The Strongest (and Weakest) Rookie Classes of 2013

What a difference six months can make.

A Major League Baseball club can open the season in April with an impressive collection of players on its 25-man roster but that team’s picture will no doubt be significantly rearranged come September. Look to the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays for an example of this statement.

Prior to the season, the club was picked by many people — whose job it is to make these sorts of predictions, and make them well — as the favorites to win the American League East division. Instead, the club stumbled out of the gate and key players suffered significant injuries, while others were wildly inconsistent or down right disappointing.

Some big league organizations can easily rebound from catastrophe that was the Jays’ 2013 season. The Cardinals, for example, reached the World Series in ’13 while regularly utilizing seven rookies. The Dodgers reached the National League Championship Series despite injuries to key veterans Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp, thanks to strong contributions from June call-up Yasiel Puig and Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Strong depth is imperative for clubs looking to remain competitive for an entire 162-game schedule. Some clubs are better at squeezing every ounce of juice out of their minor league system than others. Minor league depth is also cyclical and varies for each organization from year to year. Miami utilized 23 rookies in 2013 but, with many of those graduating from their freshman status, it’s hard to envision the organization trotting out anywhere near that many first-year players in 2014.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at the organizations that received the most value from their rookie classes in 2013, and which clubs had little to no additional support. The final ranking of the clubs’ minor league system values was based on four factors: Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for first-year players, rookies used, total rookie at-bats, and total rookie innings pitched.

The numbers were weighted to heavily favor WAR because, frankly, players are only valuable if they’re producing. What this ranking doesn’t consider is the journeyman minor leaguer that might have had an unexpected contribution and other players that had already exceeded their rookie eligibilities (50 IP, 130 AB, 45 days on the pre-September active roster).

The Top Tier:

1. Milwaukee Brewers: When the dust settled I was shocked to the see the Brewers leading the pack. However, upon closer inspection it’s easy to see why they did. The club finished second in rookie WAR, second in innings, third in rookies used, and 10th in at-bats. Unexpected help came on offence from second baseman Scooter Gennett (1.9 WAR, 230 AB), and Khris Davis (1.2, 153). Even limp-bat, defensive whiz Jeff Bianchi chipped in from the bench (0.8 WAR, 252). The club received help on the mound from both the bullpen and the starting rotation in the form of reliever Brandon Kintzler (1.3 WAR, 77.0 IP) as well as starters Tyler Thornburg (1.1, 66.2) and Wily Peralta (1.0, 183.1). 

2. St. Louis Cardinals: The Red Birds employed 20 rookies, one more than the Brewers and three fewer than the MLB leading Marlins — and yet they reached the 2013 World Series. The club provided regular at-bats and innings to seven players. First baseman Matt Adams (1.7, 319) was far and away the most product hitter while defensive whiz and shortstop Pete Kozma (0.0, 448) was much less so. On the mound, starter Shelby Miller (2.1, 173.1) and reliever Trevor Rosenthal (2.2, 75.1) provided much-needed innings. Playoff stud Michael Wacha (1.1, 64.2) and Seth Maness (0.1, 62.0) also chipped in.

3. Miami Marlins: The Marlins didn’t lead the way in rookie WAR but they did employ the most rookies, while also doling out the most at-bats and third most innings to first-year players. Everyone knows what young hurler Jose Fernandez (4.7, 172.2) did in 2013, but the organization also received some additional starting help from Tom Koehler (0.6, 143), as well as relief aid from A.J. Ramos (0.6, 80.0) and Dan Jennings (0.6, 40.2). At the plate, six players earned more than 230 at-bats. The highest WAR came from outfielders Marcell Ozuna (1.6) and Christian Yelich (1.4), while minor-league veteran Ed Lucas (0.7) was also effective. A few freshmen hitters were replacement level or worse: Derek Dietrich (0.0), Rob Brantly (-0.8), and Adeiny Hechavarria (-1.9), whose slick defense couldn’t mask his offensive inadequacies.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers led the Majors in rookie WAR, thanks mostly to outfielder Yasiel Puig (4.0) and starter Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.1). Role player Scott Van Slyke (0.9) and reliever Paco Rodriguez (0.7). A number of poor performances by briefly-called-up rookies, such as utility player Alex Castellanos (-0.3) and pitcher Matt Magill (-0.8) dragged down the overall numbers for the club.

5. New York Mets: The 2013 season certainly did go as well as hoped but the club received some unexpected contributions from two modestly-regarded rookies in outfielder Juan Lagares (2.9, 421) and Josh Satin (1.3, 221). Top prospect Zack Wheeler (0.6) had a respectable debut but other highly-regarded freshmen stumbled out of the gate including Travis d’Arnaud (-0.1) and Wilmer Flores (-0.2).

6. Atlanta Braves: Atlanta’s rookie class was carried by three players: Julio Teheran (2.4, 185.2) and Alex Wood (1.6, 77.2), as well as catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis (0.9, 382). Two other pitchers had respectable seasons out of the bullpen in Luis Avilan (0.5, 65.0) and Anthony Varvaro (0.2, 73.1).

7. Seattle Mariners: The big league club debuted a new middle-infield combo in 2013 with mixed results thanks to a strong season from Brad Miller (1.7, 335) and a modest year by Nick Franklin (0.4, 412). The top catching prospect in the minors entering 2013, Mike Zunino, never got his feet firmly planted under him after an earlier-than-expected promotion and subsequent injury (0.0, 193). Seattle entered the year expecting big things from two relievers — Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor — but both were ineffective and injured. Luckily two other unexpected relievers stepped in to fill the void: journeyman Danny Farquhar (1.9, 55.2) and Yoervis Medina (0.4, 68.0).

The Second Tier:

8. Los Angeles Angels: It seems strange to see the Angels this high because the club didn’t have any big-name, first-year contributors in 2013 like it did in ’12 with Mike Trout. Players like Kole Calhoun (1.1, 222), Luis Jimenez (0.7, 110), J.B. Shuck (0.5, 478), Grant Green (0.5 137), and Dane de la Rosa (1.1, 72.1) all helped to make a disappointing season a little less painful.

9. Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays organization is known for generating young talent and the 2013 season was no different. The top rookie, though, came to the Rays via a trade with the Kansas City Royals. Outfielder Wil Myers (2.4, 373) was one of the team’s better hitters despite appearing in just 88 games. The club also received some strong pitching performances from starter Chris Archer (1.2, 128.1) and starter-turned reliever Alex Torres (1.3, 50.0). If the latter pitcher’s improved command and control are for real he could earn another shot at the starting rotation.

10. Pittsburgh Pirates: What a great spot the Pirates find themselves in. They proved in 2013 that they’re a playoff-calibre team and they’ll have multiple waves of high-ceiling talent hit the Majors over the next few seasons. Former first overall pick of the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole (2.3, 117.1) produced better results in the Majors than the minors and that allowed him establish himself as one of the best young pitchers in the league. The club also received a strong performance from B-level prospect and shortstop Jordy Mercer (1.4, 365).

11. Texas Rangers: Like the Rays, the Rangers always seem to be churning out young, impact talent. Only one first-year position player saw regular playing in 2013 and Jurickson Profar (-0.4, 324), just 20 years old, underwhelmed as he struggled to find a defensive home. The club received quite a few strong performances from its freshmen pitchers such as Martin Perez (1.6, 124.1), Nick Tepesch (1.2, 93.0), Tanner Scheppers (0.8, 76.2), and Justin Grimm (0.6, 89.0 — since traded to the Cubs).

12. Arizona Diamondbacks: Outfielder Adam Eaton (-0.5, 277) was expected to be the key rookie contributor for The Snakes in 2013 but he got hurt and was then rather ineffective. The two biggest contributors — outfielder A.J. Pollock and shortstop Didi Gregorius — impacted mainly through their gloves rather than their bats. The only freshman pitcher that truly had an impact in 2013 was Will Harris (0.9, 52.2), a reliever picked up off waivers in April after being dropped by both Oakland and Colorado in the span of about a week.

The Third Tier:

13. Minnesota Twins: Minnesota gave a ton of at-bats to rookies in 2013 but the two players with the most at-bats — Oswaldo Arcia (-0.4, 378) and Aaron Hicks (-0.7, 313) — combined for -1.1 WAR. Little-known catcher Josmil Pinto, alone, compiled 0.9 WAR in just 83 at-bats and has no doubt positioned himself for much more playing time in 2014. The club also received solid contributions from two under-the-radar arms in Casey Fiens (1.0, 62.0) and Andrew Albers (0.9, 60.0).

15. Oakland Athletics: The bad news about the rookie hitters on the 2013 A’s is that only two players posted positive WAR totals. The interesting news is that both were acquired for very little after being deemed expendable by their original organizations. Although they didn’t exactly light the world on fire, Stephen Vogt (0.5, 148) and Nate Freiman (0.1, 208) were both useful soldiers. The club a lot more luck on the mound with Dan Straily (1.9, 152.1), Sonny Gray (1.5, 64.0), and Dan Otero (0.8, 39.0). Both Straily and Gray should be key members of the A’s starting rotation in 2014.

16. San Diego Padres: San Diego had only one freshman that surpassed the 100 at-bat mark and infielder Jedd Gyorko (2.5, 525) was one of the more effective rookie hitters in the league. Reliever Nick Vincent (1.1, 46.1) was far and away the best hurler despite limited innings.

17. Colorado Rockies: Without third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Rockies’ 2013 rookie contingent would be a pretty ugly. He accounted for 2.7 WAR over his 514 at-bats and was award a gold glove for his strong defensive performance. Outfielder Corey Dickerson posted the next highest WAR total at 0.5 in 213 at-bats, and the top pitching honor went to Chad Bettis at 0.2 in 44.2 innings. Infielder Ryan Wheeler managed a disappointing -0.7 WAR in just 42 at-bats.

18. Washington Nationals/Chicago Cubs: The sixth overall selection of the 2011 draft, Rendon (1.5, 394) finally put forth a relatively healthy season. No other first-year hitter compiled more than 50 at-bats. On the mound, two under-the-radar arms had positive impacts: Tanner Roark (1.4, 53.2) and Taylor Jordan (0.7, 51.2).

The Cubs are in a transition period (not exactly full-blown rebuilding) but only one freshman hitter — Junior Lake (1.2, 254) — received significant at-bats. The bullpen had decent contributions from Blake Parker (0.6, 46.1) and Chris Rusin (0.1, 66.1) but neither pitched overly important innings.

20. Houston Astros: The Astros finished fifth or higher in three categories: rookies used, at-bats and innings — but finished dead last in WAR with a -1.5. The club used 22 rookies and provided them with plenty of opportunities for regular playing time but few had positive impacts. Outfielder Brandon Barnes compiled 1.0 WAR in 445 at-bats based mainly on his defensive contributions, while hurler Brett Oberholtzer managed 1.3 WAR in 71.2 innings of work. Fellow rotation-mate Jarred Cosart (0.4) showed flashes of brilliance in 60.0 innings.

The Bottom Tier:

21. Philadelphia Phillies: Similar to the Astros, the Phillies gave a lot of innings and at-bats to prospects but they finished 28th in rookie WAR. The club had five pitchers that combined for a -2.0 WAR. The best young pitcher was Jonathan Pettibone who managed 0.6 WAR in 100.1 innings but also dealt with injuries. Slugger Darin Ruf was given 293 at-bats but he was basically a replacement-level player, as was Cody Asche (0.0, 179).

22. San Francisco Giants: A club that traditionally favors veterans, the Giants gave a number of innings to young relievers and the best of the group was Jean Machi (0.9, 53.0). Five other pitchers, though, were ineffective and had a combined -1.4 WAR. At the plate, only three freshmen hitters were given more than 90 at-bats and the best of the group was defensive whiz Juan Perez (1.6, 97).

23. Kansas City Royals: The Royals used the fewest rookies (six) in the Majors in 2013. No freshman hurler pitched more than 15.1 innings (Yordano Ventura). The biggest impact came from outfielder David Lough (2.4, 335), who was an average-at-best hitter but a well-above-average defensive player.

24. Toronto Blue Jays: As mentioned earlier, it was an ugly, ugly year for the Jays and the lack of young (rookie) impact talent suggests the immediate future may be somewhat bleak, as well. Second baseman Ryan Goins and outfielder Kevin Pillar weren’t terrible but they didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Starting pitcher Todd Redmond (0.8, 77.0), already 28 years old, was the only truly effective first-year player but his ceiling is limited.

25. Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox were crowned World Series champions in 2013 with the help of a strong veteran club. The top rookie contributor in 2013 (according to WAR), shortstop Jose Iglesias (1.0, 234), was actually traded mid-season when the club went looking to shore up its pitching. The club receive some solid innings — mostly out of the ‘pen — from Brandon Workman (0.7, 41.2), Drake Britton (0.4, 21.0) and Alex Wilson (0.3, 27.2).

26. Chicago White Sox/Cleveland Indians: The Sox used a lot of rookies (19) but finished 29th in WAR, which is not surprising considering the club’s minor league system has been considered among the worst in the Majors for a few years now. No pitcher was worth more than 0.2 WAR (Daniel Webb and Donnie Veal) and four hurlers finished with negative WAR. Among the hitters, third baseman Conor Gillaspie (0.7, 452) was tops thanks to his steady defensive contributions.

The Indians gave just 23 at-bats to freshmen hitters (Catcher Yan Gomes was exempt due to the number of days he spent on the Jays’ active roster in 2012). Pitchers Danny Salazar (1.2, 52.0) and Cody Allen (1.0, 70.1) kept this rookie class from being the worst in the league and both have bright futures.

