At this time a year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers community was abuzz regarding pitching prospect Jorge Lopez. The right-hander had just completed an excellent season at AA Biloxi, posting a 2.26 ERA and 3.24 DRA across 143.3 innings en route to winning the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. He even earned a brief debut in the big leagues, making two starts in late September. Lopez was ranked as the organization’s #3 prospect (and #71 overall) by the Baseball Prospectus mother ship heading into 2016, earning this praise from Christopher Crawford: “If everything goes right, he’s a no. 2, with mid-rotation starter a more likely landing spot. He should be a part of the Brewers rotation at some point in 2016.”
Fast forward back to the present day, and Lopez has seemingly fallen by the wayside in a continually improving Brewers’ farm system. BP recently released Milwaukee’s top 10 prospect list for 2017 and Jorge was nowhere to be found. Seth Victor warned us in this space prior to last season that an assignment to Colorado Springs could prove detrimental to the 23 year old, but it’s not likely even he foresaw just how difficult of a time Lopez would endure. Lopez struggled to get the normal movement on his signature curveball in the high-altitude conditions and was getting lit up by opponents on a nightly basis. He started to lose confidence and began to fight his mechanics, and after 17 appearances for the Sky Sox he was demoted to back to AA Biloxi. You may want to shield your eyes from Lopez’s final line from his work in AAA: 79.3 innings pitched, 6.81 ERA, 6.65 DRA, 66 strikeouts, 55 walks (6.2 BB/9!), 12 home runs allowed, and a 1.97 WHIP.
Lopez lost three of his first four decision after arriving back in the Southern League, but by the end of the year things had started to improve. He allowed just seven earned runs across his final four starts of the season (covering 25.1 innings) and while his cumulative 3.97 ERA in 45.3 innings in Biloxi doesn’t exactly stand out, a 2.81 DRA during that time suggests he was rather unlucky to arrive at that earned run average. His strikeouts were up (9.3 K/9 in AA) and he nearly halved his walk rate down to 3.2 BB/9. Though opponents did still manage a .276 TAv against him, things appeared to be getting back on the right track
Lopez failed to earn a September call-up following the end of the minor league regular season, instead volunteering to report to the organization’s fall instructional league. According to Milwaukee’s farm director, Tom Flanagan, Lopez spent two weeks at instructs and “was committed to solidifying some issues with his delivery and working on some things that he had gotten away from. But he is in a very good place now.”
Jorge returned to his native Puerto Rico after instructional league to pitch for Mayaguez of the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, the island’s professional winter league. Utilizing his improved mechanics and rediscovered confidence in his ability, Lopez reigned supreme over his competition during the league’s regular season. Lopez made nine starts for Mayaguez, tossing 34.7 innings while allowing a miniscule 1.56 ERA. Only one pitcher in the league posted a lower earned run average that Lopez, and his WHIP of 0.87 ranked as the best mark on the circuit. He allowed just 17 hits (!!!) and no home runs in his nine starts while striking out 32 and surrendering 13 free passes. He made two playoff starts in January, letting in just one unearned run across 10.0 innings with five hits, two walks, and ten strikeouts, before his team was eliminated by Caguas.
Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training for the Milwaukee Brewers on 15 February this year, and Jorge Lopez should feel confident riding some positive momentum into the 2017 season. He will have some work to do to climb his way back up the depth chart, as the Brewers now have plenty of arms in close proximity to the big leagues that could get a look in Milwaukee next season. Lopez has already shown flashes of what he’s capable of against minor league competition, but as Craig Goldstein said within the comments of the 2017 Top 10, “[i]t’s encouraging to see him recover, and it’s fair to say the thin air in Colorado Springs might have messed with his curveball, but at this point in the game we’re going to need to see something at the major league level before he cracks a (top prospect) list as deep and talented as this.”
Lopez possesses an electric arsenal, and if he can maintain the decent control he displayed down the stretch for Biloxi and in Puerto Rico and the mechanical improvements he worked on with the coaches in Arizona, there may still be a mid-rotation starter in there somewhere. Not all player development is linear, and perhaps 2016 was just a bump in the road on the way to a noteworthy career for the soon-to-be 24 year old. Even if his bouts of wildness prevent him from sticking in the starting rotation, Lopez’s plus fastball-curveball combination should help him provide value in a big league bullpen. After the Colorado Springs nightmare I’d bet we’ll see Jorge begin the 2017 back in AA, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see him return to the big leagues at some point next season.