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The Talent Equation

Yesterday, Baseball America released its latest top ten list for the Tampa Bay Rays. Within the chat with BA's Bill Ballew was asked the following question:

Do the Rays still have a top 3 farm system?

Ballew's response?

From a quantity standpoint they're close, but from a top-of-the-line talent perspective, probably not. They're in the top 10, but right now I believe there is more MLB talent in a handful of other organizations.

It is exciting to look at these prospect lists and to envision their future in the major league.Quite frankly, this is something Rays fans should be accustomed to doing given just how heavily the team has utilized its farm system to populate the 25-man roster throughout the history of the franchise. Baseball America has ranked the organization's farm system over the years as such:

  • 1998: 23rd
  • 1999: 29th
  • 2000: N/A
  • 2001: 6th
  • 2002: 15th
  • 2003: 10th
  • 2004: 9th
  • 2005: 9th
  • 2006: 10th
  • 2007: 1st
  • 2008: 1st
  • 2009: 4th
  • 2010: 1st
  • 2011: 2nd
Despite the high rankings and the plethora of talent that has come from the farm system throughout the years, the actual production from those prospects may surprise you.

From 1998 to 2008, 54 different unique players made an appearance on the Rays' top ten prospect list from Baseball America from Alex Sanchez to Wes Bankston. Surprisingly, only six of those names never threw a pitch or had a plate appearance in the major leagues: Chris Mason, Doug Johnson, Marquis Roberts, Matt Walker, Matt White, and Ramon Soler. The other 48 players all made the major leagues, but not all did so with this organization, with Josh Hamilton being the most prominent name of that group.

Using WARP values from Baseball Prospectus, we find that 24 of the 54 prospects produced a WARP value of zero or less than zero as a member of the organization whether due to being unproductive in a Tampa Bay uniform, never making it to the majors, or being traded to another organization before realizing any value. Additionally, nine players had negative WARP values in their time on the 25 man roster with playing times varying wildly: Antonio Perez, Jake McGee, Joel Guzman, Elijah Dukes, Paul Hoover, Brent Abernathy, Dewon Brazelton, Jason Standridge, and Seth McClung.

The cumulative WARP value for all 54 names was 148.7. To put that in perspective, that total is less than what both Willie Mays and Barry Bonds who both had career WARP values of over 160.0. Also consider that 60 percent of that entire value is made up by four players in franchise history: Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria, and B.J. Upton.

The infographic below shows the WARP values for any player that produced a positive or negative value in their time with the Rays organization (requires java plugin. Static image can be found here)

Notice one name that is nowhere on that list - James Shields. He was never ranked on a top ten list but has a career WARP value of 13.3 and is currently the sixth-best WARP value in franchise history behind the previously mentioned big four and Carlos Pena. Alex Cobb's career is off to an impressive start and he too has never been ranked in the top 15 spots by Baseball America in his time in the organization. Finding more talents like this helps off-set some of the misses that have populated the top ten lists throughout the years.

Andrew Friedman said on an interview with MLB Network radio earlier today that, "prospects mean more to the Rays than anyone else due to the revenue gaps within the American League East." That said, those prospect can only be counted on so much because of the overall fail rate of prospects in general. The talent in the organization is still some of the best collection of talent within baseball, but how that talent develops moving forward will ultimately determine the sustainable success the Rays are currently enjoying.

The franchise has proven they can produce winning teams with limited payrolls, but the talent equation is heavily reliant upon the minor league talent entering the process on a continual basis. The volatility of the return on investment with prospects can ultimately disrupt the talent equation with undesirable results which is why scouting and development is even more paramount to the Rays than other organizations.