Keith Law’s 2017 MLB Farm System Rankings were just released at ESPN.com . This is a cause for much discussion among baseball fans, as Law is a recognized prospect guru and farm systems are what sustain current success stories, while sowing future championships for others. The health of any MLB organization can be measured by (1) W/L record, (2) post-season success, (3) payroll obligations, and (4) the strength of the farm system.
The general manager (GM) is directly responsible for all of this, and the first three criteria listed above are easy enough to measure, it’s a team’s minor-league system which is trickiest to quantify. It’s necessary to do this because the minors are brimming with valuable prospects, which hold the most value in today’s (and tomorrow’s) game. The best GM’s build through their farm system, then deal from strength to fill in needs during a competitive window. They lock up organizational talent early, at a fair rate, and rarely indulge in free agency splashes. Young, cost-controlled talent is king, and pitching is always primary.
With that explained, this piece is a comparison of what the 30 MLB GM’s have done for their organizations in terms of planning & value this winter. It will take Keith Law’s farm- system rankings as generally correct, and weigh the factors mentioned above to appraise chances in 2017, and beyond. Law mentions in his preface that any of the top-three teams could be switched around, depending on scouting preferences. This means the Braves, Yankees & Padres are clearly the best farm systems, a cut above the rest. Obviously, Opening Day rosters are still not set, meaning payroll is still in flux for most teams. Cot’s Contracts is used as the reference .
The 2016 farm rankings are listed in parenthesis, and any rise or drop must be understood in its total context. At what point is this team in it’s competitive cycle? Are they competing for a WS? Are they in decline? Are they rebuilding? Sometimes a team will drop in the farm rankings for all the right reasons, such as the Cubs here: they fell from 4th to 18th, because their prospects became championship players, and other pieces were also dealt in order to win it. Teams that fall in the rankings AND have a poor W/L records (Angels, D-backs) are scouting & spending poorly. They have the worst 25-man rosters & prospects, and therefore are furthest from competing. If these teams don’t have new GM’s, then their current one should be on the hot seat.
1. Atlanta Braves (1st in 2016); GM John Coppolella has amassed some nice talent from trades (Shelby Miller), and in the 2017-18 J2 draft. But some fans still wonder why he took on RF Matt Kemp with his hefty contract and low OBP/poor defense? Off-season pitching acquisitions include: 1/$12.5M for age-44 RHP Bartolo Colon, 1/$8M for age-42 righty knuckleball R.A. Dickey, and $12M (and 3 prospects to STL) for age-30 LHP Jaime Garcia– before he becomes a FA. They will eat innings, but aren’t likely to be very effective. Braves are wasting money all over the place, while they await fruition from their farm system. There is plenty of upside here, but also organizational flaws, which may prevent future success.
2. New York Yankees (13th in 2016); GM Brian Cashman was finally given free reign last summer, and he immediately dealt premier closer Aroldis Chapman and set-up man Andrew Miller for huge hauls. They also went in big on an earlier J2 draft, which is about to pay off in the Bronx. The Yankees signed Chapman to a 5-year deal, and the Evil Empire will be back by 2018 for sure, when A-Rod & CC Sabathia are off-the-books. They still have a propensity to waste money; Ellsbury, Headley… but now have a solid cache of prospects to compliment them.
