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Astros' farm system reaps benefits, is still deep

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The Astros have lost more than ten noteworthy prospects to trades or Rule 5 during the past calendar year. But the system just keeps churning out more.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, TCB reader Trips speculated about the depth of the Astros' farm system after the trades executed by the front office during the past calendar year.  My snap-judgment thought was, "Yeah, the Astros traded away so many good prospects that it makes the organization a lot thinner than it was last year, or even a couple years ago."

Just prior to clicking the "Post Reply" button, I paused and thought for a moment.  I deleted my response and wrote something completely different and somewhat incoherent.  I then secured Trips' permission to address his comment more thoroughly in the lengthier format of an article.

This...is that article. [Theme from Dragnet]

The Trades

July 23, 2015:  The Astros acquire Scott Kazmir in exchange for RHP Daniel Mengden and C Jacob Nottingham

July 30, 2015:  The Astros acquire Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers in exchange for OF Domingo Santana, OF Brett Phillips, LHP Josh Hader, and RHP Adrian Houser

August 8, 2015:  The Astros acquire Oliver Perez in exchange for LHP Junior Garcia

November 19, 2015:  The Astros acquire RHP Cy Sneed in exchange for Jonathan Villar

November 25, 2015:  The Astros acquire RHP Brendan McCurry in exchange for Jed Lowrie (seriously, how many teams trade TWO major league shortstops in a week and still have depth at the position??)

December 09, 2015:  The Astros acquire Ken Giles and minor league shortstop Jonathan Arauz in exchange for Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Vincent Velasquez, RHP Thomas Eshelman, RHP Harold Arauz, and RHP Mark Appel.

Gained: MLB'ers Kazmir, Gomez, Fiers, Perez, Giles, and MiLB'ers J. Arauz, McCurry, and Sneed

Gone: MLB'ers Villar, JedLowrie, Oberholtzer, MILB'ers Mengden, Nottingham, Santana, Phillips, Hader, Houser, Garcia, Velasquez, Eshelman, Appel, H. Arauz.  Honorable mention (Delino DeShields, to the 2014 Rule 5 draft)

The Astros gave up some very good -- maybe at some point great -- players.  That's not the topic at hand though.  Did trading away ten minor league players thin out the Astros' farm system meaningfully?

Surprisingly, not really

Thinner than it was before the trades occurred?  Well, sure.  But thinner in comparison to the state of the system prior to 2015?  That question is debatable, and I land on the side of "no".

There's no denying that the system is less top-heavy than it was from 2013 to 2014, but that's mainly due to the graduation of budding Major League superstar Carlos Correa, not trading away elite talent.  The system is thinner at the top for the right reasons - the best guys from 2013 to 2014 are in the major leagues now.  That's not to say that some of the current lower-graded prospects can't reach the same level of glamour that was showered upon Correa or even George Springer.  But that hasn't happened yet.

'Top-heavy' and 'depth' are different, though.  With depth, the question should be asked:  was the system as deep as we thought it was in 2013/2014?  Or was that a perception of Astros fans because the organization was so hilariously shallow and useless from 2006 to 2011 that we lost all concept of what it feels like to have a consistent pipeline of young talent feeding the club?  It's a rhetorical question, but worthwhile when trying to compare depth objectively.  For me, when the Astros traded Hunter Pence for a stable of highly-regarded prospects, and then drafted Correa, Lance McCullers, and Rio Ruiz in the 2012 Rule 4 draft, it felt like the farm system was deeper than Europa's ocean.  The Top 20 looked pretty good, anyway.  But looking deeper, and it's...well, a little more "meh".

But 2012 has little relevance to the change in prospects between 2014 and 2015 due to trades.  And so, here is a little comparison, using MLB.com's prospect rankings and grades.

2014-2015 Comparo!

This season, the Astros' No. 2 overall draft pick, Alex Bregman, was graded with a 60 Future Projection (FP), the same Grade assigned to Correa when they rated him in 2013.  The Astros have six players behind Bregman with 55 FP, and then another eight graded 50 FP.

