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A look at the value of the Cardinals farm system

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St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Another year, another round of promotions to the big league team. This year, Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Luke Voit, Magneuris Sierra, and Alex Mejia have all taken their first plate appearances in the majors this year. Jack Flaherty, John Brebbia, Ryan Sherriff, Sandy Alcantara, and Josh Lucas have pitched their first major league innings.

That’s notably not including Luke Weaver, Samuel Tuivailala, and Carson Kelly, who are still considered to be in their rookie year despite debuting prior to this year. It also doesn’t include 29 year-old non-prospect Jose Martinez, who had just 18 MLB plate appearances prior to this year, but has been the team’s second best hitter to date. Even more impressive, he’s the fourth-best rookie hitter in wRC+, just 1 point behind the presumed N.L. rookie-of-the-year to-be in Cody Bellinger.

In recent years, the Cardinals’ success has been tied to their ability to constantly promote prospects to the major league team to fill various holes. Today, we’ll look at the current state of the Cardinals’ farm system, using publicly available mid-season Top 100 lists from the most respected public sources.

You probably know who those are. The longest-running top 100 list is Baseball America. We’ll also use MLB pipeline’s top 100, as well Fangraphs’ top 100.

Notably absent will be ESPN’s top prospect list, curated by Keith Law. That’s because ESPN is the only outlet that keeps their top 100 behind paywall. I wouldn’t feel right using those. John Sickels at Minorleagueball.com also won’t be utilized, as they haven’t released a midseason list. Baseball Prospectus released a top 50, and but since that isn’t easily comparable to a top 100, we’ll leave them out of the discussion.

We’ll also include KATOH, created and maintained by Chris Mitchell at Fangraphs.com . Rather than scouting, Mitchell found the correlations between various minor league statistics and major league success, as measured by WAR in the first six years of a prospect’s MLB career. He also utilizes KATOH+, which uses prospect lists to inform and improve the KATOH system, but we’ll use KATOH here as a pure representative of scouting the stat line.

To start with, here’s every Cardinals prospect named on one of those four Top 100 lists:

Cardinals top prospects by list

Prospect BA MLB pipeline FG KATOH KATOH WAR
Prospect BA MLB pipeline FG KATOH KATOH WAR
O'Neill x 96 JM 31 8
Flaherty 57 53 57 35 7.8
Kelly 51 36 52 46 6.6
Reyes 12 17 20 52 6.2
Bader x 99 x 61 5.7
Weaver 65 x x 72 5.3
Hudson x x JM x x
Sierra x x JM x x
Alcantara x x 84 x x
Perez x x 77 x x

KATOH’s top 100 list is ranked by KATOH-projected WAR, so you could say providing both the ranking and the projected WAR is redundant. I think each expresses some context that the other doesn’t though, so both are included. Baseball America features the fewest Cardinals on their list with four. It’s not all bad though, as they’re the highest on Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. MLB pipeline and Fangraphs tied for five Cardinals in the top 100, but three Cardinals made the “Others considered” section of Fangraph’s list, and are marked with a “JM” for just missed.

KATOH might have the most optimistic opinion on the Cards. They’re the highest on new Cardinal Tyler O’Neill, considering him the 31st best prospect in the game. If you’re interested, here’s an analysis by Mitchell on O’Neill when the trade went down.

They’re also the highest on recent call-up Flaherty, who they see as the 35th best prospect in the game. Same goes for Bader, who only otherwise made Baseball America’s list, and just barely at 99th.

Flaherty is a consensus top 60 talent among the scouts, and as mentioned KATOH sees him even better than that. Delvin Perez has seen his stock drop. He was a consensus top 100 talent among the scouts going into the season, but now only Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs sees him in that light now. He seems to value potential higher than most, as they’re also the only outlet to include Sandy Alcantara. Actually, Baseball Prospectus also placed him in the top 50 (39th), but they’re also an outlet who seems to value potential ceiling highly too.

How do we reconcile these differences? How are we supposed to value the worth to a team of having one of the very best prospects as compared to several low ranking ones? And most here have heard the acroynm TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. While taken literally this is clearly a hyperbole, pitchers are more prone to injury than position players, and injury has ruined many a prospect’s future. The result is that generally, scouts overvalue pitching prospects.

