Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Farm systems rising and falling
By Keith Law
With the major league season reaching its midpoint and the bulk of high picks from this year's draft already agreeing to contracts, it's a good time to re-examine farm systems to see which organizations have improved or declined since my organizational rankings at the start of the season.
For the purposes of this exercise, some parameters to keep in mind:
1. I'm only including draft picks who've signed.
2. I'm going to assume players in the majors right now are going to lose their rookie eligibility and won't count for the next org rankings I do in the winter. (This matters because graduating prospects will hurt a system as much as a lack of performance.)
With that noted, let's take a look.
Minnesota Twins | Preseason rank: 2
The Twins have benefited from big jumps by several of their top prospects, balancing out the promotions of their No. 3, 4, and 5 prospects to the majors this year.
Byron Buxton has fully justified my ranking of him as the top prospect in last year's draft, tearing up the low Class A Midwest League at Cedar Rapids before earning a promotion a week ago to high-A Fort Myers. His combination of electric speed and plate discipline has prompted some unfair comparisons to Mike Trout -- at Buxton's age, Trout was about to start the season in Double-A, and reached the majors before he turned 20 -- but Buxton clearly has superstar potential and is one of the top two prospects in the game.
Buxton passed Miguel Sano as Minnesota's top prospect, but Sano also has had a huge year -- he was recently promoted to Double-A New Britain -- and could reach the majors by early 2014, giving the Twins the kind of middle-of-the-order power bat they've lacked for several years. Max Kepler is finally healthy again and off to a solid start in Cedar Rapids; Eddie Rosario crushed high-A and joined Sano in Double-A in June.
Alex Meyer, acquired in the Denard Span trade, had a strong two months before hitting the DL with a shoulder issue; he's about to start his rehab, but before the injury he was missing bats and getting ground balls and continuing to show that he can succeed in a rotation. And the Twins added the top prep arm in this year's draft in right-hander Kohl Stewart, a Texas A&M football commit who has a plus fastball and slider with a raw delivery; he will benefit from work in a pro development system.
With no major prospect taking a serious step back -- Meyer's 2013 might be the worst, because of the injury -- the Twins are in even better shape today than they were in February.
Philadelphia Phillies | Preseason rank: 27
The Phillies' system has been a bit of a mixed bag this year, but the net result is positive, primarily because of a strong draft class that added upside (their usual modus operandi in June) without going for broke on players who were too raw, instead taking players with strong baselines of present baseball skills, such as catcher Jake Sweaney and shortstop J.P. Crawford.
They've also seen two of their top prospects, lefty Jesse Biddle and third baseman Maikel Franco, take strong steps forward, while losing just one of their top 10 prospects, Jonathan Pettibone, to promotion.
They've been brought down by several disappointing seasons within the system, including the loss of Adam Morgan for the entire year because of a small tear in his rotator cuff, Roman Quinn's extreme difficulties at shortstop for low Class A Lakewood, and awful seasons from right-hander Ethan Martin (52 walks in 86 2/3 inning at Triple-A) and first baseman Larry Greene (hitting .218 for low Class A), who figured to hit for power if nothing else but now has three pro homers in more than 530 plate appearances.
Their top 10 heading into 2014 will look quite different than it did in February, with their top five draft picks likely all appearing there, perhaps six if Oregon State's Ben Wetzler passes his physical (he missed time with back trouble this spring) and signs.
Boston Red Sox | Preseason rank: 17
The Red Sox have had several prospects experience breakout years, led by Double-A right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, finally healthy again, throwing strikes and sitting 92-93 with a plus curveball; high-A lefty Henry Owens, who is throwing harder than he did before to add to the deception he already had in his delivery; and third baseman Garin Cecchini, hitting a combined .352/.470/.534 at age 22 across high-A and Double-A.
