In January 2015, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus assessed the farm systems rated No. 1 in the respective years 2004 (Milwaukee's), 2005 (the Angels') and 2006 (Arizona's). His findings: "All three got substantial value out of their cores … But none of the three teams won a World Series or even made a World Series. The Brewers and Diamondbacks only made the postseason twice each."
Then: “What a club with the best farm system in baseball can expect: Around 100 wins above replacement, most of it at sub-market prices, peaking three to seven years after the rankings come out, but some remnants of that value lasting into the next decade. … We also have a surer sense of what that club can’t expect: A dynasty, a run of dominance, or even a single World Series appearance. The best farm system in the world will get you 15 or 20 extra wins in a good year.”
This is useful knowledge for anyone who follows baseball. It's especially useful if you follow the Braves, who have thrown every available resource — and bandied those resources in increasingly exotic ways — into the acquisition of young talent and who, according to the ratings of Keith Law for ESPN Insider and David Rawnsley for Sporting News Baseball Yearbook, have built the No. 1 farm system.
As we applaud John Coppolella for overhauling what was, only two years back, Law's 22nd-ranked chain, we must also ask: What does this mean? On the day he became the fully blooded general manager, Coppolella said his "vow" was to increase the number of World Series championships won by this franchise, which for 20 years has held at one. But, roughly a decade ago, the Brewers and Angels and D-backs stood where the Braves stand, and those three have since produced eight division titles (five by the Angels) and four Division Series victories. If that's not nothing, neither is it what Coppolella has in mind.
But wait. If we check Law's recent rankings, we find reasons to be heartened. His No. 1 farm system in 2011 belonged to Kansas City, which reached the past two World Series and won it last year. His No. 1 in 2013 was St. Louis, which made the World Series that October and won 100 games last year. Law's top seven organizations in 2014 were, in descending order: Astros, Twins, Pirates, Cubs, Red Sox, Mets and Royals. All but the Red Sox finished above .500 in 2015. Five qualified for the playoffs. Three reached the league championship series. Two made the World Series.
If we look around baseball, we see more teams doing as the Astros — who lost 416 games over four seasons before winning 86 last year — did and the Braves (and others) are doing. They’re investing in prospects, who can be bought by the comparative bushel, as opposed to big-ticket free agents, who go for nine figures. The Braves haven’t and won’t ever admit to tanking, but we all know what they’re doing. And here, via Coppolella, is why:
“Building around prospects is a function of finances, cohesion and history. Financially, trying to buy a winner never works and just buries teams deeper into the abyss. Cohesively, young players that come through the minor leagues together tend to play better as a team — the Braves and Yankees in the 1990s, the Giants and Royals more recently. Historically, this is a derivative of what John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox did to build Atlanta into a team that won 14 straight (division) titles.”
We saw last October that the distance between having gifted prospects and a playoff-caliber big-league team mightn’t be as vast as it once seemed. The Astros went from 70 wins in 2014 to the 2015 playoffs. The Cubs went from 73 wins to the NLCS. The Mets went from 79 wins to the World Series.
The 2016 Braves mightn't win 70 games — FanGraphs projects them to go 68-94 — but this could be the last time for a good long while that the big-league product stinks. If you're rebuilding around prospects, you want the best prospects. It took Coppolella 16 months to assemble the best group of prospects. Call this the rocket reset.
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