Recently, Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen rolled out a bunch of original content as the core of FanGraphs Prospects Week, and the highlight was probably their 2018 top-100 prospect list. Baseball America has also been rolling out its own prospect lists, and toward the end of January they published their organizational rankings, running down which teams have the most and least talent on the farm. It’s obviously important to have an idea what’s going on below the majors, because that’s where the next wave is stationed. Teams are going to need their young reinforcements. It’s hard for a team to be sustainably good if it’s thin on young, high-level talent.
I don’t have much to add to the organizational reports. All I’d like to say is this: Young players already in the majors are also important. When a prospect graduates and establishes himself in the majors, he disappears from the prospect lists, as he ought to. But that very same player is still immensely valuable, because he’s proven himself to be of major-league quality. To get to the point, I’d like to try something. Below, I’ve ranked every team in baseball, based on all their players 25 and younger. This is something of an experiment, but I’m still satisfied with the results.
The caveats should come first. This is based entirely on player projections, and projections are estimates. Projection systems don’t watch young players with their eyes, and projection systems don’t know if a player was recently playing through pain. So, this approach rewards statistical performance, and it also rewards proximity to the majors, since high-minors performance is easier to translate. Additionally, the cutoff at 25 is arbitrary. It just feels right, but 25 is no more appropriate than 24, or 26. There will be a relationship between age and service time, but this doesn’t account for individual cases. For example, it works to the Nationals’ benefit that Bryce Harper is only entering his age-25 season. For these purposes, he counts. He’s also in his final year of team control. So is Manny Machado. That’s something to keep in mind.
But let’s still move forward. I’ve calculated everything from combined Steamer and ZiPS 2018 player projections. Instead of just taking the regular projections, I’ve used the Steamer600 format, which gives position players 600 plate appearances (450 for catchers), starters 200 innings, and relievers 65 innings. I know this is far from perfect, and I know there are, say, swingmen, but all we’re trying to do is estimate, here. This should give us some pretty good ideas. I eliminated everyone 26 and older. Then I grouped all the players by team and sorted by projected WAR. Here’s a plot of every team’s combined top-ten player projections.
Focus less on actual ranking, and more on general ranking. I don’t want to convey a false sense of precision. Here’s how to read this: The top ten Astros players age 25 or younger are projected for a combined 22.9 WAR. Maybe you can think of it as WAR600. The Astros are being pushed by the Yankees, at 22.3. The Phillies are at 20.9. The average team shows up at 15.2. Turning all the way to the other end, it’s a two-team competition at the bottom. The Giants are at just 3.4, while the Mariners aren’t far ahead of them, at 4.4. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know; neither the Giants nor the Mariners are known for their young organizational talent. This supports what you already assumed.
It’s a little less interesting, but I also prepared a similar plot, combining the next ten players. The one above includes the ten most valuable. This one includes the 11th through 20th most valuable.
You see several teams below replacement. That’s not a mistake — it’s hard for most young players in the minors to look like they’re major-league ready. It’s not necessarily that a below-replacement projection means a player is bad. Such a player could be very talented! But the numbers would just figure the player isn’t too close to breaking in. An organization with a loaded rookie-ball roster wouldn’t look great by this method, if that’s where the bulk of the talent is. Near-term projections aren’t wowed by clubs with prospects in the lower levels.
So, again, this rewards performance and proximity. The Yankees are in first, at 7.2, while they’re closely followed by the White Sox, at 6.5. You find the Mariners in 29th, and you find the Giants in 27th. They just — they’re not young and good. The Nationals are the club bringing up the rear. Their entire system, including the majors, has just ten players with above-replacement-level 2018 projections. The best projection, of course, belongs to Harper, who’s probably eight months away from leaving. Trying times might be ahead.
I didn’t prepare a plot for this, but if you combine the top ten and the next ten — for a top 20 — then the Yankees show up in first place, at 29.5 WAR. They have an advantage of about 3 WAR over the Astros and Phillies. The Giants are in last, at 1.3, and the Mariners are in basically last, at 1.4. The Angels, I should note, are being saved here by Shohei Ohtani, who accounts for almost all the positive value by himself. The Angels are in third-to-last. This helps to explain why Ohtani was such a crucial acquisition. Without him, the Angels would have hardly any young talent at all. But he can singlehandedly keep them out of the basement, by this method. Neither the Mariners nor the Giants have anyone who could compete with that kind of ability.
It’s kind of funny — the Mariners’ best 25-and-under projection belongs to Mike Ford, at 1.0 WAR. Ford was a Rule 5 selection who they plucked from the Yankees. The Yankees had no roster room for the Mariners’ best statistical 25-and-under player. The Yankees have 11 25-and-under players who project better than Ford does. At the top of the list are Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and Jordan Montgomery. This doesn’t even give the Yankees credit for Aaron Judge, who’s 25 today, but who turns 26 in a couple of months. When people tell you the Yankees are loaded, they don’t just mean they can run some high payrolls. The Yankees are great in the majors and the minors, having turned back into a juggernaut.
If your favorite team looks good here, congratulations. Every organization wants to hoard young talent. If your favorite team doesn’t look good, well, maybe you don’t like what the projections have to say. Maybe you have more faith in your team’s player development. Maybe there are players 26 or 27 or 28 on the roster, with years remaining of club control. It’s not as if this is some unassailable reading of the future. But, you know, you’d rather look good than look bad. The Yankees look good. The Giants look bad. There are very legitimate reasons for that.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.