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What does the Yankees #1 system ranking really mean?

This week, Bleacher Report ranked the Yankees as the number 1 farm system in baseball entering the 2017 season. That juicy hot take got many fans excited, and rightfully so. I know it certainly got me fired up.

The last time the Yankees system was ranked so highly was 2000, but before we get to that, I took a look at previously number 1 ranked teams to see what level of success they had after their esteemed status. To do so required research (read: Googled until I found a link that I was confident wouldn’t infect my computer) to find annual organizational rankings.

I used Baseball America’s yearly analysis because A) they were easier to find, 2) they are the Holy Grail of prospect rankings, and D) Bleacher Report didn’t go back as far. Here’s what I found in looking back 10 years.

2006: Arizona Diamondbacks

Excerpt from Baseball America: “Signing Justin Upton [drafted by Arizona first overall in 2005] is the icing on the cake for the minor’s most loaded system.”

While Justin Upton did have success in the desert, the rest of the team was only mildly successful. Arizona won 90 games and advanced to the 2007 NLCS, but have have had more uniform style changes than playoff appearances in the seasons following.

2007: Tampa Bay (then called the Devil) Rays

Excerpt: “The Devil Rays have benefited from their lofty draft position, taking OF Delmon Young (No. 1 overall, 2003), RHP Jeff Niemann (No. 4, 2004) and 3B Evan Longoria (No. 3, 2006) with premium picks in recent years.”

Got it, it pays to suck.

2008: Tampa Bay (no longer called the Devil) Rays

Excerpt: It hasn’t translated into a winning season at the major league level—yet—but the Rays have ranked No. 1 on this list for two straight years. They’ve made the most of their early first-round picks, hitting on the likes of OF B.J. Upton, 3B Evan Longoria and LHP David Price.”

In Tampa’s first ever winning season they went to the World Series. Pretty nuts, I thought.

The long-awaited success was actually sustained; the Joe Maddon-led Rays had 5 more winning seasons and 3 playoff appearances following their 2008 Fall Classic loss to Philadelphia. If not for the micro-budget in Tampa, the Rays could have been a special team.

2009: Texas Rangers

Excerpt: “Starting in 2007, the Rangers spent on the draft, became an aggressive leader in Latin America and traded Mark Teixeira for an unreal haul of prospects from the Braves. That haul includes top prospect Neftali Feliz and Opening Day shortstop Elvis Andrus.”

Like Tampa in ‘08, Texas went on to have major success. They advanced to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and ’11 under their fidgety manager Ron Washington, and have made the playoffs 5 of 7 seasons since their organization was ranked number 1 in 2009. Oddly enough, they only won 67 games in 2014.

2010 Tampa Bay Rays

Excerpt: “Tampa Bay led all clubs with seven players (Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Matt Moore, Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham and Alex Colome) on our Top 100 Prospects list.”

It’s weird, because that list of players sounds ok yet the Rays have finished sub-.500 each of the last three seasons.

None of the seven players have been flops, meaning missed the majors entirely. Jennings is still with the Rays and is an average outfielder. Hellickson, Davis, Moore, and Brignac are all with new clubs now, but have contributed significantly at the major league level. Beckman and Colome are still in Tampa, and will play their age-26 and 28 seasons, respectfully.

Again, the problem with Tampa is the payroll. They do not spend money, which means unless all their prospects hit at the same time, they struggle.

2011: Kansas City Royals

Excerpt: “The Royals set a record by placing nine players on our Top 100 Prospects list, starting with three of the very best hitting prospects in the minors in 1B Eric Hosmer, 3B Mike Moustakas and OF Wil Myers.”

KC’s farm system quickly came to fruition. In 2013 the franchise had its first winning season in a decade. They won the pennant in 2014 and ’15, hoisting the World Series trophy on their second try. Hosmer and Moustakas played significant roles in both seasons and, if not for injuries in 2016, KC would have again competed for the pennant.

2012: Texas Rangers

Excerpt: “No team is more aggressive on the international market than the Rangers, and it shows with the likes of RHP Yu Darvish, SS Jurickson Profar, LHP Martin Perez, OF Leonys Martin and 3B Christian Villanueva.”

I guess we know how they turned around that 67-win team in 2014.

2013: St. Louis Cardinals

Excerpt: N/A

The Cards had two top-100 prospects entering the 2013 season – Shelby Miller, who was traded to Atlanta for Jason Heyward, and Oscar Tavaras, who suddenly passed away in October 2014 at age 22.

It’s tough to say Tavaras’ passing derailed the Cardinals because they did win 100 games in 2015, but they are behind the juggernaut Cubs at this point.

2014: Pittsburgh Pirates

Excerpt: N/A

Gregory Polanco (10th overall) and Jameson Taillon (22nd overall) highlighted Pittsburgh’s top-100 ranked prospects entering the season.

