Braves vs. White Sox is an epic battle for MLB's best farm system

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

More than 500 miles separate baseball’s newest rivals. They’re in different leagues and time zones, too. Both teams aren’t very good, either, and mixed with the other facts at hand, it is fair to ask how, exactly, the Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox have forged a rivalry of any kind.

Hold your breath, dive into the muck of the discussion about which team boasts a better cache of players in the minor leagues and suddenly it will become abundantly clear that the combination of a sincerely interesting question and the insanity of baseball’s prospect culture provide a fertile atmosphere indeed for animus to form.

I learned this about a month ago, when, after the White Sox dealt pitcher Jose Quintana to the Cubs for a huge prospect haul, I wrote: “The White Sox now have the best farm system in baseball. This is inarguable.” Turns out saying something is inarguable tends to stoke arguments.

In hindsight, this assessment was rash and deserved better vetting. So over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with general managers, farm directors, scouts and other front-office personnel not just to get a better sense of how they view Braves vs. White Sox but which other teams are likeliest to ascend prospect rankings once both start to graduate players to the major leagues.

It’s well worth remembering for all of the rankings that more and more serve as gospel for a prospect-hungry baseball world, there is a staggering amount of subjectivity involved, and those numbers alongside players’ names are filled with bias. I’m guilty of that here. There are certain evaluators whose opinions I trust more because for years they’ve hit on predictions. And maybe they’ve spent a particularly long time scouting a player and have developed a bias for or against him. This is not to say rankings are worthless. They just need to be consumed with a saltshaker nearby.

Some evaluators, in fact, disagreed that the Braves and White Sox have the game’s two best farm systems. And this was good, actually, because it forced an even deeper look into the systems to ensure nothing in the assessment was missing. Most of it is based on opinions outside of both organizations, though feedback was solicited from each team to get a better sense of depth, strengths and surprises the stat line doesn’t cover.

MLB.com’s ranking of the Braves system, for example, has outfielder Class A center fielder Cristian Pache as a slightly above-average fielder. The Braves believe Pache is the next Andruw Jones defensively, and that tracks with other organizations’ assessments of his glove, and, seeing as center field defense is among the most valued commodities in the sport today, Pache’s standing among the general prospect-watching population does not match that inside the game.

Outfielder Ronald Acuna is the top prospect in a deep Atlanta Braves farm system. (Getty Images)

It’s never as cut-and-dried as a player who’s currently deemed top 100-worthy being better than someone who isn’t. One veteran scout in the Braves organization thinks Joey Wentz – by most accounts their sixth-best pitching prospect and on no top 100 lists anywhere – is actually the finest of the bunch. Which is saying something, because those other five – Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard – are the finest collection gathered by one team in years.

The wonder of the Braves’ system is two-fold. First is that Atlanta pushes its prospects like no other organization. Pitchers throw more innings. Players get promotions faster. More than one prospect watcher has suggested the Braves do this in part for the boost it gives the players in other organizations’ metrics. Young players at high levels always rate better. FanGraphs’ “stats-only” midseason prospect ranking had eight Braves in the top 100, including 19-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna, who’s at Triple-A No. 1, and shortstop Ozzie Albies, who’s 20 and now in the big leagues, No. 2.

Beyond the leverage that advantage could gain them in trade talks – and the Braves have discussed plenty of deals, whether for Quintana or Sonny Gray or Chris Archer, that involve packaging some from their farm system – it is risky to invite failure by pushing kids too hard. That’s the second part of Atlanta’s triumph: Nearly every one of their top prospects is thriving in 2017. Acuna seemingly gets better at every level and has crushed Triple-A going on a month. Both Soroka, a right-hander, and Allard, a lefty, have spent the season confounding Double-A hitters as 19-year-olds. Wentz and Anderson are both 19 as well and two levels lower, but each sports a through-the-roof strikeout rate. Like Acuna, Gohara has played across three levels and only ran into issues at Triple-A.

There’s more – and if there’s an argument in favor of the Braves, it’s their depth. Bryse Wilson is in Rome’s rotation with Wentz and Anderson and looks nearly as good as them. Kevin Maitan, a switch-hitting shortstop in rookie ball, was the most highly touted prospect to come out of Venezuela since Miguel Cabrera signed with the Marlins in 1999. Latin America produces few sure things. Maitan is about as close to one as it gets.

