Twice a year, MLB Pipeline ranks all 30 farm systems in baseball. It was top 10 for a number of years, expanded to 15 in 2019 and then stretched to incorporate every organization in 2020. The first one comes before the season starts and it’s followed up by a re-rank in the summer to reflect things like graduations, trades, Draft and international signing acquisitions.
While there is no algorithm to determine this in some scientific fashion, the rankings are based on a combination of high-end talent and depth. A year ago, figuring out any rankings after a lost 2020 Minor League season was certainly tough, though we did our best to present an accurate 2021 preseason rankings.
Our re-rank in late August actually had data behind it, with a full Minor League season to pick apart. Since then, outside of a few more graduations and some Arizona Fall League performances, not much has impacted how things would stack up, especially without the flurry of offseason trades that typically come in and around the Winter Meetings.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile exercise to look at which organizations have made the biggest improvements in 2021 as the year draws to a close. Below are five teams that have made the largest jumps up our rankings over the course of the year. The Orioles are not on the list, given that they did not make as large of a leap, but it should be noted the O’s ascended to the No. 1 spot in our rankings, going from No. 13 in our preseason 2020 rankings to No. 8 in that midseason, starting at No. 5 at the beginning of 2021 before taking over the top spot in our re-rank.
1. Red Sox
Preseason rank: 24
It’s never optimal to finish with one of the worst records in baseball, especially in a town like Boston, where competing annually is expected. But a rough 2020 led to the Red Sox earning the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 Draft, the earliest Boston has picked since back in 1967 and the first top 10 selection since Andrew Benintendi became a member of the Red Sox as the No. 7 pick in 2015. That resulted in the Red Sox being able to add the player MLB Pipeline had at No. 1 on its 2021 Draft talent rankings, high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer. Add that to strong seasons from Triston Casas, Jarren Duran, surprising 2020 first-rounder Nick Yorke and right-hander Brayan Bello.
Preseason rank: 21
The Rangers have a farm system that keeps getting more and more interesting, anchored by their last four first-round picks, all of whom are in the Top 100. That list is led by Jack Leiter, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s Draft, who is No. 12 overall, followed by Josh Jung (2019), Cole Winn (2018) and Justin Foscue (2020). They’ve added some interesting talent from trades (Ezequiel Duran, courtesy of the Yankees, comes to mind after a strong Arizona Fall League performance) and international signings. The big league team might still be struggling, the silver lining of that being that the Rangers pick No. 3 in 2022, giving them another chance to add premium talent. Hang on Rangers fans, help is on the way.
The Nationals spent a good amount of time at or near the bottom of our rankings, coming in at No. 29 during the preseason of 2020 and No. 30 both in that year’s re-rank and the 2021 preseason list. When the organization decided it was not contending in 2021, it went all-in on selling as the Trade Deadline approached. That led to a whole lot of depth, with nearly a third of the team’s Top 30 coming from 2021 trades. That list was topped by recently graduated catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-hander Josiah Gray, both of whom came from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal. The system has been strengthened by the past two first-round picks, Cade Cavalli (2020), a Futures Game participant who pitched his way from High-A to Triple-A in his first full season, and 2021 first-rounder Brady House, a high school infielder who showed off his offensive upside during his brief pro debut in the Florida Complex League. Picking No. 5 in the 2022 Draft won’t hurt, either.
Preseason rank: 10
The Royals have gone from No. 17 at the start of 2020 to the top five now, and while there are other organizations who made a larger leap rankings-wise, the Royals belong here because of the high-end impact potential here. Having Bobby Witt Jr. is plenty, and the fact he went from Double-A to Triple-A in what was, in effect, his first full season and nearly pulled off a 30-30 season, doesn’t hurt. But the Royals also had breakout performances from prospects like catcher MJ Melendez, who led the Minors in home runs, and first baseman Nick Pratto, who joined Witt and Melendez in playing well across two levels of the upper Minors. The Royals saved money in taking high-ceilinged high school lefty Frank Mozzicato in the first round of the 2021 Draft, allowing them to add eight members of our Draft Top 250 to the system, six of whom are currently in the Royals’ Top 30.
Preseason rank: 20
In 2020, the Reds were in the lower third of the rankings, moved into the top 20 to start the 2021 season and now have jumped into the end of top 10, all while seeing homegrown Jonathan India win National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2021. Having a pair of top pitching prospects reach Triple-A in 2019 first-rounder Nick Lodolo and resurgent 2017 first-round pick Hunter Greene, who came back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance, helps, as does the addition of 2021 first-round pick Matt McLain (2020 first-rounder Austin Hendrick is just behind McLain in their Top 30). McLain was one of nine Top 250 Draft talents to join the organization, with six others joining him in the team’s Top 30.