Folks love to debate the importance of having a highly-ranked farm system. Some argue that rankings are subjective, and even accurate rankings mean very little until the prospects actually prove it in the big leagues. Others counter that most of the great big league players were, at one time, great prospects, and having highly-ranked prospects also provides asset value to the big league club.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I fall strongly in the latter camp, but I won’t offer that debate today. Instead, I wanted to call your attention to a great piece at Baseball Prospectus on an issue that informs that debate: how much is having a “top” farm system really worth to the big league team?
That’s the question Sam Miller has taken on at Baseball Prospectus three years running by looking at the top farm systems in 2004 (Brewers), 2005 (Angels), and now 2006 (Diamondbacks), to see how much value they actually provided to the big league club – both in terms of prospect performance, and trade acquisitions – in the years down the road. This is, of course, of particular interest to Cubs fans, because, as Miller concedes, the Cubs probably have the top farm system in baseball right now.
I won’t go too deeply into the gory details of Miller’s work – you should read that for yourself – but, after performing this exercise three times, he does come to some rough conclusions, including this one: “Each year we do this, we get a surer sense of what a club with the best farm system in baseball can expect: Around 100 wins above replacement, most of it at sub-market prices, peaking three to seven years after the rankings come out, but some remnants of that value lasting into the next decade.”
The remnants referenced there at the end include not only players sticking around past ten years, but also the fruits of any trades involving the players previously in the system. In other words, if you play your cards right, you can parlay the “top ranked farm system” into a lot more than a decade’s worth of value.
To be sure, each of the Brewers, Angels, and Diamondbacks got a ton of value out of the players in their system at the time they were ranked at the top, including many, many household names. On the other hand, there were no World Series’ won, and only a handful of playoff appearances among the group in the windows discussed. Technically, that’s not a knock on the value of the farm system – because each team clearly benefited – but it’s a reminder that having a great farm system, alone, is not a silver bullet. It’s merely one very, very important piece of a broader organizational process.
Consider, for example, that if that 100 WAR were spread out over 10 years, that’s just 10 WAR per year coming via a *top* farm system. To be competitive, a team would need another 30 or so WAR annually to be consistently competitive. You can see, then, why decade-long dynasties are extremely rare.
You can also rightly conclude, as Miller points out, that the 100ish WAR is not evenly spread over the ensuing years. It’ll be clustered somewhere in the middle of the decade after the top farm system ranking. So, if you’re looking for the Cubs’ best window with this group, you’d be talking about somewhere in the 2018 to 2022 range. Fortunately, the Cubs have some very nice young pieces at the big league level already, and they also are entering a period where their economics are going to change. Thus, their success or failure in the coming years won’t be dictated entirely by the strength of the farm system.
Which circles back to the ultimate point: it’s great that the Cubs have the (probably) top farm system in baseball. That means a lot, and it goes a long way to helping the team win at the big league level consistently for a good stretch of time. But it’s going to take savvy moves at the big league level, creative uses of the prospects as assets, fantastic player development, well-spent money, and a whole lot of luck to parlay that farm ranking into the kind of sustained success the front office and the fans desire.[Ed. – I’m a couple posts shy of where I’d like to be at this point in the day, and, for that, I apologize. We got back from The Little Girl’s ear tubes procedure this morning (which went swimmingly) to find that our WIFI was wrecked. This happened once before, and it was when we connected our first generation iPad to the network. Sure enough, the kiddo was watching the iPad at the hospital, and when we brought it home today, it connected again. Thus, network speed crushed, even after the iPad was shut off. I’ve never been able to find a proper answer for why that happened, but it’s taken me nearly two hours just to get things maybe-possibly-probably-not working again via shutting everything down, factory re-sets, etc. I’m still in that process – I wrote the Kris Bryant post on my phone – but I did manage to write the above post while at the hospital this morning. Hopefully the life-giving Internet will be back to normal ASAP.]