Cardinals farm system #8 but just 3rd in NLC

The St. Louis Cardinals farm system, ranked first in 2013, is eighth in 2014 but just third in its division.

It is a daunting challenge to be able to assess 30 Major League Baseball organizations and the thousands of players within well enough to rank them credibly. I respect those national entities that do so annually and report their findings here, within the context of the St. Louis Cardinals and the National League Central Division.

One year ago, St. Louis was on the top of the heap, having risen from an average ranking of #29 in 2010 to number one on most national farm system lists for 2013. Given the sheer number of high-profile contributors who graduated to the majors last season, it is not surprising that the organization fell for 2014.

The optimist could squint at an average ranking of 7.75 and say the Cards are still in the top quarter of MLB. The pessimist will not only look at the trend, but also the competition. Since last year, two of the four other NL Central clubs have vaulted past St. Louis.

Following are the system-wide rankings of the Cardinals among the 30 MLB organizations, not just for this year, but also over the last five years.

This group includes the farm system rankings of four of the five national raters that usually appear in this space. They are Baseball America, ESPN's Keith Law, BaseballHQ, Baseball Prospectus. Another familiar source, John Sickels of minorleagueball.com, is behind this year in his rankings due to illness. While MLB.com does player rankings, they do not do so with systems.

Colors indicate year-to-year change, where green is positive, yellow is flat and red is decline.

Cardinals rank of 30 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Baseball America 7 1 12 24 29 8
Baseball Prospectus 6 1 3 21 30 9
ESPN 12 1 4 14 29 6
BaseballHQ 6 2 15 17 28 10
Average  7.75 1.25 8.5 19 29 8.25
color=YTY change            

In what should not be considered a surprise, after three consecutive years of improvement, the Cardinals dropped in absolute rankings by all of the raters. Three of the four were very consistent in placing the Cards in the sixth or seventh spot. Only ESPN saw a greater drop, putting St. Louis in the second ten, at number 12.

Martinez
It is worth reiterating that Carlos Martinez was not treated equally by the raters for 2014. ESPN excluded the talented right-hander, as did BP, while BA and HQ included him. Martinez was ranked 31st and 19th nationally on the latter two national top 100 lists for 2014. Click here to see all Cardinals' placements in 2014 top 100s from these sources.

As a vivid reminder of the cyclical nature of these rankings, 2009 was the Cardinals' most consistently-recognized good year prior to 2013. It is also the closest to the organization's placement here in 2014. There could be a further drop next year, but it should be nowhere near as bad as from 2009 to 2010.

The pendulum swung wildly in the wrong direction in 2010 as a combination of graduations, trades and washouts killed the Cardinals in the eyes of the talent evaluators. The organization surely hopes such a rapid drop will never occur again.

One key difference is that 2009 marked the end of a long, dry spell. In fact, the Cards' top ten placement in the BA rankings in 2009 was the Cardinals' only such ranking from them between the 1999 days of Rick Ankiel and J.D. Drew and 2013. In other words, a period of 13 years saw just one Cardinals top 10 placement on the BA annual list.

A glance across the NL Central

One of the reasons I enjoy the rankings from BaseballHQ is the level of detail they provide. The HQ folks provide much more than a number. They offer a detailed explanation as to why, with individual letter scores for hitting, pitching, top-end talent and depth that go into their overall ranking of each system.

Click on the following link to review the full details of their analysis of the five National League Central clubs – in 2014 and in prior years: "BaseballHQ pegs Cardinals system #6 in MLB".

This table shows the relative rankings of the other four NL Central systems. The average placement by the four raters that have published to date can be found at the right.

NL Central BA BP ESPN BaseballHQ Average
Pirates 1 3 3 2 2.25
Cubs 4 2 4 4 3.5
Reds 16 16 16 22 17.5
Brewers 29 29 30 20 27
color=YTY          

Though the actual scores are of course different, there is a clear delineation of farm systems within the division. All four raters place the Pirates, Cubs and Cardinals in the top three, with the Reds and Brewers below.

Three of the four raters see the Bucs just ahead of the Cubs, with Baseball Prospectus flipped the two. The only red for those clubs should be very, very light red, indeed. HQ dropped Pittsburgh from number one last year to number two in 2014. Hardly worth mentioning.

HQ sees improvement in Milwaukee's system that the others did not – to the point HQ moved the Brewers ahead of the Reds. They were the only rater to do that. In fact, the other three have Milwaukee either dead last or second-worst among the 30 organizations.

BA wins the closest to the pin award this year, with the rankings of all five clubs that most closely approximates the averages of the four raters.

MLB's top seven systems

The final table lists each rater's top seven systems in 2014.

Top 7 BA BP ESPN BaseballHQ
1 Pittsburgh Minnesota Houston Houston
2 Boston Cubs Minnesota Pittsburgh
3 Minnesota Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Boston
4 Cubs Boston Cubs Cubs
5 Houston Houston Boston Minnesota
6 San Diego St. Louis Mets St. Louis
7 St. Louis Kansas City Kansas City San Diego
12 St. Louis

The sharp reader may note that I expanded this section from top five in prior years. I did that to accommodate the Cardinals, but I believe that perspective will be most interesting to the majority of the readers here.

Interestingly, note that five organizations appear in every one of these top sevens. In fact, the same five teams make up every one of the four top fives – only the ordering varies slightly. St. Louis comes next closest, being named on three of the four top sevens.

In closing, it is admirable that the Cardinals were able to hold onto a strong ranking almost entirely across the board for 2014. It looks like it may be a considerable challenge to hold that ground for 2015, but six months of baseball just ahead should give us a much better idea of the trend direction.

Earlier articles in this series:
Cardinals prospects in 2014 national top 100s
2014 Cardinals prospects: What the others say.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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