I've been thinking about this question lately. Baseball farm teams are, by nature, really interesting. General managers don't set the rosters, or even acquire the players. And I bet if the Rock Cats GM gets a call from Terry Ryan suggesting that he play the back-up shortstop because "something may be in the works," the back-up shortstop will get a lot of playing time, regardless of what that does to New Britain's chances. In the minor leagues, the best-performing players often don't last with the team very long, because they are bumped up to the next level. With the Twins' system, we've already seen that take place this year (Lucas French and Deolis Guerra to AAA, Caleb Thielbar and BJ Hermsen to AA to take their places), and we will see it dozens more times this season.
So, as fans, how good should we expect our farm teams to be? On the one hand, it's easy to look at things in the abstract and simply say, "for every player promoted, there should be an emerging player ready to take that vacated roster spot." But that's not baseball -- that's not life. Guerra, for instance, was putting up disgustingly good numbers for the Rock Cats; he was undoubtedly their best reliever -- their Glen Perkins. It would be great if Caleb Thielbar could instantly achieve the success that Guerra had in the last part of 2011 and 2012, but that's anything but a given. Similarly, French was arguably the Rock Cats' best starter this season -- their (fill in the blank if the Twins had a good starter). Good starting pitching is tough to replace, and although it seems that BJ Hermsen is ready for the next level, it's doubtful that he will replicate French's stats (French's success at AA should be partially attributed to the fact that he has MLB and AAA experience). I think a better approach, rather than expecting seamless roster transitions, is to expect competitiveness. Some years drafts are going to be pitcher-heavy. Right now, the Twins have a surplus of outfield talent at the MLB level and down on the farm. Over the course of time, it's the responsibility of the front office to have depth at all positions and all levels, but it's difficult to imagine -- on any one day -- having perfect Low-A, High-A, AA, AAA and MLB depth in any one organization.
In 2011, Baseball America rated the Kansas City Royals as having baseball's best organizational ranking. The Omaha Storm Chasers, the Royals AAA affiliate, had a 79-63 record last season and won the Pacific Coast League championship. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Royals' AA affiliate, finished 73-64, and won their division championship. The High-A team, the Wilmington Blue Rocks, failed to make the playoffs, going 66-72, good for 6th out of 8 teams in their division. Finally, the Low-A team, the Kane County Cougars, went 65-74, and also failed to make the playoffs. The Royals' farm system is just one team, and just one example, of course. It's interesting, though. Their AA and AAA teams were very good last season, despite the fact that the Royals have several young players, like Eric Hosmer, that have been called up recently. It's notable, though, that their lower level teams were both sub-.500 last season, despite the fact that Kansas City almost always has a very high draft position.
So what does this mean for our Twins and their farm teams? I think it's just something to keep an eye on. New Britain, the team I'm following, is 15-9, off to a good start. After going 44-98 in 2010, they finished 72-70 last year, and are on an even better pace now. The Rochester Red Wings are 9-14, still a better pace than they had last year. The Beloit Snappers are 14-11, and the Ft. Myers Miracle are 9-15. Some good so far, and some not so good.
The other notable thing about fielding competitive teams throughout the system is that players get used to playing winning baseball. I'm sure you remember the stories from last season about certain young Twins players (Drew Butera, Danny Valencia, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes were all named at various times) that didn't particularly care whether the Twins were winning or losing; rather, they seemed preoccupied with being big league ballplayers. Many of those guys played on awful Rochester and New Britain teams. If you have no expectation of winning each and every game at the minor league level, and your behavior is modified accordingly over the course of several hundred games and thousands of at-bats, why would that automatically change once you get "the call?"
I imagine it's difficult for the Twins -- or any organization -- to successfully achieve balance at all levels of the system. That's why the Twins are now having career minor leaguers come in and play at Rochester -- simply to field a competitive team. Hopefully, with several early picks in the 2012 draft, the Twins can shoot up the farm team rankings, and we will, in 3-5 years, see another wave of solid MLB prospects ready to play at Target Field.