Earlier this week, ESPN’s Keith Law released his Farm System Rankings for 2012, placing the Padres at the head of the class. San Diego has, bar none, the most extensive collection of interesting prospects of any organization, with 27 rating at a C+ or better according to John Sickels. While the Friars certainly have a talented group of prospects, Law’s decision to rate their system as the best of the best reveals a clear difference in the way he and I analyze organizations and prospects. Mr. Law is a skillful talent evaluator, and I don’t doubt his assessment of any of San Diego’s prospects, in particular. However, while Law felt the Padres’ depth makes their system the envy of baseball, I’d prefer to sacrifice some depth for a system with clear impact talent.
Second and third on Law’s list are the Rays and Blue Jays. The Rays, and to a lesser extent the Jays, do have that impact talent. While no prospect is ever a sure thing, each team’s top prospect is a top-ten prospect in baseball overall and seems prepared for Major League stardom. Tampa’s led by Matt Moore, the best pitching prospect in baseball and an ace in the making. Moore made his big-league debut near the end of 2011, dazzling in three outings and a start and then making another impressive start and a relief outing in Tampa’s ALDS matchup against the Rangers. The 22-year-old lefty is the third-best prospect in baseball, according to Law, and will start the season in the big-league rotation. The Blue Jays’ Travis d’Arnaud ranked just three spots behind Moore, sixth in Law’s overall rankings. D’Arnaud, also 22, is a catcher known for his bat, although reports suggest his receiving skills behind the plate have taken some huge steps forward. In Moore, the Rays have a future ace, while d’Arnaud could be the rare catcher with the bat to hold down a spot in the heart of the lineup. The Padres, in contrast, don’t really have a blue-chip prospect of similar value, with starter Casey Kelly the team’s highest-ranked prospect on Law’s list at 32.
Personally, I’d probably take either of the main prizes of this offseason’s Mat Latos trade, in first baseman Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal, ahead of Kelly, a product of the move that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston little over a year ago. That’s mostly semantics, however, as the Padres have a number of prospects in a very similar B to B+ range. Sickels defines the “B” tier as players with a good shot for a sustained career in the majors, often with some chance to blossom into stars if everything goes right with their development and they truly reach their ceiling. These players are the building blocks of any solid system, and that’s true of each of these organizations. The Padres had 16 prospects receive some variety of a “B” grade, equal to Toronto and slightly surpassing the Rays’ 13.
When it comes down to it, there’s a ton of risk involved in projecting any prospect, and that risk only increases when the prospects in question are younger and less polished. San Diego may have a few more B and C-level prospects, and therefore a few more chances to hope to catch lightning in a bottle and for a prospect to exceed expectations and reach stardom. Rather than that, however, I’d prefer a few less lottery tickets for a sure thing, and at this point Matt Moore’s about as much of a sure thing as any prospect in the game. For that reason, I prefer the Rays’ system, and believe that it is likely to result in the most long-term major league production of any current minor league system. While the Padres may eventually produce the most big league players, the Rays’ system will have a greater overall impact because Moore is the odds-on favorite to have the most big league success of any player in these three systems. In a way, Toronto lies at the medium between the two systems, with d’Arnaud providing the true blue-chip prospect that San Diego lacks, but also clearly below the top tier of overall prospects containing Moore, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper. Toronto also has a little more depth and ceiling than the Rays throughout the rest of its system, with a number of young prospects poised to take the next step. Law picked the Jays as the team most likely to top the list of best farm systems next season, and I don’t doubt that for a second.
The Padres system is stocked with high-probability talent, and any organization that can consistently bring minor leaguers through its ranks and to the majors will count its scouting and development as among its most valuable assets. However, I prefer a system with high-ceiling talent, accepting the risk generally involved in such a proposition, and with true star-level impact talent at the top. Led by Moore, the Rays’ minor leaguers are primed to make an impact at the major league level. That’s the kind of talent I’m looking for, and the reason I believe the Rays have the best minor league organization in baseball.