The Orioles farm system is not very good, pretty much everyone who does not work for the Orioles agrees. The latest demonstration of this came on Monday when MLB.com released its top 100 prospects ranking for the 2017 season and only one Orioles prospect made the cut: Catcher Chance Sisco, slipping in just barely at #99.
With 30 MLB teams and a list that goes up to 100, it doesn’t take an advanced math degree to figure out that, if teams were equally represented on the list, most teams would have three and some would have four prospects on the list. When you’ve got only one player - and him only at #99 - it’s safe to say you’re behind.
We know what Orioles GM Dan Duquette has to say about this because it’s what he says every time this criticism comes up. First, he says, “The people who rate our farm system are the same people who pick us last in the division every year.” Then, Duquette goes on to disingenuously insist that the Orioles farm system is healthy because many core Orioles players, including the likes of Manny Machado and Zach Britton, came up through the farm several years ago.
That’s a fine thing to say when trying to get a crowd of Orioles fans riled up against the national media - I heard him and manager Buck Showalter tag-team on this rant again at Saturday’s FanFest - but it doesn’t do anything to change the underlying reality of how the top prospects are distributed among the Orioles and their competition in the division:
- Orioles (1): Chance Sisco (99)
- Red Sox (3): Andrew Benintendi (1), Rafael Devers (17), Jason Groome (41)
- Yankees (7): Gleyber Torres (3), Clint Frazier (24), Blake Rutherford (37), Aaron Judge (45), Jorge Mateo (47), James Kaprielian (58), Justus Sheffield (79)
- Rays (4): Willy Adames (21), Brent Honeywell (31), Jose De Leon (33), Jake Bauers (76)
- Blue Jays (4): Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (34), Sean Reid-Foley (64), Anthony Alford (70), Richard Urena (94)
It is a sad-looking list if you’re an Orioles fan. Sadder still when you consider the fact that the Red Sox traded away another four top 100 prospects - including #2 prospect Yoan Moncada - to get their hands on Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale as well as one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other pitcher Drew Pomeranz.
This is what happens when you sign almost no international amateur talent. It’s also what happens when you give up a draft pick in the teens to sign Yovani Gallardo and, to a lesser extent, when you dump picks to save a piddling amount of cash for superfluous or struggling relievers like Ryan Webb and Brian Matusz. You can rake the Orioles over the coals for that stuff. These are things they have done, or not done, that have hurt them.
Not all of it is their fault. Some of these players are ones that the Orioles never had a chance to get their hands on. Benintendi, for instance, the Red Sox picked #7 overall in the 2015 draft, as a result of being bad in 2014. The Orioles picked late in the first round of that draft on account of their winning the AL East in 2014.
The Yankees loaded up on three of their seven top 100 prospects - including the #3 prospect in all of MLB, Torres - when they traded Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman at last year’s trade deadline. The Orioles, who were still fielding a competitive team, weren’t in a place where they should have made trades like that.
The O’s are still not in such a place, no matter how many people have written over the offseason about trading Britton, though if the Orioles are struggling in July, ask me again.
Given the choice between a loaded farm system and a competitive MLB team, fans are reasonably going to take the competitive MLB team every time, so in that sense, the Orioles are doing OK, for now.
On the other hand, this is not an either/or choice. If you’re doing a good job of scouting and developing, you can have a respectable farm system as well as a quality MLB team, or you can build a good farm system and then make like the Red Sox and trade players for big leaguers.
The Orioles have traded for some big leaguers themselves over the last couple of years, but since they didn’t actually have many or any healthy top prospects at any point, they have had to settle for getting unhelpful jabronis like Travis Snider and Wade Miley. Their farm is bad and the ‘15 and ‘16 Orioles didn’t get much help from it.
The 2017 Orioles won’t be getting much of any help from the farm either, so hopefully everyone stays healthy and effective and there’s no need to call on the farm for anything significant.
The O’s will have to pay this piper eventually. Barring financial resources that, even in this era of higher O’s payrolls, we have not yet seen, the team can’t just keep pursuing the “bring back most of the same players, only a year older and more expensive” strategy of the last couple of offseasons.
Two years down the road, after the majority of their core players have hit the free agent market, the Orioles will have little ability to fill any holes from their farm. Or at least, they won’t have that ability unless Showalter and Duquette’s cheerleading is more than just homer pandering and is actually a sign that every independent prospect evaluator is wrong about the current state of the O’s farm. I’m not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, the Yankees and their seven top 100 prospects might have a lot of strong contributors making the MLB minimum - freeing them up to, say, offer mega-bucks to Machado in free agency because they’re finally free from paying Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. That’s a grim reality.
If there’s any consolation here, it’s that sometimes, even mega-prospects just don’t pan out the way everyone expects. You can have a top five prospect get hurt and take forever to arrive, like Dylan Bundy - or Hunter Harvey, once a top 50 prospect who will be lucky to ever arrive.
Sometimes, the number one prospect in all of baseball can go from being “Joe Mauer with power” to “Welington Castillo with unwarranted hype,” like Matt Wieters. Or they can go from being a definite future top-of-the-rotation pitcher to being a disappointing LOOGY, like Matusz.
Prospects, even top prospects, fail sometimes. That’s part of the business. It’s all a big guessing game. But you’re still better off having prospects than not, because sometimes prospect Machado really does turn into $300 million man Machado. And other times a busted prospect like Britton was re-invents himself into the best closer in baseball.
The Orioles don’t have the next surefire guy like Machado kicking around right now. They don’t even have anyone as well-regarded as starter-Britton once was who might transform after failing at his original role. They don’t have much of anything in the near future.
What the Orioles do have is two more seasons to make this thing happen before so much of their core is gone. And if or when the O’s stumble, their division rivals with better farms will be poised to jump ahead of them and stay there.