It's the old debate in Minor League and prospect circles. How does a farm system balance winning in the Minors with prospect development?
The two don't always go hand in hand, as you might think. If you're trying to win, you don't take out your top pitching prospect when he has a no-hitter through six, and you lay down a bunt in the late innings to move a runner into scoring position. If you're solely trying to develop players, you hook the no-hit pitcher once he's hit his innings limit, and you let your hitters swing away so that they can learn to hit in high-leverage situations.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Organizations want to grow their prospects' skill sets and protect them from developmental injuries, but they also want them to arrive with the confidence of winners.
The Astros were the model organization for this last season. Houston affiliates had the highest winning percentage (.553) among all 30 farm systems, produced seven Minor League playoff teams and two league champions, developed A.J. Reed into the MiLB Offensive Player of the Year and used an influx of young talent (including Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa) to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2005. You can't draw it up much better than that.
So, who is on the road to becoming this year's Astros? Here's a look at the top 10 farm systems in baseball by Minor League winning percentage and what each of them has relied upon to rack up the wins in 2016. (Note: All records and stats are through Monday's games.)
10. Pittsburgh Pirates, 76-70, .521
Teams: Altoona (20-17), West Virginia (19-17), Bradenton (19-18), Indianapolis (18-18)
Analysis: The story for the Pirates' farm system so far has been the Indianapolis rotation with Chad Kuhl (0.91), Jameson Taillon (2.08), Tyler Glasnow (2.13) and Wilfredo Boscan (2.48) taking four of the top six spots among the organization's leaders in ERA. But don't overlook the organization's top two picks from last year's Draft as Kevin Newman (.361) and Ke'Bryan Hayes (.304), who lead the system in average for Class A Advanced Bradenton and Class A West Virginia, respectively. On a team-by-team basis, the four Pittsburgh affiliates are fairly similar in terms of record, though the results are middling, which speaks to how well the talent is spread throughout the system. Not a lot to be disappointed about here.
9. Chicago Cubs, 76-69, .524
Teams: South Bend (21-14), Myrtle Beach (20-16), Iowa (18-18), Tennessee (17-21)
Analysis: With No. 10 prospect Eloy Jimenez the highest-ranked prospect on the roster, Class A South Bend isn't exactly the most prospect-laden club in the Chicago system, but they've been the most productive thus far. That alone should say something about Minor League records. But No. 12 prospect/2015 second-rounder Donnie Dewees is one of the players in the Midwest League to most raise his stock in the early going with a .305/.352/.519 line with eight triples and nine steals in 33 games. The Cubs and their fans might be most encouraged by some of the players at Triple-A Iowa with Albert Almora, Willson Contreras, Carl Edwards Jr. and Dan Vogelbach all looking like they could help an already strong Major League team without skipping a beat in the weeks or months to come. If you were hoping to see the rich get any less rich, look elsewhere.
8. Minnesota Twins, 80-70, .533
Teams: Fort Myers (22-16), Cedar Rapids (20-16), Rochester (20-18), Chattanooga (18-20)
Analysis: Four of the Twins' top seven prospects (Tyler Jay, Nick Gordon, Stephen Gonsalves, Kohl Stewart) make their homes in Fort Myers, so it's encouraging that they've played in a winning atmosphere. Of course, part of the winning atmosphere comes from the production of that quartet with each of the pitchers posting sub-3.00 ERA's, and Gordon producing a .331/.368/.475 line in his 29 games at the level. But like the Cubs, the Twins would have liked to see the Triple-A Rochester roster take off, given how it's employed top prospect Jose Berrios during the start of the season, No. 2 prospect Max Kepler (.250/.347/.400) at present and former top prospect Byron Buxton after a rough first month in the Majors. The Red Wings will get a boost with the return of Berrios this week, but it looks like Twins fans have to dig even deeper into the system if they're going to find the results they've lacked at the top-most level in 2016.