Add catchers William Contreras – yup, Willson’s brother – and Drew Lugbauer, an 11th-round pick from the University of Michigan who’s tearing up Rome, and the Braves have pitchers and catchers and infielders and outfielders galore. And it’s no wonder Braves fans get all parochial when someone dare say the White Sox might have a better system.

Except here’s the thing: They do.

It is not inarguable. One evaluator whom I trust believes deeply Atlanta’s is better. A handful of others agree. Of the 24 people surveyed, though, 18 voted White Sox. And almost all came back to the same reason: The position players.

They love pitching. Everyone loves pitching. Pitching is the lifeblood of baseball. Develop a homegrown rotation and, as the Mets showed, it can take you to a World Series. The problem with pitching is its volatility. One GM brought up the 2011 Royals, who had four left-handed starting prospects in nearly every top 100.

“Danny Duffy is a really good big league starter, Mike Montgomery is a reliever and John Lamb and Chris Dwyer were busts,” the GM said. “So it’s like 1½ out of four. And that’s pretty good.”

The fortunes of position players aren’t nearly as capricious. It’s not that they don’t bust. They do. But the White Sox’s system not only runs deep with talent, it’s got among the highest ceilings in the game.

Take Yoan Moncada. Most see him as the best prospect in the game. ESPN’s Keith Law, who’s the low man in the prospect-ranking world on him, still has him 13th. For all the fear about Moncada striking out too much – warranted fear – he is still a 22-year-old middle infielder with elite speed, an ability to draw a walk and opposite-field power from both sides of the plate. Moncada’s toolset brings to mind the glorious Omar-Brother Mouzone showdown on “The Wire”: Even if Moncada misses, he can’t miss.

Right alongside him is Eloy Jimenez, the prize of the Quintana trade, up there with Acuna and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the best right-handed bat in the minors. And Luis Robert, the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder on whom the White Sox spent upward of $50 million this spring, is showing uncommon plate discipline in his first month. He’s in the Dominican Summer League, against teenagers mostly, but 22 walks in 24 games and a .500 on-base percentage isn’t purely because the kids can’t throw strikes. He gets the zone, has power, is fast and plays center field, and in the major leagues right now, there are four such players: Mike Trout, Charlie Blackmon, George Springer and Andrew McCutchen. Yeah. That’s all.

Worst-case scenario, Robert is … Keon Broxton? That’s still an everyday major league center fielder. Maybe someone with a higher OBP but less slug, like Christian Yelich? That’s a four-win player. Another 20-year-old center fielder, Blake Rutherford, isn’t quite as toolsy as Robert but may end up a better hitter. And while we’re on hitters, the White Sox’s last two first-round picks, Zack Collins and Jake Burger, are, more or less, pure hitters. Collins isn’t exactly a model in a uniform, and Burger looks like he has indulged in one too many of his last name, and as long as both hit, which they’re doing, it doesn’t really matter how they look.

Throw in Micker Adolfo, a long-ago Dominican bonus baby whom one scout believes will be among their five best prospects next season, and it’s easy to see why evaluators love the White Sox’s system. Except there’s more. It’s not like they’re bereft of pitching by any means. While there isn’t a consensus on the Braves’ best starting prospect – for what it’s worth, Soroka got the most votes – Michael Kopech takes the title for Chicago with his 100-mph-plus fastball that he’s capable of sustaining deep into games, or at least as deep as someone with control issues goes.

Dylan Cease, the other big piece in the Quintana trade, offers his fair share of walks, too, and if there’s a criticism of the White Sox’s pitching prospects, it’s a paucity of command. The retort is that they’re 19 and 20 and 21 and 22 and 23, and not everybody can be Mike Soroka. Chicago is perfectly happy with Kopech, Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning posting some of the best strikeout rates in the minor leagues. And that doesn’t even include Lucas Giolito, the former top pitching prospect in the game whose resurgence would make the best system even better.

And in recognizing it’s the best, it would be irresponsible not to address the elephant in the room. There’s this school of thought that the White Sox should be penalized or dinged because a majority of their best prospects came in trades. Of the 13 Braves players named above, they drafted or signed 12. Of the 13 White Sox, only five went through the White Sox’s development system. No doubt, it’s a sign Atlanta has done very, very well in identifying amateur talent.

This is no knock on the White Sox, though, because to get most of those players, it took not just Quintana, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton but the value of the long-term contracts to which the White Sox signed them knowing they might make attractive players that much more desirable. Even if the White Sox haven’t scouted amateur talent in recent years with the same results as the Braves, their ability to do so in the past, and to identify who warrants an extension, is patently skillful.

