The Orioles farm system is not very good, just about everyone who isn’t paid by the Orioles agrees. This has been the case for a few years now. The team has maintained success every other year at the big league level, so it hasn’t mattered yet, but they haven’t had much success in getting mid-tier prospects to turn into MLB-caliber players.
You can see this clearly in the evolution of the annual Orioles top 10 prospects list over the past several seasons. While the Orioles have had some prospects that everybody really liked, including Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy, and Kevin Gausman, these same players were about all the value that the Orioles have gotten at the MLB level from their top 10 guys.
The folks at MLB Pipeline, who do the top 100 prospects in baseball and the top 10 prospects in each organization for MLB.com, helpfully put each list from 2011 onward in one graphic on Twitter:
A look back at the @Orioles' top 10 prospects from the past several years, and here's the brand new #Top30Prospects: https://t.co/YmEQ5Adhh1 pic.twitter.com/T4R4XMw7Du— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 20, 2017
The strength of the top names kept the Orioles at least in the middle of the pack for a number of these years. Along with the players the Orioles got when they were still picking in the top 5 every year, Jonathan Schoop has proved to be a success story from the farm. There are some others rounding out these top 10 rankings where about all one can do is give a grim shake of the head.
I mean, really, was Xavier Avery and Joe Mahoney really the best they could do prior to the 2011 season? Nick Delmonico and Jason Esposito before the 2012 season? It remains something of a miracle that the 2012 team won 93 games. Other than Machado, they sure didn’t get much help from the farm. Outside of Schoop and Gausman, neither did the 2014 team.
That 2011 ranking is so long ago that it still has Mychal Givens the shortstop, and the fact that he re-emerged as a reliever prior to the 2016 rankings was a poor sign for the system anyway. Givens has had some big league success, but for the most part, if one of your best prospects is already a reliever, that’s not a good thing.
To be fair to the Orioles, and to any failed prospect anywhere, it’s hard to get to MLB and stay there. Most minor leaguers, even some that get themselves proclaimed as top 100 prospects in all of MLB, aren’t good enough. Of the ones who are good enough, many will get hurt and not be what they were supposed to be.
There are a lot of failures that can be laid at the Orioles’ feet. They haven’t developed an outfielder since Nick Markakis. All we need to know about their success in developing starting pitchers is that they thought it was a good idea to give up a first round pick to sign Yovani Gallardo and later trade for Wade Miley last year.
Some of these are self-inflicted wounds. Trading Eduardo Rodriguez cost the Orioles, though they did at least have the value of Andrew Miller down the stretch run and in the playoffs that year. Trading Zach Davies cost them more, because Gerardo Parra was awful. The two have combined to start 75 games over the past two seasons.
Still, a starting rotation consisting of Chris Tillman, Gausman, Bundy, Rodriguez, and Davies probably wouldn’t leave you feeling much better than you might about the current rotation. This stuff isn’t easy to do, and it’s harder still now that the team is good and they’re not picking in the top 5-10 spots of every round any more.
The thing is, everyone’s old top 10 prospect lists look pretty bad. Most people in Birdland, myself included, would probably agree that the Boston farm system is always getting hyped. Here is their top prospect lists over the last decade:
A look back at @RedSox top 10 prospects from years past, and here's the brand new 2017 #Top30Prospects list: https://t.co/EtVXHtaWeq pic.twitter.com/gb3FjgYczD— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 20, 2017
Will Middlebrooks had a good half-season in his rookie year and was terrible afterwards. Brentz is 28 and has 90 MLB plate appearances under his belt.
There are success stories, much like the Orioles had. Xander Bogaerts is good. Jackie Bradley Jr., after an abysmal rookie year, is looking good, much to the chagrin of O’s fans. So is Mookie Betts, whose ranking below some of those other guys now looks hilarious.
Others, like Yoan Moncada and Manuel Margot, were used as trade bait to fetch top quality MLB talent: Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel.
Ryan Lavarnway was going to be the Red Sox catcher of the future. Then it was going to be Blake Swihart. Neither one proved to be that. Henry Owens has spent three years as a top 100 prospect in MLB. He also walked 81 batters in 137.2 innings at Triple-A last year. All the prospect people liked Allen Webster, at least until he came up to the MLB level and was bad, and so on.
Ranking prospects isn’t a pointless endeavor. The people with expertise still do better than if a bunch of random schmucks were rating prospects. It’s something to talk about. It’s not an ironclad prophecy received from a blind hermit living on top of a mountain.
Maybe one lesson with the above is that Red Sox prospects get hyped more than they should. But the bigger lesson is just that it’s hard to find and develop big league talent, even if you have gobs of money and can afford to fail sometimes. Boston still owes Rusney Castillo another $46 million, for crying out loud.
If the Orioles are lucky, another four or five years down the road, the success rate of their top 10 prospects will be better than their ones from four or five years ago. They’re really going to need it.