Top Brewers Storylines of 2015: Resurrection of the Farm System

On Monday, my colleague Jack Moore covered the departure of Doug Melvin, one of the bigger developments to emerge from this year. While Melvin certainly had his strengths as General Manager, his failures ultimately outweighed his successes — and chief among the former was, as Moore cited, Melvin’s utter inability to construct a respectable minor league system.

Of course, Melvin didn’t always struggle in this facet of management. The first five years of his tenure (2003-2007) saw the Brewers draft Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, and Jonathan Lucroy, among others. Those players combined with Prince Fielder and Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, and Bill Hall — whom the team had selected in the pre-Melvin seasons — to form a strong nucleus that helped the club make playoff runs in 2008 and 2011.

After that, however, the prospect well dried up — such that, for five years running, the Brewers have placed in the bottom five of BP’s organizational rankings:

Year BP Rank
2008 13
2009 15
2010 25
2011 30
2012 28
2013 27
2014 29
2015 26

[Note: These rankings began in 2008.]

With the aforementioned core heading to the Major Leagues, Milwaukee sorely needed to replenish its system. Melvin responded with the opposite due to the club’s competitive window. In deals for CC SabathiaZack Greinke, and Shaun Marcum, he sent away Matt LaPorta, Zack Jackson, Rob Bryson, Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffess, and Brett Lawrie. Some of those players didn’t end up accomplishing much, but the prosperity of some of them — particularly Brantley and Cain, each of whom has played at a borderline-MVP level in the past couple years — have made many fans regret the trades retrospectively.

Inadequate drafting compounded the woes of those deals. Jack noted in his piece that the club’s picks from later years haven’t yet amounted to much. Over the past few years, teams such as the Rangers have managed to maintain a solid minor-league system despite swinging big trades, and they’ve done so by constantly restocking their affiliates through the draft and international free agency. Part of that is good scouting, too, while part of that is a willingness to spend money. Melvin’s Brewers partook in the former half of the equation while neglecting the latter half, though, and it has come back to haunt them.

With that said, Milwaukee has made recent strides. BP’s writeup of the farm system stated that it possessed “talent to makes several teams quite jealous” — a massive improvement from its standing over the past several seasons. After spending the first half of the decade in the minor-league cellar, the 2015 Brewers have taken the necessary steps to move back up to the top half.

Part of this, in fairness, happened before this year. In August, Julien Assouline analyzed the team’s drafts under Melvin, who had perhaps not received the credit he deserved. Some of Melvin’s strengths there stem from the early years, but even in the later part of his run with the Brewers, they fared moderately well. Derek Harvey commented that the club’s drafts from 2009 to 2014, under late scouting director Bruce Seid, provided them with numerous quality players that presently stock their system. Indeed, of the top-20 current Milwaukee prospects, eight — Jorge Lopez, Devin Williams, Monte Harrison, Tyrone Taylor, Jake Gatewood, Kodi Medeiros, Yadiel Rivera, and Michael Reed — came from drafts during that span, while Orlando Arcia and Gilbert Lara signed with the team as amateur free agents in that period.

Still, an improvement of this magnitude, and in this short a span, suggests something different in the past twelve months. Part of the difference stems from the 2015 draft, which has (to this point) yielded incredible rewards. Four of those top-20 prospects came to the team in June: Trent Clark, Cody Ponce, Demi Orimoloye, and Nathan Kirby. Clark stands out as the best of the bunch, but all four have intriguing upside and could continue to blossom further. New scouting director Ray Montgomery, as Harvey observed, seems to have taken off.

The team’s decision to finally rebuild has helped with that. July saw them deal away established starters Aramis Ramirez, Gerardo Parra, and Jonathan Broxton, as well as (relative) stars Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. Those trades — which, as J.P. Breen correctly posited, meant the team had recognized that its window has closed — brought back a great deal of prospects. Yhonathan Barrios, Zach Davies, Malik Collymore, Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, and Adrian Houser now occupy various levels of the Milwaukee system; Phillips, Davies, Houser, and Hader ranked in the top 20, while Santana has already begun to contribute at The Show. Together with Marcos Diplan, an intriguing top-20 farmhand whom the team acquired in last January’s Yovani Gallardo swap, they amount to a formidable group.

Overall, David Stearns inherited a solid amount of prospects when he became the GM in August. Surveying the trove a couple weeks before Melvin stepped down, Derek Harvey concluded that the system had gone from the bottom to the upper half of the league — a prediction that, as stated previously, we’ve likely seen come true. Stearns didn’t stop there, though. In his four-odd months atop the organization, he’s made several trades to bolster the minor- and major-league depth, further improving the system as a whole.

The first two transactions came in mid-November. Stearns swapped Cy Sneed for the Astros’ Jonathan Villar, then followed that up by shipping Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers in exchange for Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later (catcher Manny Pina). Seth Victor described Villar at the time as “a good acquisition for a team that needs middle infield depth and flexibility,” a player who won’t make a noticeable difference yet should still provide some value. Betancourt — who rounded out the top 20 — is, in Chris Crawford’s estimation, “a high-floor prospect with a fairly well-defined ceiling.” In other words, he could become a Villar-type player a few years down the road.

After BP published its top-20 list, Stearns has made a few more moves, evidently in an effort to muck up the rankings. First came the Adam Lind trade, which brought back three young pitchers: Carlos Herrera, Daniel Missaki, and Freddy Peralta. While I can certainly see the logic in Jack’s distaste for the deal — Lind gave us something to cheer for in this dreadful 2015 season, and those players always hurt to lose — I ultimately come down on the side of J.P., who expressed cautious optimism regarding it.

Not long after that, three more prospects came to Milwaukee. The day following Lind’s departure, the Red Sox sold Garin Cecchini to the Brewers for cash considerations. BP’s Bryan Grosnick called the deal “[t]he definition of ‘buying low,'” as a disastrous 2015 had caused Cecchini’s stock to plummet. Likewise, the players Milwaukee snagged in the Rule 5 draft — Colin Walsh from the Athletics and Zack Jones from the Twins — don’t carry elite pedigrees, or much upside, for that matter.

These deals nevertheless give the Brewers plenty of options for 2016 and beyond, as J.P. outlined a few weeks ago. (Plus, the quantity acquired from these transactions only increased thereafter, when the Brewers sent Jason Rogers to the Pirates, receiving Keon Broxton and Trey Supak in return.) Overall, the solid 2015 draft, along with Stearns’s willingness to trade anything not nailed down, has translated to a complete turnaround in Milwaukee’s minor-league system.

What does this mean for 2016? Well, as J.P. pointed out, the Brewers have more routes they can take at the Major League level; although few of those will likely lead to wins, the results should give the team some clarity for 2017. More immediately, it means the Triple-A Sky Sox will presumably play better in 2016. Michael Schwarz explained how that affiliate would progress with legitimate prospects filling its roster. The biggest takeaway here, though, is general optimism. Years and years of no future, at long last, appear to have come to an end. Now, more so than at any point in recent memory, there could be hope on the Milwaukee horizon.

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