We don’t have to develop a system for doing so, because The Point Of Pittsburgh already did. They looked at every Baseball America top 100 list from 1994 to 2006 to find the average surplus value for a few different tiers of players. Here’s the results:

Prospect surplus value by type

Rank Hitters Pitchers
Rank Hitters Pitchers
1-10 $73.5 $69.9
11-25 $62.0 $39.0
26-50 $38.2 $29.8
51-75 $22.4 $16.5
76-100 $20.6 $15.6

Really, this only applies to Baseball America lists from from 10-20 years ago. The way players are scouted has probably changed in that time frame. Maybe scouts are more aware of the fragility of pitchers and bake that into their rankings.

This also only counts for players considered top 100 talents. The Cardinals in particular are a team known more for their organizational depth than their top end talent. Sickel’s preseason top 200 for example, ranked seven Cardinals in the 100-200 section of his list. Paul DeJong ranked 192nd on that list, and didn’t appear on any top 100 lists. That didn’t stop him from contributing to the major league club.

Sickels also had seven additional Cardinals ranked at a ‘B-’ grade in his Cardinals-specific list, which was the grade the top 200 list ended on. Of course, the top 100 prospects are worth way more than the next 150 to 200, but those lower-ranked prospects aren’t zero’s either, like this method will treat them.

So this isn’t perfect. But there isn’t a perfect means of doing this, and it’s a pretty good method. I’d say the best one we have, at least among the options I can actually do. Your mileage may differ. Anyway, what I did was this: for each of the three prospect lists, I wrote some code to assign the appropriate values determined by TPOP to each prospect.

Then, using some different code, I assigned each prospect to their respective teams. The lists themselves did most of the work here, but I had to fix a few things in cases where the outlets’ list was released before a prospect was traded. Two outlets update their lists when a trade is made and I thank MLB pipeline and Baseball America for that.

Anyway, we’ll go through this list by list. First up: MLB pipeline:

In our first list the Cardinals grade out above average, but very much in the middle of the pack. The Cards total up $135M implied value according to MLB pipeline’s top 100 list, compared to an average of $110M. The White Sox top the list, and that probably surprises no one. Pipeline currently has 8 White Sox in the top 100, fronted by 4 in the top 25. The Braves in second is probably not a surprise either. They also have 8 representatives, and 7 in the top 56.

On the other end of the spectrum, four teams failed to place any prospect in MLB pipeline’s Top 100, perhaps most notably the Cubs. They’ve traded and graduated a lot of prospects in the last few years. That’s not a bad thing of course, as they already have a World Series championship for their efforts, but it still certainly affects their long-term picture.

Let’s see how that jibes with other lists. Next up we’ll do the same thing with Baseball America’s list:

Again the White Sox and Braves rank first and second in a tier of their own, but they switched positions. Again, the Cubs place no one in the top 100. There is a change for the team we all support though. The Cards place below-average for Baseball America’s list, with a $94.4M evaluation compared to an average of $110M. They did place more than the average amount of prospects on the list (4 compared to 3 1/3), but three of them are pitchers, and three of them are in the back half of the top 100.

This list is the second that puts the Rays in third place. That they’ve done so without having to take anywhere near the drastic actions of the teams around them in the rankings is certainly impressive. The Astros placed above-average on both lists. They may have recently exited a rebuilding effort, but they’ve traded prospects and they’ve also already graduated the crowning jewel of their rebuild: Carlos Correa. Their staying power is impressive.

Next up, we’ll look at Fangraphs’ midseason top 100 list:

Again, the White Sox and Braves place one and two, well above the rest of the competition. The Phillies, Brewers, Rays, and Blue Jays are again near the front. The Cubs, again, show up absent. They join the Royals as the only team without a prospect on any of the 3 top 100 lists featured here.

The Cardinals just barely break average here, $114M vs. $109M. This doesn’t include any of the “Others considered” section though. Four of the 31 players listed in that section are in the Cardinals’ organization, about 3 more than average.

While TPOP doesn’t offer a value for those prospects past the top 100, the trend line would suggest they’re only marginally less valuable than players in the 75-100 section. When considering the just missed portion of the list, the Cards could easily be an extra $40M above average according to Fangraphs’ top prospects. We’ve just looked at top 100’s until now though, so we’re not going to change it at this point.

