Henning: Tigers' ranking is cost of winning

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

The Tigers' farm system was ranked dead-last 30th by ESPN's Keith Law earlier this week. But another way to put rankings into perspective is to consider the team No. 1 in Law's pecking order:

The Cubs. And we know how many division titles they've won of late.

Often, this is what happens in sports. Makeover teams have an edge in young talent while contenders finish deeper in the pack. The Cubs have been picking early on draft day and have been stacking on extra blue-chippers by way of trades of the kind that last summer sent Jeff Samardzija to Oakland.

Trying to win fourth and fifth consecutive division flags, the Tigers have instead traded youngsters (Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel, Willy Adames, Devon Travis, Eugenio Suarez, etc.) in a bid to make a playoff-grade team more secure.

It doesn't mean it's an either-or exercise. The Red Sox always have a big farm system, in part because they have a knack for shedding expensive free agents who earn them extra first-round picks as compensation.

The Tigers prove their farm isn't a wasteland when other teams and their scouts decide Detroit has prospects worth nabbing in deals for established big-league bodies. One example was July's trade for Joakim Soria, which cost the Tigers a couple of splendid pitchers in Thompson and Knebel.

It's a pattern that makes the Tigers light at the top when those farm-system rankings are dispensed. But note that it never seems to leave Detroit lacking for prospects to deal. And that's because the draft and a club's international signings, particularly in Venezuela, normally deliver a yearly stash of personnel to the lower, younger links in Detroit's farm chain.

This can and will change if and when the Tigers move to more of a rebuilding mode. And it doesn't preclude 2015 from opportunities there.

If the team is in contention in July, as could be the case, Detroit likely would be looking for help at particular spots yet to be determined. But if things don't go well – and in baseball that can easily be a given year's reality – the Tigers might be in a mode to sell, which could reverse their customary habit and see them swapping graybeards for prospects.

Detroit's edge in keeping the farm system stocked is its place as one of five teams (Cubs, Mariners, Phillies, Rays are the others) that have a presence and developmental team in Venezuela. It is not an easy country in which to work, largely because of wildly fluctuating exchange rates and logistical hardships that were explained in an in-depth Detroit News story from June 2013.

The Tigers, though, pay the freight and deal with the hassles. They will import more teenagers to the United States in 2015, including a couple of infielders named Anthony Pereira and Adrian Alfaro. And don't be surprised if you hear more about them in months and seasons to come, just as the name of another Venezuelan teen, Adames, was central to last July's deal for David Price.

Another factor in a farm system's tail-end ranking is the draft. Detroit spent first-round draft picks from 2010-12 as compensation for signing Victor Martinez, Jose Valverde and Prince Fielder. Had those free agents not been brought aboard, the Tigers would have had three early picks in three successive drafts, with the probability two or three of those players would be at the Triple A or Double A stops.

Their presence doubtless would have boosted a team's farm score. But it also could have left Detroit crying over missed playoff spots during a four-year playoff run.

More balance is probably headed Motown's way. The Tigers get an extra early-round pick for having lost Max Scherzer in free agency and in June will have two of the top 34 picks. Those are draft choices that boost a team's farm prestige.

But it's difficult to have it both ways – a playoff team that also finishes in the highest tier of minor-league talent. Beware of the year Detroit's farm system is handed a blue ribbon. It probably means the previous season wasn't overly fun.