Brewers fans who wish the baseball regular season did not have to end — or at least that it might go on a bit longer — would do well to cast their hopeful gazes southward, where warmth and sunshine reign year-round, and where some of Milwaukee’s top prospects continue to hone their crafts. From mid-October through late-November, eight of Milwaukee’s more advanced minor-leaguers will get competitive at-bats and throw meaningful innings while playing for the AFL’s Surprise Saguaros, a club made up of prospects from the Brewers, Cardinals, Yankees, Royals, and Rangers.
The Saguaros’ Milwaukee contingent consists of four pitchers and four position players, most of whom spent the 2015 minor-league regular season with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers, so Brewers fans should see these players at Miller Park within the next two seasons. While top prospect Orlando Arcia will skip the AFL, the Saguaros’ roster does feature plenty of interesting young talent, including three of the four players Milwaukee acquired from Houston in exchange for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers at the 2015 trade deadline.
Outfielder Brett Phillips headlines the group. A sixth-round pick of the Astros in 2012, Phillips entered 2015 as the No. 4 overall prospect in Houston’s loaded minor-league system. In stops at High-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, he did nothing to dull that luster, swatting 16 homers and swiping 15 bases in 97 games. Phillips’s power-speed combo, coupled with his relative youth — at 21, he remains young for his level — gives him an intriguing ceiling as a future center fielder. Brewers fans will recall that former GM Doug Melvin added starting pitcher Mike Fiers to the Gomez trade in order to acquire Phillips, who, if projections hold, should hit near the top of the Milwaukee lineup for many years, starting perhaps as early as 2017.
Former fifth-round pick Michael Reed is Milwaukee’s other position-player-to-watch this fall. Like Phillips — though perhaps less so — Reed combines the arm strength of a corner outfielder and the speed of a center fielder. Unlike Phillips, Reed was a fringe prospect prior to his solid 2015 campaign at Biloxi, where he slashed .278/.379/.422, stole 25 bases, and earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. Although he often hit cleanup for Biloxi, Reed has only 12 homers in 1,533 minor-league at-bats, so he does not project as a middle-of-the-order bat in Milwaukee. The Brewers certainly will make use of Reed’s above-average on-base and baserunning skills, as well as his quality feel for the game, but his lack of power places him behind other outfielders such as Phillips and Domingo Santana. In short, there is no obvious spot for Reed in Milwaukee’s starting-outfield-of-the-future. But a power surge in Arizona could change things in the short term.
Infielders Yadiel Rivera and Nathan Orf round out the Brewers’ position-player contingent at Surprise. Arguably the organization’s best defender, Rivera has the glove and arm strength to play shortstop for the Brewers. If he can replicate the .345 OBP he posted at Biloxi, and if incumbent Jean Segura is traded this offseason, Rivera could find himself in Milwaukee’s starting lineup as early as Opening Day 2016, keeping the seat warm until Orlando Arcia arrives. Orf, meanwhile, has the on-base skills and versatility — he once played all nine positions in a single game for the Brevard County Manatees — to challenge for a future spot on the Major League bench, which would be a remarkable achievement for a 5-foot-9 second baseman who went undrafted out of Baylor despite leading the Bears with a .470 OBP.
The group of four Brewers pitchers on the Saguaros’ roster includes two starters acquired along with Phillips and Santana in the Gomez-Fiers trade, southpaw Josh Hader and right-hander Adrian Houser.
One could make a case for Hader as the most underrated prospect in all of baseball. A nineteenth-round pick in 2012, Hader already has been traded twice, first from Baltimore to Houston in the 2013 deal that sent Bud Norris to the Orioles, and then from Houston to Milwaukee last summer. Scouts continue to express concerns over his durability and secondary offerings, which explains why some view him as a future reliever. Most major publications, therefore, have been conservative in their rankings and careful in their projections of Hader. He has sneaked onto a few organizational top-ten lists but without much helium. The doubts and caution have been understandable to-date, but now, after three full professional seasons, Hader’s age, ceiling, and on-field results justify more bullish, even exuberant expectations. In 2015, Hader, only 21, appeared in 24 games at the Double-A level, including 17 starts, where he compiled a 3.03 ERA in 104 IP with 35 walks and 119 strikeouts. Overall, the walks remain a bit high, but the trend leaves room for optimism. At each minor-league stop where he logged at least seven starts, Hader’s walk rate declined while his strikeout rate improved. The Brewers would be wise not to allow it, but if he were permitted to compete for a rotation spot in 2016 it would not be unreasonable to think he could win it. He should be considered one of the organization’s top-five prospects.
Houser, meanwhile, might be Milwaukee’s fastest-rising prospect on the pitching side. Tagged with the “future back-end starter” label, Houser threw his final pitch of 2014 for the Class-A Midwest League’s Quad Cities River Bandits. He threw the final pitch of his 2015 breakout campaign against the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park. Like Hader, Houser has yet to prove himself at Triple-A, where he should spend most of 2016, but his quick ascent and fine performance at Biloxi (4-1, 2.92 ERA, 32:6 K:BB in 37 IP) make him one to watch.
Relievers Jacob Barnes and Damien Magnifico round out Saguaro’s Milwaukee contingent. After starting 35 games in 2013-14, Barnes thrived following his conversion to relief in late May. Magnifico could be a future back-end reliever for the big-league club.
Late-October baseball means the World Series — exhilarating times for fans of the two remaining clubs and for all who love the game. Late-October baseball also means prospects-on-the-cusp playing in relative anonymity under the bright Arizona sun. For all eight of Milwaukee’s Surprise Saguaros, but especially for youngsters such as Phillips and Hader, a few weeks in the Arizona Fall League provide another opportunity to show Brewers fans that their team’s future could be equally bright.