Outfielder Eloy Jimenez was traded to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal prior to the MLB trade deadline. (AP)

It has left them with one whopper of a group set to join the big league club in the next 18 months. In an odd way, age actually works in the White Sox’s favor in this accounting, because so many of their players are close to a finished product. Beyond the 13, there is Jordan Stephens shoving at Double-A and Spencer Adams eating innings there and Ryan Cordell ready to play in the big league outfield today. It’s an experience-heavy system that relies on college players. Lincoln Henzman, Kade McClure and Tyler Johnson all could move quickly; all three were drafted this season, the former two out of Louisville, the latter from South Carolina.

The Braves have those types, too, though their organizational philosophy skews more toward identifying elite athletes with baseball skills and watching them blossom. They’ve got solid, near-the-bigs sorts like A.J. Minter and Lucas Sims, but the Braves are dreamers, and they’ve done a splendid job of avoiding the nightmare trap that is the fear of every rebuilding club.

There’s no shame in being No. 2, and soon enough, whether through Chicago’s graduation or Atlanta unearthing even more gems, the Braves could overtake the top spot. With Albies in the big leagues now, though, and Acuna not far behind, and the kid pitchers knocking on the door, they may dip in the ranks. Same goes for the White Sox, and that’s exactly how it should be when a team is loading up for a five-year run. For now, the rankings are set, and it looks like this:

1. Chicago White Sox

2. Atlanta Braves

3. San Diego Padres

One scout went so far as to suggest the Padres’ system is better than the Braves’ right now, and an assistant GM who worried about the Braves pitchers’ vulnerability had the Padres ahead of them as well. They are the favorite to be No. 1 at this time next year, mainly because so much of their talent is so young.

The name to remember: Fernando Tatis Jr. While he languishes outside of MLB’s top 50, Law ranks him No. 15, and that dovetails more with how scouts regard him. More than one said “the next Manny Machado.” Though a shortstop now, Tatis could move to third, where his huge power still would play. The rare 18-year-old to play full-season ball, Tatis is hitting .267/.371/.493 with 19 home runs. He offsets his strikeouts with a keen eye, which makes his line that much more eye-popping. Those are big numbers for a college kid in the Midwest League. For one equivalent to a recent high school graduate, it’s superstar stuff.

Much of the Padres’ depth came from a Latin American spending spree of more than $60 million last season. It netted them huge right-hander Michel Baez, polished-beyond-his-years 18-year-old lefty Adrian Morejon and Jorge Ona, a middle linebacker who happens to play baseball. All three are from Cuba, and they represent GM A.J. Preller’s devotion to – and knowledge of – the Latin American scene. He had a mandate to rebuild the Padres. He’s doing so with style.

San Diego Padres first-round selection MacKenzie Gore might be the best pitcher in the 2017 MLB draft. (AP)

Mackenzie Gore may be the best pitcher in this year’s draft, and the Padres have him. Cal Quantrill was a steal in 2015 after Tommy John surgery. Luis Urias is a bat-to-ball freak. Even guys like pitcher Logan Allen (another piece in the Craig Kimbrel deal) and catcher Austin Allen are favorites of scouts. With no immediate graduations on the horizon, the Padres are primed to be the next kings, and come 2020 or so, they’ve got a chance to be very, very good.

4. New York Yankees

Beyond the Padres at No. 3, the fall-off to the next team is clear. Most of those surveyed, though, suggested the Yankees were still a top-5 team, even after giving up Rutherford, outfielder Dustin Fowler, starter James Kaprielian and infielder Jorge Mateo at the deadline.

New York Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres is out for the season due to Tommy John surgery. (AP)

It doesn’t hurt when you’ve got the guy primed to be the top prospect in baseball heading into next season. Gleyber Torres almost certainly would’ve been in the big leagues by now had he not needed Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow, but the fact that the Yankees don’t exactly have a spot for him at the moment isn’t the worst thing, either.

Clint Frazier still qualifies for this list and, with fellow prospect Estevan Florial and Aaron Judge, comprises quite the nice outfield for the next five years – unless that Harper guy happens to wind up in pinstripes. The Yankees gave up Kaprielian only because they felt Chance Adams not only would be in New York sooner but has the moxie to pitch there, and if they can hit on even one of Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo or Freicer Perez (a 6-foot-8 Class A monster who is a favorite of a couple scouts), the prospect of Yankees-Dodgers becoming the new normal increases that much more.