7. Seattle Mariners, 79-69, .534
Teams: Jackson (22-15), Clinton (21-15), Tacoma (22-16), Bakersfield (14-23)
Analysis: The Mariners finished in the 20's in terms of Minor League organizational standings each of the past two seasons and had their farm system ranked 28th in baseball by MiLB.com entering this season. But newly hired director of player development Andy McKay told The Show Before the Show podcast back in January that winning at the Minor League level was going to be a priority of the system's development plan, and that's come through in the early going. Entering Tuesday, Triple-A Tacoma, Double-A Jackson and Class A Clinton each led their respective divisions. There still isn't a solid, lock-it-in, top-100 prospect here with Alex Jackson yet to play in 2016 and Edwin Diaz moved to the Jackson bullpen, but enough players are performing admirably -- such as outfielder Tyler O'Neill (eight homers, .940 OPS for Jackson), right-hander Andrew Moore (1.48 ERA, 0.90 WHIP for Bakersfield) and post-prospects Stefen Romero (.362 average, 1.023 OPS) and Mike Zunino (nine homers, .935 OPS) in Tacoma -- to make this feel like a system on the up-and-up.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers, 78-65, .545
Teams: Rancho Cucamonga (26-12), Oklahoma City (21-15), Tulsa (16-19), Great Lakes (15-19)
Analysis: Oklahoma City had one of the more interesting rosters in the Minors from a prospect standpoint entering the season and has backed that up with a spot at the top of the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division. Julio Urias' dream start (1.25 ERA, 0.81 WHIP in 36 innings) has been a big part of that and has arguably become the game's top prospect as a result, just after the organization graduated previous top overall prospect Corey Seager. Meanwhile, Rancho Cucamonga has been a bit of a surprise as it leads the California League in runs (227) and all three slash-line categories (.288/.351/.461), beating out usual offensive juggernauts High Desert (210 runs). The Quakes' top prospect, Yusniel Diaz, has lived up to the billing with a .286/.350/.473 line to start his state-side career, while Rancho has also relied on breakout performances like that of 2015 28th-rounder Kyle Garlick (.336/.405/.596, eight homers, 31 RBIs). Don't be surprised if Tulsa also gets better as the season goes on as No. 5 prospect Cody Bellinger and No. 6 prospect Alex Verdugo improve on some inconsistent starts. Baseball's top system before the season hasn't seen enough damage yet to lose its spot on the mantle.
5. Washington Nationals, 79-64, .552
Teams: Hagerstown (24-12), Syracuse (20-16), Potomac (19-16), Harrisburg (16-20)
Analysis: One prospect does not a system make, but if you thought top overall prospect Lucas Giolito's struggles for Double-A Harrisburg were indicative of the rest of the Nats' farm, think again. In fact, it's No. 2 and 3 prospects Trea Turner (.324/.384/.479, 14 steals) and Victor Robles (.341/.429/.484, 12 steals) leading the way with stellar offensive campaigns for Triple-A Syracuse and Class A Hagerstown, respectively. Below them in the ranks, No. 8 prospect Andrew Stevenson (.341 average, 14 steals) and No. 14 prospect Drew Ward (seven homers, .969 OPS) have kept Potomac above .500. So while pitching prospects Eric Fedde, Reynaldo Lopez and A.J. Cole might see their stocks drop in the months to come, the offensive prospects are doing their part to maintain the Nats' spot among the game's top dozen systems.
4. Philadelphia Phillies, 83-65, .561
Teams: Clearwater (25-13), Reading (24-13), Lehigh Valley (19-18), Lakewood (15-21)
Analysis: The Phillies had a lot of hype around their rebuilding Minor League system entering 2016 and have backed that up particularly well at the two middle full-season levels. Like so many above, Class A Advanced Clearwater doesn't have a prospect ranked higher than No. 11 Scott Kingery but has banded around a solid pitching staff that ranks third in the Florida State League with a collective 2.81 ERA and first with a 1.14 WHIP. Even then, it's more likely that Phillies fans will be happy to see Double-A Reading racking up wins, thanks to the efforts of top prospects J.P. Crawford (.384 OBP), Roman Quinn (16 steals) and Jorge Alfaro (.965 OPS in 15 games). Even with Philly's current run of success in the Majors, faith in the rebuild will come from how the organization's top two levels are performing, and it's the Lehigh Valley trio of Jake Thompson, Nick Williams and Mark Appel that still have some work to do on that front, both from the team side and the statistical side.
