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Midseason 2017 #1: 3 Up 3 Down

With the completion of the 2017 MLB amateur draft, the revolving door for prospects and system depth between Class-AA Biloxi, Class-AAA Colorado Springs, and Milwaukee, and the International free agency signing date just days away, the Brewers system is experiencing significant flux. This flux is hardly a bad thing. Top prospects Lewis Brinson and Josh Hader have their MLB roles solidified in some sense, at least for the immediate future, and hot risers like Corbin Burnes are inspiring the imaginations of Brewers fans. Coupled with the ever present hype that accompanies the draft, the Milwaukee system seems as strong as ever, even with the graduations. For 2017 first round pick Keston Hiura has some competition for those Top 10 spots that are likely to be vacated by the likes of Brinson and Hader, and maybe even Brett Phillips in the near future: Catchers Mario Feliciano and Jacob Nottingham have stock on the rise (for different reason), pitchers like Burnes and Freddy Peralta are answering more questions about their respective Overall Future Potential, and even Brandon Woodruff might have a spot to fight for depending on his MLB time in 2017 (otherwise Woodruff could solidify an MLB role without ever cracking a Baseball Prospectus Brewers Top 10).

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3 Up 3 Down: May
3 Up 3 Down: April
2016 Series

With this in mind, myself and Assistant Editor Kyle Lesniewski, with help from Baseball Prospectus prospect gurus Craig Goldstein and John Eshleman, have assembled a midseason deluxe edition of “3 Up, 3 Down.” Consider this an entry in lieu of a midseason Top 30 ranking. Ranking prospects at this point is definitely in demand from many fans, but I’d like to offer this type of content in lieu of a ranking. This editorial decision is justifiable with a system such as Milwaukee’s, I believe, especially because the very top prospects are graduating (meaning, say, RHP Luis Ortiz and 2B Isan Diaz are perhaps most likely to take the top spots in the organization), but also because talent is bunched together at so many points.

If the Brewers control approximately 200 professionals within their affiliated system, a Top 30 list comprises the top 15 percent of the system. With that in mind, it’s worth emphasizing that such a list can only ever split hairs over the most elite talent within the system. Outside of the true top talent role projections (such as Ortiz and Diaz, for example, the One Percenters of the system), there are more question marks and more risk that define ranges of talent between #3-to-#10 (next 4 percent), and then organizational depth roles that define #11-20 (rounding out the top 10 percent). Consider previous Top Ten residents like Nottingham or Monte Harrison; are these players headed back to the Top 10 give Nottingham’s bat rounding out and likelihood to stick behind the dish? Or Harrison’s resolution of tools into a ballplayer? Where do you put Top 10 newcomers like Feliciano and Burnes? What about Jake Gatewood? To this, one might be able to debate about each player’s top MLB potential and likely MLB floor role (or organizational depth role), but to that point it is also worth asking whether it matters that Feliciano slots in at, say, #6 instead of #15, or Burnes at #9 instead of #14. So, consider this feature an exercise in thinking through layers of quality depth that define a system that is going to be quite volatile after Brinson and Hader are gone (and probably with them, too), but a strong system nonetheless.

3 UP
UTIL Jake Gatewood, Advanced A Carolina (picked by John Eshleman): Following BPMilwaukee’s list last year, Jake Gatewood is quite a regular face in the midseason 3 Up, 3 Down, but that’s simply a reflection of the stages of this prospect’s progression. James Fisher scouted Gatewood at A Wisconsin in spring 2016, noting that “much of his improvement has come this year from an adjustment in his starting position. He has lowered his hands slightly and that has led to a much shorter and direct path to the ball. While his plate discipline is still suspect, he has been making harder and more consistent contact.” This observation accompanied the pick of Gatewood as a power prospect to watch, especially after a surge in Rookie Helena to close 2015. Following Fisher’s observation, Gatewood made another set of adjustments over the 2016-2017 offseason and has been one of the great surprises of the 2017 season.

John Eshleman writes, “his power has already been widely acknowledged, but this year he is less vulnerable to spin and pitches out of the zone. [This] not only shows up in his walk rate but also puts him in more hitters counts to tap that power.” Adjustments breeding adjustments, and another question mark answered; in this placement it almost appears that Fisher raised the question of Gatewood’s discipline for Eshleman to answer it this year. So here Gatewood stands, now receiving plenty of time at 1B, carving himself a nice role as a Brewers corner prospect while exposing the irony of prospect hype: it seems absurd to call this age-21 player “post hype” in 2017, but I’m also not sure Gatewood is a sleeper any longer. Look for these adjustments to round out an upper minors organizational ceiling into something that may be better suited to crack the big league roster (and goodness knows David Stearns is eyeing that SS / 3B / LF / 1B positional pedigree). Power and flexibility should hopefully keep Gatewood on close watch in this system.

