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Do the Red Sox have the greatest farm system of all time?

The Red Sox are winning and rebuilding at the same time thanks to a nigh-miraculous run of success down on the farm, one that has few antecedents.

Xander Bogaerts
Xander Bogaerts
Lisa Blumenfeld

Winning and rebuilding at the same time: They say you can't do it, that the draft punishes success and forces winning teams to bid on lesser prospects each June. The idea makes sense, but it's wrong. The Red Sox are proving it to be a false assumption. With canny drafting, a team can overcome a series of poor draft positions or even draft picks sacrificed to signing free agents. Since winning their first World Series since the Mesopotamian years in 2004, the Red Sox have -- with the notable exception of 2012 -- continued to compete at the highest level (and add a second championship) while still regularly churning out good players from their factory-farm.

This is one of the great accomplishments of the draft era, but is it the greatest? Let's set up a few points of comparison just to get a sense of what a farm system that's hitting on all cylinders looks like. In the mid-1950s, just before the Giants moved to San Francisco, their farm system kicked into high gear. It was run by the team's great left-hander, Carl Hubbell, and it was magnificent. The following is just the highlights of the team's output in those years:

1956: Bill White (1B), Eddie Bressoud (SS), Mike McCormick (LHP)
1958: Orlando Cepeda (1B), Jim Davenport (3B), Leon Wagner (OF), Felipe Alou (OF/1B)
1959: Willie McCovey (1B)
1960: Matty Alou (OF), Juan Marichal (RHP)
1961: Tom Haller (C)
1962: Manny Mota (OF), Gaylord Perry (RHP)
1963: Jose Cardenal (OF), Jesus Alou (OF), Jim Ray Hart (3B)
1964: Randy Hundley (C), Masanori Murakami (LHP)
1965: Tito Fuentes (2B), Dick Dietz (C)

That's four Hall of Famers (Cepeda, McCovey, Marichal and Perry),  a five-time All-Star/six-time Gold Glover (White), a Cy Young Award-winner (McCormick), a batting-title winner (Matty Alou), and assorted other players who totaled 14 All-Star selections and a few down-ballot appearances for the MVP, all in 10 years. The Giants paused for breath at that point and then started on another good run:

1968: Bobby Bonds (OF)
1969: George Foster (OF)
1971: Chris Speier (SS), Dave Kingman (1B/3B/OF), Steve Stone (RHP), Jim Barr (RHP)
1972: Garry Maddox (OF), Gary Matthews (OF)
1974: Gary Lavelle (LHP)
1975: Jack Clark (OF/1B), Greg Minton (RHP)
1976: Bob Knepper (LHP)

There are no Hall of Famers in the latter batch, but five guys who were almost that good in Bonds (five 30-30 seasons), Foster (the 1977 NL MVP), Maddox (eight Gold Gloves), Matthews (1973 rookie of the year), and Clark (no parenthesis -- he got hurt too often to win any awards -- he was just a very good hitter for a long time). There are also a bunch of very solid pitchers, including another Cy Young winner (Stone) and a guy who came close to hitting 500 home runs even if he couldn't do anything else (Kingman).

To put it another way, if you think of the top 100 players at each position as being the elite, then as measured by BB-Ref Wins Above Replacement in a 20-year period the Giants spit out:

  • The No. 8, 21, and 34 first basemen in McCovey, Cepeda, and White (respectively).
  • The No. 66 and 96 third baseman (Hart and Davenport).
  • The No. 56 shortstop (Speier).
  • The No. 28 catcher (Haller).
  • The No. 24 and 45 left fielder (Foster and Matthews).
  • The No. 44, 80, and 89 center fielders (Maddox, Matty Alou, and Jose Cardenal).
  • The No. 23 (Bonds), 27 (Clark), #6 right fielder (counting Felipe Alou as a right fielder; he played extensively in all three pastures).
  • The No. 9 and 31 right-handed starting pitchers (Perry and Marichal).
  • The No. 40 right-handed reliever (Minton).
  • The No. 8 left-handed reliever (Lavelle).

That's 19 top-100 players at their positions during a two-decade run of productivity.