3. San Diego Padres (20th in 2016); GM AJ Preller is currently the best GM in MLB . He grabbed the top-3 selection in the Rule 5 Draft; including the back-up C and utility SS he was seeking. The rest has been pitching this winter. RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Jhoulys Chacin ($1.75M) & LHP Clayton Richard ($1.75-2.5M) are all 1-year deals which fill 3/5 of the Padres 2017 rotation. This winter AJ Preller also acquired: age-22 RHP Miguel Diaz from MIL (top Rule 5 selection), age-24 RHP Tyrell Jenkins claimed on waivers from ATL, and age-25 RHP Zach Lee claimed on waivers from SEA; all of whom are pre-Arb, with upside. This money was spent to protect assets Luis Perdomo, Christian Friedrich, Ryan Buchter, Brad Hand, etc… and keep this franchise respectable until the waves of pitching talent start arriving from the minors by 2018. What smart teams understand is that it’s always about pitching, having enough of it and having the best of it. The Padres can’t afford to pay for the best, so they’ve done the next best thing which is acquire depth on their 40-man roster (at a bargain), through hard work & brains. Maintaining payroll & roster flexibility are also critical, which is what AJP has accomplished with the 3B Yangervis Solarte (4/$13M) & 1B Wil Myers (6/$83M) extensions. This organization will be a force to be reckoned with by 2018.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (8th in 2016); GM Neal Huntington has built this team, but he’s now on the hot seat. The have the stud in CF Andrew McCutchen, but were shopping him (??) this winter, after winning only 78 games in 2017. McCutchen, LF Starling Marte, 3B Jung Ho Kang are a good nucleus, but they need their farm system to come through again. Pirates need to develop a closer, after trading Mark Melancon at the deadline. They also need another starter or two to support their young RHP’s Gerrit Cole & Jameson Tailon. Huntington’s FA splash was 3/$26M for age-30 RHP Ivan Nova, who represents a significant risk with limited upside for the penny-pinching Pirates. Possible fire sale in the Pirate’s future if they tank.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (2nd in 2016); GM Andrew Friedman since leaving the cost-cutting Rays, has had the highest payroll in MLB. Cot’s Contracts currently has their 2017 payroll commitment to be $222+M, and they still don’t have a second baseman as of this writing. Their farm system is starting to slip for the right reasons, meaning prospects have developed in regulars and All-Stars. Unfortunately it’s still not enough, and this team relies too much on ace LHP Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers basically re-signed everybody they lost to free agency, which significantly raises payroll. Friedman is putting everything on his farm system being the boost that gets them past the Cubs. I’m skeptical.
6. Milwaukee Brewers (5th in 2016); GM David Stearns traded away franchise favorite C Jonathan Lucroy, and the players that develop from that deal (Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz and Ryan Cordell) will likely be his legacy, along with trading RF Ryan Braun. Young SS Jonathan Villar is currently their best player to build around. There is no pitching for skipper Craig Counsell to manage, because these are the Brewers.
7. New York Mets (16th in 2016); RF Jay Bruce will be age-30 next season and make $13M with a batting line around .240/.300/.420 in Citi Field. Recall when the Mets withdrew prospect Brandon Nimmo on 8-1-16, and the Reds still made the deal; making it clear to everyone they were dumping Bruce’s contract. What makes Mets GM Sandy Alderson think anyone else would be interested in dealing for that? Mets will have to eat ~$8-10M to move Jay Bruce, and they NEED to move him. This 25-man roster is thin beyond CF Yoenis Cespedes, and their brilliant young pitching which is starting to breakdown.
8. Cincinnati Reds (12th in 2016); The GM situation here is Dick Williams, with Walt Jocketty as the consiglierie. Old-school at work here, and it really hurt when they got raped by the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman deal. What Yankees GM Brian Cashman received (above the Reds) in flipping Chapman to the Cubs proves how much dinosaurs like Jocketty are hurting their organizations. When opportunities like that are squandered, the Reds end up on the short end and are stuck with 2B Brandon Phillips & SS Zack Cosart, who are viewed as assets by their outdated brain-trust, when they are simply bad contracts to everyone else. This team can’t rebuild until it recognizes sunk costs and moves on.
9. Colorado Rockies (7th in 2016); GM Jeff Bridich signed age-31 Ian Desmond at 5/$70M (career .267/.316/.427) to play 1B. This happened less than a year after no one would give Desmond a multi-year deal at SS. The Rockies finished 2016 with a payroll of $120+M– a team record. Around $22M went to SS Jose Reyes, who was released and is being paid another $21M by Colorado this season. RF Carlos Gonzalez at $20.4M is an albatross that the Rockies front-office (and their fans) too-much view as a bargain. There’s even been talk of extending him, meaning they must have some really nice bud in the Mile High city. Every dollar this organization spends on bats is a complete waste for the Rockies, who desperately need to acquire & develop pitching. This has been a leitmotif of their existence.
