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Prospects in Another’s Eye: Examining the Strange Logic of Keith Law

The offseason is always a nice time for baseball fanatics to use their oodles of baseball-less time to make lists: best free agents, best players at every position, most under-appreciated HOF candidates, and, of course, best prospects.

Baseball America (paywall) dropped their lists at the end of 2018. MLB a couple of weeks ago. Last week Keith Law gave his own top 100 list (paywall) that included five Astros, as well as a top 20 impact list for 2019 that included three. Whereas MLB tends to amalgamate rankings, Law is less conventional, which can make fan bases either pleased, or more often, irate. This year is no exception. He places Tatis above Vlad Jr, and omits Yordan Alvarez altogether from his top 100, and even from the list of 14 who “just missed.” Alvarez ranks between 30-50 on most lists, so this omission is stunning. Likewise, Tucker comes in only at #19. On the flip side, Whitley is #4, and Corbin Martin #48, the highest I’ve seen them ranked. Bukauskas (#67) and James (#70) round out the list of Astros.

With 5 prospects in the top 100, and three in the top 50, it would seem a lock that the Astros would be considered a top 10 farm system. The math isn’t hard here: with 30 teams, the average for a system should be 3.3 prospects on the top 100. The Astros have 50% more than average. That should make them top 10.

With Padres (8), Rays (8), and Braves (8) taking up almost one quarter of the list, that leaves even less room for other teams, less than three/team. Yet Law ranks the Astros’ system 12th! Let that sink in. Meanwhile the Angels, with only 3 in the top 114, rank 7th.

The process of ranking systems is arbitrary. Would you rather have one future superstar or seven future JD Davises? Maybe the Astros are just top heavy, and the drop off after the top 6 is so severe that they can’t be a top 10 system? Depth which would be harder to measure, because you would have to look at 30 or 50 guys. How does the Astros’ talent stack up throughout different levels?

Here Law’s ranking becomes even more perplexing. Every Astro affiliate made their league’s playoffs last year, and three affiliates won their division. Altogether, the top 5 teams had the highest winning percentage of any system. The Fresno Grizzlies were 82-57. The Corpus Christi went 82-56. Buies Creek did not win their division, but still went 80-57 and the Quad City River Bandits were 81-59. Even Tri-City went 42-33 to win their division. The Astros’ players in these systems were not disproportionately older, as several of their 2017 college draftees opened in the Carolina League, and their 2018 draftees, like Seth Beer, did not pile on in the NY Penn League, but instead moved all the way up to A+. Guys like Jon Arauz, young for the MWL, were challenged, and failed badly, when moved to the Carolina League.

How could a system with great top end talent, and the depth to dominate across five levels, be considered only the 12th best system? The only possible answer must lie in the in-between: prospects outside Law’s 100, but still expected to reach MLB. The Astros have some good ones: Seth Beer, Yordan Alvarez, Freudis Nova, Tyler Ivey, Cionel Perez, Myles Straw, Abraham Toro, etc... I’m not sure whether Keith Law really looked under the hood here. He says he values up the middle talent, and apparently Saldana and Nova do not grade out well. Fireballers in the DSL, who are 17, may generate more excitement than the Brandon Bielaks of the world, who handle AA at age 22 but don’t throw 95.

He will get around to describing our system in detail later this week. At the end of the day, his rankings don’t matter. Maybe it just comes down to getting more tips on other guys in other systems. And it’s the twenty-first century, so if you don’t like his rankings, you can always tell him. The rate of his interactions with critics make Trevor Bauer look like a guy who’s never heard of Twitter.