To put that into context for the non-prospect-phile, Correa, who looks to be on the verge of stardom if he isn't already, had an identical grading to Bregman a couple years ago.  Lance McCullers, who now looks to be at least a solid #2 on a MLB playoff team, was a grade 55. [Ed. Note: That's #2 as in a Top-of-Rotation type starting pitcher, not a poop-quality one.]  A 50 is equivalent to a solid everyday starter, and 45 is a borderline regular for a playoff team, or a solid starter on a non-playoff team.  Preston Tucker was a 45.  And he's pretty good, right?

Getting back to the point of depth, compare the prospect ratings of the Top 20 Astros prospects, judged by MLB.com:

2015:
GR 60: 1
GR 55: 3
GR 50: 8
GR 45: 8+

2014:
GR 70: 1
GR 55: 6
GR 50: 5
GR 45: 9+

We don't know how MLB would grade the next twenty players, though in 2015, they took their list to Top 30 instead of Top 20, and the remaining 10 on the list are all Grade 45.  So we can infer that MLB believes that more than 30 prospects in the current Astros farm system have at least the ceiling of a fringe-regular MLB player.  For 2014 we don't know, but can compare based on TCB's 2014-2015 prospect rankings, which I luckily have access to and goes 175+ prospects deep.

Once you drill down past the Top 20 prospects, the list of quality prospects with Major League projection is longer in 2015 than in 2014.  Compare TCB's 2014 players ranked 21 through 30 to MLB's 2015 21 through 30:

2014 (TCB): Jason Martin, Andrew Aplin, Joe Sclafani, Joe Musgrove, Aaron West, Kent Emanuel, Nolan Fontana, Tyler Heineman, Ronald Torreyes, Brady Rodgers, Asher Wojiechowski

2015 (MLB):  Andrew Aplin, Nolan Fontana, Akeem Bostick, Jason Martin, Patrick Sandoval, Jandel Gustave, Tyler White, Brendan McCurry, Matt Duffy, Juan Minaya

To me, the 2015 list is at least as strong (or stronger) than the 2014 list, particularly when you consider the additions of three first-round draft picks, including two in the top five picks.  Many of those names are the same.  And that doesn't include guys outside of the Top 30 entirely, such as outfielder Jon Kemmer, who hit .327/.414/.574 at Double-A this season, or Heineman who fell out of the Top 30 but still managed .285/.334/.379 as a catcher.  Or what about Aaron West, coming back from injury to post a 2.77 ERA and 2.88 FIP?  And more!  I'll take 2015, personally.

Conclusion

I've rambled enough.  The point is certainly debatable, but I think the case can be made that the Astros' farm system is every bit as deep as it was from 2013-2014 prior to the trades, and that there's a solid argument that it is deeper now than it ever was prior to the 2015 draft.

UPDATE:  ADDENDUM

Here's a point I intended to make but completely forgot in my hurry to adjust this article when the trade changed on Friday:  Comparison between the Astros' depth and other clubs, for reference.

It's all well and good to say the Astros have twelve minor leaguers graded 50 FP or better, but is that a lot, or is it a little?  Turns out, it's a lot.  Compare to the 2015 LAA Angels:

Astros Top 30
60 FP: 1
55 FP: 3
50 FP: 8
45 FP: 18+

Angels Top 30
60 FP: 0
55 FP: 0
50 FP: 4
45 FP: 17
40 FP: 9+

That's an incredible difference in young talent between the Astros and their division rival.  And how about another GOOD farm system?  Many pundits believe the Minnesota Twins to have the strongest farm system right now (an opinion I can't really argue with).

Twins Top 30
70 FP: 1 (though Byron Buxton is making me skeptical)
60 FP: 1
55 FP: 4
50 FP: 3
45 FP: 21+

This is amazing, actually.  The Astros have dealt away a half-dozen MLB Top-100 prospects during the past calendar year and still have a strong argument for having the deepest --and even the best!-- minor league farm system in baseball.