Since there is no actual baseball to discuss and almost all free agents have signed by now (sorry, Michael Bourn!), the time is ripe to rank things. This is the time when people in the know (i.e. not me) grade and rank every bit of every organization. They rank each organization's prospects, the overall state of each organization's talent, the 25 years old and younger talent in each organization, the hot dogs at the ballparks, and the between innings entertainment. In short, everything is getting put on a list. And that's fine. Lists are fine. People who make lists are fine. But the thing to keep in mind when looking at them is this: they don't mean anything. Or more precisely, they don't mean much.
That isn't to take away from the people who do the lists. I know some of them and they work really hard at it. But the thing is that, and I'm sure they'd acknowledge this, these are all subjective rankings. They depend on who the list maker talks to, when they talked to them, and how they put what they hear through a lense of their own values. It's very complex stuff in a sense. But if you look at the whole picture, you can see that none of it is remotely definitive.
Take the Red Sox. Boston's minor-league system has been the subject of much discussion around these here parts for, oh, at least two years now. The reason for that is obvious (thanks, awful baseball!) but the meaning behind it is deeper. The minor-league system is shorthand for the future, for the success coming over the horizon. It's understood, even if it isn't exactly true, that having a highly rated minor-league system means an organization has a promising future. And so we all hang on the rankings to see if the Red Sox are going to win a lot of baseball games in the future.
We Sox fans are all hopped up on Xander Bogaerts and Matt Barnes, and why not? They're great prospects. The represent the division championships and playoff wins at Yankee Stadium that we hope to see in the coming decade. The Red Sox themselves have avoided dealing both players among others at all costs so far. When presented with the option to deal for Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson from the Marlins at the cost of Bogaerts, the Red Sox balked. And when we all heard about that deal we collectively balked too. Xander Bogaerts? Are you kidding? (They weren't kidding.) How many of us would do that deal? Just guessing, but probably not many. I wouldn't. Neither would the Red Sox.
But if you look at some of the recently released rankings, maybe we're overly excited about our guys. Depending on who you listen to, the Red Sox have the ninth, 11th, seventh, 11th (again), or 17th best minor-league system. So, to sum up, they either have one of the best minor-league systems in all of baseball, one of the worst in all of baseball, or a completely mediocre one, totally average in all of baseball. Prospects!
So what does that all mean? Let's flash back for a second, all the way to the heady year of 2007. Back then the Red Sox minor-league system, according to Baseball Prospectus, looked like this.
1. Clay Buchholz, rhp
Very Good Prospects
2. Jacoby Ellsbury, cf
3. Michael Bowden, rhp
4. Jason Place, cf
5. Daniel Bard, rhp
6. Bryce Cox, rhp
7. Dustin Pedroia, 2b
8. Craig Hansen, rhp
9. Kris Johnson, lhp
10. Justin Masterson, rhp
Baseball America's was similar (you can see it here). Pay particular attention to number seven under the heading "Average Prospects." That guy went on to win Rookie of the Year and American League MVP in consecutive years. The point isn't to pick on the people making the lists. They took the best available information at the time and synthesized it to the best of their ability. I couldn't have done better and indeed would almost certainly have done worse. But it proves the point, or at least works towards proving the point that ranking isn't destiny. Nobody knows for sure.
This year the Red Sox are all over the board. Xander Bogaerts could be a top-10 talent in all of baseball, or maybe there are 25 plus guys better and/or more promising than he is. Sure, Matt Barnes ceiling is a number two starter, but he might not make the big leagues. He could also be an ace. The truth is that we don't know. We know what people who know things tell us, and we know what happened in the past and what similar players to Barnes have done, but we don't know what Matt Barnes will do. Really, we don't know at all.
When Keith Law tells you the Yankees and Orioles have better minor-league systems, maybe he's right. He knows a lot about this kind of thing, after all. But maybe he's wrong. That chance exists. And it's not a minute sliver of a pie chart either. It's substantial, relatively speaking. Because none of this is science. None of this is written in stone.
What we know for sure is the Red Sox have some very talented players in the minors, players who can and likely will make some sort of impact on the the major-league team in the near future. We further know the organization believes in them, as big a vote of confidence can exists at this juncture. The rest is fodder for debate, a fun debate for sure, but just debate. Things change. Prospects change. We'll find out eventually. But for now, we just don't know. Nobody does, no matter what they say. And at least for us, that's a good thing.