Ranking season continues, as now that we know where just about every team's major league squad stands going into spring training, we can have more informed conversations about their minor league systems -- specifically, who has the system most ready to contribute top-end talent to their major league team over the next year or two.
We're looking specifically at talent in the upper levels of the minors ready to help now (or very close to now), which means that most players that haven't played at least a little bit of Double-A ball won't be showing up in our analysis. This is also a very subjective exercise by its very nature, so I've profiled not only the top three teams, but the six runners-up behind them.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are in an odd, and enviable, position -- they have the consensus top farm in baseball, but they also have one of the consensus top teams in baseball, meaning there's really not that many immediately available open spaces for all those top, near-ready prospects to slot into. It's good news, then, that the two most immediate counter-examples to that are also two of Boston's most highly touted young players: shortstop Xander Bogaerts and centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Bogaerts is the better prospect out of the two; he's been a top-five position player prospect in baseball the last two years, and will either slot in directly at shortstop or, if the Red Sox eventually do something like re-sign Stephen Drew following what can only be called a total collapse of his free agent market, at third base. Bradley shouldn't find playing time too much harder to find, however -- with the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury, and Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes making up a fairly formidable left field platoon, he should move into centerfield while Victorino mans right.
The pitchers are a bigger mystery, but they might have even bigger upside than the position players; RHP Brandon Workman, RHP Anthony Ranaudo, and LHP Henry Owens (among others like RHP Matt Barnes or RHP Allen Webster) either already are or will soon be ready for some major league looks at some point next year, but the entire rotation and much of the bullpen is already taken up by established veterans. Their best bet for exposure in 2014 would likely only come as an injury call-up, but with at least some spaces opening up in 2015 it's more likely the starters among them will start to make a impact then.
Not too long ago the Astros had one of the worst farm systems in baseball to go along with a team that could barely clear .500 on a lucky year; now the MLB squad is a disaster, but Houston has one of the top five farms in the game, and one of the ones with a lot of talent close to making its mark. The biggest name that will probably come out of the Houston system this year is outfielder George Springer, who will join new Astro Dexter Fowler (by way of the Colorado Rockies, not the minor leagues) in a revamped Houston outfield. Fowler and Springer will immediately become the best hitters on the team not named Jason Castro, and that odd assortment of offensive production -- the top three bats being a catcher and two centerfielders -- says all it needs to say about everyone on the MLB team at the plate.
As far as pitching goes, RHP Jarred Cosart will be up as soon as he's ready -- there's absolutely no one blocking him at the major league level, after all -- and RHP Mike Foltynewicz shouldn't be too far behind him. Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, the team's first overall pick in last June's draft, should be ready for the big leagues very shortly, as should the team's presumptive first overall pick this June, North Carolina State's Carlos Rodon. In fact, the biggest question about Astros prospect debuts has to do not with the prospects' readiness in any general sense, but with how the team wants to handle their service time. There could be a number of cases in which players ready to contribute now start the season in the minors for a month or so just to play service-times games.
The Cubs farm probably gets just as much hype as the Red Sox farm -- a by-product of having two long-time, successful Red Sox executives running it, as well as being a major-market team with a bad MLB squad and a national fanbase starving for success -- and while it's not the best system in the majors and does in fact have a few glaring flaws, there's still a lot for Cubs fans to be excited about coming up through the minors. The positives are that the team is absolutely loaded with position players all around the diamond, like SS Javier Baez (likely will have to move to third base), 3B Kris Bryant (if Baez moves to third base and stays there, might have to move to RF), and OF Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. The sheen comes off some of these players a bit if they have to move down the defensive spectrum -- Bryant from third to RF would put a lot more pressure on his bat to hit its upside -- but the real question mark in that discussion is current Cubs SS Starlin Castro, who either has to prove he's a long term starter worth moving guys off of positions for or has to be dealt with another way.
The biggest problem with the Cubs system as it stands is its lack of pitching, with RHP Pierce Johnson and RHP C.J. Edwards being the two biggest arms in the Cubs system at the moment and neither with an ETA before 2015 right now (though it's conceivable they might get a look in September if next year goes really well for them in the minors). It's not inconceivable that the Cubs could trade hitting prospects for pitching prospects, but that's not something that happens often even before taking into account that, in this market, it's far easier to buy bats than arms, making pitching prospects even more valuable.
Texas Rangers. Graduating 2B/SS Jurickson Profar as well as both RHP Martin Perez and Justin Grimm (now a Cub) was a big blow to the system, but the Rangers still have great up-the-middle prospects behind him in (amazingly named) 2B Rougned Odor and SS Luis Sardinas. RHP Luke Jackson could have a big impact in coming years as well, but probably not 2014.
St. Louis Cardinals. Graduating RHP Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller last year along with 2B Kolten Wong and OF Oscar Taveras this spring almost entirely empties out the upper level of this farm, but there's enough interesting going on at the lower levels that the Cardinals system won't be barren for long.
Minnesota Twins. The Twins have two really good advanced position player prospects in CF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano and a very promising pitcher in RHP Alex Meyer, but the system falls off kind of quickly after that. Still, having three elite prospects close to graduating isn't a bad thing at all.
San Diego Padres. Not a lot of really well-known talent on the San Diego farm, but there's a lot of it, especially in the pitching department (LHP Max Fried, RHP Matt Wisler, RHP Casey Kelly). C Austin Hedges could make an impact sooner rather than later as well.
Kansas City Royals. Kansas City is another pitching-heavy system, with RHP Yordano Ventura likely joining the Royals rotation this season and RHP Kyle Zimmer on his way next. Also notable in Kansas City's system is the continued rise of SS Raul Adalberto Mondesi, whose father is the mayor of the city of San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, and who I believe played professional baseball himself at one point.
Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, RHP Taijuan Walker, ready to jump into their rotation, along with another very promising RHP in James Paxton right behind him. Unfortunately for Seattle, that's about the extent of the help that's coming from the minors. LHP Danny Hultzen has been sidelined by shoulder injuries for most of a year now, and almost all of the position prospects in the system have graduated or are too young to factor in.