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How good teams accumulate minor league talent

Every team approaches their farm system their own way, but are there any overarching trends?

Second New York Yankees Minor Leaguer Has Tested Positive for Coronavirus Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Prospects represent the future of a franchise, and successfully building and maintaining a farm system can mean the difference between mediocrity and long-term dominance. But how do good teams go about crafting their systems?

To figure that out, I went through the Top 30 prospects of every team that finished with at least a .500 record last season, counted up how many of these prospects they drafted out of high school and college, signed as international amateurs, and acquired via trade. I then graphed these numbers by winning percentage over the last three seasons, and looked for a correlation.

The absence of graphs in this article should confirm for you that there isn’t one. The strongest correlation, in fact was less than eight percent — and it was three times stronger than every other one!

With the absence of any useful graphs, I began to compare individual farm systems, and thus, I’ve provided below an organized table of my raw data, organized by winning percentage.

Top 30 Prospect Acquisition Type

Team Win % Int Am Draft HS Draft College Trade
Team Win % Int Am Draft HS Draft College Trade
Astros 0.639 12 2 14 2
Dodgers 0.62 12 4 12 2
Yankees 0.605 15 4 8 3
Indians 0.588 12 10 4 4
Boston 0.587 10 6 11 3
Nationals 0.559 11 3 16 0
Brewers 0.556 8 9 12 1
Cubs 0.556 10 6 13 1
Athletics 0.554 6 3 14 7
Rays 0.547 5 4 13 8
Twins 0.543 6 10 8 6
Cardinals 0.539 10 4 8 6
Diamondbacks 0.535 7 6 12 5
Braves 0.533 4 9 13 4
Mets 0.479 15 7 5 3
Phillies 0.467 12 5 11 2

Note that nowhere here do you see team’s farm system ranking. I’m not looking at farm system strengths, but rather how good teams go about trying to build them.

The first thing I noticed was the similar philosophies among the three teams at the top of the list, the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers. All three teams acquired the majority of their top prospects via the international market, and more than twice as many draft picks taken out of college than high school ball. Of course, the Yankees do stand a bit apart from both organizations, with a slightly larger focus on the international market than the other two teams, as well as. Nonetheless, the similarities perhaps reflect the nature of good teams consistently not picking until the end of the first round, and thus not having access to the elite draft prospects that put the Astros into this category in the first place.

Of course, this is a trend shared with other teams throughout the league, such as the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Cubs, and this disparity of recent success perhaps may explain why winning percentage did not create much of a correlation on the graphs. Nonetheless, however, all three of these teams have had success in recent years, although they currently sit a tier below the three listed earlier.

The other major trend that persists throughout this data is the apparent preference for collegiate players over high school talent. Now, to some extent, this might reflect circumstances of lists such as these — solid-but-not-elite high school prospects may find themselves out of the Top 30 in favor of older, safer, but not quite as talented collegiate prospects due to their larger track record. The numbers are so striking that they must be noted, however: only the Indians, Twins, and Mets have more top high school prospects than collegiate prospects, and of these three, only the Indians have a difference significant enough to imply an organizational philosophy.

Lastly, and not surprisingly, the data does tell us something that we already knew. The Rays and A’s love to make trades, with the two organizations leading the way. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the Twins and Cardinals fall not too far behind, with six apiece, and that pretty much every organization has at one Top 30 prospect that they received via trade. Most of these have come not as big trades for top players — although the Diamondbacks’ trades of Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke do in fact encompass their entire group — most come from smaller deals for players at the bottom of the 40 man roster; although Yankees fans have learned not to sleep on these trades in recent years thanks to the Mike Tauchman, Luke Voit, and Gio Urshela acquisitions, this is further evidence for their potential impact.

Ultimately, all this comes around to confirming that there is in fact no one way to build a farm system. Perhaps this should not be surprising — if there was, everybody would be following that model, and we would all know what it is. Nonetheless, it does give us some insight into what methods individual teams are using, and allows us to frame further discussion within their proper contexts.