The purpose of a farm system is to develop talent for its parent club, whether it be directly with young players or indirectly with trades. This year, however, that simple objective was complicated by the pandemic, which resulted in a lost Minor League season, a shortened Major League schedule and a five-round Draft.
As a result, evaluating just how much each farm system improved and which improved the most in 2020 were unprecedented challenges for the MLB Pipeline crew. We still put out our ranking of all 30 farm systems in early September, though it was based on a limited timeframe.
Much has changed since, of course, and in the wake of this week’s flurry of blockbuster trades, we’re taking one last crack at identifying which farm systems made the biggest upward moves in 2020.
To come up with this list, we looked at every team’s 2020 Draft and international class, the quantity and quality of their Top 100 prospects, whether they acquired or traded any prospects during the year and the overall growth and development by players in a system.
The list includes four teams that have combined for six last-place finishes over the past two seasons and, on the other end of the spectrum, the reigning American League champions.
The fact that the 2020 AL champs sit atop this list speaks to the Rays’ track record and overall formula for acquiring and developing high-ceiling young players -- all while maintaining a competitive Major League roster. They received significant contributions throughout the season from prospects like Randy Arozarena, Shane McClanahan and Josh Fleming, all of whom have retained rookie eligibility for '21, when they should be joined in the big leagues by a slew of Rays Top 100 prospects, including No. 1 overall prospect Wander Franco.
Arozarena’s acquisition from St. Louis in January directly influenced the Rays’ World Series run -- he slashed .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs in 20 postseason games -- and gives the club a valuable long-term asset. He was one of several former top international prospects acquired by the Rays in 2020, as they also acquired Pedro Martinez (Cubs) in a Trade Deadline deal before acquiring Heriberto Hernandez and Osleivis Basabe (Rangers) in the offseason Nate Lowe trade.
• Rays' Top 30 Prospects list
The decision to trade 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to the Padres netted Tampa Bay a seventh Top 100 prospect in 21-year-old Luis Patiño (No. 23 overall), the headliner in a loaded return that also includes right-hander Cole Wilcox, a first-round talent who signed for a third-round record $3.3 million, and 22-year-old catching prospect Blake Hunt, a 2017 Draftee who signed for $1.6 million. The Rays also added two Top 40-ranked 2020 Draft prospects to their top-ranked system in prep right-hander Nick Bitsko (first round) and college shortstop Alika Williams (Competitive Balance Round A).
On top of that, many Rays top prospects made strides in their development in 2020, either at the team’s alternate training site during the season or during fall instructional league. That progress, as well as the overall wealth of talent in Tampa Bay’s system, should pay huge dividends for the Rays in '21, especially with many of the organization’s elite, upper-level prospects poised to reach the Majors for the first time.
Much like the Rays, the Tigers’ system grew stronger this year in part because the club graduated few prospects from their Top 30 list. One notable difference, however, was that Detroit had several of its top prospects gain valuable Major League experience, even if the overall results were mixed. Top 100 prospects Casey Mize (No. 5 overall) and Tarik Skubal (No. 42) both offered a glimpse of their bright futures upon joining the Tigers’ rotation in August, and Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron ended the season as regulars in the lineup.
Finishing with baseball’s worst record in 2019 netted the Tigers their second No. 1 overall pick in a three-year span in ‘20, which they used to select Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson, the top hitter in the nation. The Tigers ultimately took a hitter with each of their six picks -- five from the college ranks and one prep -- injecting some much-needed offense into the once pitching-heavy system.
• Tigers' Top 30 Prospects list
After his eye-opening performance during Spring Training and Summer Camp, Riley Greene, taken No. 5 overall by the Tigers in 2019, continued to develop rapidly this summer at Detroit’s alternate training site, showing a highly advanced blend of tools, skills and aptitude for a young player. And though the Tigers did shut down right-hander Matt Manning (elbow) late in the year out of an abundance of caution, the 2016 first-round pick should be ready to go for ’21, when he could join Mize and Skubal in the Major League rotation.