Given all this talent, the Giants won ... exactly nothing. They went to the World Series in 1962 and lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the Yankees, settled in for a long run of second-and third-place finishes. They won the NL West in 1971, but lost the Championship Series to the Pirates. In the 20 other seasons covered here they finished third seven times and second five times, the latter in consecutive seasons from 1965-1969. From 1962-1971, the team's average record was 91-71 and yet they just couldn't get past the Dodgers. In a year in which the Giants have the worst outfield aggregate outfield production in the National League (.259/.316/.370 -- only the Twins and Astros trail them), it is painful to look at a team like the '73 Giants, with its potent combination of Matthews in left (.300/.367/.444, 121 OPS+), Maddox in center (.319/.350/.460, 120 OPS+), and Bonds in right (.283/.370/.530, 143 OPS+) and realize just how much talent the team squandered in its first two decades in California, so much that the franchise came this close to moving to Toronto.

Mike Scioscia, Fernando Valenzuela, Willie Randolph (Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIR)

Under scouting director Harding "Pete" Peterson, the Pirates in the late 1960s were what the Giants had been earlier that decade. Unlike the Giants' long run, which straddles the pre-draft and draft era, the Pirates acquired most of the players listed here via the draft.

1967: Manny Sanguillen (C), Bob Robertson (1B), Bob Moose (RHP)
1968: Al Oliver (OF/1B), Richie Hebner (3B), Freddie Patek (SS), Dock Ellis (RHP)
1969: Dave Cash (2B), Gene Garber (RHP)
1970: Milt May (C)
1971: Rennie Stennett (2B), Richie Zisk (OF), Frank Taveras (SS), Bruce Kison (RHP)
1973: Dave Parker (OF)
1974: Kent Tekulve (RHP), Miguel Dilone (OF)
1975: Willie Randolph (2B), Craig Reynolds (SS), Omar Moreno (OF), John Candelaria (LHP)
1976: Tony Armas (OF), Rick Langford (RHP), Doug Bair (RHP)

This Pirates team, which already possessed Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and other good bits, was far more successful than the Giants were during their good run, winning five NL East titles and a World Series during the span listed here, as well as winning one more championship with the same core in 1979. There are no Hall of Famers in this group, but some of these guys were painfully close to that level. To repeat the top-100 exercise that we did with the Giants' bonanza:

  • Sanguillen is the No. 40 catcher, May 82.
  • Randolph is the No. 11 second baseman, Cash 60.
  • Hebner is the No. 49 third baseman.
  • Patek is the No. 75 shortstop.
  • Oliver is the No. 33 center fielder (though he could be counted as a first baseman, or an aardvark or something).
  • Dave Parker is the No. 34 right fielder. Richie Zisk, who played a plurality of his games in right field, would be the No. 63 player there, though if you want to rank him as a left fielder or DH, be my guest.
  • Candeleraria is the No. 45 left-handed starter.
  • Tekulve is the No. 8 right-handed reliever, Garber 45.

The Pirates had 11 home-grown players in the top-100 at their positions in just 10 years.

Fernando Valenzuela (Wikimedia Commons)

Let's look at one more team, the Dodgers of the same period, who got great results out of scouting director Ben Wade:

1969: Steve Garvey (1B), Bill Russell (SS), Bill Buckner (1B), Ted Sizemore (2B)
1970: Tom Paciorek (1B/OF), Charlie Hough (RHP), Joe Ferguson (C/OF)
1971: Ron Cey (3B), Doyle Alexander (RHP)
1972: Lee Lacy (OF), Steve Yeager (C), Davey Lopes (2B), Doug Rau (RHP)
1973: Jerry Royster (IF/OF), Geoff Zahn (LHP)
1974: Ivan DeJesus (SS), Rick Rhoden (RHP)
1976: Rick Sutcliffe (RHP)
1977: Jeff Leonard (OF)
1978: Rudy Law (OF), Dave Stewart (RHP), Bob Welch (RHP)
1979: Pedro Guerrero (1B/3B/OF)
1980: Mike Scoscia (C), Fernando Valenzeuala (LHP), Steve Howe (LHP)
1981: Steve Sax (2B), Mike Marshall (OF/1B), Candy Maldonado (OF), Alejandro Pena (RHP), Tom Niedenfuer (RHP), Ted Power (RHP)
1983: Orel Hershiser (RHP), Sid Fernandez (LHP)

