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101 Trends

Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus published the 2017 Top 101 prospects, which was a list that substantiated fan sentiment that Milwaukee has effectively rebuilt the farm system. Notably, the laudable Brewers prospects evenly represent regimes, with President Doug Melvin claiming three of the Brewers’ Top 101, and current GM David Stearns claiming four. Taken in concert with the 2016 list, which included Orlando Arcia prior to his MLB ascent, as well as righty Jorge Lopez and catcher Jacob Nottingham, it is clear that the Brewers have a wealth of talent that represents the Top 1 percent of minor leaguers. Moreover, the shift between 2016 and 2017 should show that these lists are indeed what Baseball Prospectus calls “a snapshot in time,” demonstrating part of a process moreso than guaranteed MLB success or surefire prospect development. In the big picture, should Jorge Lopez or Orlando Arcia or Jacob Nottingham take a step forward in 2017, that could help the system should Josh Hader, Isan Diaz, or Trent Clark (or someone else) take a step backwards. This is a “cumulative” and process-oriented way to view the Top 101, in a sense.

One thing is certain: the Brewers system was improving under President Doug Melvin, especially with the hire of Ray Montgomery, and some of the long-developing signees from earlier in the decade (see again Arcia and Lopez). With Brandon Woodruff, Cody Ponce, Jon Perrin, and potentially even Marcos Diplan and Devin Williams reaching advanced levels of the system in 2017, the late Bruce Seid and Melvin will get their chance to define an aspect of the next Brewers contender. David Stearns drove that improving base into the stratosphere with his series of rebuilding and counterbuilding trades, fortifying and expanding a system that is both deep and filled with impact talent. Montgomery and the amateur scouting team continued to effectively price talent and assess risk in an intriguing 2016 draft, and a series of internal promotions suggests that much of Milwaukee’s analytical base was already in place prior to Stearns’s arrival. Stearns deserves credit for blending new executive talent with a team of strong analysts and evaluators that were employed under Melvin.

And it shows: for the first time in a decade, the Brewers have at least five Baseball Prospectus Top 101 prospects in consecutive seasons.

2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008
12 L. Brinson 12 O. Arcia
19 J. Hader 19 A. Escobar
31 M. LaPorta
41 C. Ray 51 A. Escobar 42 M. Parra
59 I. Diaz 61 B. Phillips 57 B. Lawrie
58 M. Gamel
68 L. Ortiz 66 J. Nottingham
75 B. Phillips 71 J. Lopez 72 J. Jeffress 76 J. Jeffress
79 A. Salome
99 T. Clark 99 T. Clark 93 O. Arcia 93 W. Peralta 99 B. Lawrie

Viewing these lists together should be an occasion for gigantic grains of salt, as well as the obvious statement that player development cycles do not easily follow prospect list cycles. Consider the following depth and impact players over the last half decade in Milwaukee, players who never graduated from a Top 101 spot to a Brewers uniform:

  • Jonathan Villar was not a Top 101 prospect during his stint with the Astros, despite a ceiling that materialized to produce a huge power/speed/discipline 2016.
  • Jean Segura was on another club’s prospect lists prior to coming to Milwaukee and immediately infusing the batting order with a youth resurgence.
  • Jonathan Lucroy never made a Top 101, and promptly posted four consecutive seasons of 5.0+ WARP between 2011 and 2014.
  • Fastballer Mike Fiers never cracked the Top 101, but stormed the league by outperforming his DRA in 2012, ultimately becoming a 2.5 WARP pitcher in 2015.
  • Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis never made Top 101 lists, but they posted average or better seasons in 2013 and 2016 (Gennett), and 2014 and 2016 (Davis).

Furthermore, there are inevitably busts on Top 101 lists. Not every single player will reach their ceiling; this is why having system depth is as crucial as system impact. Should an Angel Salome fail to materialize in the MLB, it helps to have a Jonathan Lucroy behind them in the system. Busts can also be solid trade chips, as well; it does not matter if Jeremy Jeffress or Matt LaPorta failed to reach their MLB ceiling in Milwaukee if those players were part of deals to bring contending talent back to Milwaukee. The same might be said for some of the ‘tweener outfielders in the Brewers system (I’m looking at Corey Ray, Brett Phillips, and Trent Clark, for example), who represent an area of supreme system depth and question marks that can be answered in other cities after trades. One could raise the same point about Josh Hader and Luis Ortiz, both players with exceptional starting pitching ceilings and solid question marks about how they get there. Should these players never materialize in Milwaukee, it only matters how effectively or aggressively Stearns deals them for additional talent.

Working with this grain of salt, then, there are many different ways to take the Brewers system resurgence. Yes, it is fantastic news that Milwaukee has acquired and developed a strong talent base with their affiliate clubs. Yes, some of these players will not pan out as surefire MLB players. Yes, some of these players will return contending talent to Milwaukee. The ultimate point remains the same: player development is a process, with many different outcomes and scenarios. A market facing the revenue shortcomings of Milwaukee cannot afford to miss on superstar development, but they also cannot afford to be orthodox in their insistence to develop a contender “from within” (see the Pittsburgh Pirates as perhaps the best warning sign of this orthodoxy). The greatest lesson from these 101 can still be found in 2011: it doesn’t matter where the players come from so long as Milwaukee contends, there will be surprises along the way that leapfrog the 101, and the major lesson is that with such a deep system, the Brewers will finally be able to afford to develop and trade to design their next contender without facing the blowback of 2012-through-2015.

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