Outfielder Andy Dirks is an example of how the Tigers farm system does produce players who can perform at the big league level. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
You don't need rankings to know that the Tigers don't have the best farm system in baseball.
The organization has not drafted high in years, and the front office has never shied away from exchanging prospects for established major league players.
Yet, when you see the Tigers listed at dead last, as they were in John Sickels' farm system rankings at MinorLeagueBall.com last week, you can't help but feel a little worried.
Sickels called the system "very thin" but noted, "Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia could help soon, and there are some potential role players behind them. Bullpen arms. Weaknesses: lack of depth almost everywhere, particularly hitting."
That's a rather scathing assessment, but not an unfamiliar one.
After all, haven't the minor-league experts been saying for a while how bad Detroit's system is, and hasn't it continued to produce enough to continue plugging holes either directly or through trades?
Well, yes and no.
Bits and pieces
The farm really has gone a long way toward building this team team. Miguel Cabrera came to the franchise by trade five years ago. Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante first arrived by trade in more recent years.
Meanwhile, starters like Alex Avila and Andy Dirks have contributed after making their debuts in recent years.
Often these minor-league players slipped through the prospect watchers' eyes because they were not exciting and didn't have the tools that scouts drool over.
You can pin that on the Tigers.
They generally finished high enough in the standings even when they failed to make the playoffs, assuring their draft picks would never be too high.
They never shied away from signing Type-A free agents in the past, which often cost them a first-round pick anyway.
And, of course, they drafted relief pitchers in the early rounds for reasons unclear both at the time and still today.
So, there just weren't many exciting players in the organization anyway.
They did make inroads in signing international free agents - that is, teenage players, often from Latin America - but it takes years for a 16- or 17-year-old player to make a difference inside an organization.
So, it is entirely fair for prospect watchers to tab the Tigers' system as one of the worst. Year after year, there just isn't really a lot of reason for excitement.
That matters less to the Tigers because they have a core of star players already in place, and they do not have to win cost efficiently.
Teams with a lower budget have to do what they can to save money while still winning. The best way to do that is bring a player up through the system and pay them the relatively-low figure players receive during their first few seasons in the MLB.
Detroit can sign and re-sign stars and veterans alike without needing to worry as much about budgets as, say, the Rays or Royals.
So the Tigers aren't trading veterans for prospects, nor are they putting nearly as much emphasis on the system.
However, as Sickels noted, the worry comes when you think about depth.
Teams with better minor-league systems are typically better equipped to deal with unforeseen situations such as injuries or players falling short of expectations.
We saw that last season when player after player brought in to shore up the rotation during the summer fell short.
Any team will suffer from an injury, but the Tigers would suffer worse, because they have no viable backups for multiple positions.
Beyond the obvious dropoff from Cabrera or Prince Fielder, the loss of Avila, Infante, Peralta, Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter would be hard to negate.
So, yes, it is possible to make too much of prospect or farm system rankings. They aren't science, and they tend to favor the exciting players at the cost of missing others who'll contribute at the major-league level.
But don't write them off entirely.
The Tigers' lack of minor-league depth is indeed reason for concern.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.