3. New York Yankees, 86-62, .581
Teams: Charleston (25-13), Tampa (23-15), Trenton (19-16), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (21-18)
Analysis: The Yankees are all about winning! Well, at the Minor League levels anyway, where all four full-season clubs are above .500 and the best winning percentages go in reverse order from level. Despite having no 2015 first-round picks or top-five prospects, Class A Charleston has set the early pace, thanks in part to the impressive work of No. 7 prospect Domingo Acevedo (2.43 ERA, 37 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings), who has led a RiverDogs staff that ranks second in the South Atlantic League with a collective 3.16 ERA. The best offense belongs to Class A Advanced Tampa, headed by top prospect Jorge Mateo (.331 average, .918 OPS, 13 steals) and No. 15 prospect Miguel Andujar (.272 average, six homers). The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup, led by Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Rob Refsnyder, has mostly met expectations as it competes with Syracuse for the IL North division lead. From a major prospect standpoint, the Yankees are doing what they should, and that's been enough to gather enough wins to place third here.
2. Texas Rangers, 94-54, .635
Teams: High Desert (26-12), Hickory (25-12), Frisco (24-12), Round Rock (19-18)
Analysis: It's a pretty big jump from No. 3 to No. 2 in terms of winning percentage, and these last two systems have been so impressive from top to bottom that it'd be nearly impossible to expect a third organization to break a collective .600 winning percentage. In fact, no system since the 2009 Giants has cracked a winning percentage above .600 for an entire season, so that puts the Rangers and Indians on especially impressive ground, albeit in a fairly small sample. To the surprise of no one, organization wins leader Class A Advanced High Desert has a good offense, led by No. 21 prospect Travis Demeritte (12 homers), but has also impressed from a pitching standpoint with a collective 3.60 ERA. No. 5 prospect Luis Ortiz, in particular, is passing early tests with a 2.60 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. However, the best pitching, respective to its league, belongs to Class A Hickory, which sports two pitchers with sub-2.00 ERA's in Erik Swanson (1.44 in 31 1/3 innings) and Pedro Payano (1.69 in 32 innings). Of course, any talk of Rangers prospects in 2016 has to include Ryan Cordell, who leads the Minors with a .719 slugging percentage for Double-A Frisco. The story of the Rangers system coming into 2016 was all about the Big Three in Joey Gallo, Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara, and while those three continue to be the class of the farm, the remainder of the organization is showing just how strong and deep the organization goes. This might be the system most well-built to stick in the top three for the remainder of the 2016 season.
1. Cleveland Indians, 98-50, .662
Teams: Akron (27-10), Lynchburg (25-12), Columbus (23-14), Lake County (23-14)
Analysis: Back in March, everyone agreed that the Indians had some nice pieces, namely outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, but overall, it was a fairly middling system. As such, MiLB.com ranked the Tribe as having the game's 16th-best farm. Middling can get you a lot of wins, apparently. All four full-season Indians affiliates have a winning percentage above .600. Zimmer (.893 OPS, seven homers, 15 steals) and Frazier (.289/.374/.500) have done their part for Double-A Akron, but it's breakout names like Class A Advanced Lynchburg right-hander Julian Merryweather (6-1, 0.63 ERA) and RubberDucks left-hander Shawn Morimando (7-0, 1.69 ERA) that are pushing the system over the hump. In Class A Lake County alone, four regular starters (Tyler Krieger, Connor Marrabell, Francisco Mejia, Nathan Lukes) have averages above .300. What's more, the Indians aren't like some on this list in that most of their top prospect talent isn't at the Triple-A level, meaning there aren't many prospect graduations on the immediate horizon. Does this make Cleveland a top-five or even top-10 system? Not immediately, no. Is the system's stock rising? Most definitely.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.