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The Real Value of the League’s “Worst” Prospects

July 29th, 2014

Cron

 

For two years running now, the Angels’ farm system has been classified as the worst in the game by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus in their annual organizational rankings. Some writers and fans have taken this ranking to mean that the club has no MLB talent in the pipeline, and have made a point of questioning the system’s reputation when players like C.J. Cron and Mike Morin make a positive impact in Anaheim. The standard thinking goes: “If their prospects are so bad, how come so many of them are in the Show?”

The issue with that line of thought is that it attempts to make the organizational rankings into something they are not. The purpose of those lists has never been to determine how many prospects will make a contribution to the MLB club in any given season. Rather, they are simply a measure of the volume of high-ceiling talent within an organization that has yet to reach the big leagues. It doesn’t matter if prospects are five months away or five years away, if they have an All-Star or top-of-the-rotation ceiling, they move the club up the list. A place at the bottom of the rankings, then, doesn’t preclude an organization from having productive rookies, it just means that the overall system has a dearth of potential impact players.

Let’s put this to a quick test. If the organizational rankings were really designed to determine which clubs would reap the most benefit from their farm system in a given season, there should be some correlation between a team’s ranking and the production they receive at the MLB level from their prospects.

(In this case, “prospects” will be defined as: all players in a farm system who have their rookie eligibility intact. This, not coincidentally, is the criteria for a player making any Top 10 prospects list.)

Since we’re talking about the Angels, let’s look at the correlation between “prospect” WAR and organizational ranking (from BP) for only 2013 and 2014, when the Halos came in last across the board. All 2014 data is through Monday:

 

ProspectWARPlot

 

As you can see, there is virtually no relationship whatsoever between an organization’s farm-system ranking and the actual production it gets from said system at the MLB level. It’s all randomness. Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, and the 2013 Cardinals (top left corner) gave it their best shot to create some sort of correlation, but nobody else felt like cooperating. For instance, the No. 21 ranked system (2013 Dodgers; 2014 White Sox) has received 8.2 WAR more (!!) from its rookies than the No. 2 ranked org (2013 Rangers; 2014 Cubs). There is no pattern here, just noise.

Given this result, pointing at the success of Kole Calhoun or Cory Rasmus and saying that the rankings are wrong is essentially a non sequitur. Square peg, meet round hole. So, then, how do we know if the Angels really have the worst prospects or not? Is there a way to determine which farm system has actually paid the biggest dividends for its parent club in 2013 and 2014?

I thought you’d never ask.

Adding up each team’s “prospect” WAR from the scatter plot above, we get a great look at the value clubs have derived from rookies the last two years:

 

ProspectWAR

 

By this very specific standard, the Angels have had the seventh-most valuable farm system in baseball over the last two seasons–tied with the heavily Tanaka-weighted Yankees. The additions of Calhoun, Morin, Navarro, et al. to the big-league roster has netted the Halos more value than the A’s, Rangers, and Astros have received from all their rookies combined. That’s pretty dang good and lends credence to the idea that the Angels’ farm system may very well be underrated, even if their high-ceiling talent is non-existent.

Now, this measure obviously isn’t the end-all, be-all of determining the value of roster depth. The A’s, who hadn’t used a rookie all year until Billy Burns pinch-hit Monday night, have received big contributions from part-time guys whose rookie eligibilities were used up years ago. However, it does seem to give some indication of how talent is distributed in certain systems. The Angels haven’t had any loud talent to speak of since Trout graduated to the big leagues, but it’s apparent that their baseline of readily available minor-league talent is higher than that of, say, the Phillies, who have had a dumpster fire of a pipeline the last two seasons.

Comments

5 Comments

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  • JimmyB says on: July 29, 2014 at 3:58 pm

     

    I think you make a valid distinction between what the Angels have been able to do – have minor leaguers come up to the big leagues and be productive role players – and what the two lists (3, if you include KLaw at ESPN) are trying to accomplish – estimate the amount of high ceiling impact players in the organization.

    I also appreciate you adding the point that graduating prospects is not the only way to add value on the field (ie, A’s and trading prospects).

    However, I think the analysis you did is not using the appropriate comps. The issue is that the rankings prepared by those prospect groups is inherently forward-looking, by at least 2 years (more likely 3-4 years). To say that the rankings are flawed by looking at WAR over the 2013 & 2014 seasons is not fair, as the Astros and Cubs (ranked #1/2 in all of the lists) are valued because of talent that is still 2+ years away.

    What would be interesting is to compare the 2010 and 2011 rankings against the 2013 & 2014 WAR for those teams. If I recall, the Angels were highly ranked during that time (primarily because of Trout), which would then support the value generated by the system during the past season and a half.

    That being said, I’ve been thrilled with the amount of production from the players getting chances at the big league level. Cron, Morin, Navarro, et al have been great contributors, and it seems like the organization finally has the knowledge/tools to put those players in positions to succeed.

    • Nathan Aderhold says on: July 29, 2014 at 4:30 pm

       

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jimmy.

      I didn’t mean to convey that the prospect rankings are flawed, only that the interpretation of them often is. Apologies if that wasn’t clear. I think that the rankings accomplish exactly what they set out to do, and I just wanted to try to put an end to the “See? They’re not the worst, look what so-and-so’s doing…” line of thinking with regards to the rankings by coming up with a methodology that actually evaluated the present value of the system.

      I totally agree that going back to the 2010-2011 rankings and seeing where those teams stand in terms of 2013-2014 WAR would make for an interesting study. May go that route in the future.

  • Joseph Monterrosa says on: August 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm

     

    Great read, I think looking into “graduated” prospects from 2010-2011 into productive 2013-2014 MLB players would be a good piece. Remember that Dodgers/Yankees/White Sox’s all benefit from international signings that aren’t “rookies” or prospects at all. Some doubt/questions with them, but in these cases the graph’s and rankings that all other sites are using don’t show a true study case.

    Maybe separate those teams with true “prospects” and those that signed players that fall under “rookies” due to MLB systems failure to properly identify them, would give the Angels a much better rating in terms of players graduated that have become key pieces such as Richards, Kole, Navarro and Cron.

  • J.D. Elmquist says on: August 1, 2014 at 8:11 pm

     

    Additionally, you have to look at the value that prospects who were in the Angel’s system during this grading period (’12-’14)but reached the big leagues as members of other teams via the trade route. Jean Segura, Patrick Corbin, Randall Grichuk, et al, have made contributions to their respective employers yet the Angel’s still wear the mantel of mediocrity in KLaw/Baseball America-land.

    It’s simply not true to say that the Angels minor league system was/is barren of high impact talent during this period.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

  • mark says on: August 2, 2014 at 7:13 pm

     

    The players in a ranking contribute to their team by eventually playing or being traded but regardless of who they play for if you wait long enough you can see their value through WAR. I’d say the only real way to test the ranking systems would be to go back 10+ yrs and look at the career WAR for the minor leaguers in each system back then and see if it matches with the ranking systems

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