Do the Astros Have an Average Farm System?

With the Astros in full rebuild mode, the minor league affiliates have been receiving a lot of attention. The system has already graduated 20 year-old Jordan Lyles to the Major League rotation. Jose Altuve, the diminutive hit factory, George Springer, the Astros 1st round pick in this year’s June draft, and the mythical super-talent Ariel Ovando, have generated excitement among the Astros fan base. But does the talent assembled spell an especially bright future to be excited about? Is there a decent mix of impact talent and overall depth?

It’s impossible to forecast now how the Astros farm system might be perceived by publications like Baseball America this winter. But, we can look at mid ranked teams from Baseball America’s rankings from last year to see what would have to happen for the Astros to crawl out of the bottom third of the league’s organizational rankings prior to next season. And before we go any further, I know that Baseball America should not be the final word on how a system should be viewed. But, they are also not clueless, and a ranking in the 13-20 range would be a nice confirmation that the Astros are making strides in cleaning up what has been a pretty awful farm system.

Before this season, the Astros organization was rated 26th by Baseball America. This marked the first time since 2007 the organization was not rated last. What would it take to make a jump to the middle of the pack? Well, looking at last years rankings, here are some things teams ranked near the middle have in common:

Characteristics of a Mid-Ranked System

· 3 or 4 top 100 prospects

· A mix of near Major League ready talent and depth at the lower levels

· Decent depth at premium positions

· Minor League affiliates with winning records

Top 100 Prospects

Having some top 100 talent in the system would be an indication that the farm is doing its job. Of the clubs ranked 13-18 last year, only the Chicago Cubs featured less than three top 100 prospects. The 13th ranked Nationals had four (Bryce Harper #1, Danny Espinosa 66, Derek Norris 72, Wilson Ramos 96). The Rangers were ranked 14th and boasted three top 100 talents ( Martin Perez #24, Jurickson Profar 74, Tanner Scheppers 84). The 15th ranked Angels had number 57 Jean Segura and number 76 Tyler Chatwood to go along with number 2 Mike Trout. The cubs were ranked 16th prior to the Garza trade and featured Brett Jackson, whom was rated 38th and was part of that trade, and number 48 Trey McNutt. Even after trading Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly to San Diego, 17th ranked Boston had three prospects rated in the top 100 (Jose Iglesias 52, Anthony Ranaudo 67, Drake Britton 97). 12th ranked Dustin Ackley and 16th ranked Michael Pineda teamed with Nick Franklin to give 18th ranked Seattle three prospects in the top 100. The Astros had two prospects rated in the top 100 last year (Lyles 42, Jonathan Villar 94) Lyles is likely to loose his prospect eligibility and Villar will have to turn it around against double-A pitching to remain on that list.

So do you believe the Astros will feature three or more top 100 talents going into next season? I believe that even if you don't fully believe in Jose Altuve, you have to call him a top 100 prospect. That gives Houston 1. Will Villar maintain his status? Will someone else step up? I think there is a good possibility George Springer will find himself somewhere on that list. Boston’s Anthony Ranaudo, taken 39th overall in last years amateur draft, did not even pitch a professional inning last year and was ranked 67th. There is also a possibility a top 100 prospect could be obtained if the Astros were to deal Hunter Pence or Wandy Rodriguez. I think a Myers trade could net the Astros a nice prospect or two. I don’t know if they could expect to gain a top 100 guy or not, though. There is also the possibility that an existing prospect could gain top 100 status. If Ariel Ovando lived up to our lofty expectations, he would easily be a top 100 talent.

Mix of MLB Ready Talent and Younger Prospects

Most of the teams mentioned above have a nice mix of young talent and guys knocking on MLB’s door. The Nationals graduated Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos. They also bolstered their lower levels with impactful draft picks (Bryce Harper, A.J. Cole, and Sammy Solis). The Angels have Jean Segura and Mike Trout at the upper levels. They have also promoted both first baseman, Mark Trumbo, and catcher, Hank Conger. Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda will play major roles for the Mariners this year. The Rangers and Red Sox get a pass on having less major league ready talent due to recent graduations and trades.

Who in the Astros organization would be considered close to Major-League ready after this season? Possibly Altuve. Maybe JD Martinez, though, to me, he is less exciting than some of the guys the Nationals, Angels, and Mariners brought up this year. Perhaps, a trade will bring in some advanced prospects. I think if the Astros are ranked near the middle, they will be similar to the Red Sox and Rangers in that a lot of the better prospects will still be a year or more from making an impact at the MLB level. Hopefully, guys like Austin Wates, Kody Hinze, Chris Wallace, and even Adam Bailey earn promotions and succeed in the second half.

Depth at Premium Positions

In BA’s evaluation of the Washington Nationals, they state that the Nationals would be ranked higher if they were not so thin at premium positions. This seems strange considering that they have two catchers and a short stop ranked in the top 100. However, the statement lets us know that at least part of an organization’s grade is based on the depth it features up the middle. I think this an area the Astros have focused on.

I think the Astros have at least average depth up the middle with Jonathan Villar and Jio Mier at short stop, Jay Austin and Austin Wates in center field, and Ben Heath and Chris Wallace in line behind Jason Castro at catcher. Before writing this just now, I thougt the Astros actually had more talent in center field. However, with Shuck, Steele, and Gaston flaming out, the outfield isn’t as deep as it once seemed. Maybe Javaris Reynolds will become a decent prospect. It’s also possible, if the need arises, that Delino Deshields could move back to the outfield.

Affiliates with Winning Records

This is an area that I think will continue to hurt the perception of this system. I don’t think winning minor league games is an essential part of producing future major leaguers. I do think BA takes minor league records into account though.

What makes me suspect BA takes minor league win-loss records into account is that in most cases, higher ranked teams have minor league teams with good records.Also, in their evaluations of the 10th ranked Phillies and the 12th ranked Twins, two of the few highly ranked teams with poor win-loss totals, they make excuses for, or at least acknowledge the fact that teams in these systems had poor win-loss records. With the Twins, BA stated, "While the Twins have prospects throughout their system, top affiliates New Britain and Rochester combined for just 93 victories, with poor bullpens and lax defense the main culprits. However, the rosters of both clubs will be counted on to provide low-cost reinforcements as the big league club." Of the Phillies futility in the upper minors, BA states, "There isn't much upper-level depth behind Brown, but the system does have lower-level talent with upside. Said one scout last summer: ‘No team has more talent in A-ball than the Phillies.’" BA was high on the fact that the Cubs' affiliates won games. The publication pointed out that both their triple-A and double-A teams had the best records in their respective leagues.

I don’t know if wins in the minor leagues really means an organization is producing major league talent. I mean look at what Wily Mo Pena and Willy Taveras are doing this year at triple A. They are surely helping their teams win, but are they really part of their organizations long-term plans? Also, if you have lop-sided talent either with the bat or on the mound, a team could feasibly produce top-notch talent and consistently lose games in the minors by scores of 2-0 or 14-10. I think that a mix of pitching and position prospects helps in the win-loss category. The Washington Nationals have the best mix in my opinion of the clubs we have looked at. I really like Brad Peacock’s ERA and K totals. A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis have also performed well in their first seasons in A ball.

How Will The Astros Stack Up?

I don’t think there is any scenario in which the Astros end this season with the amount of depth and front-line talent the Nationals featured last year. They won’t have the dearth of Major-League ready talent the Angels had this past off-season. I think they could be as good as the Mariners system, but with more depth, and without the top-20 prospects.

I think the Astros have improved. They are starting to see some depth accumulate. However, they do not have many pitching prospects who are performing. Their top three affiliates also have horrid win-loss records. I think in order for the Astros to crack the top 20, they will need to trade for a front line pitching prospect and see good second half performances from the Hooks, Jet Hawks, and Legends. It would also help if some bats have good second halves.