Their top overall prospect, Xander Bogaerts, dominated Double-A and has now reached Triple-A at age 20. Catcher Blake Swihart has made more incremental progress this year, boosting his walk rate and throwing out 42 percent of base stealers so far in high-A. They also had a strong top of their draft, landing two-way athlete Trey Ball, who'll start his pro career as a left-handed pitcher, with their first pick, and grabbing out-of-favor catcher Jon Denney, who came into the spring as a potential top-15 selection, with their third-round pick.
They'll lose Jackie Bradley Jr., and possibly Allen Webster to promotions, but that could be all from their top 10. They've had a disappointing full-season debut from shortstop Deven Marrero at high-A, seen Matt Barnes struggle with his secondary stuff at Double-A, and watched Travis Shaw lose all his power with the promotion to Double-A, but have had more than enough positives in the system to make up for what little has gone wrong.
This could change depending on trades or the potential promotion of someone such as Ranaudo, but the Red Sox should slide back into the top half of farm systems this winter.
Other improved systems: Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers
Seattle Mariners | Preseason rank: 8
The Mariners are promoting their way out of the top tier of farm systems, losing half of their top-10 prospects to promotions to the majors this year while three of the remaining five have struggled with either performance or health.
The major league team has called on Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Brandon Maurer and Carter Capps already this year, with mixed results from that group. The Mariners didn't restock well enough in the June draft to make up for such a large exodus from their system, although I did love the second-round selection of Austin Wilson, a potential first-rounder had he been healthy for the entire spring.
Lefty Danny Hultzen has missed time with a sore shoulder at Triple-A, while fellow southpaw/teammate James Paxton has continued to struggle with command; righty Victor Sanchez still hasn't regained his old velocity. So far, only lefty Tyler Pike and outfielder Guillermo Pimentel seem to be taking steps forward among players already in the system, and they are at low-A.
The M's will be judged on what's happening in Seattle, not on the farm, but the wave of prospects hitting the majors right now represents the crest, not the start of a flood.
Atlanta Braves | Preseason rank: 20
It has been a rough year in the minors for Atlanta, although the team's success in the majors probably makes that much easier for their fans to take. Their top prospect, Julio Teheran, no longer qualifies as a prospect but is contributing in a big way in the big leagues after a shaky April in which he wasn't using his changeup often enough.
Their No. 2 prospect, right-hander J.R. Graham, has missed over a month with a sore shoulder, and their No. 4 prospect, Christian Bethancourt, now sports a .279 OBP across a full season's worth of games in Double-A, and looks like he'll never hit enough to be an everyday player.
Among their top prospects who still have rookie status, right-hander Lucas Sims is the only one who has taken a real step forward this year, even improving his strikeout and walk rates after the team moved him into the low-A rotation in late May. The Braves also had one of my least favorite drafts this year, taking a probable reliever (Oklahoma State's Jason Hursh) with their first pick and no one who projects as a likely everyday player or league-average starter.
The system is far from hopeless -- Sims has promise, Mauricio Cabrera still has a great arm and is just 19, and shortstop Jose Peraza has a good contact rate for a barely-19-year-old in low-A -- but it's heading in the wrong direction overall.
Tampa Bay Rays | Preseason rank: 3
I had Tampa Bay among my falling systems last year, but the Rays restocked the system in the offseason with the James Shields trade. As usual, however, they've lost a number of their top prospects to promotions to the majors that will cost them their rookie status, including Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Alex Colome, Alex Torres and perhaps Jake Odorizzi.
Hak-Ju Lee will miss the entire season after a leg injury that could cost him some speed and/or range at shortstop even when he returns. Their top pick in 2012, Richie Shaffer, has had an awful half-year in high-A, hitting .244/.298/.376, and their second pick from 2011, Mikey Mahtook, is struggling in his second year in Double-A.
Their draft this year was fair, but not great, led by prep catcher Nick Ciuffo, and their second pick, Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek, still hasn't signed. After those two, they took some low-ceiling prep bats who were reaches in my opinion. The system is still strong relative to the rest of the majors, but barring another trade of a veteran (such as David Price), they'll enter 2014 with a much lower ranking.
Other falling systems: San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers