It’s been a few years since the minor league evaluators at MLB Pipeline, the farm-focused crew at MLB.com, have published a comprehensive ranking of all 30 MLB minor league systems. Their team is not a fly-by-night squad. Led by Jim Callis, Jonathan Mayo and Mike Rosenbaum, they have deep knowledge of the prep and collegiate ranks, and their judgments are well-argued and sound. And in 2020, they estimate the Angels have the #26 ranked farm in baseball.
A bottom-five system.
Now, to be sure, this is a specific point of view that is not echoed by all other analysts. Bleacher Report pegged the Angels’ system at #25 in their preseason rankings, so Callis-Mayo-and-co are not alone in their estimation, but BR isn’t known for credible and thorough player analysis to the degree that MLB Pipeline is. Keith Law, who recently made the jump from ESPN to the The Athletic, ranked the Angels system at #18. But his estimate also came with ample warnings:
Jo Adell’s a stud, Brandon Marsh might be, too, but many of the other players with upside in this system took steps back last year or were hurt, and then the Angels traded away their first-rounder to clear Zack Cozart’s salary, so the system as a whole is in worse shape relative to their competitors than it was a year ago. It’s also really young – everyone’s system is young, of course, but this one seems especially so, with only one prospect drafted from college in their top 20.
Like Law, other estimators (like those at Baseball America) give the Angels more rope because they score more towards upside, while the team at MLB Pipeline score for breadth, depth and upside.
Nonetheless, it’s likely to be rather galling to have the farm judged by the keystone media organization of professional baseball as a bottom-five system, especially after four years of losing based in part on a draft-and-develop strategy with pronounced avoidance of major trades and a clear verbally-reinforced target of a “top five” system in short order.
Even more triggering for Angels fans might be how a handful of other teams are currently ranked:
Tampa Bay Rays (#1): The Rays had the lowest payroll in baseball last year ($54M!), yet also fielded a team that won 96 times last season, and won 90 games in 2018. In 2017, they shared the same record as the Angels. They have done more with less, despite an increasingly disadvantageous drafting position. Yes, they get a supplemental rounder here and there, but they also trade well, develop well and draft very well.
Los Angeles Dodgers (#3): The team with typically the best record in baseball, with ritually poor draft position, simply kills it on all fronts: trading, domestic drafting, the Latin harvest, player development. They prove again and again that you can carry a big payroll, selectively invest in free agency, and win at the MLB level without compromising one’s minor league organization.
Seattle Mariners (#9): The Dipoto-led Mariners only lost five more games than the Angels in 2019 while ostensibly “tanking”, but they rebuilt their farm from a bottom-three system two years ago to a top-ten system now. The argument usually goes: “but the Angels could do that too if they traded away their stars!” – but could they? After first-round picks like Thaiss and Wilson (and even Adams), are you so confident? The quick Mariners rebuild gives ammunition to two fan arguments that have percolated about over the past couple years: (1) Dipoto was actually better at drafting, trading and developing than many conceded, but had little opportunity to prove it given a punishing CBA and a win-now mandate. And (2) an interventionist owner in Arte Moreno has hamstrung both Dipoto and Billy Eppler from executing on a balanced build-and-contend strategy that could have made the Angels resemble the Mets less and the Dodgers more.
Oakland Athletics (#14): In recent years, the A’s have regularly maintained a farm ranked in the mid-teens, often led by some intriguing pitching talent (Luzardo and Puk are both in the top 60 here), while often punching above their weight (and pocketbook). Like Tampa, they have the lowest payroll in the AL West (usually around $80M), but have fielded a 97 win team each of the past two years. They make good strategic trades without eviscerating the MLB club, complement them with under-the-radar MLB talent, and they graduate players aggressively, often with productive results.
What can Billy Eppler learn from the clubs above? In the case of Tampa and Oakland, he’s working with a $100M+ payroll advantage, but still is underperforming both teams at both and MLB and MiLB level. Whether you’re bullish or pessimistic about the farm, we’re still working within a range of #16-#26 well below Eppler’s desired goal for the org. The consensus says it’s a below-average system (and one that is likely to fall further upon graduating Adell and Marsh).
What steps should the organization take to improve? Or should it abandon its largely unsuccessful five-year plan of organizational renaissance in favor of a couple short title runs? Do the Angels need new leadership that better prioritizes pitching in the draft, and a more balanced portfolio of minor league talent?