top draft picks through free agent signings, then doesn’t even sign the top players it drafts, what else should we expect? The mediocre players at the high level of the system to rise to the top, if only because they’re closer to the big leagues and are more likely to provide at least some value to their major league team. However, the team’s top three prospects—catcher J.R. Towles, righthander Felipe Paulino and center fielder Michael Bourn—all seem like certain bets to make the major leagues, something that can’t be said of many other systems’ top three prospects.

Indians: The Indians aren’t known for going over-slot in the draft or signing teenagers in the international market to seven-figure bonuses, but they have consistently built through the farm system, be it by signing amateur players or acquiring them via trade. Having a steady stream of players like righthanders Adam Miller and Jensen Lewis and lefthander Aaron Laffey all ready to contribute in various roles in Cleveland at salaries well below market value continues to be a strength for the Indians.

Reds: A large part of my inspiration for doing this analysis, the Reds ranked among the highest of prospects closest to the major leagues as I had expected–though I thought they would be No. 1. Led by Minor League Player of the Year Jay Bruce, the Reds have four legitimate rookie of the year candidates for 2008.

Red Sox: With righthander Clay Buchholz and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury at the top, along with righthander Justin Masterson and shortstop Jed Lowrie in the top five, the Red Sox have plenty of high-grade talent that should add value to the major league team in 2008. What makes the Red Sox’ system so good is the depth and diversity of talent at all levels, making it likely that the Red Sox could have a CTM Score among the highest in baseball for several years to come even as they graduate prospects to the major leagues.

Rays: The Rays perennially have picked at the top of the draft, but one of the reasons for their position on the CTM spectrum is the 2004 draft, when they drafted righthander Jeff Niemann fourth overall. That Niemann ranks behind lefthander Jake McGee, righthander Wade Davis and shortstop Reid Brignac—all Rays draft picks in 2004—is a tribute to the quality of their draft and the key reason for their 3.58 CTM Score.

Cardinals: The Cardinals have slowly crept up Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings in recent years. Their score near the top here is primarily a function of having their top five prospects receive Level Scores of 4 for completing the Double-A requirements.

On the flip side, what about the teams that find themselves sinking toward the bottom of the list, with their top prospects further away from the majors?

Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have only one prospect among their top seven who completed the playing time cutoff for at least high Class A. Outfielder Travis Snider is a fine No. 1 prospect, but the Blue Jays rank toward the back of our organizational talent rankings, and five of their top seven prospects were playing high school or college baseball until Toronto drafted them last year.

Giants: The Giants didn’t have a pick in the first three rounds of the 2005 draft, and the rapid ascension of 2006 first-rounder Tim Lincecum means the Giants have a very young system, personified by 17-year-old top prospect Angel Villalona. The Giants have three high-ceiling teenagers as their top three prospects and two more 2007 first-round picks from the high school ranks in their top 10.

Mets: Prior to the Johan Santana trade, the Mets ranked in the middle of the pack with a 3.29. The trade dropped them to the bottom of the list, leaving them low on high-quality talent and far away from the majors.

Nationals: The Nationals revamped a desolate farm system with the best draft in 2007, but that talent is still a few years away from the majors. Only righthander Collin Balester (No. 3) and lefty John Lannann (No. 10) received Level Scores higher than 3, while five players received Level Scores of 1.

Rangers: While most teams with lower CTM Scores tend to rank lower in Baseball America’s talent rankings, that can’t be said of the Rangers and Nationals. Three of the Rangers’ top four prospects received Level Scores of 3 for meeting the high Class A requirements, while righthander Eric Hurley (No. 3) received a 5 and should compete for a major league role in spring training. After them, though, eight out of the next 10 players on the Rangers list were teenagers last season, and there’s considerable buzz even beyond those prospects, as Chris Kline noted last week.

Moving Forward

What could these results mean for the near future? Last year, the Diamondbacks and Rockies finished with 90 wins each, one year after each team won 76 games. In last year’s free agent market, the Diamondbacks didn’t spend any money on major league free agents, while the Rockies’ only major league free agent acquisition from another team was righthander LaTroy Hawkins, who received a one-year, $3.5 million deal. The Diamondbacks last year had a 4.00 CTM Score. They received key contributions from five of their top 10 prospects—righthanders Micah Owings and Tony Pena, third baseman Mark Reynolds and outfielders Chris Young and Justin Upton—en route to a National League West title.

The 2007 Rockies had a 3.80 CTM Score and ended their year in the World Series. Top prospect Troy Tulowitzki established himself as one of the game’s best shortstops–especially with a glove in his hand–while Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez both had favorable results on the mound down the stretch when most of the Rockies starting pitchers hit the disabled list. While the focus is often on finding future superstars or above-average big leaguers, players who are simply average or below-average but better than a replacement-level player add value to a major league team. By being able to plug in a pair of prospects with upside into the major league roster when injuries created an opening, the Rockies may have had an advantage over teams that would have otherwise had to rely on an older Triple-A veterans or raw youngsters.

A multitude of variables affect a team’s chances of making the playoffs—having a strong major league roster to begin with, staying healthy, and having a general manager and a manager who make the right moves during the season. But with the right mix of all those elements, a team that can supplement its 25-man roster with quality players in the upper levels of its farm system should have a marked advantage over teams that do not.

The Rockies and Diamondbacks were admittedly cherry-picked examples from 2007. But even though results may vary from year to year, it’s easy to see why teams with advanced, high-caliber prospects have a competitve advantage.