5. Houston Astros

This very easily could have been the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland A’s or Milwaukee Brewers or Philadelphia Phillies or Los Angeles Dodgers or Colorado Rockies. In Brent Honeywell, Willy Adames and Brendan McKay, the Rays have three potential elite players with near-term big league paths. Oakland’s haul from the Sonny Gray trade was huge, and they added it to a solid return from Washington in Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse, plus holdovers like Franklin Barreto and A.J. Puk. The Brewers’ first-round pick, Keston Hiura, is a hitting machine and joins a deep organization headlined by Lewis Brinson, a 6-foot-5 uber-athlete in center field.

Frankly, this is mostly me betting on a player I keep hearing scouts love: Forrest Whitley, the 19-year-old Texan who’s tearing through High-A and could be in the big leagues before he can take a legal sip of beer. Bold prediction: By this time next year, Whitley will be the highest-rated pitcher on prospect lists.

It’s not just him in the Astros organization, of course. Francis Martes is playing well in the big leagues but still, technically, qualifies for the list. Kyle Tucker is a special bat. They’ve got at least one Perez on both sides – Cionel the left, Franklin and Hector the right – who are high-ceiling pitchers. Yordan Alvarez, stolen from the Dodgers for Josh Fields, is in the midst of a breakout season at first base.

Another name to remember: Jake Rogers. A third-round pick last season, he played himself out of the Midwest League within about a month and went to Buies Creek, a great pitchers’ park, where he has OPS’d close to .840. With a huge arm and a keen receiving ability, Rogers brings to mind Willson Contreras, whose defense the Cubs loved and whose offense was a wonderful surprise.

***
And now, just for fun, checking in on five prospects not in the game’s top organizations.

Willie Calhoun, ?, Texas, Triple-A: Since joining the Rangers as the centerpiece of the Yu Darvish trade, Calhoun has spent five games in left field and one at second base, which renders that question mark a smidgen less questionable. It’s all about Calhoun’s bat anyway, and that has shown up with aplomb, as Calhoun hit four home runs in his first five games with the Rangers. Even more impressive: In Calhoun’s first 27 at-bats, he struck out just once, and on the season his rate is barely over 11 percent. Stick him in Globe Life Park, and with Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor, he’ll only add to the brood of lefty marauders already there.

Aramis Ademan, SS, Chicago Cubs, Low-A: Recently moved to full-season ball after more than handling the Northwest League, the 18-year-old Ademan was a popular ask by opposing teams during the July trade season. Though still under-the-radar publicly, the industry sees Ademan as the best position-playing prospect left in a Cubs system left bereft by promotions and trades – and among its best, period, behind flame-throwing right-hander Adbert Alzolay and young right-hander Jose Albertos. Ademan isn’t the next coming of Gleyber Torres. The $2 million the Cubs spent on him in 2015, though, now looks well worth it.

Austin Hays, OF, Baltimore, Double-A: Hays leads the minor leagues in total bases, and while his plate discipline leaves plenty to be desired, his contact rate makes up for it. While he’s not Calhoun, Hays’ 67 strikeouts in more than 450 plate appearances qualifies as well above-average these days. Nobody is going to squabble with a .330/.366/.609 slash line, either. As the Orioles get ready for a post-2018 retooling, right field is Hays’ to lose.

Jon Duplantier, RHP, Arizona, High-A: In the spartan farm system left behind by the Diamondbacks’ previous stewards, Duplantier is the greatest gift, a 22-year-old who looks every bit as impressive in the Cal League as he did during his dominant turn through the Midwest League earlier this year. With Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker, the Diamondbacks aren’t starving for another starter. The emergence of Duplantier in his first season after getting drafted out of Rice last year is plenty welcome nevertheless.

Shane Bieber, RHP, Cleveland, Double-A: No, he is not related to Justin. One need only see his ability to keep things under control to understand as much. Bieber may well be the finest practitioner of the dark arts of strike-throwing in the minor leagues, as over three levels and 143 innings this season he has walked seven batters. Though his stuff is far from overwhelming, with a fastball that may kiss the low 90s, Bieber has struck out 130 hitters and allowed just seven home runs. He’s no burgeoning ace, and his ETA is 2018 at earliest, but Bieber profiles as the back-end sort of starter Cleveland could so desperately use.

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