Phillies Voted to Have MLB’s Best Farm System
Update 11/3/2016: There are actually conflicting signals about whether the Phillies won the fan vote or the staff vote. While the “table of contents”-style infographic in the announcement indicates “fan”, other sources indicate “staff.” Knowing that, take some of what’s below with an additional grain of salt.
Yesterday, MiLB.com announced the winners of the 2016 MiLBY award for the Best Farm System in baseball, and the Philadelphia Phillies received top honors – in the fan vote. The prospect staff of the site instead opted to pick the New York Yankees for their variation of the award. This offers a good opportunity to discuss the merits of such an award, and the Phillies’ system’s place in Minor League baseball. These awards occur every year, from a variety of sources, and can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, a person who is purely a fan of Minor League baseball might select the winning-est farm system, because winning is the end goal to that individual. However, a Major League farm director might vote for the team who ended the season with the most Top-100 prospects in their farm system.
What can winning this award tell us about the Phillies farm system? We can start by asking what an award like this supposed to measure. Per the award’s description in 2014, the year of its inception, the Best Farm System award is meant to “honor the organization whose system made the most strides [during the season]”. That description is a little ambiguous, but at minimum the phrase “made the most strides” can reasonably be interpreted to mean “most improved.” “Improved” is, itself, a loaded term. Does “most improved” entail seeing already top prospects move to higher levels? Does it mean the team that added the most noteworthy prospects throughout the year? Is it tied to winning at the Minor League level? It is referencing the team with the most significant number of breakout prospects and draftees (prospects who initially emerge in the system) during the year?
To get an idea of what the MiLBY award is meant to evaluate, we can take a look at who the staff has voted for each season. In 2014, the prospect staff selected the Chicago Cubs, a system headlined by Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Carl Edwards – six Top 100 prospects who have had something of a notable October. Of those players, four had ended 2013 in the Cubs’ system, one was drafted, and one was acquired via trade. Chicago had the seventh-highest winning percentage among all organizations that season.
In 2015, the staff selected the Houston Astros. The team was a surprise at the Major League level, but also saw success of several kinds in the Minors. That season, the team saw the promotion of top prospect Carlos Correa to the Majors, as well as the strong draft of Alex Bregman, Daz Cameron, and Kyle Tucker in the first round. Michael Feliz and Vincent Velasquez (not yet traded at the time of the awards) provided young, high-ceiling arms to the system, and there was the general sense that this was a very deep organization. Additionally, the team had the highest winning percentage in the Minors.
This year, the New York Yankees were selected following several high profile moves at the trade deadline. Homegrown prospects like Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, and the recently graduated Gary Sanchez are regarded highly, but a large portion of the system’s impact prospects have now come via the trade deadline. Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Dillon Tate, and Justus Sheffield were major additions in July. Blake Rutherford is a highly touted first round pick, and James Kaprielian has shown flashes of high upside as a starting pitcher when he’s been healthy. This season, the Yankees could reasonably be considered the team with the most depth, here defined as having a good combination of prospect risk and ceiling. New York’s farm system was also the third-best by winning percentage.
Looking at who the authors of the award select themselves, it seems pretty clear that with the selections of the 2014 Cubs, 2015 Astros, and 2016 Yankees, there has been a trend. Those far better at scouting than me (AKA, basically everyone) may disagree with this characterization, but it seems clear this award is intended to go to the team that has ended each season with the highest number of potential everyday regulars in the Minor Leagues. That’s a very good thing to have, and I’d argue a reasonable definition of “the best” farm system. In a pure sense, it doesn’t really matter where the players in the system came from, or what the winning percentage is (although there’s an argument that winning can help with development). The goal is to have as many good players as possible.
However, that’s not exactly the award that the Phillies won. By winning the fan vote, they are being judged by a different set of criteria. In 2014, the fans voted for the New York Mets – a very good farm system, but the consensus was not that they were the best in baseball. In 2015, they did agree with the staff and picked the Astros. The 2014 Mets, 2015 Astros, and 2016 Phillies do have one significant thing in common. While all are considered to at least be “good” farm systems, each was the winning-est organization of their year. Not only that, but all three teams were above-.500 at every domestic Minor League Level of their season.
Clearly, it looks like there is a difference in the way that prospect writers vote for an award like this versus the way that fans vote – and that makes sense. While MiLB.com does spent a large amount of time talking about the best Major League prospects, a lot of time is given to teams that are winning (as they probably should). Winning definitely isn’t a bad thing, but future wins at the Major League level are the goal of the Minors, those are more closely tied to Minor League talent than Minor League winning percentage.
That isn’t to say that the Phillies shouldn’t be excited they won an award like this. Talent and winning are definitely intertwined, as it’s basically impossible to win at every single level and not have promising players in the system. It’s generally agreed upon that the team has one of the better farm systems in baseball that only improved this year, with exciting individual performances from some breakout players. Philadelphia may not necessarily have the best current farm system in baseball, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. That optimism probably just shouldn’t be based on the number of headlines generated by home runs hit in the Reading’s hitters’ paradise.