Now we’ll take an average score of the three scouting outlets:

As you might expect if you’ve been following along, the Cardinals are just above average: $114.5M compared to $110M average. As you also probably assumed, the White Sox and Braves place head and shoulders above everyone else, with the Cubs and Royals bringing up the rear.

With Rafael Devers still on two of the lists (only MLB pipeline considers him graduated at this point), this shows that the Red Sox too have exhausted their farm system. With a disappointing season thus far, it also shows that the Giants could have a rough looking future ahead of them. The A’s place below average despite only trying to appear to compete, and after being sellers in the second biggest in-season trade this year.

The Pirates, Brewers, and Reds all sport better top prospect valuations than the Cardinals, and that’s disappointing. Two of those teams had rather large rebuilding efforts though, and the Pirates are a model organization for their ability to build teams on the cheap.

We’re not done yet though, we still have KATOH. I wanted to keep this one separate from the others because of the fundamental differences between this system and the public scouting community. With this list, we don’t have to worry about assigning Surplus Values, we’ll just use the projected WAR that KATOH already publicly supplies. Here’s the results:

Finally, one where the Cardinals are decidedly above-average. The Braves grade out first, and it’s impressive that they’ve put together a farm system that ranks best-in-class by the scouting community as well as the metrics. The White Sox however, rank below average when going by KATOH.

This is bad news for the Marlins, Angels, and Diamondbacks, as they grade out woefully bad by both metrics. It’s reason for optimism among Cubs and Royals fans, as their team’s system ranks out more in the middle by the metrics, compared to being the basement dwellers of the scouting community.

Let’s compare the two. To account for the difference between Surplus Value and straight up WAR, I redid both lists to assign each team a percentage of the MLB total of whatever they were ranked by. I then took the difference between those two. The results:

Wow do the White Sox take quite the dive. The picture alone provides a lot of context, but here’s some more: The difference between the White Sox and the Reds (the team with the second biggest negative difference between KATOH and scouting) is nearly 80% the size of the difference between the Reds and the Astros (the team with the biggest positive difference).

I can’t say I’m the first to notice the White Sox’s very clear preference to bet on scouting over the stats. Dave Cameron noticed that every one of the White Sox’s new acquisitions had a better KATOH+ score than their KATOH. The scouts see a tremendously enviable stash of prospects, whereas KATOH sees them as a weaker than average team. It’s be interesting to see how that unfolds.

As mentioned, the Astros take the biggest positive differential, and that’s after a 10th place ranking on the averaged rankings. This matches with a public perception that the team bets strongly on metrics. And as you probably know, General Manager Jeff Luhnow came from the Cardinals organization.

There’s also the connection of the A’s and the Cardinals. Their Assistant General Manger Dan Kantrovitz previously headed the Cardinals’ scouting department. The fact that KATOH likes the Astros, A’s, and Cardinals much better than the traditional scouting community lends credence to the idea that the Cardinals are pioneers in data-driven decision-making.

While nowhere near the degree of the White Sox, the Reds also seem to be making a big bet on traditional scouting. They place 9th in the averaged scout rankings, but 24th by KATOH. I can’t say I think they have a better farm system than the Astros, who placed one spot behind them according to the scouts but 1st in KATOH. The Brewers also grade out better by the scouts than KATOH, which is surprising because the public perception is that they’re a stat-driven front office.

The Cubs’ actions can also be seen as valuing the metrics over traditional scouting, though it may have only been because they were trade partners with the Sox. The headliner of the Jose Quintana deal - Eloy Jimenez - placed 54th on KATOH’s list, compared to 4th, 5th, and 6th on the other lists featured here (and 8th on Baseball Prospectus’ list). The secondary piece - Dylan Cease - made two top 100’s, neither of which were KATOH’s. Gleyber Torres - the main piece of the Chapman trade - doesn’t follow this pattern. He’s a consensus top 10 prospect, including KATOH.

The Cardinals are often cited as an example of an organization that does well to combine good scouting with good data analysis. I’d say this backs that up. While pretty much every team takes the numbers seriously at this point, there’s still degrees to which teams trust the data compared to scouting analysis. The Cards (, A’s, and Astros) seem to value the data more than the scouts, at least based on this snapshot. The Reds and White Sox seem very much to be the opposite.

I’m sure there’s other points to be made from the above information, but I’ll cut myself off here and encourage the reader to share whatever they find to be interesting in the comments. One things clear though: The Cardinals’ farm still has a very healthy outlook.