10. Chicago White Sox (22nd in 2016); GM Rick Hahn did what he had to do and dealt ace LHP Chris Sale to the Red Sox for a bounty of top prospects. This and the Adam Eaton deal to Washington are what elevates this farm system and gives their fans some hope for the future. There’s still a lot of work left here, including dealing young lefty Jose Quintana, 1B Jose Abreau, and RHP James Shields– which will require eating contract. That was a really bad trade, giving up 3B prospect Fernando Tatis, Jr to the Padres for a broken-down veteran starter, and it will delay their rebuilding significantly.
11. Minnesota Twins (3rd in 2016); New GM Thad Levine takes over after Terry Ryan was finally fired. Levine inherits one of the worst organizations in MLB as far as ownership commitment and overall talent in the majors & minors. This organization has a reputation for holding their prospects back, and developing pitchers that ‘pitch to contact’ instead of missing bats. Their pitching stinks and age-29 2B Brian Dozier is their best player, with age-23 DH Miguel Sano their sole wild-card. Manager Paul Molitor has a few more 100-loss seasons ahead of him (if he stays), until new management can draft and figure out a new direction. New ownership would help a lot.
12. Houston Astros (17th in 2016); GM Jeff Luhnow & manager AJ Hinch work well together, and are a model for new-school thinking. In today’s game, teams need their dugout manager to listen to the front office, who are supplying the talent. That means managers must understand sabermetrics, as all front offices use this in their decision-making. Payroll matters, and value means production/dollar. Astros 2017 payroll is currently at $104+M, which means they have the flexibility to get what they need at the deadline, and the prospects to make the deal. This is a young exciting team, and Carlos Beltran at DH is a significant upgrade.
13. St. Louis Cardinals (19th in 2016); GM John Mozeliak & manager Mike Matheny are another nice tandem. Unfortunately this team has gotten old, and now their second HOF-er (first Albert Pujols, then Matt Holliday) has left. C Yadier Molina & 3B Matt Carpenter are still studs, and there’s some young talent to fill in, but no impact players on the foreseeable horizon. Their rotation is still above-average, with depth; but lacks a true ace. Cardinals won 86 games in 2016, but fell short of the post-season. I see one or two more championship runs with this core, but they’ll need some major luck to succeed. They’re capable, and (like the Giants) are always dangerous.
14. Philadelphia Phillies (6th in 2016); GM Matt Klentak saw their system graduate prospects to the big club in 2016, accounting for the drop in their farm rankings. Unfortunately they only won 71 games, so they still need a lot more help and have predictably gone the Andy MacPhail splash route this off-season in acquiring RHP Clay Bucholtz ($12M + prospects), righty set-up man Joaquin Benoit ($7.5M), OF Michael Saunders ($9M) and 2B Howie Kendrick (2/$22M). That gets the Phillies to ~75 wins in 2017, now what?
15. Texas Rangers (9th in 2016); GM Jon Daniels keeps plunging, dealing prospects for the missing link that will win them a WS. Last year it was C Jonathan Lucroy, which was a fantastic deal. This winter it’s ex-Padres RHP’s Andrew Cashner ($10M) and Tyson Ross ($6M), which forebodes disaster. The Rangers have another year or two, before their competitive window collapses from too much payroll and not enough young talent. It’s clear now that much of the scouting & organizational brains left Texas when AJ Preller went to San Diego.
