Sandy Alcantara, Darwin Marrero, Jeremy Martinez, Tim Leveque (Brian Walton photo)

In national rankings, the St. Louis Cardinals farm system improved slightly to 12th in 2017, but is still just third in the division.

In composite rankings from national sources, the St. Louis Cardinals farm system is 12th in 2017 and just third in the National League Central Division, reversing three straight years of decline. Comparisons to the last eight years are provided.

It is a major undertaking 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, so I report their findings here, within the context of the St. Louis Cardinals and the National League Central Division.

Four years 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 the past three seasons and some uneven drafts, it is not completely surprising that the organization fell in the national rankings each year since 2013.

That has changed for 2017. For the first time since 2012-2013, the Cardinals are back on a positive trajectory. Their average ranking from four national raters is 12th, compared to 17th a year ago.

The optimist could get excited about the average ranking of 12 and note that the Cards moved from the bottom half to the top half of MLB. The pessimist will look beyond the trend, and also consider the competition.

In the past few years, at least two of the other four NL Central clubs have been significantly ahead of St. Louis. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are currently among the top six systems of 30. After three consecutive years of top-five rankings, the Cubs are reloading, having fallen behind St. Louis for 2017. Cincinnati is neck-and-neck with the Cardinals this year.

Following are the system-wide rankings of the Cardinals among the 30 MLB organizations, not just for this year, but also over the prior eight years. This really helps indicate the ebbs and flows of system rankings.

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 and John Sickels’ Minor League Ball. Baseball Prospectus is usually last to release their system rankings, including as late as March 30 one year ago. Since I have no idea when they will publish their 2017 assessment, I am proceeding without them.

For the first time, MLB Pipeline (MLB.com prospect raters) has added partial system rankings to their regular player ratings within systems and nationally. However, their approach is to only identify and rank the top 10 organizations. For 2017, St. Louis is not among them.

Cardinals rank of 30 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Baseball America 12 14 15 7 1 12 24 29 8
Baseball Prospectus   19 13 6 1 3 21 30 9
Minor League Ball 8 15 15 6 1 5      
ESPN 13 19 13 12 1 4 14 29 6
BaseballHQ 13 17 14 6 2 15 17 28 10
Cardinals average  12 17 14 7 1 8 19 29 8
                   
MLB Pipeline >10                

Where the Cardinals stand

After three consecutive years of decline, for 2017, the Cardinals improved in absolute rankings from all four of the reporting raters.

However, there is disagreement about just how much better the Cardinals are in comparison to their peers the year before. At the high end, Minor League Ball moved St. Louis up seven spots – from number 15 to eighth. That is the Cards’ best showing for 2017.

On the other hand, Baseball America sees St. Louis improving just marginally, up two spots – from 14th last year to 12th this time around. The others have the Cards pegged for six (ESPN) and four (HQ) places of improvement, respectively. 

The average of the four puts the Cardinals at 12th of the 30 MLB farm systems for 2017.

As a vivid reminder of the cyclical nature of these rankings, note that 2015 was the Cardinals’ closest recent year to 2017. The club has more than reversed last year’s decline and is part-way back toward its number seven ranking in 2014.

Previously, it took St. Louis three years (2011-13) to get to the top tier of systems, but they had much further to climb, after hitting rock bottom at 29th overall in 2010.

Some of the fuel for the most recent turnaround was provided by the extra early draft picks in recent years and the unprecedented international spending in the July 2nd class for 2016-2017.

That influx of talent will not approach that level again for a long while, if ever. The loss of their first three round picks for 2017, followed by two years of reduced spending internationally are just ahead.

However, given so many of the recent signees are young, they are nowhere near reaching their potential. So, I could see several more years of system-wide improvement ahead as these youngsters mature – even if the pipeline of top players coming in will be dramatically reduced.

 

A look across the NL Central

This table shows the relative rankings of the other four NL Central systems. The average placement by the four raters mentioned above can be found at the right. For reference, last year’s comparable table is included beneath.

2017 NL Central BA BP ESPN HQ MiLBall Avg
  Cubs 16   18 16 18 17
  Pirates 7   4 5 5 5
  Reds 13   8 17 14 13
  Brewers 8   6 4 7 6
               
2016 NL Central BA BP ESPN HQ MiLBall Avg
  Cubs 20 12 4 5 16 11
  Pirates 11 6 8 4 12 8
  Reds 12 14 12 13 11 12
  Brewers 9 10 5 20 5 10

Though the actual scores are of course different, there is a clear delineation of farm systems within the division. For the first time in years, the four raters are very consistent in where they place the five NL Central teams in 2017.

The Bucs and Brewers are always between fourth and eighth overall. The Cardinals are in the middle, with the Reds and Cubs relatively close behind – all in the teens. Sickels is the only outlier. While he follows the same relative team placement, he puts the Cardinals an aggressive eighth overall, right on the tails of the Pirates and Brewers.

Last year, there were much greater variances in how the other four NL Central systems were viewed. However, the voter average was unkind to the Cardinals, placing them last in the division for 2016.

Being third of five in the NL Central, as they are for 2017, is a familiar place for the Cards. That is their relative spot for the third time in the last four years.

Pittsburgh has been ahead of St. Louis all four years, with the other leadership spot held by Chicago in 2014-2015 before Milwaukee’s rebuilding program vaulted them ahead of the Cardinals for 2017. It has been a quick turnaround for a Brewers program that was 25th on the consensus national rankings just two years ago.

Baseball America wins the closest to the pin award this year, with its rankings of the five NL Central clubs most closely approximating the averages of the four raters.

 

MLB’s top five systems

The final table lists each rater’s top five systems in 2017.

Top 5 BA BP ESPN BaseballHQ MiL Ball
1 Atlanta   Atlanta Yankees Atlanta
2 Yankees   Yankees San Diego Yankees
3 Houston   San Diego Atlanta San Diego
4 Dodgers   Pittsburgh Milwaukee White Sox
5 White Sox   Dodgers Pittsburgh Pittsburgh

The rebuilding Braves are on the very top of three of the four lists, joining the Yankees as the only organizations appearing in every one of these top fives. San Diego and Pittsburgh each made three of the four. The Dodgers and White Sox placed on two lists each, with Houston and Milwaukee both filling out one top five.

In closing, it seems reasonable that the Cardinals were able to improve to a slightly above midpoint ranking entirely across the board for 2017. Given the recent talent infusion, it looks like the system improvement could accelerate for 2018 - perhaps to the point that the average next year could be in the range of Sickels' current number eight ranking.

Of course, the proof will be on the field. The six months of baseball just ahead should give us a much better reading on the strength and staying power of this one-year positive trend for the Cardinals system in comparison to its peers.  

 

Related articles

Earlier, we looked at as individual Cardinals prospects’ placements on a series of national top 100 lists: Cardinals Make Best Top 100 Showings Since 2013.

That was followed by our look at Cardinals top 10 prospect lists from seven national prospect evaluators reviewed side by side: 2017 Cardinals Prospects: What the Others Say.

 

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

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