Hope Springs with the 2016 Sky Sox

In September 2014, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel used the following headline to announce that the Brewers had a new minor-league affiliate: Brewers Settle for Colorado Springs as AAA Team’s Host.” PR departments might cringe at the headline writer’s verb choice, but there is no denying that the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Springs Sky Sox came together out of necessity and only when all other clubs had found partners.  

From this awkward beginning there followed a mostly forgettable 2015 season in the Rocky Mountains. Like the Brewers, the Sky Sox stumbled out of the gate and never recovered, finishing in last place (62-81) in the Pacific Coast League’s rugged American Northern Division. Worse yet, with so many of the Brewers’ most exciting prospects distributed throughout the lower levels of the minors, the Sky Sox roster for much of the season lacked the sort of impact talent on which fans of the big-league club love to dream.

The 2016 campaign promises to be a different story.

The Biloxi Shuckers, Milwaukee’s Double-A affiliate, overcame a two-month road trip, won the first-half championship in the Southern League’s South Division, and finished the 2015 season with a league-best 78-59 record. Baseball America recently honored the Shuckers with its Minor-League-Team-of-the-Year Award. The rebuilding Brewers have no real incentive to rush their top prospects to the majors, so most of the players who starred at Biloxi in 2015 will likely open 2016 in Colorado Springs, which should make Sky Sox games must-see television for diehard Brewers fans.

Although parent clubs will not set their minor-league rosters until spring, the Sky Sox lineup should feature an interesting cast of position players, led by shortstop Orlando Arcia, who is Milwaukee’s top prospect and one of baseball’s best. Non-roster invitee Will Middlebrooks likely will compete with Jonathan Villar, acquired in November via trade with Houston, for the Brewers’ starting third base job. Both players are out of minor-league options, which means that Arizona Fall League standout Yadiel Rivera could be squeezed off the Major League roster and join Arcia in the Colorado Springs infield, unless he makes the squad as a utility infielder. The same goes for third baseman Garin Cecchini, a former top-10 prospect in the Boston system and also a recent acquisition by new GM David Stearns. With the Brewers infield further crowded by the arrival of Rule 5 pick Colin Walsh, fans in Colorado Springs could enjoy watching Arcia, Rivera, and Cecchini well into the summer.

Michael Reed, who played 38 games with the Sky Sox last season and subsequently received a cup of coffee with the big-league club, should be the top outfield prospect at Colorado Springs — that is, unless center fielders Tyrone Taylor and Brett Phillips arrive, which could happen as early as Opening Day. Meanwhile, fans of prodigious home runs will enjoy watching to see if former first-round pick Victor Roache can get to his raw power with more consistency in the mile-high altitude.

On the mound, Sky Sox fans should get a long look at two of Milwaukee’s best young starters, right-hander Jorge Lopez and southpaw Josh Hader. Lopez made two starts in the majors at the end of 2015 and has an outside chance of breaking camp as the Brewers’ fifth starter in 2016, either by winning the job from incumbent Zach Davies, who then would return to Colorado Springs, or, should the Brewers decide to give disappointing Matt Garza the “Edwin Jackson Treatment” and banish him to long relief, by joining Davies at the back end of a very young rotation. In all likelihood, however, Lopez will join Hader atop a strong Sky Sox rotation that also could include Biloxi standouts Tyler Wagner and Adrian Houser.

Finally, Milwaukee’s closer-of-the-future could emerge from among the Sky Sox relief corps. Arizona Fall League veterans Damien Magnifico, who led the 2015 Shuckers in saves, and Jacob Barnes, who averaged 10.08 strikeouts per nine innings with Biloxi, along with flame-throwing righty Yhonathan Barrios (acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline for Aramis Ramirez) could comprise a young and formidable back end of the Colorado Springs bullpen.

The Pacific Coast League in general tends to produce inflated offensive numbers, and Colorado Springs in particular presents many of the same challenges that have frustrated Rockies pitchers in Denver for more than twenty years. Brewers fans, therefore, should avoid drawing conclusions about prospects from their Triple-A statistics. Taylor Jungmann, for instance, compiled a dreadful 6.37 ERA in 11 appearances (nine starts) with the Sky Sox before receiving a promotion to Milwaukee. In the majors, he posted a solid 3.77 ERA in 21 starts and became arguably the club’s most pleasant surprise at the big-league level in 2015.

Instead, fans should watch how the new Sky Sox compete, how well they play together, and how much they enjoy doing it. Scouts and other team officials tend to emphasize player development rather than minor-league win-loss records, and with good reason. Preparing prospects for the Major Leagues has always been a minor-league staff’s first priority, and mid-season promotions often wreak havoc on affiliates’ rosters, particularly the successful ones, which makes winning more difficult. On the other hand, good players who play well together tend to win more games, whereas affiliates of parent clubs with weak minor-league systems often lose more games than they win. In 2015, for instance, only the Angels’ affiliate in Salt Lake City and the Marlins’ affiliate in New Orleans lost more PCL games than the Sky Sox. It is no coincidence that those two clubs, the Angels and Marlins, have two of the weakest overall systems in baseball.  

Winning at the Triple-A level, therefore, is not the ultimate goal, but it can be one measure of a system’s overall health. While the 2015 Sky Sox finished 23.5 games out of first place, the American Northern Division’s other three teams produced three of the four best overall records in the 16-team PCL. Oklahoma City, Iowa, and Omaha finished a combined 60 games over .500. Oklahoma City is the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who boast arguably the top minor-league system in baseball and most certainly three of its top prospects in Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Jose De Leon. Likewise, Iowa (Cubs) and Omaha (Royals) have helped develop players for two of the most talented rosters in the majors. A much-improved Colorado Springs squad, therefore, will have the opportunity to test its mettle by competing in one of the strongest divisions in all the minors. Considering that many of the best players on the Sky Sox roster will find their way to Miller Park by 2017, that competition should be well worth watching.

Of course the big-league club will always be the feature attraction, so fans hopefully will enjoy cheering on the rebuilding Brewers in 2016. On those long summer nights, however, when frustrations mount and the Milwaukee bullpen is active by the third inning, do yourself a favor, get the MiLB.TV minor-league package, and check out the Sky Sox game. Help, you will see, is on the way.

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