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Sustainable Farming: Can any organization succeed every season?

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From all vantage points and through various evaluation mechanisms, major league organizations are judged by not only how well the MLB team does in the standings but by the success of their entire operations. Scouting, player development, front office honchos, ownership, business operations and their presence on the international scene can all be evaluated with readily available information. All this has fostered a new perspective on professional baseball in the United States.

This focus on the macro level of baseball is ironic in a way. Baseball has long been the most adverse sport to change, the slowest of the major American professional leagues to learning, accepting and improving because of innovative or nontraditional forces. Baseball purists decry instant replay as the first step towards eliminating umpires. Old school fans point to the "baseball card stats": batting average, RBI, wins, etc. as the best way to determine who's the best player. Hell, Wrigley Field didn't have lights until the 80's! My point is that while some of baseball's most knowledgeable fans accept advanced statistics, analytical evaluation of players and maintain a watchful eye on all areas of an organization, MLB itself has been slow to change it's perspective on a myriad of issues.

Of all the organizational areas that have received an enlarged interest over the past ten years or so has been the minor league teams. Not necessarily the teams and their ultimate place in the standing, but the amateur draft in June and the performance of each team's top prospects. There are many different websites, media outlets and everything in between that watch, analyze and ultimately give prognoses on individual players and systems as a whole. Most of the time these entities are in agreement (Texas Rangers- yay!, Houston Astros- horrid!), but sometimes they disagree (Jordan Lyles- Astros Prospect #1!, Jordan Lyles- third starter if he's lucky). These are good things for people like DQ, Dave, Farmstros, clack and me. More topics for discussion, more points for both disagreement and consensus. It's what makes blogging enjoyable and fandom both a great deal of fun and often a source of consternation.

Some teams have earned the reputation for being "good" talent evaluators and other clubs have not been as fortunate. The truth, however, is you're only as good as the next big prospect. If you have a stable of youngsters on the farm, you're ready to roll off seasons of success extending into perpetuity. If your land is barren, well...you'd better spend wisely on the free agent market, and be prepared to hear that your GM and scouting director aren't fit to tie the laces of Andrew Friedman's loafers.

As I pondered the bleakness of our current crop of young players, I wondered just how well the various organizations are at not only rising to the top of the minor league rankings, but once they get there- how often can they stay at the top? Is it possible to remain a top echelon minor league system for an extended period of time?

From 2005 to the current season, I wanted to look at the top five farm systems in that year and see where they were ranked in the subsequent five years. For 2005,2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 I used Baseball America's rankings (which are free for those seasons), For 2007, I used Baseball Prospectus (free again). With that in mind, here is how it played out:

Team 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
LA Angels of Anaheim 1 4 3 10 25 16
LA Dodgers 2 2 5 6 23 19
Milwaukee Brewers 3 5 7 21 10 7
Minnesota Twins 4 6 12 18 22 14
Atlanta Braves 5 7 14 8 6 6

 

Now, what to make of these rankings..

  • Milwaukee traded the farm (literally) for CC Sabathia in 2008, and he helped them make the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Their farm system ranked 21st that season, but shot up to 10th the following season. So even after giving up the likes of Matt LaPorta, the Brew Crew improved on the whole
  • Ditto for Atlanta. Landing Mark Teixeira in 2008 and giving up the likes of Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz didn't seem to hurt them on the whole. Sure, it helped Texas jump to the top of the rankings in 2009 and 2010, but the Braves aren't doing all that poorly either with Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward buttressing an extremely talented farm system. It helped that the Braves were able to flip Teixeira to the Angels to recoup some of the prospect cost as well.
  • The Dodgers and Angels were at the top of the organizational rankings until 2009, when the wheels fell off. Both teams have graduated a number of players in recent seasons (Maicer Izturis, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Andre Ethier, etc) which has helped the teams remain competitive, but now it appears as if the minor league pipelines have trickled a bit dry, at least temporarily.
  • Minnesota's dance into mediocrity isn't as important as it could have been, because with the opening of their new stadium, the team has ponied up more cash for free agent contracts, meaning that the drop in the organizational rankings may be masked for the immediate future

Ultimately, these rankings are fairly subjective, and what seems to be most important is having solid minor league classes for at least three consecutive seasons. When this happens, a handful of major league contributors usually emerge and should keep the major league team playing at least respectable baseball for half a decade or so. Teams like Tampa Bay (Longoria, Upton, Price, Shields), Philadelphia (Hamels, Madson, Howard, Utley), and Boston (Youkilis, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Papelbon, Lester) are not unlike the Dodgers and Angels in graduating multiple young, productive players in close succession, allowing the big league team to compete for more than just a season or two. Texas hopes to join this group, as do the Braves, who, despite their high rankings, haven't seen a postseason game since Chris Burke sent them home in 2005.

There is not one way to build a successful farm system, and once a team builds one they have to strike while the iron is hot, and continue to draft and evaluate well. It is an ongoing process, where nothing is guaranteed no matter what Keith Law thinks of you. My take is that your best bet is to spend wisely on the free agent market and have enough in the way of young minor league talent to supplement the holes that free agency and trades cannot fill sufficiently.