27. Cincinnati Reds: Pitchers Tony Cingrani (1.3, 104.2) and J.J. Hoover (0.6, 66.0) were the top rookies for the Reds in 2013. Outfielder Billy Hamilton grabbed some headlines with his base-running exploits and managed to compile 0.6 WAR despite having just 22 at-bats.

28. New York Yankees: Given how in flux the Yankees’ big league roster is, it’s somewhat surprising to see them rely so little on their minor league system. The rookie hitter with the highest WAR total in 2013 — Melky Mesa (0.3, 14) was actually designated for assignment in September. The players who received the most at-bats — David Adams and Austin Romine — combined for -0.4 WAR. Young hurlers Preston Claiborne and Adam Warren ate some important innings in 2013 but likely have modest careers ahead of them.

29. Detroit Tigers: Shortstop Jose Iglesias (0.8, 148) didn’t join the Tigers until mid-season when the club acquired him from the Boston Red Sox. No other rookie hitter compiled more than 100 at-bats. Jose Alvarez (-0.1, 38.2) had the most innings of any young pitcher. Rookie hurler Bruce Rondon (0.4, 28.2) showed potential before he got hurt.

30.  Baltimore Orioles: Rookies were in now way a big part of the Orioles’ 2013 season. The club finished 26th or worse in all four of categories (WAR, rookies used, at-bats, and innings). Two pitchers accumulated 0.4 WAR in reliever T.J. McFarland and top starting pitching prospect Kevin Gausman.

Other General Observations: Six of the top seven teams came from the National League. Clearly, teams can be successful heavily relying on inexperienced players or veterans. Five of the 10 playoffs teams ranked among the Top 12 teams while the other four post-season-bound clubs ranked among the bottom 10. The final club, the A’s, fell smack in the middle of the ranking at 15th.

A lot of the clubs in the bottom Top 10 are teams that traditionally favor veteran players. Clubs like the Royals, Jays and White Sox all had disappointing seasons and didn’t receive much help from their systems. Toronto pillaged its minor league system to ‘go for broke’ in 2013 and may have instead gone bankrupted at the expense of its immediate and near future.

Let’s see a partial breakdown of how I came to my ranking…

The Top 5 in Rookie WAR
1. Dodgers: 7.1
2. Cardinals: 7.0
3. Brewers: 5.8
4. Braves: 5.4
5. Mets/Rays: 5.3…

The Bottom 5 in Rookie WAR
26. Orioles: 0.3
27. Yankees: 0.0
28. Phillies: -0.6
29. White Sox: -0.9
30. Astros: -1.5

The Top 5 in Rookies Used
1. Marlins: 23
2. Astros: 22
3. Cardinals: 20
4. White Sox/Brewers/Phillies: 19
7. Angels/Mets: 18…

The Bottom 5 in Rookies Used
23. Rays/Reds/Tigers: 11 
26. Jays/Indians: 10
28. Orioles: 9
29. Rockies: 7
30. Royals: 6

The Top 5 in Rookie At-Bats
1. Marlins: 2,241
2. Astros: 1,583
3. Diamondbacks: 1,406
4. Twins: 1,300
5. White Sox: 1,281…

The Bottom 5 in Rookie At-Bats
26. Royals: 339
27. Reds: 320
28. Jays: 231
29. Orioles: 76
30. Indians: 23

The Top 5 in Rookie Innings Pitched
1. Brewers: 634.0
2. Cardinals: 553.2
3. Marlins: 497.2
4. Rangers: 488.0
5. Astros: 465.0…

The Bottom 5 in Rookie Innings Pitched
26. Nationals: 159.1
27. Orioles: 158.0
28. Red Sox: 145.1
29. Rockies: 97.0
30. Royals: 32.1

First interest’s sake, here is my ranking of every minor league system in baseball that I filed back in late February 2013. It was slightly different than the above exercise in the fact that it was based on both depth and (present/future) potential impact of the prospects. I had also been asked to include a value of each organization based on the 20-80 scout scale (with 50 being average).

FanGraphs’ Pre-Season Org Rankings
1. St. Louis 70
2. Texas 70
3. Tampa Bay 70
4. Minnesota 65
5. Chicago NL 65
6. Pittsburgh 65
7. Seattle 60
8. San Diego 60
9. Cincinnati 60
10. Houston 55
11. Kansas City 55
12. Miami 55
13. Arizona 55
14. New York NL 55
15. Baltimore 50
16. New York AL 50
17. Boston 50
18. Los Angeles NL 45
19. Washington 45
20. Toronto 45
21. Cleveland 40
22. Atlanta 40
23. Chicago AL 35
24. Philadelphia 35
25. Oakland 35
26. Colorado 30
27. San Francisco 30
28. Detroit 25
29. Milwaukee 25
30. Los Angeles AL 25

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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This is a super interesting article. Thanks!