Creating a pipeline. Building up the farm. Filling the prospect cupboard.
Call it what you want, but it's all the rage these days. Developing homegrown talent is no longer seen as a necessity just for low-revenue teams; even the biggest-market organizations have re-dedicated themselves to building from within.
What each club does with its farm system varies. Some want to funnel players up to the big leagues to contribute (see Rays, Tampa). Others use the farm system as pawns in trades (see Diamondbacks, Arizona or Mets, New York). And some are trying to find a happy medium (see Red Sox, Boston and Yankees, New York).
There's no set criteria for evaluating systems. Any combination of overall depth, number of elite prospects and/or total players close to contributing can be used to come up with a list. As a result, everyone's top five will be different, though there are some teams most can agree on.
1. Tampa Bay Rays: Picking perennially at the top of every draft certainly does have its benefits. Since 2000, the Rays have taken their first draftee in the top 10 of the first round. It hasn't translated into big-league improvement, but that's going to change soon.
The Rays have five players in MLB.com's Top 50, beginning with No. 2 overall Evan Longoria, who's ready to take over at third base and join an already young roster.
Tampa had been known for developing hitting talent, but the pitching has caught up. The No. 1 overall pick from last year, David Price (No. 11 on the prospect list), impressed in big-league camp and shouldn't need a whole lot of time before he's ready. He joins Wade Davis (No. 12), Jacob McGee (No. 20) and Jeff Niemann, who ranked just outside the Top 50 as top-level arms who should be able to contribute by 2009, at the latest.
Not only do the Rays have elite talent, they've got depth as well, with legitimate prospects at just about every position. That kind of talent throughout a system breeds competition, and everyone knows that competition brings out the best in players. The Rays have the No. 1 overall pick once again in the 2008 draft, so they're sure to add to their coffers, though their days of top 10 picks will come to an end in short order.
2. Oakland A's: A year ago, the A's wouldn't have come close to this list. It's amazing what a couple of trades will do for your system's strength.
The deals that sent Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and, to a lesser extent, Mark Kotsay, away brought in more talent than the A's know what to do with. Two Top 50 guys in Carlos and Gio Gonzalez are now a part of the organization and will make an impact in Oakland very soon.
But that's just scratching the surface. There's a number of bats -- Daric Barton, Ryan Sweeney -- and arms -- Greg Smith, Dallas Braden -- ready to contribute now or in the near future.
Beyond the close-to-the-bigs guys, there's a horde of talent down below. Take a trip to the A's California League affiliate in Stockton, Calif. to see the future. That might be the most, forgive the pun, stocked team in all of the Minors, with recent draftees, international signees and, of course, acquisitions from the trade activity, filling up the roster.
3. Texas Rangers: The Rangers have come a long way in the last couple of years. They've got two Top 50 guys in Elvis Andrus and Eric Hurley; their place on this list is largely because of the depth they've accumulated.
A chunk of the talent came via the Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton trades. More of it came from very successful drafts the past couple of years. Add to those two sources an influx of international talent and the Rangers are awash in young players.
Texas could be seen as the envy of many organizations in two areas: catching and power arms. In last year's first round alone, Texas moved way up the list by taking high school pitchers Blake Beavan and Michael Main. Behind young backstops in the big leagues (Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia), they've got guys like Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez. It may seem like an embarrassment of riches, but the Rangers aren't complaining.
4. Cincinnati Reds: Call them the big four. The Reds have a quartet of elite prospects that single-handedly put them in the upper-echelon of all farm systems. And all four of them should start contributing in Cincy in 2008.
Outfielder Jay Bruce is the consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. Ace of the future Homer Bailey may have had a small hiccup last year, but finished strongly and is still a Top 10 kind of player. Joey Votto is ready for a full-time first base job in the big leagues now and right-hander Johnny Cueto has generated a ton of buzz in big-league camp this spring, working his way into the No. 5 starter mix. Even if none of these players breaks north with the Reds on Opening Day, you'll be hearing from them soon enough.
There is a decided drop-off after these four, but there are still a good number of future big leaguers in this system. Their biggest strength in terms of depth is probably in the middle infield, where there's a viable shortstop at pretty much every level. There's also some good arms behind the Bailey-Cueto dynamic duo and if you examine the system closely enough, they've got at least one legitimate prospect at every position.
5. Boston Red Sox: This one was a tough call, with the Yankees and their upper-level pitching, the Marlins and all that young talent -- some homegrown, some from the big trade with the Tigers -- and the up-and-coming Nationals, who have improved ten-fold with some truly impressive drafting, all getting some consideration. In the end, though, the combination of outstanding talent at the top and young talent at the bottom in Boston was too much to ignore.
It starts with the two guys who made major impacts last year. Clay Buchholz was the No. 6 prospect and Jacoby Ellsbury came in at No. 13. After that come the two names mentioned often during the Johan Santana trade saga: Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson. Then, down below, it's a bounty of talent, fed by a scouting department that uses the organization's financial resources to take some risks that have really paid off. It's set them up for long-term success and they'll be able to keep the players they develop for as long as they'd like.