When the rebuilding began in earnest in July 2015, everyone marked it on their calendars: entering the 2018 season, the new and improved Brewers would have their first competitive, winning season under their belts, and the top of the farm system would be defined by internal draft picks moreso than rebuilding trades.
2018 Milwaukee Brewers Top Ten Prospects (and more)
The Brewers are in a bizarre state of flux as an organization, with the most hyped prospects of the 2015 and 2016 drafts largely stalled, injured, or drifting backwards save for an exception or two, and several of the rebuilding trades hanging in a suspended state of anticipation. This whole line could easily turn around if Lewis Brinson makes adjustments at the MLB level and hits, or Brett Phillips continues to override his weaknesses with a well-rounded set of secondary skills. As has been previously mentioned, the 2017 surprise success largely vindicated President Doug Melvin’s 2015 deadline trades (Zach Davies, Domingo Santana, and Josh Hader combined for 7.5 WARP), and the greatest steps forward in the minor league system (perhaps for the second consecutive year, if one counts last year’s Brandon Woodruff campaign) belonged to the late Bruce Seid’s 2014 draft (Monte Harrison for certain, as well as improving depth roles from Jake Gatewood, Troy Stokes, and Jordan Yamamoto).
Again, none of this is news to the Brewers minor league fan, but it’s worth repeating in order to process the difficulties and absurdities that define player development: there is no linear path to baseball success. Now, one of the ostensible reasons for the necessity of the Brewers rebuild (a weak homegrown farm system) will define key roles for the 2018 big league club (Orlando Arica, Jacob Barnes, Brent Suter, and the aforementioned Woodruff) and perhaps the next impact outfielder for the club (Harrison). A system in which Harrison potentially leapfrogs Brinson is fascinating insofar as it seemed highly improbable even a year ago, but then again, unexpected outcomes are the new normal in Milwaukee. This is the club whose rebuilding GM, David Stearns, has made his best moves at the MLB level (Travis Shaw, Chase Anderson, Jonathan Villar, and Junior Guerra) rather than with the minor leagues (Brinson is his major hope here).
Stearns awaits his first impact prospect graduation to the MLB level. Will 2018 be that year?
Update (9:15 AM): to visualize the system in another light, here is a look at the last five drafts, including the top five picks from each and their 2018 organizational outlook. Ten of these players dot the Top 20, including three top tier prospects, another two are already on the MLB roster, and two other prospects have defined the MLB roster via trade:
|Year: Round / Pick||Player||Note|
|2013: 2 / 54||Devin Williams||Injury recovery / Rule 5 Draft Candidate|
|2013: 2 / 72||Tucker Neuhaus||Minor league depth (age-22 in Class-A 2017)|
|2013: 3 / 90||Barret Astin||Traded (PTBNL) for Jonathan Broxton / MLB (Cincinnati)|
|2013: 4 / 122||Taylor Williams||MLB Roster (RHP bullpen depth)|
|2013: 5 / 152||Josh Uhen||2016 Arizona Fall League / Rule 5 Draft Candidate|
|2014: 1 / 12||Kodi Medeiros||Potential LHP MLB relief depth role|
|2014: 1 / 41||Jake Gatewood||Top 20 / MLB depth role solidifying|
|2014: 2 / 50||Monte Harrison||2018 #3 Prospect / Centerfield role solidifying|
|2014: 3 / 85||Cy Sneed||Traded for Jonathan Villar / org. depth (Houston)|
|2014: 4 / 116||Troy Stokes||Top 20 / MLB depth role solidifying|
|[2014: 11 / 326||Brandon Woodruff||2018 #7 Prospect / MLB roster (RHP starter)]|
|2015: 1 / 15||Trent Clark||2018 #9 Prospect / Outfield depth|
|2015: 1 / 40||Nathan Kirby||Injury recovery|
|2015: 2 / 55||Cody Ponce||Org. depth / MLB rotational depth role (165+ IP cap in 2018)|
|2015: 3 / 90||Nash Walters||RHP projection play|
|2015: 4 / 121||Demi Orimoloye||RF toolshed awaiting breakout|
|2016: 1 / 5||Corey Ray||2018 #10 Prospect / Outfield depth|
|2016: 2 / 46||Lucas Erceg||Top 20 / Infield depth|
|2016: 2 / 75||Mario Feliciano||Top 20 / Long road to potential starting C|
|2016: 3 / 82||Braden Webb||RHP projection play|
|2016: 4 / 111||Corbin Burnes||2018 #4 Prospect / MLB rotation depth (2018)|
|2017: 1 / 9||Keston Hiura||2018 #2 Prospect / Impact infield role developing|
|2017: 1 / 34||Tristen Lutz||Top 20 / Outfield depth (long road)|
|2017: 2 / 46||Caden Lemons||RHP projection play|
|2017: 3 / 84||KJ Harrison||College C gamble|
|2017: 4 / 114||Brendan Murphy||LHP projection play|
All of this is a prelude to a difficult question about the state of the Brewers minor league system once more. For a system with advanced quality prospects (Brinson, Woodruff, and Phillips still make the cut as rookies), there remains much risk in developing full MLB roles. Phillips may be the closest of the group to his impact role, as the fantastic defensive centerfielder and Three True Outcome bat showed just how an “inbetween” role at the MLB level can look at its best. My favorite comp for Phillips is Jarrod Dyson (who also happens to be one of my favorite free agent targets for the Brewers), as Dyson exemplifies the “true fourth outfielder” role, someone who has evident shortcomings in terms of pure scouting but uses his strengths to define an extended career. Dyson is a 9.7 career WARP player despite never cracking 350 plate appearances in a season; he has become one of the most valuable players of his draft class and a true anomaly as a player that can define a career through a string of sub-2.0 WARP seasons.