16. Boston Red Sox (10th in 2016); GM Dave Dombrowski (and Orioles GM Dan Duquette) built the Montreal Expos dynasty in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and the 1994 Expos stand as MLB’s greatest forgotten team . Dombrowski built winners in Florida, Detroit and has now been on the job for over a year in Boston. The early returns in beantown aren’t good, as the Sox were swept in the Divisional round by Cleveland last fall, and HoF DH David Ortiz has retired. Young talent will need to step in and sustain this machine, but Dombrowski has traded much of it away. Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz & Chris Sale are valuable commodities; but Manny Margot, Anderson Espinoza and Yoan Mocanda are all blue-chip prospects in whom the Red Sox had invested tens-of-millions of dollars. This talent will now yield surplus value for the Padres & White Sox instead. If the Red Sox don’t win a WS with the players Dombrowski has acquired, then these trades are busts. That’s how high the stakes are in Boston. Note: the Red Sox were given the chance to reverse the Drew Pomeranz-for-Anderson Espinoza deal with the Padres, due to “undisclosed anti-inflammatories.” The Red Sox declined .
17. Cleveland Indians (11th in 2016); GM Mike Chernoff & manager Terry Francona are another winning combination. The LHP Andrew Miller deal was a difference-maker for Cleveland last fall. Recall the Indians almost had Jonathan Lucroy also, who used his no-trade clause to nix the deal. He was then traded to Texas the next day. Young talent in the rotation, bullpen, and on the field make Cleveland a sustainable success story. Their current $111+M 2017 payroll gives them some flexibility, which they’ll need to make another run.
18. Chicago Cubs (4th in 2016); GM Jed Hoyer got busy early this off-season nabbing CF Jon Jay at a bargain (1/$8M), and the arms he needed– including closer Wade Davis from KCR for young OF Jorge Soler. When management drafts & develops talent, it can sustain itself on a budget. The Cubs are a textbook example of this, making them WS favs again in 2017.
19. Tampa Bay Rays (14th in 2016); GM Matt Silverman has overseen the gutting of a once-competitive franchise. Wil Myers and Matt Moore have been dealt with little to show in return. LHP Drew Smyly (the centerpiece of the David Price deal) was just flipped; and coveted starters Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb are next. GM’s around MLB are salivating at the thought of stealing one of these valuable arms from this directionless franchise. This organization needs new ownership as much as any MLB franchise.
20. San Francisco Giants (21st in 2016); GM Brian Sabean acquired LHP Matt Moore from the Rays for busted 3B-prospect Matt Duffy and some other junk. The Giants already had aces in Madison Bumgarner & Johnny Cueto, and have now added Mark Melancon to close. This is a championship roster for several more seasons, barring major injuries.
21. Toronto Blue Jays (25th in 2016); GM Ross Atkins is in a tight spot, with a payroll-heavy roster constructed under a previous regime, that probably isn’t good enough to win it. RF Jose Bautista was a tough negotiation for both sides this off-season, as his early 2016 negotiating stance about “knowing his value” definitely soured his market. He’s age-36, and his AVG, SLG and defense have slipped significantly, while becoming injury-prone. In the end the Jays need Joey Bats, and vise versa, so 1/$18M is about right. This winter revealed the Blue Jays have reached their payroll limit. Combine that with a lack of prospects, and I see the AL East in 2017 as Boston & NYY, with Toronto & Baltimore slipping back.
22. Washington Nationals (15th in 2016); GM Mike Rizzo hired Dusty Baker to manage, after Bud Black declined a low-ball contract offer last off-season. The Nationals are currently at $144+M according to Cots Contracts. They made deals this winter with the Padres (C Derek Norris) and White Sox (CF Adam Eaton) to shore up their roster, by dealing prospects. Young phenom Trea Turner moves from part-time CF to full-time SS, as the Nats make another run at a WS. This team may have the most talent in MLB, yet still hasn’t won a play-off series. Someday someone in Washington may point their finger at a manager who doesn’t know how to construct a line-up, or manage a pitching staff.
23. Oakland Athletics (18th in 2016); Moneyball GM Billy Beane (now kicked upstairs) deserves the HOF, but with that said, he had fallen hopelessly behind in his profession. The truth is GM Beane never recovered from the 3B Eric Chavez extension: 6/$66M (2005-10), which blew up with a bad back and financially crippled the franchise. David Forst has taken over as new GM, and he currently has a roster with a payroll at $66+M, which is mostly comprised of fungible position players & fragile arms. This is another team that needs new ownership to have any chance at competing.
