The Carolina Rebuild

Yesterday was minor league Opening Day for full-season clubs around baseball, giving us our first chance to follow the box scores and watch the highlights of players that we hope to see in Milwaukee down the road. Well, it was Opening Day for all but one of the full season affiliates, that is; the high-A Carolina Mudcats were rained out at Frederick, meaning that the club won’t will take the field for the first time this season until later on today. While yesterday some of my BPMilwaukee colleagues discussed some of the story lines surrounding Brewers’ minor league partners that should be followed this season, I’d argue that there is not a more important affiliate to devote one’s time to than those Mudcats.

This will be the first year that the Brewers are aligned with Carolina after the close of a lengthy partnership with the former Brevard County Manatees, who picked up and moved to Kissimmee and joined up with the Braves. At one point in time it appeared as though Milwaukee was destined to land their high-A affiliate in the launching pad at Lancaster (California League), but surprisingly the team was able to agree to a two-year PDC with the Mudcats just prior to the deadline. We learned later on in the winter that a major driver of that deal was the fact that Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio was attempting to purchase the team and make them a permanent affiliate with the organization. Between that and the improved focus on providing proper nutrition for minor leaguers, it appears as though Milwaukee is make a concerted effort to re-invest in the farm system.

Beyond the new locale in Zebulon and the cool logo, the Mudcats should be a blast to watch on the field this year. Four of Milwaukee’s top 10 prospects according to Baseball Prospectus were assigned to the Carolina to begin the season, and a fifth, 2016 first-rounder Corey Ray, may very well end up there too as soon as he’s completed rehabbing his torn left meniscus. Isan Diaz and Lucas Erceg will both be looking to follow up on their impressive 2016 debut seasons with the organization. Along with Jake Gatewood, they should provide plenty of home run pop in the middle of the lineup. Trent Clark and Troy Stokes will have a chance to showcase their impressive speed on the basepaths and outfield grass while attempting to make names for themselves among a crowded organizational outfield picture. Perhaps most intriguing will be the performances of two mid-round picks in recent years: 2015 13th-rounder Max McDowell, who hit for a .272 TAv last season while registering 4.2 FRAA at catcher for Wisconsin; and 2016 17th-rounder Weston Wilson, who was said to have “breakout potential” all throughout his collegiate career and impressed the org so much with his .319 TAv in 62 games for Helena last year that he skipped past Class-A Wisconsin entirely.

The pitching staff should be a lot of fun, as well. Unfortunately fans won’t see Devin Williams, who succumbed to Tommy John surgery during spring training, but there’s no shortage of talented arms in Zebulon. Cody Ponce is the highest-rated hurler on a staff that also includes Marcos Diplan and Freddy Peralta, two breakout arms from last season. 2016 4th-round pick Corbin Burnes, who many felt had the talent to go higher in the draft, will also be pitching in Carolina. In fact, Burnes is slated to get the ball on to open the season against the Keys. Three Hawaiians will also suit up for Carolina: reliever Quintin Torres-Costa and starter Jordan Yamamoto, both of whom excelled with Wisconsin last season, and 2015 1st-rounder Kodi Medeiros, who will look to find the strike zone with more consistency after struggling to a 64:63 K/BB ratio with Brevard County in 2016. Jon Olczak has been one of my favorite relief prospects since Milwaukee drafted him in 2015, and he’ll look to build on the 2.46 DRA and 10.7 K/9 he posted with Brevard County last season.

The rebuilding Brewers are counting on guys in Class-AAA Colorado Springs like Lewis Brinson and Josh Hader, as well as MLB graduates Orlando Arcia and Zach Davies to propel the team into their next contending era. What David Stearns is hoping to accomplish with his talent acquisitions across all levels, however, isn’t just a strong run for a few years and then another rebuild in the future. The stacked roster at Carolina (rated as the #7 most talented minor league roster in baseball by MLB Pipeline) will provide the next wave of players after the current iteration of top prospects comes and goes, which should allow the team to remain competitive for many years down the road. It may be three to four years, or longer, until we start seeing the players suiting up for the Mudcats this year in the big leagues, but how this club develops and meshes together in the interim should provide a glimpse into the sustained future success that Milwaukee is aiming for with their tear-down and rebuild project.

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