— dabynsky (@dabynsky) July 8, 2014
Poor wording aside, I have been thinking a lot the past few days about where this farm system ranks in Cubs history and in baseball in general. The Cubs landed three prospects in the top 10 of Baseball America's midseason Top 50 list. A feat that they have never accomplished in the 24 years Baseball America has been creating their Top 100 list.
So what does that mean for the Chicago Cubs major league ball club? The 2011 Royals had 4 top 20 prospects and 9 on the Top 100, the most ever by a single team in a season. The Royals did not develop multiple All-Stars out of that group. Looking at any top 100 list, even those players in the top 20, you can find many, many busts. The odds are long that Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara will all be All-Stars and or reach their ceilings.
This very likely conclusion is something many fans cite as a reason to oppose the collecting and hoarding of prospects, but let's look at this from the inverse. A couple of months ago, Chris Cwik looked at whether the top 100 players in MLB by WAR were ranked in BA's Top 100 lists. His research found that since 1997, a staggering 70% of them were. Here is the chart that shows Baseball America's increasing ability to identify future big league talent.
Being placed on the Top 100 list certainly doesn't guarantee success, but it is even more unlikely to find success outside of said list.
Adding Addison Russell to the pre-2014 list would give the Cubs 8 top-100 prospects this year. Here is how Cubs systems have stacked up against each other since 1997 (the year Chris Cwik cited as when Baseball America list dramatically improved in identifying impact Major League talent).
By this simple measure, the Cubs in 2014 have their greatest collection of talent ever in the minors according to Baseball America.
However, there are two problems with this super-simple method of analysis. The first is that the rankings have changed both good and bad in terms of Cubs prospects since the beginning of the season. As of the mid-season update, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara have all moved up from their pre-season positions in the Top 100. The downside is that the number of Cubs in the Top 50 has actually decreased as CJ Edwards, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler have all fallen out of the rankings for a variety of reasons.
The Cubs' total might shrink dramatically with the definitive possibilities of Alcantara losing rookie status and a couple of prospects falling out of the rankings. CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson would both be prime candidates for that as injuries have hurt their stock. CJ Edwards was also very aggressively ranked by Baseball America and an over-correction right off of the Top 100 is within my reasonable expectations, given the lack of innings this year. That would drop the Cubs total prospects from 8 down to 5 for 2015.
And there isn't much hope for replenishing the ranks either. The Cubs' remaining trade chips will net, at best, an "intriguing" prospect, but it would take a shocker to net a clear-cut top-100 type. The Cubs draft class might not provide a Top 100 prospect in 2015 either, despite Kyle Schwarber's dominance so far. Many talent evaluators at the time of the draft questioned his ability to handle the outfield, much less catching. A college first baseman raking in low-A is unlikely to receive much consideration for Top 100.
The worst case here has the Cubs left with a mere 5 top-100 prospects, but that is the bleakest picture that can be painted. Schwarber has been handling LF, which raises his stock considerably, and a stint in the Arizona Fall League could boost it further. That would make up for one of the two pitchers falling off the list, which seems assured at this point. If Alcantara doesn't get enough service time, the Cubs could remain at 8.
The other problem with the simple approach is that it neglects the obvious fact that not all top-100 prospects are worth the same. The number 1 ranked prospect is worth considerably more than number 10 much less the 100th-best prospect, and under the counting method each prospect is given equal weight. One alternative would be to assign each prospect a point total from 1 to 100, but that too fails to recognize the true value of each prospect rank.
This article shows that prospects don't become incrementally more valuable as they move up the ranks. Instead, the curve of average production based on rankings drops off dramatically as it moves beyond the top 20 and levels off as it heads to 100.
These results have been duplicated in various studies on the topic, but one stood out as being instructive for our purposes of trying to rank farm systems. Included in the work is a table which values players based on production compared to their Baseball America Top 100 rankings. Taking those values, I created a point system that should better reflect the true value of prospects based on their rankings.
The system is not a perfect measure, but it does approximate the apparent value of each ranking. One study found that the prospect with the 10th overall ranking actually has a higher average WAR than the one with the 5th overall ranking. That is why the breakdown was placed into chunks to try to replicate the graph as closely as possible while keeping the numbers simple for the purpose of these approximations.
Mike Axsia looked at systems in this millennium that matched the Cubs' current three prospects within the top 20. I ranked the farm systems listed in the article against previous Cubs farm systems and my high- and low-end estimates for 2015.
Now compare this to ranking those same farm systems by just raw total of Top 100 prospects.
The current Cubs farm ranks very highly when looking at either method. This is clearly the best Cubs farm system in the Baseball America Top 100 ranking era, and one that challenges the other top systems in this time frame. As I wrote when analyzing the trade in a separate piece, this does not guarantee a future of sustained success.
However, the odds are overwhelming (greater than 70%) that the future top producers in MLB will be found on these top 100 lists and the higher the ranking, the higher average production moving forward. The Cubs have stacked the odds in their favor in historic fashion with the additions of Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and more.
Addendum- Jason Parks weighed in on the subject during a recent interview with Tom Loxas. Here is just a small excerpt of what he had to say about the rarity of the Cubs' elite group:
TL: How rare is trio of Cubs top prospects in terms of farm systems you've observed?
JP: It's certainly rare, and should be acknowledged as such. But several orgs in recent memory could also boast impact talent featured high on prospect lists. A good example this season is the Twins, who have the top talent in the minors in Buxton, would likely have another top ten talent if Sano hadn't blown out, have several arms in the top 50, a few of which are capable of reaching the top tier.
While that's not exactly three out of the top six prospects in the game like the Cubs, the talent and depth is there to achieve a similar distinction, which is something that also needs to be acknowledged when comparing the great farm systems of recent vintage. The same can be said of the Pirates last season, the Red Sox last season, and the Royals and Rangers from a few years ago.
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