The Dodgers won consecutive Rookie of the Year awards from 1979 through 1982 (Sutcliffe, Howe, Valenzeuela, and Sax). This run resulted in seven postseason appearances and five World Series, of which the Dodgers won two. The top-100 players:

  • Garvey is the No. 36 first baseman. If Guerrero is ranked here, he checks in at 49.
  • Lopes is the No. 28 second baseman. Sax is 59, Sizemore (the 1969 Rookie of the Year) 99.
  • Cey is the No. 17 third baseman.
  • Russell is the No. 53 shortstop.
  • Scioscia is the No. 44 catcher, Ferguson 62, Yeager 78.
  • Lacy, who bounced between the outfield corners and second base, checks in at No. 79 if considered a right fielder.
  • Hershiser is the No. 45 right-handed starting pitcher, Welch 70, Hough 82.
  • Valenzuela is the No. 45 left-handed starting pitcher, Fernandez 63.
  • Pena is the No. 49 right-handed reliever.

That's 17 top-100 players in 14 years.

When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 they had many good players, but very few of them were home-grown. After the Nomar Garciaparra trade, the starting lineup was developed entirely outside the organization. Kevin Youkilis and Trot Nixon, who played supporting roles (the former just breaking through, the latter injured for much of the season), were the only exceptions. The pitching staff was almost completely free of talent drafted or signed by the team.

Management was clearly aware of this. At midseason, the team took the draft away from scouting director David Chadd and gave it to Jason McLeod (they gave him Chadd's job a few months later). The Sox had no first-round draft picks that year due to signing Keith Foulke, but McLeod selected Dustin Pedroia in the second round and the Sox have rolled from there. We pick up the major-league team a year later:

2005: Hanley Ramirez (SS), Jonathan Papelbon (RHP), Manny Delcarmen (RHP), Cla Meredith (RHP)
2006: David Murphy (OF), Jon Lester (LHP)
2007: Dustin Pedroia (2B), Jacoby Ellsbury (OF), Brandon Moss (OF), Daisuke Matsuzaka (RHP), Hideki Okajima (RHP), Clay Buccholz (RHP)
2008: Jed Lowrie (INF), George Kottaras (C), Justin Masterson (RHP)
2009: Daniel Bard (RHP), Junichi Tazawa (RHP)
2010: Daniel Nava (OF), Josh Reddick (OF), Felix Doubront (LHP)
2011: Ryan Lavarnway (C), Jose Iglesias (INF)
2012: Will Middlebrooks (3B)
2013: Jackie Bradley Jr. (OF), Xander Bogaerts (INF), Brandon Workman (RHP), Drake Britton (LHP)

Feel free to put Anibal Sanchez, developed by the Red Sox, but sent to the Marlins in the November 2005 Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal on the Boston pile as well.

We're less than 10 years into what has been a very fecund period for the Red Sox farm system, so it's a bit early to start toting up the players' places in history ... Except several are already well on their way. Pedroia, Ramirez, and Papelbon have already cracked the top 50 in career value at their positions, and Lester and Ellsbury are already in the top 100 at theirs.

That's five players in just nine years, and the Red Sox aren't done yet: The players on the bottom of the list, like Iglesias (surprisingly robust as a hitter this year), Middlebrooks (.368/.434/.621 in 26 games since returning from the minors), Bradley, and Bogaerts, are just getting started. Even worse for Boston's AL East rivals, the farm system is still pumping out product. Third baseman Garin Cecchini hit .322/.443/.471 at two levels this year while reaching Double-A; 20-year-old second baseman Mookie Betts hit .314/.417/.506 at two levels, establishing himself as a power-speed threat; another 20-year-old, pitcher Henry Owens, struck out 169 in 135 innings while posting a 2.67 ERA in season that saw him climb to Double-A Portland; Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, and Matt Barnes are all top-100 pitching prospects sitting at Triple-A;  Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez could both turn out to be major-league-caliber starting catchers -- and we've just scratched the surface, especially since we haven't even delved into their impressive 2013 draft class that came by way of that aforementioned poor 2012.

In the long term, we're going to look back and see that the apex of draft-era farm production was reached in New England in the early part of the 21st century. In the short term, all of this productivity means that despite last year's hiccup, barring some unlikely bad luck, the Red Sox aren't going anywhere anytime soon ... And the idea that you can't overcome the draft's leveling intentions with smarts is a myth.

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