Explaining the MLB farm system

May 13th, 2019

If you watch or read about baseball, you might come across a reference to a certain team’s farm system. Rest assured, this doesn’t mean the Yankees or Dodgers are growing crops.

Rather, “farm system” is a colloquial term for a Major League franchise’s system of affiliated Minor League teams. Together, these affiliates act as a way for teams to “grow” talent, developing young players until they are ready to contribute in the big leagues.

Here is a breakdown of everything you need to know about this subject:

The history

Branch Rickey is most known as the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, but long before that, he changed the course of baseball history in a different way.

Previously, Minor League teams were independent, and Major League teams bid to purchase players from them. That wasn’t working out well for Rickey’s Cardinals, so in the 1920s and ‘30s, they acquired the teams instead, and had their own player development machine.

The plan proved fruitful. The Cardinals, who had struggled ever since joining the National League in 1892, made it to their first World Series in 1926, and won. That began a 21-season run in which St. Louis captured nine National League pennants and six World Series championships.

As always, baseball was a copycat sport, and the farm system spread throughout the game, although the Minor Leagues are a much more standardized institution today than back in Rickey’s time.

The levels

Several independent, unaffiliated Minor Leagues do still exist. These include the Atlantic League (with teams such as the Long Island Ducks) and American Association (Saint Paul Saints). Independent leagues vary in quality but frequently serve as a last chance for players who have lost their spot in affiliated ball to prove themselves again. Most never made it the Majors in the first place, but it’s not unusual to see former big leaguers -- sometimes even highly successful ones -- giving it one more shot in independent ball.

While a Major League club must purchase a player from an independent league, those who play with affiliates already are under contract with an MLB team. These days, most farm systems feature between seven and nine teams of different levels, which are as follows, moving up the ladder:

Rookie (R): This level is the first stop in pro ball for many young players, and the schedule typically does not begin until sometime in June, after the annual MLB Draft.

Class A Short-Season (SS): Similarly, the schedule for these teams begins in June, with many college players heading here after the Draft.

Class A (A): This is the lowest level that plays a full Minor League season, from early April to early September (roughly 135-140 games).

Class A Advanced (A Adv.): Not every prospect stops at every level, but for some, this is a stepping stone between the lower and upper Minors.

Double-A (AA): Conventional wisdom states that moving up to Double-A is the biggest jump before the one to the Majors, separating true prospects. Players sometimes go straight from here to MLB.

Triple-A (AAA): This is the highest level, closest to the Majors, and features many older players with experience in the big leagues, in addition to younger prospects. There are two Triple-A leagues: the Pacific Coast League and the International League.

Coming and going

With rare exceptions, every player goes through a team’s farm system, at least for a short time. They begin their journey after being drafted (out of high school or college), or in the case of international players, signing as an amateur free agent.

Teams then can move players up and down through their systems, including up to the Majors. If a player already has been placed on an MLB team’s 40-man roster, he can be “recalled” to the active 25-man roster. If a player is not on the 40-man roster, a space must be created there (if one does not already exist) before he can be placed on the 25-man roster.

Some players graduate from the Minors quickly and never go back, with the exception of rehab assignments, in which big leaguers shake off the rust before returning to the Majors after an injury. Other players bounce back and forth throughout a season or throughout their careers.

Prospect news

Many players in recent seasons have quickly turned into stars upon reaching the Major Leagues at a young age, helping create more interest in and excitement about the next wave of talent.

MLB Pipeline provides the information to feed this interest, covering prospects all the way from before the annual Draft and international signing period, up through their arrival in the Majors. Features include a Top 100 Prospects list and Top 30 lists for every team.