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The Cardinals are 10th in Baseball America’s Talent Rankings. What Does it Mean?

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San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Each year, one of my favorite events in baseball happens right around the time pitchers and catchers report to spring training. That’s when Baseball America releases their organizational talent rankings. Such was the case last week. The Cardinals ranked 10th overall, up from 13th last season and 12th the year before. Today, let’s look at what it all means.

First, here’s a recap of where the Cardinals have been going back to 2000. Apologies that the graph is basically upside down. Illustrator was giving me some issues.

One thing you should know is that farm systems tend to be cyclical, with peaks and troughs in the cycle. That’s notable because, as you can see in the graph, the Cardinals aren’t really experiencing these type of wild swings in recent years. They peaked in 2013 when they ranked #1, but the closest they’ve come to any kind of trough since was a #15 ranking in 2015. Most teams experience much worse dips. For a frame of reference:

  • the Cubs have ranked as high as 1st and as low as 29th since 2015
  • the Brewers high is 8th and low is 26th since 2015
  • the Padres are #1 overall this year, but were 25th as recently as 2016
  • the Rangers were 7th in 2016, but have been 22nd, 23rd, and 25th in the three years since

This year is the eighth consecutive season the Cardinals have ranked in the top half of the league, the longest current streak in baseball. Houston is just behind with seven consecutive seasons.

On the other hand, the consistency also means the Cardinals haven’t experienced a peak in some time. They were #7 in 2014, and this is the first year since in which they’ve cracked the top 10. Even this year, they’re just barely in the top 10. Streaks like these are fascinating because the franchise clearly values stability and year to year consistency. It’s amazing that they’ve found absurd consistency in an area- draft and development- that’s notoriously volatile.

The Baseball America Bump

Nine years ago, Sky Andrecheck researched the relationship between Baseball America’s organizational rankings and future success. The study could stand to be updated, but it’ll have to be done by someone else, as Andrecheck is now employed by the Cleveland Indians. That said, I doubt his findings have changed too much since then.

What Andrecheck discovered is that four years of rankings give the most significant results. Once you plug the average four-year organizational ranking into his formula, top teams in the organizational rankings might expect to see a maximum bump of up to 5.1 additional wins. Bottom teams would swing the exact opposite- a deficit of 5.1 wins. Of course, those are extreme scenarios. To attain the 5.1 win expectation, a team would have to finish #1 in the rankings for four consecutive seasons. Thankfully, Andrecheck’s formula covers the full range.

What does this mean for the Cardinals? Andrecheck’s formula spits out an expected effect on winning percentage. Let’s multiply that by 162 games and see how many wins and losses the Cardinals have been expected to gain from farm prestige going back to 2000.

I’ve highlighted two obvious sections- the valley and the peak. Keep in mind that this number is generated using the four previous seasons of Baseball America prestige. That’s why the #1 ranking in 2013 took a few years to fully take hold, as it did in the 2015 and 2016 figures above. It was a very long process going back to 2000-2001, but they eventually reached a level where the farm produces bonus value. At this point, it’s happening every season.

It’s important to give this info some context. Baseball America’s first organizational talent rankings were in 1984. To get four years of data for each team, our data set begins in 1987. Using the Andrecheck model to assign a Wins Added total for all teams since 1987, we can then assign a percentile rank for all teams. In the graph above, the Cardinals’ percentile rank peak in 2015 comes in at the 83.3rd percentile. The valley- 2005- registers in the 0.58th percentile, the sixth worst in all of baseball since BA started giving out organizational rankings. The 2019 team is 65.4th percentile, solidly above average but nowhere near as elite as the late 80s Mets, 90s Braves, or recent iterations of the Astros and Dodgers, for instance.

The NL Central is highly competitive in the BA Bump for 2019. League-wide, the Reds rank 8th, the Cardinals 10th, Pirates 12th, and Brewers 13th. The Cubs bring up the rear at 26th, a result of years of “win now” deals at the trade deadline. Putting it in a wins context, the Reds’ farm system should be worth a bump of 1.8 wins this season. The Cardinals’ bump is 1.18, the Pirates are 0.91, the Brewers 0.73, and the Cubs are -2.82.

Finding a Historical Comp

I thought it might be fun to find some other teams in the sample with five consecutive finishes in the 10 to 15 range of the rankings. There’s only one problem. The 2015-2019 Cardinals are the first team to do it. However, several teams have come very close. Here are the teams who managed a 10-15 rank in four of five seasons:

  • 1996-2000 Expos (rankings in chronological order): 15, 11, 10, 7, 15
  • 1997-2001 Astros: 13, 14, 11, 9, 10
  • 1994-1998 Padres: 12, 13, 11, 16, 12
  • 1987-1991 Mariners: 14, 12, 15, 19, 11

Here are some peers in the BA Bump- the ten closest teams, by percentile, to this year’s Cardinals:

10 Most Similar 4-Yr Rankings to 2019 STL

YR Team Percentile
YR Team Percentile
2019 STL 65.43%
1993 STL 65.54%
2000 CHA 65.64%
2013 CHC 65.16%
2018 MIL 65.16%
2009 TEX 65.16%
2017 TEX 65.16%
1993 MIN 65.75%
1991 HOU 65.85%
2000 CLE 64.90%
2006 ARI 66.28%

I’d strongly caution against drawing any conclusions from this list, but it’s still fun to compare and contrast. There’s a wide range of future outcomes. The 2013 Cubs were finally starting to build momentum on the farm. The two Rangers teams mark the beginning and end of their run in prominence on the BA lists. The 2000 White Sox reached a steady level of play through a solid seven year window, one they haven’t matched since. The 2000 Indians succeeded, then collapsed, and then built again over their next several seasons. Houston took their 1991 prestige and ran with it, landing in the top 10 in four of the next five seasons and annually competing for the playoffs. The Twins were awful for most of a decade after their 1993 ranking. We know how 1993 turned out all too well for the Cardinals- dreadful 1994 and 1995 seasons, though much of the farm that made up the 1993 ranking also provided the backbone for the 1996 renaissance.

So much of what we can deduce from this year’s #10 ranking will depend upon what happens next year, the year after, and the year after. They seem to be in good shape moving forward with top talents like Nolan Gorman, Elehuris Montero, Malcom Nuñez, and Dylan Carlson likely to land in or near top 100 prospect lists. On the other hand, graduations from Dakota Hudson, Alex Reyes, and Tyler O’Neill will sap some depth. Kicking it into a higher gear, deeper into the top 10, will be imperative for the Cardinals to go where we want them to go.