Narratives can change relatively quickly in baseball. We are seeing that play out right now with our own beloved local nine; a month ago, they were a band of young sluggers that had spent two months in first place. Those Brewers appeared primed to shock the baseball world in 2017 and knock the Cubs from their perch atop the NL Central, even if just for this season. That feels so incredibly long ago now, though, as the team is in the midst of an almost inconceivable tailspin. The homers have seemingly dried up, taking the offense with and causing a 5.5-game divisional lead to evaporate into a 2.0 game deficit. I’ve heard some fans openly wonder why the team couldn’t have just played like this all season, so “at least then they could’ve sold at the deadline and gotten more prospects.”
As storylines can change quickly in the big leagues, so too can they on the minor league and development side of the game. As has been discussed many times over on BPMilwaukee, prospect development is a non-linear process. Professional baseball is a game of constant adjustments. For some players it takes longer to figure out how to adapt to more difficult opponents as they work their way up the organizational ladder; and unfortunately for most, the ability to continue adjusting and improving hits a wall before reaching the MLB. That’s part of the reason why it’s so difficult for clubs to rely on the MLB Draft as a mechanism for consistently producing quality major league contributors.
Milwaukee’s former scouting director, the late Bruce Seid, drew plenty of criticism for his handling of the draft during his tenure with the Brewers. Even post-mortem, Seid’s drafts still come under fire from time to time. One such instance was in ESPN’s ranking of baseball’s top farm systems before the 2017 began. Keith Law praised the Brewers’ collection of minor league talent while ranking them #6 overall, but felt the need to get critical towards the end of his write-up:
“They need to see more return on the July 2 market, as their one big signing there, Gilbert Lara, is off to a rough start to his pro career, and they have no one else from that avenue in their top 20. Their 2014 draft class has been similarly unproductive to date. But what the new regime has accomplished in a short period of time gives the Brewers a chance to keep pace with their better-heeled competitors in the NL Central.”
Law’s shot at Seid’s 2014 class may not exactly have been necessary, but entering this season it would be hard to argue it was untrue. However, what at that time had been a two year developmental period is far too soon to write off a draft class, especially one that was focused on prep talents at the top.
Milwaukee’s prospects from the 2014 class must not have taken kindly to Law’s denunciation, because the group as a whole has taken a significant step forward during a wildly successful 2017 campaign. Let’s go through some of the highlights:
Round 1 (#12) – LHP Kodi Medeiros
After a disastrous showing with Brevard County last season, Medeiros has rebounded quite well during his second run through high-A ball. His ugly 5.07 ERA hides the significant improvements he’s seen with his strikeout (6.8 K/9 to 9.1 K/9) and walk rates (6.7 BB/9 to 3.5 BB/9) from last year to this season; his WHIP has also plummeted from 1.94 to 1.26. DRA says Medeiros should be a 3.98 pitcher and rates him at 12 percent better than the Carolina League average in 2017. He’s likely to still ultimately be a reliever when all is said and done, but Kodi still shows a mid-90s fastball and plus slider that can give batters fits coming from his Hader-esque low three-quarters arm slot.
Round 1 (#41) – INF Jake Gatewood
Gatewood famously got contact lenses before the 2017 season after vision tests revealed his eye sight had deteriorated since he was drafted, and they’ve apparently made all the difference. He’s finally been able to make enough consistent contact to tap into the considerable raw power that he possesses, clubbing Carolina League pitching to the tune of a .281 TAv with 11 home runs and a .169 ISO, a full-season best for him. He’s taking walks this season at better than twice the rate he did previously, too. Baseball America recently rated Gatewood as the Carolina League’s top defensive first baseman, and now that he’s been promoted to AA Biloxi he should be able to see more time at his other position of third base, too. As Greg Goldstein recently noted, there’s still plenty of risk with Gatewood given his high swing-and-miss tendencies, but he has the type of raw power that is rarely seen in prospects these days.
Round 2 (#50) – OF Monte Harrison
Since he was drafted, scouts have raved about Harrison’s raw tools. The biggest issue for the 22 year old has been staying on the field, which he has finally been able to for a full season in 2017. Now fully healthy after missing large chunks of time in 2015 and 2016, Harrison has provided a glimpse of what it could look like if he actualizes those tools. He began the season by torching the Midwest League, bopping 11 home runs and swiping 11 bags while compiling a .307 TAv in 261 plate appearances. A midseason promotion to Carolina did little to slow him down, as he’s clubbed another 8 dingers and stolen 7 more bases along with a .295 TAv in 150 PAs. Steve Givarz recently wrote that Harrison is one of the best athletes in Milwaukee’s system and that his tools could “rival that of Lewis Brinson’s” – the guy that Milwaukee refused to part with for Sonny Gray.
Round 4 (#116) – OF Troy Stokes
Another toolsy outfielder drafted as a prep player, Stokes is a diminutive prospect standing at just 5’8″ tall. He packs plenty of punch into that small frame though, and it’s finally started to show through this season after implementing a mechanical change at the dish. Stokes has worked to establish himself as one of the more intriguing power-speed combos in the system in 2017, launching 14 home runs and stealing 21 bases in 100 games with Carolina while posting a .289 TAv. That showing recently earned him a promotion to AA Biloxi, where he’s slugged another 2 homers and stolen 2 more bags in 11 games so far. Stokes doesn’t have near the amount of swing-and-miss in his game as many other advanced Brewer prospects, either, which is a refreshing change-of-pace within an organization that hasn’t seemed to place much concern on hit tool utility under the David Stearns regime.
Round 11 (#326) – RHP Brandon Woodruff
One area that Seid excelled in while with the Brewers was spotting talent outside the top rounds of the draft, and the early returns suggest that Woodruff is well on his way to becoming another late-round gem for the franchise. The 24 year old shot up prospect lists with his breakout season last year, jumping into the top-100’s of both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline before recently making his MLB debut. Woodruff has allowed just two earned runs thus far through 12.0 MLB innings pitched in two starts after posting a 3.48 DRA (66 DRA-) in 15 starts for Colorado Springs. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, above-average slider, and improving changeup along plus command projections, Woodruff has the chance to develop into an effective mid-rotation starter for the Milwaukee Nine.
Round 12 (#356) – RHP Jordan Yamamoto
Yamamoto enjoyed a strong season last year in Appleton and has carried that success over into the 2017 season with Carolina. In 78.0 innings for the Mudcats, the 6’0″ righty has 3.46 ERA and 3.10 DRA, good for a DRA- of 69. He’s continued to miss bats at a nice clip while striking out 9.1 per nine innings and doesn’t issue too many free passes, just 2.8 BB/9 this year. Yamamoto features a 4-pitch arsenal of a low-90s fastball, slider, changeup, and a curveball which he has made significant strides with this season. 2080 Baseball‘s scouts offered the ceiling of a back-end starter for Yamamoto in their preseason organizational review; advancing a level in 2017 and experiencing significant success as a 21 year old in high-A should help take some of the risk out of that projection.
Just as it was too early for Law to write off Milwaukee’s 2014 draft class, it is of course still too early to know for certain if the Brewers will be able to reap any significant MLB value from this group of players. Still, we should be quite encouraged by the notable improvements that these guys appear to have made. Woodruff became the first player from Milwaukee’s class to reach the big leagues and appears to have a bright future ahead of him. As for the rest of this batch, how they handle the full-season jump from high-A to AA next season will go a long in determining if they’ll become useful big leaguers. There’s plenty of upside left to be tapped into with Milwaukee’s 2014 class, and if things continue to play out as they have this season then the complicated legacy of Bruce Seid will most certainly be seen in a more positive light.