Two years ago, Arizona's farm system was among the worst in the game. Arizona has just had a stellar 2009 draft, selecting five players - Bobby Borchering, A.J. Pollock, Matt Davidson, Chris Owings, and Mike Belfiore - before the second round had begun, but four of those players spent the year in short-season ball, while the lone exception, Pollock, struggled mightily at full-season South Bend. The top prospect in the system, Jarrod Parker, had recently felt a pop in his elbow, and Tommy John Surgery was considered likely after he sustained a tear in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament.
Several of the team's top-10 prospects from Baseball America's pre-2009 list fell off the map: Gerardo Parra graduated to the major leagues, Mark Hallberg struggled to hit in Double-A, Wade Miley had an inconsistent 2009 season, Kevin Eichhorn struggled with injuries early in his career, Rey Navarro's tools didn't translate into skills, and Billy Buckner and Cesar Valdez were, well, themselves. The team's pre-2010 Baseball America list was shockingly-barren, with six of the ten prospects on the list coming from the 2009 draft.
Yet, today, Arizona sits not only in first place in the NL West, but also with what is assuredly one of the top-5 farm systems in all of baseball. So what changed in two years? Well, it's a lot more than you'd think. That's where this post comes in: I've decided to run through just what has changed in the last two years that has put the D-backs in such a great position going forward.
- The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks: We'll start with the obvious reason, as the D-backs' unfortunate 2010 season had one immensely positive side effect, as Arizona was given the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, one of the deepest in recent memory. That led to the selection of the D-backs' best prospect, Trevor Bauer, one of the most prolific pitchers in college baseball history. Bauer is everything you want in a pitching prospect: major-league ready, durable, and with top-of-the-rotation upside. He's unconventional, but a remarkable talent to have at the top of a system.
- Barret Loux failing his physical: This gave the D-backs the seventh pick in the aforementioned loaded 2011 draft, which netted Arizona Archie Bradley, who already ranks somewhere among the top-50 prospects in the game despite his extremely small sample of professional work. It's not too hard to understand though, given his mid-90's fastball, near-perfect power pitcher's frame, and what is widely considered to have been the best curveball in the draft, a potentially plus-plus hammer breaker. With true top-of-the-rotation upside, Bradley is a significant upgrade on Loux, in spite of Loux's impressive debut season in the Rangers' system.
- Jarrod Parker's recovery: Popped elbows and Tommy John Surgery have destroyed plenty of prospects, but it seems that Jarrod Parker has enjoyed a full recovery from his UCL replacement in 2011. That doesn't mean that he's ready for the majors, but his numbers have recovered to what they were prior to the surgery, and his stuff is as sharp as ever. Parker gives the D-backs yet another starter with legitimate top-of-the-rotation upside, although further refinement to his command is going to be necessary for him to reach that elite potential he has. Still, that ceiling makes him a top-line prospect, and I would consider him a top-50 prospect in the game.
- Jerry Dipoto's stint as Interim GM: The Dan Haren trade may have been criticized heavily at the time, but... wow. Could it have worked out any better than this? Joe Saunders has been what we expected from him - just about average - and Rafael Rodriguez was pretty useless, but the job that Dipoto and the scouting staff did to snag Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin from the Angels just before their stock skyrocketed was fantastic. What was once a ridiculed trade may just turn out to be a positive move for Arizona, particularly if Arizona can still made a solid playoff run without Haren.
On the other hand, the Edwin Jackson trade, which was considered a fantastic move right from the start, has become even more of a steal. Sure, Jackson has had a good year between the White Sox and Cardinals, but Daniel Hudson has been even better, while David Holmberg has emerged as a breakout pitching prospect in the lower part of the D-backs' system. A move that helps the big-league ballclub and provides a big boost the farm system? Dipoto knows what he's doing, and I truly hope we don't lose him to another organization - he's make a great GM around 2013.
- Tom Allison's drafts: With their first five picks in the 2009 draft, all before the start of the second round, Arizona selected Bobby Borchering, A.J. Pollock, Matt Davidson, Chris Owings, and Mike Belfiore. After that, Arizona selected Eric Smith and Marc Krauss with their two second-round picks, nabbed Keon Broxton in the third round, David Nick in the fourth round, and Ryan Wheeler in the fifth round. Later on in the draft, Arizona snagged Chase Anderson in the ninth round, Charles Brewer in the 12th round, Patrick Schuster in the 13th round, and some guy named Paul Goldschmidt in the eighth round.
Smith and Belfiore have had awful 2011 seasons - although the org still has some faith in him, as they plan to send him to the AFL - but the other 12 prospects listed there are legitimate prospects, with several B- or better names there. Having so many early picks was a great opportunity for Arizona and then-Scouting Director Tom Allison, but give Allison credit for using the picks well. He got safe college guys, high-upside high school bats, and made several gambles like the tough-to-sign Schuster and toolsy Broxton. 11 of these prospects have made it into my most recent version of the system's top-30 prospects, including seven of my top-15. Were it not for Allison's work running the '09 draft, this team's system wouldn't be in the place it is now.
The 2010 draft class was much less enthralling, particularly with the lack of a first round pick. However, I'm very high on second-rounder J.R. Bradley, third-rounder Robby Rowland has mid-rotation upside, and late-round over-slot signings Ty Linton, Tyler Green, and Blake Perry each have loads of potential. However, the best pick of the draft is 19th-round pick Adam Eaton, who has turned into one of the top-20 prospects in the system and the best prospect in the system from that draft. Even picks prior to the 2009 draft have turned into big parts of the D-backs' system, most prominently left-hander Wade Miley, a sandwich-round pick from 2008, and Bryan Shaw, a second-round pick from '08.
- A lack of major flame-outs: This is the biggest point I want to get across. Arizona has had a fantastic year on the farm, but it's far more than the breakthroughs of Skaggs, Goldschmidt, Pollock, Corbin, Holmberg, etc. Just look at the Kansas City system: the Royals were stocked with pitching going into this year, but have since seen plenty go wrong. Danny Duffy was rushed to the majors and has struggled, Mike Montgomery's command has wavered heavily, John Lamb blew out an elbow and needed Tommy John, Jake Odorizzi couldn't make the transition to Double-A, Jeremy Jeffress has seen his command completely escape him and is now in Double-A, Chris Dwyer lost his command, and Tim Melville has had an underwhelming season.
Just take a look at John Sickels' mid-season review of the Royals pre-season top-20 list and see how many times the words "going backwards," "erratic," and "command" (not in a good way) are used. Arizona has had such good fortune in how their farm system has developed, and it shouldn't be forgotten when looking at the future of this club that we've been extremely fortunate to not have that happen to any of our top arms. Bauer, Skaggs, Parker, Miley, Corbin, Holmberg, Bradley, and Green have all remained completely healthy this year. The three most highly-rated pitching prospects prior to the season to sustain injuries this year have been Brewer, Anderson, and Belfiore, and only Anderson's injury involved any significant structural damage to his arm. Either Arizona's front office knows something about developing pitching prospects that the rest of the world doesn't, or they've been extremely fortunate this year.
There you have it, a list of all those involved in building Arizona's successful farm system. Now, what having such a highly-regarded system means is another issue altogether. For what it's worth, there was once a nice FanShot on Minor League Ball explaining what it really means to have a highly-rated system. Keep this in mind when dreaming on a future rotation that includes four All-Stars in Bauer, Skaggs, Parker, and Bradley, but it's hard to be in a much better position than having a division lead and a top-rated farm. It's a good time to be a D-backs fan.