As for Brinson, the BP Prospect Team listed one risk: “He may not hit major-league pitching. Wheeee!” In extended form: “Brinson has shown the ability to make adjustments at each level, but he’s also needed adjustment time. I find those prospects to be a bit riskier at the highest level.” Woodruff, on the other hand, does not exhibit the same type of risk as someone like Brinson, as the righty has never been held to All-Star ultimate roles. But, even if the “will he be a reliever?” debate is not as loud with Woodruff as it was (and is) with Josh Hader, it remains, hiding within the necessary adjustments in Woodruff’s secondary pitch approach. This is not an incurable problem, as it is worth noting that Zach Davies had the same back-end rotation versus bullpen question marks, and has since adjusted his arsenal and approach into an MLB rotational bulldog stance.
Any warnings about Brinson are worth extending to Monte Harrison, perhaps the most stunning solid Top Five appearing in the 2018 list. One can learn from Brinson’s MLB transition in order to temper hype expectations for Harrison, as indeed the pure athlete has already demonstrated the extent to which a professional baseball career will take its twists. 2017 top draftee Keston Hiura joins Harrison at the very heights of the list, arguably the best prospect in the system on the basis of that hit tool, but knocked down a rung depending on how one views the defensive scenario for Hiura. The second baseman-to-be will inevitably receive every chance he needs to stick in the infield, and then he’ll get every chance to stick in the outfield, too. One wonders if he might, at worst, follow a path blazed by Jason Kipnis, who certainly showed that an impact second baseman need not bring the leather year after year.
Corbin Burnes rounds out the new faces in the Top Five. The righty might exemplify the risk-hype wager for the Brewers system, as Burnes will almost certainly not meet the expectations of Brewers fans who are solely scouting his stat line thus far. Burnes became quite an interesting case study throughout the 2017 season, as scouting reports based on early season viewings had yet to capture his delivery adjustments that occurred later in the season, and almost everyone on Brewers Twitter had conflicting information about his stuff. It was interesting to watch the developments unfold, certainly a lesson to fans that (1) statistics do not mean a thing at the minor league level because (2) there is often significant disjoint between those stats and the scouting of mechanical adjustments and organizational approaches with minor leaguers. There are numerous player development hurdles to define role risk for prospects before one considers questions about information asymmetries.
What is intriguing is that Burnes may be one of the clearest prospects on this list to quickly reach his peak role, middle rotation starter.
Let us bask in the mid-rotation arm that could be Burnes, and destroy the narrative that “the Brewers do not have any aces.” This concern occurs again and again with Brewers fans, and it’s as unnecessary an application of unrealistic expectations that could exist within baseball fandom. Here, leaning on the successes of 2017 can provide worthwhile lessons going forward: Jimmy Nelson was never scouted as an ace, Chase Anderson was never an ace, Zach Davies was never an ace, even Josh Hader was never an ace. Brent Suter? Junior Guerra? ….well… Anyway, you’ve clearly seen the point by now: MLB pitching is quite a volatile endeavor, with very few pitchers piecing together consistent MLB campaigns (or even consecutive, successful MLB campaigns as regular starters). Should Davies follow up on his 2017 season with another good year, for instance, even he would be catapulted into some fantastic category, “MLB pitcher with three consecutive better-than-average seasons.” If Davies does that, and Burnes is even Zach Davies, the Brewers rotation will be solid beyond belief.
If you do not learn anything else from the Milwaukee Brewers 2018 Top Prospect list, hopefully you will walk away with the view of the benefits of having multiple advanced-minors, mid-rotation pedigree arms lined up. For that matter, even the value of having multiple players stacked at any position should be evident; now, the 2020 Milwaukee Brewers do not necessarily rely on Lewis Brinson in the outfield. Through the layers of 5,000 universes, it’s probably Brinson, but we also know that it could be Phillips, or it could be Harrison (or of course, someone else entirely). Each of these statements, each of these players, obviously means different things for the Brewers, who could be a 76-win team in 2020 after peaking with this current roster. So it goes: once you walk away with the lesson about aces, or #TeamDepth, or role risk, you gain the comfortable certainty of player development and team-building volatility. The best part is that many of these players are close to the MLB, meaning that Brewers fans will soon get to agonize over a new, tumultuous journey.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images