1B Garrett Cooper, AAA Colorado Springs (picked by Kyle Lesniewski): The Milwaukee Brewers have one of the best farm systems in baseball, littered with top-100 prospects like Lewis Brinson, Corey Ray, and Isan Diaz. But who has the best OPS of anyone in Milwaukee’s system currently? None other than the org’s 2013 6th-round pick, Garrett Cooper. The hulking product of Auburn University has displayed a penchant for contact throughout his minor league career, but has never really displayed the power that one typically likes to see from a player that primarily mans first base. That is, until now. After popping what was a career-high 9 home runs in 128 games last season between Class-AA and Class-AAA, Cooper has already blasted 14 long balls in just 64 games this season. A career .303/.366/.463 hitter in five seasons, Cooper has tattooed Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .357/.412/.614 slash this season, with his .257 ISO nearly 100 points better than his career average (though it’s worth noting his home OPS at Colorado Springs of 1.258 is much higher than his .805 OPS on the road). A toned-down leg kick appears to have helped the 26 year old right-handed hitter tap more consistently into the power than a man standing at 6’6″ and 230 lbs should be able to generate. Unfortunately for Garrett, he is currently blocked at the big league level by Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar. Cooper was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft after being left unprotected last season but given his improved level of production this year, it’s easy to imagine someone taking a shot on him if he’s left off the 40-man roster once again this winter.

2B Keston Hiura, Rookie Arizona (picked by Nicholas Zettel): In one sense, it’s absurd to place Hiura on this list. Hiura is not on this list because of his hitting surge in Rookie ball, where the age-20 Hiura is already old. Rather, even though some scouting outlets disagreed on the strength of Hiura’s bat (without disagreeing that the bat is the calling card for the advanced college prospect), the major question marks for Hiura revolved around both his defense and his injured elbow. The Brewers beat has reported that Hiura is working at Arizona on a throwing program before playing in the field, so the jury is out on that fielding grade for the prospect. A 2B-profile without an average glove but a great hit tool make Hiura look like a rich man’s Scooter Gennett (a good thing, if perhaps a floor). However, upon being drafted, the Brewers learned that Hiura does not require surgery for his elbow injury, which adds quite a bit of immediate certainty to the prospect profile (and no, I don’t buy that the line that “recovering from Tommy John surgery is easier for position players” reduces the uncertainty involved in rehabbing a prospect from surgery). Thus, the Brewers have their top draft pick on a throwing program rather than a surgery rehab program, and this (to my mind) allows Hiura’s top ceiling to tick slightly less risky.

C Andrew Susac, AAA Colorado Springs (picked by Kyle Lesniewski): Though no longer technically a prospect (he’s taken 262 turns at the plate in the MLB), plenty of folks around Milwaukee hoped that Susac could become a multiyear starter for the Brewers behind the plate after he was acquired in the Will Smith trade from San Francisco last year. An injury during spring training this year helped cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster and delayed the start of his regular season by a few weeks, but since returning to action in mid-April the former top-100 prospect has struggled to get much of anything going at the plate. He’s split time with Tyler Heineman (and now Jett Bandy) and has appeared in just 32 games so far; in that time Susac has been able to manage only a .194/.250/.407 slash with five home runs in the hitter-friendly confines of Security Service Field. He has thrown out seven of the 17 runners that have tried to steal on him, but his framing numbers and all-around fielding metrics have taken a step back this year. Susac now appears at the very least to be behind Manny Pina, Stephen Vogt, and Bandy on the organizational catching depth chart, and with Jacob Nottingham coming on strong just one level behind, the age-27 catcher needs to start figuring things out before he gets lost in the shuffle once again.

IF Gilbert Lara, A Wisconsin (picked by Craig Goldstein): As the Brewers are reportedly linked to a few top International Prospects according to BaseballAmerica, one ought use the Gilbert Lara signing as a cautionary tale of sorts, but one should not use Lara’s struggles as an argument against investing in international talent for Milwaukee. The shortstop-to-third baseman has had his trip off shortstop delayed in 2017, which does raise a question about whether Lara’s defensive requirements at a position he is not suited for is impacting his performance thus far.

Goldstein on Lara: He’s only 19, but he hasn’t looked right for a couple years and I think it’s time to move on unless something changes in dramatic fashion. Oh, and he’s definitely not a shortstop.

RHP Cody Ponce, Advanced A Carolina (picked by Nicholas Zettel): Cody Ponce is one of my favorite arms in the Brewers system, so my placing him here is not really an indictment against his ceiling and floor that appeared on the 2017 Brewers Top Ten at Baseball Prospectus. Rather, it’s worth reflecting on my own biases that found Ponce to be placed in the “Potential Quick Riser” bucket I keep in my mind, as there was so much to instantly love about Ponce’s arsenal straight out of the gate. Ponce seemed like a guy who had stuff to reach the MLB as an almost certainly serviceable reliever, and I thought that floor would help him push his way to the MLB. As of this writing, Ponce is now 152.3 combined innings deep in Advanced A between 2016 and 2017, which leads one to question whether the righty’s injury during 2016 pushed back his development clock somewhat. Scouting the box score, Baseball Prospectus notes that Ponce’s groundball rate is falling as his strike out rate also declines in 2017, although it is worth noting that the Carolina League has generally been tough on Brewers prospects in 2017. Skipped over by Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta in terms of promotions to Class-AA Biloxi, one cannot let their previous expectations turn to disappointment on the age-23 hurler. Indeed, this is a great lesson that undue expectations are the foundation of hype, and hype does not develop prospects into serviceable MLB players.

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