First Pitch: How Can the Pirates Catch the Cardinals?

Earlier today, John Sickels released his farm system rankings and had the Pittsburgh Pirates fifth overall. He also had the St. Louis Cardinals first overall. The Cardinals seem to be the consensus top farm system this year. I haven’t received my Baseball America 2013 Prospect Handbook yet, but I’ve already seen that the Cardinals ranked first in their preliminary rankings.

A comment was made in the comments of the link above, questioning how the Pirates can pass the Cardinals. Commenter “Ecbucs” noted that the Cardinals had the better major league roster, a slightly better minor league system, and more money to spend. The “more money to spend” aspect leads to a discussion about how MLB’s economic system is completely unbalanced. After going through that argument, you’re left feeling hopeless about the chances of any small market team winning it all. So we’ll skip that, assume MLB is a league where all teams have a fair chance, and look at the correlation between farm system rankings and future success.

I’ve gone through to see the farm system rankings and the records from the last few years. I used Baseball America’s final rankings (the ones that come out near the start of the season, not the ones in the Prospect Handbooks).

2009
Team Record BA Rank
Cardinals 91-71 8
Cubs 83-78 27
Brewers 80-82 10
Reds 78-84 14
Pirates 62-99 18

The Cardinals had the top record and the top ranking in the division, but finished in second place the next three years. The Reds were the fourth best of the group, and ranked in the middle of the pack in BA’s system rankings. They ended up in first place in two of the next three years, including having the best record in this four year span.

2010
Team Record BA Rank
Reds 91-71 17
Cardinals 86-76 29
Brewers 77-85 13
Cubs 75-87 14
Pirates 57-105 15

The Cardinals fell to the bottom. BA noted that they over-rated them the year before, although they also pointed out that Colby Rasmus was promoted and a lot of top prospects were traded. Everyone else was middle of the pack.

2011
Team Record BA Rank
Brewers 96-66 30
Cardinals 90-72 24
Reds 79-83 6
Pirates 72-90 19
Cubs 71-91 16

Milwaukee and St. Louis were in the bottom third of the league, yet both went on to winning records the following year. St. Louis saw their system ranking start to go up from here. Milwaukee hasn’t improved much, mostly because they’ve made a habit of dealing away top prospects.

2012
Team Record BA Rank
Reds 97-65 16
Cardinals 88-74 10
Brewers 83-79 26
Pirates 79-83 11
Cubs 61-101 14

The Reds were middle of the pack in 2009-2010, yet still moved up to the top of the rankings in 2012. The Cardinals stay the same, even though they’ve moved all over the place in the farm system rankings.

Is There a Correlation?

To address the “how can the Pirates pass the Cardinals” question, I’d first point out that a major league team can only be so good. I’ve seen that question a lot — pretty much every year when farm systems are announced and the Pirates aren’t ahead of everyone — and it always paints a picture that there’s no ceiling for teams. I don’t think that a good team and a top farm system means the Cardinals will keep getting better and better. I think it means that they’ve got a good team now, and the prospects in place to be a good team for years.

As for the correlation, I’m not sure that there is one. The Cardinals had the 29th ranked farm system prior to the 2010 season. Three seasons later and they were still one of the top two teams in the division. The Reds were middle of the pack, yet went on to be the best team in the division.

The reason that there isn’t much of a correlation is because you have to look beyond prospect rankings. The Cardinals were able to stay at the top of the NL Central in large part because they could spend $100+ M per year, allowing them to get guys like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. The Reds didn’t go out and spend on free agents. Instead they made smart moves — the Mat Latos trade, locking up their young, productive players, and getting surprise seasons from guys like Ryan Ludwick.

Going back to the Pirates and Cardinals, they both have a top five or top ten system, depending on who is ranking them. The Cardinals have the better major league team right now. As I said before, I don’t think the top system ranking will mean the Cardinals will keep improving with no ceiling in place. For example, they’ve got five pitching prospects with a Grade A or Grade B rating, according to Sickels. But they can only have five starters in the majors. That means that their young prospects will either replace the good starters they have now (thus keeping the rotation at the same level), or some of those young prospects won’t have a spot. Thus, they’ll remain a good team, but will a limited amount of spots to fill, there’s only so good they can get.

The Pirates don’t have as good of a team right now, but on the flip side that makes it easier for them to catch up. The Cardinals have a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Chris Carpenter. That’s already a good rotation. You start replacing their pitchers with their top prospects and they’re just going to stay a good rotation. The Pirates, on the other hand, will see some big improvements when they add guys like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to the rotation. They don’t have a number one starter right now. They don’t have a guy who could be considered a number two on a contender. So the Pirates will see a bigger boost from their prospects than the Cardinals, simply because the prospects will be replacing players who aren’t as good as the players St. Louis will be replacing. That’s not something to celebrate. It’s just pointing out the reality.

It will take more than just prospects for the Pirates to catch up to the Cardinals, since both teams have a top farm system. They’re going to need to make some smart moves like the Reds did. They’ll need to identify their top players, and lock them up for the long term. They’ll need to get Ryan Ludwick type value from the free agents they do add, since they’re probably not going to be a team that ever makes a huge splash in free agency. That last sentence is kind of ironic since the Pirates added Ludwick at the 2011 trade deadline rather than making a big splash, and Ludwick waited until 2012 with the Reds to provide low cost value.

I generally look at farm system rankings as entertainment. That’s been my stance regardless of whether the Pirates are ranked top five, or ranked closer to 20th. It’s a good conversation topic in the off-season, and it’s a good way to see how people on the outside view the system. You need more than just a farm system though. That’s the key starting point for every team, whether it’s a small market team or a big spender. But there are a lot of other variables beyond the farm system ratings, such as prospects actually realizing their potential in the majors, identifying which talent to go with, and finding talent through other avenues. Having a top system should help the Pirates continue to improve in the standings, but they’re going to need more than just a good farm system if they want to be competitive.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!

**The eBook version of The 2013 Prospect Guide is also available through our publisher. They also have a discount code during the month of January that allows you to save 20%. Use the code JANBOOKS13 to get the discount. This code is only valid on the eBook on the publisher’s web site, and not the books on the products page of the site.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Top Prospects: #5 – Luis Heredia.

**Is Cost Certainty Better Than Roster Flexibility?

**John Sickels Rates the Pirates as the 5th Best Farm System.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Share This Post On