24. Detroit Tigers (26th in 2016); GM Al Avila has continued the Dave Dombrowski playbook in Detroit, with predictable results. The LF Justin Upton (6/$132M) splash last winter was predictably a bust, and now it’s time to face the music. Their competitive window is closing, and there’s only one or two more runs before it’s time to rebuild. There are assets here, but also a lot of contracts that will need to be eaten when this happens.
25. Baltimore Orioles (27th in 2016); GM Dan Duquette takes his orders from owner Peter Angelos. That’s how things work in Baltimore. Last off-season it was all about signing 1B Chris Davis for 7/$161M, and giving up a 1st-round draft pick to sign RHP Yovani Gallardo. That didn’t work, so this winter Duquette dealt Gallardo ($13M) to the Mariners for veteran RF Seth Smith ($7M) as a form of salary dump, then re-signed RF/DH Mark Trumbo (3/$37M). This team desperately needs starting pitching, and yet has done nothing this off-season to acquire any. There’s obviously nothing coming from the minors, as evidenced by this farm-system ranking, so no one knows what they are doing to fill their most basic need? Spring Training is less than a month away.
26. Kansas City Royals (23rd in 2016); GM Dayton Moore extended breakout starter age-28 LHP Danny Duffy at 5/$65M which is a win-win deal. I always like GM’s who make those deals, as they lock down talent and build team chemistry, without busting an organization’s budget. I’m just not sold that it will work here. This team could win it all again, or it could bust again. The smart GM has to play for the former, while making contingencies for the latter. After winning the WS in 2015, this franchise is now at a crossroads. Update: Within hours of this publication came the news of age-25 RHP Yordano Ventura dying in a car crash in his homeland of the Dominican Republic. MLB and all fans mourn his passing.
27. Los Angeles Angels (30th in 2016); GM Billy Eppler & manager Mike Scioscia are in no-man’s land, with huge payroll bloat around the best player in the game, CF Mike Trout. They have no effective pitching, starting or bullpen. With ~$150M already committed in 2017, for a second-division team with no prospects, this may be the worst organization in MLB.
28. Seattle Mariners (28th in 2016); GM Jerry Dipoto has made the biggest overall splash this winter, and is the current fashionable GM. His dealings look more like reshuffling chairs on the decks of the Titanic, than actual improvement, as the 2017 Mariners look suspiciously like the 2016 Diamondbacks or 2015 Padres to this observer. There’s not enough pitching to compete with Texas or Houston, much less for a WS. This looks like one last gamble with a veteran core that has never come close to putting it together. Whatever the result, the Mariners are a story in 2017.
29. Miami Marlins (29th in 2016); GM Mike Hill has been criticized for his recent deal-making, and the RHP Dan Straily trade is his latest head-scratcher. Hill already inked RHP Edinson Volquez to a 2/$22M deal earlier this winter, which seemed like an overpay. The Marlins needed another arm, so #2 organizational prospect RHP Luis Castillo (the trade-back in the Colin Rea fiasco with the Padres last July/August) was shipped with 2 others to Cincinnati. Castillo throws ~ 100 MPH and has a closer profile, but is a long ways away. All that is probably more valuable than a 5th starter whom the Reds picked up on waivers last April. In addition, the Marlins have multiple back-loaded contracts (such as Giancarlo Stanton’s), which are about to balloon. If things go south in 2017, the Marlins are going to have another fire sale, and there’s a significant chance they will. The Marlins can’t possibly replace heart-and-soul inspiration, and ace RHP Jose Fernandez– RIP.
30. Arizona Diamondbacks (24th in 2016); New GM Mike Hazen is a Dombrowski protoge, and he replaces Dave Stewart, which is a relief to D-back fans. Age-33 RHP Zack Greinke (5/$172.5M remaining) may be the biggest current albatross contract in MLB, and the Shelby Miller deal with the Braves last winter was a complete disaster, which is why this farm system is ranked dead last. It’s going to be a long rebuild in Arizona with Grienke, RHP Taijuan Walker, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, and CF AJ Pollock as their only real assets.