i have to say, things look pretty good within the division for 2012. the cards are not walk-away winners of their division this season, but they probably have some on-paper edge on the brewers and are several steps ahead of the reds.
today, i'd like to think more about what the division looks like through 2015, however. although prognostication is very difficult, i'd say there's a lot to like about the cardinals' position right now.
prospects and farm systems
the cardinals clearly had a very strong farm system, but it was great that someone did a very strong Victor Wang on John Sickels' assessments of prospects around the league. the cardinals ended up at #4 overall by total prospect value, which is even more bullish than i would have been on the system.
the cardinals have a good mix of high-end prospects, with one A-ranking and ELEVEN prospects ranked B or better by Sickels, as well as substantial depth in the form of B+/C+ guys.
if you're not familiar with Sickels' work, i'd suggest an extensive review of his site, minorleagueball.com. i think he does as good a job as anyone in assessing prospects, and certainly is far more generous in putting the information into the public domain. buy his book while you're there, if you're so inclined.
at least as interesting to me as the cardinals' rise among systems has been the fall of other teams within the division. both milwaukee and cincinnati have exhausted the depth in their systems by graduation and by trade, to compete in 2011 and 2012. the turnover of quality is reflected in their new ranks at #23 and #28 among MLB farm systems. the brewers carry no prospects ranked B+ or better. the reds carry a single A- and a single B+ player in their farm.
the astros are not likely to compete next year, and are out of the league in 2013. so, we really need not concern ourselves with the magic that jeff luhnow may do over the next several years in houston. their farm is terrible this year, too, ranking at 26. however, i suspect luhnow is very capable of fixing that circumstance.
speaking of excellent GM's, theo epstein has made his success in boston look like less of a mirage by making some canny trades and successfully charting the disastrous cubs onto a course of rebuilding. however, the farm is still lacking in high-end prospects, with only two B+ prospects (one of whom was acquired by epstein) taking up the high end of the farm. still, the cubs enjoy a wealth of low-end depth prospects.
the pirates have a several highly-rated prospects - in the form of two excellent pitchers, gerritt cole and jameson tailion, and one fine outfielder josh bell, but relatively poor depth following them. contrast them with the cardinals; where the cardinals have eleven B prospects or better, the pirates have five. still, the pirates are the closest farm competition to the cardinals, ranking at #11 overall.
beyond the farm
it's foolish to look exclusively at the status of farms to assess general health. obviously, a club's long-term likelihood of success is far more than merely their up-and-coming prospects. also, the strength of the farm itself can change quickly. a few good drafts from 2009 on put the cardinals where they are now. the budget of a team will also determine how well they fare in the future, as will the enduring strength of the current cast of characters (at least those likely to stick around in the next few years), and the general quality of management, in terms of its ability to maximize the utility of the resources at hand.
the reds look like they're about to return to free-fall in the division. their farm is gutted. their budget hovers around $80m. among their top position players, brandon phillips will be gone after 2012 and joey votto after 2013, unless the reds find a way to pay both of them in the confines of a very small budget. matt latos, johnny cueto, and jay bruce will be the building blocks of whatever the club puts together beyond 2013, along with catching prospect devin mesorasco. to me, the existing talent on the club combined with a limited budget spells some pretty poor outcomes in the medium-term.
to watch: joey votto's cost spikes in 2013, from $9.5m to $17m. depending on outcomes in 2012, the most sensible thing to do may be to trade him either mid-season 2012 or (if the reds are still contending at the deadline) in the upcoming offseason to restock the farm. if votto isn't moved, the reds will have $55m committed to six players in 2013 (including madson, chapman, and arroyo).
the brewers will lose both marcum and greinke to free agency in the absence of an extension deal. their budget has remained somewhere between $80m and $90m. going forward, they have a skeleton of talent that could be the core of a reasonably talented team: rickie weeks, ryan braun, yovani gallardo, and aramis ramirez. corey hart is still under contract through 2013. however, that core will cost milwaukee about $45m to their 5 core members in 2013, and $47.5m to 4 players in 2014. rounding out a rotation and a good number of the position players on the field will be a huge challenge within a limited budget, with little more than role players coming from the farm. by contrast, the cardinals will have $68m committed in 2013 to 8 players, but only $25m committed to 2 players in 2014.
a rough assessment - the brewers have enough home-grown talent to stay in the hunt and maybe pull off a surprise, but not enough money to be a perennial division leader.
the pirates, despite their generally pretty good farm, still don't look like contenders going forward. their carried-over talent is basically andrew mccutchen, although they did lock down jose tabata through 2016, and neil walker shows some promise. there are still way too many gaps on the team. even if their high-profile prospects succeed, they won't be enough to put a $40-50m team into contention. despite their brief flirtation with first place this year, it is hard to see the pirates becoming a credible contender in the NL central at any time in the near future, with their current budget.
as i said above, the astros are terrible and likely to be out of the division before they are good. still, one might note that the astros have slowly unburdened themselves of a host of terrible contracts. for 2013, they have about $16m of total salary encumbrances (omitting lots of arbitration, of course), mostly to wandy rodriguez. things have suddenly begun to move in the right direction for a team that could be well-funded and very dangerous in the AL West in several years.
i think, on balance, our most likely competition in 2013, 2014, and 2015 will be the cubs. they have the payroll to remain competitive under a competent executive. theo epstein is starting to look like just that guy. their farm is the least terrible of the rest of the division, barring the pirates. when you have a perennial $130, $140m payroll, with continuing obligations of $33m and $20m in 2013 and 2014, you can do a hell of a lot. even for next year, they still only have $90m committed (with three outstanding arb awards, garza's being the biggest).
in looking at their payroll, it's pretty clear they have a prince fielder-sized hole in it. epstein has done a great job of waiting out the market on him, which should keep his ultimate cost down. i would think a signing of yoenis cespedes would fit very nicely with a talent-poor, cash-rich club.
however, even with more than $100m at epstein's disposal, that $100m will have to go pretty far. the club has holes in every area, with only catcher and an okay middle infield as stable areas long-term. the system is pitching-weak, with garza committed only through 2013. volstad and randy wells will round out the back of future cubs rotations for several years, but the big money will have to put great pitchers at the front of the rotation to make the cubs competitive. when that same money has to flesh out the corner infield spots, the outfield, and the bullpen, $100m doesn't look quite so huge. it's still huge, but less so.
looking forward, even if the brewers have an 8-10 win advantage over the cubs in their carried-over talent in 2013, 2014, 2015, epstein could make up that difference with a $60m advantage in terms of uncommitted money. the reds will have an even more modest advantage advantage over the cubs in terms of current talent that will carry over into future seasons, and a pretty cramped budget as well.
now, do any of these clubs rank with the cardinals in terms of their likelihood to succeed in future years? to go back to the rankings, the cardinals have a net $67m advantage in value over the cubs' system, $84m advantage over the reds, and $94m over the brewers. on top of that, the cardinals have a budget that signficantly surpasses the brewers and reds, but trails the cubs by a healthy margin. their salary encumbrances drop substantially beyond 2013. the system as a whole leaves only a handful of substantial gaps going forward long-term: shortstop, catcher, and centerfield, which should be far easier to manage than the multitude of holes in the cubs organization, even with the greater monetary advantages in chicago.
with all the caveats that go with prognostication, the posture of the club within the division in 2013, 2014, and 2015 is probably even better than it is in 2012.