In a couple of places (namely, gonfalon's fanpost on an attempt to quantify player development, and Vlad's series of comments in the thread discussing the P2 take on DK's article) there has been discussion lately of the quality of the Pirates' farm systems before and after the NH era and the ability of the Pirates to develop minor-league talent.. This discussion falls along several axes:
1. Although the Pirates' farm system in 2007 was very poorly ranked (26th according to BA), and the system at the beginning of 2012 was ranked much higher (11th according to BA; 12th per minorleagueball.com; 8th per Keith Law), 13 players in that system made the majors. Does that indicate that the system was better in retrospect than BA gave it credit for?
2. The Pirates' FO has been criticized for its inability to develop minor-league players into contributing major-leaguers. How much of that is due to poor development and how much is due to a lack of minor-league talent that has had adequate time to develop?
Another slice of the data to try to shed more light on these questions after the jump.
Vlad addressed part of the first question in his comments, comparing the Pirates to the other 5 teams in the NL Central. I'm using a lot of his data because I'm lazy and because I agree that it's reasonable to count as "contributing" those players who both made the majors and put up positive WAR. Simply looking at that data, only Houston graduated less talent from the 2007 farm system than did Pittsburgh:
Team Players WAR
CIN 23 84.0
STL 21 54.8
CHI 20 50.6
MIL 16 77.7
PIT 11 39.6
HOU 8 22.2
The BA 2007 farm system rankings are behind their paywall so I can't compare these results to the farm system rankings - but they seem to support the argument that the Pirates' farm in 2007 wasn't good.
But maybe the Pirates' farm system in 2007 really was good, and the new management screwed up the player development. How do you determine whether the results are due to poor talent or poor development?
I used the Baseball America 2007 prospect rankings (thankfully, not behind their paywall) to separate players in each team's minor league system into one of three categories:
1. Top 100 prospects are on the BA baseball-wide top 100 list.
2. Other prospects are on an individual team's top 10 prospects list, but not on the top 100. Because there's no calibration between the lists, you don't know how a #10 prospect on one team's list compares to a #10 prospect on another team's list - but you can retroactively evaluate the depth of talent in a system based on the contribution of these players.
3. "Non-prospects" are those players that didn't make a team's top 10 list, but still managed to make the majors and contribute positive WAR ("Successful" players).
First, let's look at the top 100 prospects:
Team Top 100 prospects Successful Total WAR
MIL 3 2 44.3
CIN 4 4 43.5
PIT 3 2 25.9
HOU 3 3 19.7
STL 2 2 10.4
CHI 3 2 2.0
Of the 18 players on BA's top 100 prospect list, only 3 failed to put up positive WAR in the majors: Brad Lincoln, (who, for all the gnashing of teeth at his trade, has been exactly replacement-level in his ML career), Felix Pie (-1.9 WAR in the equivalent of about two full seasons across five years), and Will Inman, who has spent the last three and a half seasons in AAA.
What about the rest of each team's top 10 prospects?
Team Successes Total WAR
CIN 4 15.9
MIL 2 10.2
STL 2 7.1
CHI 1 1.9
PIT 0 NA
HOU 0 NA
And how did the team do in developing the "non-prospects" into successful major leaguers?
Team Successes Total WAR
CHI 17 46.7
STL 17 37.3
CIN 15 24.6
MIL 12 23.2
PIT 9 13.7
HOU 5 2.5
So what does this all tell us?
The top end doesn't tell you much. Milwaukee benefits from their two top prospects being in AAA and getting six years to accumulate WAR (granted, Braun has been averaging 5 WAR/season). Cinci had four top-100 prospects and all of them contributed positive WAR. Pittsburgh and Houston are about the same, with St. Louis being a bit behind due to having only two top-100 prospects, both of whom were a couple of years away from the majors. Chicago had very little success with the top of their system.
The next tier tells the most about the overall quality of the farm systems. Out of six players in Cinci's top 10 who weren't in the BA top 100, four succeeded in the majors, putting up 15.9 WAR (mostly due to Johnny Cueto). Milwaukee (2 of 7, 10.2 WAR) and St Louis (2 of 8, 7.1 WAR) also had decent success, indicating that this tier were bona-fide prospects. Chicago, Houston, and Pittsburgh, not so much - of the 21 players in those three clubs' top 10 who weren't top-100 prospects, only 1 (Tyler Colvin of the Cubs) has succeeded, putting up 1.9 WAR (all with Colorado, after putting up exactly 0 WAR in 2+ seasons with Chicago).
Interestingly, while Chicago seems to have had the worst talent at the top of their system (or the worst ability to develop top talent into productive major leaguers), they seem to have been one of the best in the division at developing the rest of the system, turning 17 players who were not in the system's top 10 in 2007 into major leaguers who put up positive WAR. Every player on Vlad's list above Colvin was ranked outside Chicago's top 10 in 2007, including Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto, Randy Wells, and Darwin Barney. St. Louis did almost as well, with Cinci and Milwaukee also getting double-digit numbers and around 24 cumulative total WAR. Pittsburgh managed to develop 9 productive major leaguers from the bottom of the system, while Houston again brought up the rear.
Some sweeping generalizations:
- Pittsburgh and Houston each had basically one top prospect that in fact turned into a top player, with the rest of their systems being a whole lot of nothing. Pittsburgh did slightly better turning that nothing into some productive players, which seems to indicate that lack of talent has been more of an issue than lack of development, but the evidence is tenuous.
- The top of Chicago's system may have been even more barren than Pittsburgh's and Houston's, with Felix Pie flaming out and neither Donnie Veal nor Jeff Samardzija doing very much; however, they seem to have either had more hidden talent further down in their system or done better at developing that talent.
- Cinci clearly had the best talent at the top of their system, the most depth, and was among the best at developing that talent into major league productivity. Milwaukee was not far behind, and St. Louis only trails due to the lack of a top prospect in the high minors in 2007.
Back to our original questions: Was the Pirates' farm system in 2007 really that bad? Oh, my, yes it was. Only Houston in the NL Central was worse; Chicago didn't have a McCutchen but seems to have some significant depth, and there was quite a bit of daylight between those three teams and Cincinnati, St Louis, and Milwaukee.
And how much is the lack of productive major leaguers due to a lack of talent vs. a lack of development? Harder to say. Chicago seems to have done more with less, while Houston seems to have done less with about as little, if you follow my drift. I would hazard a guess that it's more due to talent than development, but would also guess that the development could have been better.