The Red Sox have a farm system that is considered one of the best in baseball, perhaps the best.
Does it matter?
It certainly hasn’t in 2015. Despite a highly regarded pool of talent below the surface, the Red Sox have been a mess. That’s tempered the enthusiasm about what lies on the horizon, both inside and outside the organization.
“We’d rather have a strong farm system than not, but clearly the goal is to win games at the major league level,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “It’s not to have our farm system ranked highly.”
The Sox confront a situation in which they are enduring futility in the big leagues but have a farm system viewed by some — including minor league guru Keith Law of ESPN — as the best of all 30 teams. And so, it’s worth asking: How often does top farm system status translate to success in the big leagues?
Remarkably, none of the last 14 organizations to be designated with the top farm system by Baseball America has won a World Series since receiving that accolade. The last team to hoist a championship trophy following a top farm system ranking was the 2005 White Sox, four years after they’d been named the top farm system in 2001. Only their No. 10 prospect from that group, Aaron Rowand, emerged as a centerpiece of the title team.
Still, digging a bit deeper, there’s evidence that top-ranked farm systems have served as the foundation for playoff appearances, and often a sustainable postseason presence. Within five years of being recognized, the teams designated the top farm systems in baseball over the 10-year span from 2005-14 have comprised five of the last 20 World Series participants.
In fact, for those 10 teams, the majority of seasons (22 of 40, or 55 percent) within a five-year window have resulted in playoff berths, all 10 franchises making the playoffs at least once.
That history suggests better days may be on deck for Boston. Still, a farm system’s status is far from a guarantee of future success, just as a lowly regarded farm system isn’t necessarily an impediment to success.
The eventual success of teams with highly regarded farm systems hasn’t necessarily come as a result of seeing a wave of players graduating to the big leagues. Instead, there’s a strong case to be made that the value of a highly regarded farm system is the opportunity it presents through trades.
One former executive of a team that Baseball America graded as having the top farm system recalled the industry view of his team’s minor leaguers.
“We didn’t have our own system ranked No. 1,” he mused.
As such, his team felt its best means of capturing value was to trade from its pool of assets. That has been a viable formula for other teams as well.
In 2011, for instance, the Royals were named Baseball America’s top farm system after having an unprecedented nine players in the top 100 prospects.
“I remember [Royals GM] Dayton Moore saying for that story that you have to make the right move at the right time to capitalize on all this talent,” said Baseball America editor in chief John Manuel. “The most impact the Royals have really gotten from that slew of top-100 guys were the trade guys. It’s really the traded guys who helped them turn the corner.”
|Year||Top-ranked system||Top 3 prospects||Made playoffs||Missed playoffs|
|2015||Cubs||Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler||n/a||n/a|
|2014||Pirates||Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow||1||0|
|2013||Cardinals||Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez||2||0|
|2012||Rangers||Yu Darvish, Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez||1||2|
|2011||Royals||Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Mike Moustakas||1||3|
|2010||Rays||Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis||3||2|
|2009||Rangers||Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Justin Smoak||3||2|
|2008||Rays||Evan Longoria, David Price, Jake McGee||3||2|
|2007||Devil Rays||Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac||3||2|
|2006||Diamondbacks||Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin||1||4|
|2005||Angels||Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Erick Aybar||4||1|
Does that mean that prospect rankings are meaningless? Are they a reflection of a team’s distorted self-perception or a product of a team’s misguided sense of self?
To Manuel, the answer is clearly no. Rankings are based on the feedback of scouts and executives around the industry, reflecting the views of 30 organizations rather than one.
“It’s not just the Red Sox,” said Manuel. “The industry has been telling us the Red Sox have talent. It’s just not translating at the big league level.”
That lack of translation offers a potentially fascinating wrinkle. In some respects, a top ranking may be less revealing about the eventual big league performance of prospects than it is a glimpse into their value as a form of currency for addressing big league needs.
The Red Sox need not apologize for having a highly regarded farm system, with players such as Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Blake Swihart trying to establish themselves at the big league level with Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, and others on the more distant horizon. But the team does need to figure out how to maximize the impact of that group — looking beyond the rankings to separate the future building blocks from the players whose primary value will come as trade chips.
“Historically, [top farm system status] has translated over time,” said Cherington. “It doesn’t always in a given year. Obviously, it hasn’t for us this year. There are teams that have had periods of success at the big league level without having a very strong farm system, or at least the perception is that they don’t have one, and then there’s plenty of examples of teams that have.
“We’d like [a top farm system], because we think it helps us be better at the major league level in the long run. I can’t imagine that we’re ever not going to want a strong farm system. The question is how we build a more consistent, good big league team and how do we use the farm system in the best way?”
The Red Sox’ future may hang in the balance with how the team answers that question.Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.