Polanco has been a slightly-above league average player in his three pro seasons and Taillon has a great baseball name. The Pirates were the “it” team for a little while, but are struggling keep their playoff window open. Like St. Louis, Pittsburgh is fighting an uphill battle in the NL Central.

2015: Chicago Cubs

Excerpt: “Being bad for several years has its privileges, as evidenced by the success of high draft picks such as Kris Bryant, the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, and Kyle Schwarber, who mashed his way to 18 homers in a half-season pro debut. The Cubs have traded for prospects as well, none more so than when they landed all-around dynamo Addison Russell from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade.”

Cardinals in ’13, Pirates in ’14, and the Cubs in ’15. Oh, and the Brewers have a very highly-ranked system currently. Sucks to suck, eh Cincy?

Theo and the Cubs took Tampa’s suck and thou shalt be rewarded approach, the only difference is they also spend big on the Free Agent market. Chicago finally won their long-awaited championship thanks to their aforementioned prospects panning-out and trades for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta turning into steals of the century. They’re not going away anytime soon.

2016: Los Angeles Dodgers

Excerpt: “No other team can match Los Angeles’ 1-2 punch of Corey Seager and Julio Urias and the Dodgers have an excellent mix of big league-ready impact talent, role players and promising prospects at the lower levels of the system.”

The Dodgers have been the NL’s most consistent team since 2011 (yes, I picked an arbitrary year) yet do not have the ultimate prize to show for it. Unfortunately for Seager and Urias (and Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda), they’ll be battling the Cubs for National League supremacy.

2017: New York Yankees (TBD)

Even though Baseball America’s rankings have yet to surface, you can expect to see the Yankees atop their list in some capacity.

Similarly, to the Dodgers and Cardinals, the Yankees have shot-up the organizational rankings without having a basement-dwelling season. While Yankees fans may consider 2013 and ’14 dumpster fires, most teams are satisfied with 85-ish wins. Thankfully though, Yankees ownership is not.

So, what can we deem from the groundbreaking research above?

Based on team success, the number 1 overall rankings have been largely justified. By the numbers, totals for the teams above:

Total playoff appearances since being ranked number 1:                  21

Total playoff rounds advanced since being ranked number 1:          19

Total World Series appearances since being ranked number 1:        7

Total World Series championships since being ranked number 1:   2 (Royals and Cubs)

That’s pretty damn good. Teams have played a combined 66 seasons since being ranked first and have made the postseason roughly one-third of the time (the math gets a little confusing for my level of intelligence since the Rays and Rangers were ranked first multiple times).

The only misevaluation was Arizona, who made the playoffs just twice after 2006 and finished sub-.500 several times. Tampa Bay appeared on the list 3 times, which makes their success seem diminished compared to Texas, the only other team to appear more than once.

Kansas City and Chicago were the two strongest evaluations, and not just because they won championships. KC found success as soon as their top prospects debuted and went to back-to-back World Series, while Chicago looks to be the next baseball powerhouse.

But success on the field isn’t a full representation of talent, which these rankings are mainly based on. Just because a player has “all the tools” does not mean he will turn into Derek Jeter at the major league level.

The last time the Yankees organization was thought of this highly was 2000, the height of their dynasty years. Then, the organization was stocked with young players like Nick Johnson (5th overall prospect in baseball), Alfonso Soriano (16th), Wily Mo Pena (88th), and D’Angelo Jimenez (89th).

Coming off their third consecutive championship, the Yankees looked to be in control for the foreseeable future. Johnson was plagued with injuries despite having a solid big league career for other franchises. Soriano was fantastic, so much so that the Yankees were able to acquire Alex Rodriguez for him (and some cash) three years later. Wily Mo was flipped to Cincinnati for Drew Henson (second straight week I’ve typed the name Drew Henson), and Jimenez was traded to San Diego for Jay Witasick, a prototypical move for Brian Cashman during that era.

One takeaway from 2000 is that the Yankees system was probably overrated. Soriano was the only All Star, Nick Johnson greatly underperformed his expectations, and Wily Mo is only recognizable because he was built like a defensive end.

Something that is not accounted for above is that Brian Cashman did everything in his power — signed free agents, lost draft picks, and traded away organizational depth — to keep the dynasty alive. I’m don’t blame him for it either; the core of players the Yanks had in the 90’s and 00’s is a once in a generation-type occurrence. Last year the Cubs made a short-sighted trade to acquire Aroldis Chapman for Gleyber Torres, and the Royals did something similar when they acquired Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to make their championship run.

One thing is for sure, the Yankees will not turn into the Diamondbacks, who last year tried and failed to redefine their organization in one offseason, or the Rays, who will forever be incapable of sustaining success due to payroll limitations.

The main question for the Yankees is: Are their prospects overrated? Only time will tell, but recent history of top-ranked organizations does bode well for the Yankees upcoming success.

 

Follow me on Twitter @Andrew_Rotondi.

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