Brewers Farm Update

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With all due respect to my loving mother, the greatest birthday present I ever got was gifted to me by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it’s not even particularly close. On my 27th birthday, they traded a Quad-A outfielder named Keon Broxton and teenage pitcher Trey Supak to the Brewers for platoon-limited first baseman Jason Rogers.

At the time, it was a puzzling trade from the Pirates’ vantage point. But to call that trade “puzzling” today is a bit like calling a hurricane “wet.” Few trades in baseball history have ended up so one-sided. Rogers was optioned to Class-AAA to begin the 2016 season, and that’s where he’s sat ever since, save for 33 plate appearances last summer, in which he slashed a Ramon Flores-esque .080/.303/.160 and cost the Bucs a fifth of a win. And it’s not like Rogers has been pressuring Pittsburgh’s front office to work him back into their plans. In 2017, his slash line at AAA has been a perfectly pedestrian .250/.324/.435.

Meanwhile, while Broxton got off to a slow start in Milwaukee, he’s been a two-win player in what amounts to just over half a season of plate appearances for the Brewers. The Pirates found themselves unexpectedly seeking outfield help this spring when Starling Marte was hit with an 80-game suspension. Meanwhile, a player they basically gave away for free is providing ample amounts of power and speed, along with a serviceable center field, to a division rival!

Had that been the extent of the deal, had Rogers and Broxton exchanged jerseys in a straight swap, the Brewers would undoubtedly be coming out far ahead. But what really pushes this trade into the realm of the historically one-sided is the inclusion of Supak. Teenage arms are, with very rare exceptions, all lottery tickets. But recent developments make it look increasingly likely that the Supak lottery ticket just might pay dividends for this already-profitable trade.

Supak won’t even be old enough to go out to the Appleton bars until the end of May, but the towering 6’5 righty is already in his second season pitching for the Timber Rattlers. Last year, he put up a respectable 3.86 ERA and struck out over eight hitters per nine innings pitched. But his 5.87 DRA inspired caution, and hinted that maybe he wasn’t as good as he looked. Milwaukee chose to play it safe for 2017, and make Supak prove himself again in the Fox Valley.

So far, the results have been highly impressive. Supak’s ERA has fallen to 2.40, his DRA is a matching (and far more confidence-inspiring) 2.47, and his WHIP has essentially been halved, from 1.47 last season to 0.77 this time around. Supak’s ratios are head-turning: 12.6 strikeouts per nine, six strikeouts per walk, and a K-rate approaching 40 percent. Clearly, the hitters of the Midwest League are in over their heads here. Supak might be young for his level, but already he’s making the case that he’s got nothing left to prove in A-ball.

On April 24th, Supak took the mound against Arizona’s A-ball affiliate, the Kane County Cougars. He completed six innings, gave up four hits, walked one, and struck out eight. Unfortunately, it was a hard luck night for Supak, in spite of his stellar performance. Two of those four hits were a double and triple to lead off the 5th inning, and both came around to score. Even more unfortunately, he drew Jon Duplantier as his pitching matchup. Duplantier opened the season with 21.7  scoreless innings, and five of those came on that night in Appleton. After Supak exited, the Timber Rattlers surrendered three more runs, but in spite of the 5-1 final score  Supak was masterful in keeping the Cougars’ hitters off balance for six innings.

Supak’s next start came on May 4th against the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the A-ball affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and this one was another pitcher’s duel. Supak lasted five innings, surrendered just two hits and walks apiece, gave up a single run, and added nine strikeouts to his total. His counterpart, Brock Burke, needed to be outstanding, and he was–five innings of his own, four hits and three walks, a matching run, and seven K’s of his own. Both starting pitchers performed well enough to win–but the game ended up being decided in the bottom of the tenth inning on a walk-off infield single. The effort didn’t go unnoticed, either–Supak’s performance was highlighted by the BP Prospect Team in that day’s Minor League Update.

Tuesday night, the Timber Rattlers were in Fort Wayne to take on the TinCaps, Midwest League affiliate of the San Diego Padres. For the third game in a row, Supak was electric, and it led to a new career high in strikeouts. Supak pitched into the sixth inning yet again, lasting 5 and 2/3, and he fanned eleven Fort Wayne hitters. This time around, the Timber Rattlers were able to stake Supak to a lead and get him the win he had more than earned. Once again, the Minor League Update lauded Supak prominently.

Supak is dominating the ranks of A-ball so far this year, but there’s still plenty of reason to be cautious about his eventual future. James Fisher of the BP Prospect Team wrote up Supak for a Monday Morning Ten Pack last August. His conclusion was that “when all is said and done, Supak will be a number four starter with two plus pitches and a durable starter’s frame.” His fastball and curveball both grade as plus, but his fastball velocity won’t exactly be intimidating at the big-league level (consistently coming in at 91-94 and topping out at 95).

Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs is even more bearish on Supak. He omitted him entirely from the organization’s Top 25 Prospects list and said: “The command is promising for a 6’5 20-year-old, but there’s very little projection left on the body, if any, and he’ll have to find a way to navigate upper-level lineups with mediocre stuff. Could work as a No. 5.” If Fisher has him tagged as a future Mike Fiers, performance and role-wise, Longenhagen seems to see him as more of a future Tommy Milone.

The 2017 season, though, could change all of that. Opposing hitters are whiffing at a truly impressive rate when Supak’s on the mound. Thirty innings into the season, that could just be a hot streak, and the law of averages could be waiting around the corner to unceremoniously ream Supak out. Unfortunately, neither Youtube nor features any video of Supak pitching this year, so we’re left to speculate as to whether or not he’s made any dramatic mechanical changes, or added/refined a pitch. Without that, it’s anyone’s guess what’s causing this leap. That he’s conceding a line drive rate of 16.7 percent does make me optimistic that this is a case of legitimate skills growth.

At any rate, there’s one thing the numbers are unambiguous about: Supak has more than proven his mastery of Class-A professional baseball. The Brewers would be wise to seek out any opportunity to promote their big, talented youngster to Carolina. He might be young, it might not have been in the plans to do it this soon, but the writing is plainly on the wall, and by all accounts he appears more than ready for the challenge. Not bad for a player who is, for the Brewers, essentially house money.

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