We talk about breakout prospects all the time, like Ethan Salas going from being a 16-year-old new signee to a Double-A player in just a few months or Junior Caminero starting the season outside the Top 100 and ending it at No. 6 (and likely higher by the time of
We talk about breakout prospects all the time, like Ethan Salas going from being a 16-year-old new signee to a Double-A player in just a few months or Junior Caminero starting the season outside the Top 100 and ending it at No. 6 (and likely higher by the time of our next update).
But what of breakout farm systems?
There are multiple avenues in which an entire system could take a jump in a calendar year. The most straightforward is good old-fashioned player development, i.e. getting multiple players at once to improve enough that the entire organization gets noticeably better from an outside viewpoint. Strong Draft classes can also improve a club's Minor League standing, and while no club wants to be a seller, in-season trades can bring extra talent and depth to the system's present and the organization's future.
Since we've reached the last week of the calendar year, let's look at six of the most improved farm systems from 2023, in alphabetical order:
The Cubs climbed from No. 12 in our preseason farm system rankings to No. 4 in the midseason update, thanks to nice jumps from players like Cade Horton and Owen Caissie and a debut from Pete Crow-Armstrong, and even since then, 2023 first-rounder Matt Shaw found his way into the Top 100 as he pushed his way from Maryland to Double-A in a matter of months. Chicago now boasts six MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects, putting it in a tie with Baltimore and San Diego for most in the game, and there's a good case to be made that Moises Ballesteros, James Triantos and Jordan Wicks should get Top 100 consideration as well. The Cubs are in a position where the focus should always be on the top level, but there's an impressive prospect base to build around here too.
Chicago White Sox
The South Siders remain far from the top tier of farm systems, but it's easier to see them closer to the middle these days than it was back in June. Chicago was one of the busier sellers at the Deadline and picked up Edgar Quero, Jake Eder, Nick Nastrini, Ky Bush and Korey Lee, among others. That came after a deep Draft that saw the organization add four of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects in Jacob Gonzalez, Grant Taylor, Seth Keener and George Wolkow. Wolkow -- ranked at 71st overall but drafted in the seventh round -- may have been a particular steal as a $1 million signing. Overall, 10 of the club's present Top 19 prospects weren't in the organization in June, and the biggest name that's remained all along (Colson Montgomery) proved why he's one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball with a productive Arizona Fall League.
Health will take you a long way. Colt Keith missed much of 2022 with a shoulder injury but vaulted to the No. 25 overall spot as he clubbed 27 homers and posted a .932 OPS in 126 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Jackson Jobe's stock looked like it was slipping when back issues held him behind in the first half of the season; now with his wicked slider, added cutter and improved fastball, he's one of the best pitching prospects in the game again. In the Draft, the Tigers took one of the Big Five in the class in Max Clark and used some of the savings to give their contingent great depth and ceiling by adding Top 100 Draft prospects Kevin McGonigle, Max Anderson and Paul Wilson with their next three picks. Nice steps forward by pitchers Troy Melton, Sawyer-Gipson Long and Keider Montero were certainly welcome, while Justice Bigbie followed the Kerry Carpenter breakout model and Parker Meadows put himself on the inside track for the Opening Day center-field spot. Ranked 13th in our midseason farm system rankings, the Tigers seemingly have more helium where that came from.
"This is the breakout system of the 2023 season." That's what we wrote back in August, and it holds up. Ranked 15th to start the season, the Crew leaped to No. 3 in the midseason rankings and should hold around there, even with the graduation of Sal Frelick. Jackson Chourio solidified himself as one of the top talents in the Minor Leagues (and now has the eight-year contract to prove it), while Jeferson Quero, Jacob Misiorowski and Tyler Black all joined him in the Top 100. Strong seasons from Robert Gasser and Carlos F. Rodriguez solidified that Milwaukee has quality upper-level arms, while Luis Lara followed the Chourio route of skipping the Arizona Complex League to join Single-A Carolina in his age-18 season (albeit with less power). ACC home run king Brock Wilken brought thunder as this year's 18th overall pick, and Cooper Pratt (a $1.35 million signing in the sixth round) could be one of the coups of the Draft. Milwaukee might be shedding salary in The Show of late, but if it intends to keep competing in the NL Central, this is the level of system it needs to maintain.
New York Mets
With Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty likely to graduate early and the team in win-now mode, New York's farm system stood to take a hit in 2023. You likely know what came next. The Mets became surprise sellers at Deadline time and used their financial might to pay off part of the large contracts of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to acquire top prospects Luisangel Acuña, Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford. Getting potential plus hitter Marco Vargas from the Marlins might also prove to be a savvy move. The upper levels also saw Mike Vasil, Blade Tidwell, Christian Scott, Dominic Hamel and Tyler Stuart prove that they could be MLB rotation options early in '24, and Jett Williams showed he might be the best prospect of them all with a .425 OBP and 45 steals across three levels in his first full season. Even if this isn't a Top 5 system in baseball needed to rebuild an organization, it can help the Mets retool over the next two years, and that's a much better place to be than where it was in early July.
San Diego Padres
We mentioned Salas’ status as the Breakout Prospect of the Year up top, and it’s worth noting that left-hander Robby Snelling was the runner-up for Pitching Prospect of the Year with his 1.82 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings across three levels. The addition of right-hander Drew Thorpe (the actual Pitching Prospect winner) in the Juan Soto trade puts San Diego in a tie for the most Top 100 prospects with six total. That’s notable on its own, and you can bet that that fact will help the Padres climb higher than their spot at ninth in the midseason rankings. But what really kicked San Diego up a notch was the quality of its 2022 Draft class. Snelling and Dylan Lesko were already top talents, but Graham Pauley, Jakob Marsee and Nathan Martorella proved to be forces too and will be must-follows moving forward. So much for the original Soto trade wrecking the system.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.