The great Brewers rebuild has been about selling the fans on the influx of “young, controllable talent” that has flooded the organization over the past year and a half or so. The club may not be competitive at the big league level right now, but Doug Melvin and David Stearns each have done yeoman’s work to transform Milwaukee’s minor league pipeline from bottom of the barrel to one of, if not the overall best collection of prospects in all of baseball. As principle owner Mark Attanasio said last night, his team is “further along the continuum” toward fielding a playoff-caliber roster than he or just about anyone could have hoped by this point.
Our local nine already has the deck stacked against them in regards to competing for championships, as playing in the smallest media market in baseball certainly limits the financial might that can be wielded when attempting to lure upper echelon free agents to town. Given this unfortunate reality, it is imperative that the organization can rely on its player development process to graduate useful pitchers and hitters to The Show.
Making this process more difficult, however, is the less-than-ideal affiliate situation in Colorado Springs. Prior to 2015, the Brewers had maintained a relatively successful 10 year partnership with the Nashville Sounds as their AAA affiliate, posting winning seasons in six of 10 years and capturing a league championship in 2005. Milwaukee stuck with Nashville despite a subpar stadium situation and numerous chances to leave, working with the minor league club as they finally were able to secure financing for a new facility that would open for the 2015 season. After the Sounds were provided three losing clubs in the four prior seasons, however, Nashville ownership decided to switch allegiances to the Oakland Athletics during the last Player Development Contract signing period in the winter of 2014. With Milwaukee and Colorado Springs (who the Rockies had abandoned) left as the only two organizations without dance partners, they were forced into an agreement that has been to the detriment of nearly all of the pitching prospects that have come through the highest elevation ballpark in the U.S.A.
Making matters worse, it that it now appears as though the Brewers will get their short end of the stick for the second straight affiliate shuffle. Milwaukee’s high-A affiliate for the last 12 seasons, the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League, relocated to a new facility in Kissimmee following the completion of the minor league season. The prevailing belief early on was that the Brewers would re-up with the ownership group at the new location, at least according to the local beat writer, but after two straight last-place finishes (including a 40-97 record this season, 18 wins fewer than the next worst team in the league) the former Manatees chose to go in a different direction. They signed a four-year PDC with the Braves, who also currently possess one of the league’s top-rated minor league systems. Atlanta’s spring training facility is at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, making for a much more preferable geographic partnership with the Kissimmee affiliate, as well.
There is still a chance that the Brewers could wind up with an affiliate in the Carolina League, as the Carolina Mudcats affiliation is still up for grabs. However Ballpark Digest recently reported that Carolina’s ownership was looking to sell a majority stake in the team to an MLB franchise, and our friend Jim Goulart over at Brewerfan.net has learned that the Rockies are apparently in the lead to make that transaction.
Assuming that sale comes to fruition, the other musical chairs that have already occurred would leave the Brewers with only one other option for a high-A affiliate: the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League, who had previously been partnered with the Houston Astros. The Cal League is already considered an association heavily skewed towards offense, and “The Hangar,” the ballpark the JetHawks call home, is as offense-friendly an environment as you’ll find in the league.
Looking back since the start of the decade, here are the league average RA9 totals as compared the RA9 of the JetHawks pitching staffs (per Baseball-Reference):
2016: 5.07 league || 5.77 LAN
2015: 4.94 || 5.25
2014: 5.28 || 5.33
2013: 5.34 || 5.78
2012: 5.47 || 5.65
2011: 5.66 || 6.82
2010: 5.30 || 6.24
It becomes quite apparent that there’s a lot of run scoring in this league, but also that Lancaster pitching has performed worse than league average, and usually significantly so, in each of the last seven seasons. Houston has had some pretty good pitching prospects come up through their system, which leads one to believe that league and park factors are more likely to be identified as the reason for the poor pitching performances rather than simply lack of talented pitchers.
An article from earlier this year at SB Nation’s “The Crawfish Boxes” also explored the effects that playing in Lancaster, or any hitter-friendly environment, could have on hitters. The author describes Lancaster as “…an extreme hitters’ park. A combination of altitude, aridity, and fierce winds that usually blow out to right field all adds up to offense, and a lot of it.” According to the data collected, batters that played in hitter-friendly parks at the high-A level tended to strike out more and hit for less power at the MLB level and generally lagged behind offensively at the AA and AAA levels versus players who played high-A ball in a neutral or pitcher-friendly environment.
It’s really a travesty that the Brewers look to have allowed themselves to be pigeon-holed into not one, but two extremely undesirable stadiums for developing players. Most of the blame for the Nashville fiasco fell on Gord Ash, and it remains to be seen who the scapegoat will be should Milwaukee end up having to partner up with Lancaster. The Brewers have already become hesitant in regards to sending pitching prospects to AAA, are they supposed to start jumping their better young arms straight from Appleton to Biloxi to the big leagues now? Not to mention the effects that The Hangar and Security Service Field could be having on their promising offensive talent, if we’re to believe the findings from “The Crawfish Boxes.” For a club that is supposedly building it’s future on the young talent in the minor leagues, it is simply unacceptable that Milwaukee now has arguably the worst player development situations among all 30 teams at both the AAA and high-A levels to go along with a spring training facility in Maryvale that also needs to be upgraded or replaced.