The Pirates had a disappointing 2020 season by all measures, finishing with baseball’s worst record (19-41) after a 69-win season in ‘19. But the organization still managed to add multiple young, high-ceiling pitching prospects to its rising farm system via trades, acquiring Brennan Malone (from the D-backs in the Starling Marte deal) as well as Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe (from the Nationals in the Josh Bell deal). The Pirates also added a pair of hurlers in the Rule 5 Draft, taking Jose Soriano with the No. 1 pick and then trading for Luis Oviedo.
Yean and Malone both rank among the Pirates' Top 10 prospects, joining a group that includes 2019 first-rounder Quinn Priester, a future Top 100 prospect, and '20 Competitive Balance pick Carmen Mlodzinski. Fellow '20 Draftees Jared Jones and Nick Garcia -- both Top 100-ranked Draft prospects -- aren’t far behind, ranking inside the Top 20 along with high-ceiling righties Cody Bolton, Tahnaj Thomas and Braxton Ashcraft.
• Pirates' Top 30 Prospects list
The Pirates gained a new top prospect when they selected Nick Gonzales with the No. 7 pick in this year’s Draft, and shortstop Liover Peguero, acquired from Arizona with Malone, already ranks among the Top 5 in the system. Ke’Bryan Hayes is a potential franchise player and should be an early favorite to win 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Award after he was worth 1.9 wins above replacement in just 24 games in '20.
The Pirates are poised to add another elite prospect with the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s Draft -- the franchise’s first since it selected Gerrit Cole in '11.
• No. 1 pick in hand, Pirates dive into prep
Baltimore’s next wave of talent began to arrive in 2020, with prospects Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin all making a positive impact after their respective promotions, and it shouldn’t be long before top prospect Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, joins them in the Majors.
A switch-hitting catcher with generational upside, Rutschman leads a promising young crop of Oriole hitters that grew even deeper this year thanks to an offense-heavy Draft class and a few trades. Specifically, each of the five hitters the Orioles selected in the Draft now rank among the organization’s Top 30 prospects, with Heston Kjerstad (No. 2 overall pick) and prep shortstop Jordan Westburg, the team’s top two picks, ranking inside the Top 10.
• Orioles' Top 30 Prospects list
Shortstop Gunnar Henderson, a second-round pick in 2019, improved as much as any player Baltimore’s system this year and could shoot up the '21 rankings. Lastly, the Orioles acquired a pair of Top 30 infielders in Terrin Vavra and Tyler Nevin when they traded Mychal Givens to Colorado.
On the pitching side, Top 100 prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, Baltimore’s respective first-round picks in 2017-18, stand out for being high-ceiling prospects in a system that features more upper-level, depth-type hurlers. The Orioles added several of the latter via trades, acquiring Kevin Smith (Mets) and Garrett Stallings (Angels) in separate deals, while also claiming Ashton Goudeau off waivers (Pirates). Overall, the system has more high-end talent and projectable depth than it has in years.
The D-backs flooded their farm system with pitching in 2019, taking six pitchers in the first five rounds of the June Draft before acquiring two more from Houston at the Trade Deadline as part of their four-prospect return for Zack Greinke. In '20, Arizona continued its stockpiling of pitching prospects by selecting Bryce Jarvis, Slade Cecconi and Liam Norris with its first three picks in the Draft. All three hurlers were standouts in their first taste of pro ball, either at the alternate training site or during fall instructional league, after ranking among MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 Draft prospects.
• D-backs' Top 30 Prospects list
The D-backs also added some pitching depth through trades, acquiring Jeremy Beasley (Angels) and Humberto Mejia (Marlins) in separate deals, and then later claiming reliever Taylor Guilbeau (Mariners) off waivers.
But what really helped Arizona secure the final spot on this list was that so many of its young, high-ceiling prospects made significant progress in their development this year in the face of the widespread limitations imposed by the pandemic. Kristian Robinson and Corbin Carroll offered a glimpse of their potential at the alternate training site, where they headlined a larger group of age-21 or younger players who excelled in the uniquely competitive environment, and there were even more success stories from the D-backs’ fall instructional camp. With all that talent, it’s easy to envision Arizona’s system growing even stronger in 2021.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.