The Milwaukee Brewers lit the hot stove on fire last night by officially sticking a fork in their rebuild. It’s done, and the Milwaukee Nine have turned the page to contenders in the National League. Not only did the club ink Lorenzo Cain to what is so far the largest contract given to any free agent this winter (and the largest contract in franchise history), but Slingin’ David Stearns and company pulled off arguably the biggest blockbuster trade of the winter by sending four prospects to the Miami Marlins in exchange for Christian Yelich.
The 26 year old former 1st-round pick has established himself as one of the bright young stars in the game since debuting with Miami back in 2013. Over the last four-and-a-half seasons, Yelich has produced a .290/.369/.432 slash line from the left side of the plate, which translates to a sterling .296 TAv when taking his former home of Marlins’ Park into consideration. He’s stolen double-digit bases in four of the five years he’s been in the MLB, and his power has taken a step forward with 39 dingers combined over the last two seasons. His defense has graded out much better in left field than it does in center, though with Cain’s presence in Milwaukee Yelich will surely slide over to a corner slot. In WARP’s eyes, Yelich has already generated 15.8 wins above replacement during his relatively short time in The Show. It’s been suggested that a move to a more hitter-friendly park could help Yelich tap into further offensive upside, and the Brewers will have up to five years to find out if that’s true: Yelich has four more guaranteed seasons on his early career extension as well as a team option for 2022.
To acquire a young, cost-controlled star like Yelich, though, David Stearns was forced to part with some of the highest rated talent from his formerly well-regarded farm system. So let’s take a look at the players that will be taking their talents to South Beach using the Baseball Prospectus top prospects list published earlier this winter:
1. OF Lewis Brinson (age-24)
Brinson was Milwaukee’s top prospect from the moment he was acquired in the summer 2016 deal that sent Jonathan Lucroy to Texas. He had an underwhelming MLB debut last season (.106/.236/.277, 2 HR in 55 PA) but tore the cover off the ball in Colorado Springs. He mashed in Triple-A to the tune of a .331/.400/.562 slash line with 13 homers and 11 steals en route to winning Milwaukee’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
Brinson could be a legitimate five-tool center fielder when all is said and done and has drawn comparisons to Mike Cameron. The power is real and he’s regarded as a terrific defender, but questions remain about the utility of his hit tool. His minor league strikeout rate has improved over the last several seasons, but the prospect team noted that Brinson still has a long swing, is willing to expand his strike zone, and has plenty of swing-and-miss in his game. There could be a lengthy learning curve for Brinson at the MLB level and he may struggle for awhile before coming into his own. A 70 Overall Future Potential (OFP) – All-Star center fielder – role is possible, but Baseball Prospectus noted the risk for Brinson is that “He may not hit major-league pitching. Wheeee!”
3. OF Monte Harrison (age-22)
The Brewers convinced Harrison to spurn an offer to play college football at Nebraska with an overslot bonus after selecting him in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft. He battled injury issues during his first few seasons but finally showed what he could do during a fully healthy season in 2017. Harrison split the year between Class A Wisconsin and Class A-Advanced Carolina, slugging 21 dingers and nabbing 27 bases with a .306 TAv between the two stops.
His success in 2017 helped Harrison fly up the prospect ranks and he’ll surely find himself somewhere in BP’s top 101 prospects when the list is revealed. He’s still considered a raw baseball talent, but he’s another potential five-tool, 70 OFP player and and his skillset has been compared favorably to Brinson’s. He should be able to stick in center field, though he’s working to refine his reads out there. Harrison has brandished plus power at the plate and elite speed and instincts on the bases. But like Brinson, his hit tool remains as the biggest developmental question. Harrison whiffed in 27 percent of his plate appearances last season in the lower minors and still has yet to show he can handle the jump to AA, where he’ll face more difficult opposing pitchers. I wrote earlier this winter that now may be an ideal time to sell high on Harrison as a prospect.
6. 2B/SS Isan Diaz (age-22)
Diaz came to Milwaukee as a major piece of the deal that sent Jean Segura to Arizona during the 2015-16 offseason, David Stearns’ first at the helm. After an outstanding season in Class A Wisconsin in 2016, Diaz struggled somewhat in Class A-Advanced this past season. Carolina is a notoriously tough park for hitters, but Diaz could manage only a .222/.334/.376 slash with 13 home runs in 455 plate appearances for a middling .262 TAv.
Diaz boasts plus bat speed and though he struck out 121 times in 110 games last year, scouts believe that he could ultimately develop into an above-average contact hitter. He has 20+ home run potential if everything comes together, too. Diaz has spent plenty of time at shortstop but the prevailing thought is that he’ll eventually settle in permanently at second base due to a lack of arm strength, and he spent plenty of time at the keystone in 2017. If he continues to climb the ladder as hoped, though, he could wind up as an above-average, bat-first starter at second base. The BP scouts questioned his maturity and composure, however, and given his struggles this past season it’s evident that Diaz is still working to turn his raw talent into real production on the diamond. Diaz’s strikeouts are considered a problem and he needs to refine his approach and avoid expanding the strike zone so frequently, or his hit tool may not develop to the point where it allows him to utilize his power consistently. There are worries that the broken hamate bone that ended his season prematurely may his hamper development, too.
Unranked RHP Jordan Yamamoto (age-22)
Yamamoto was the second Hawaiian hurler that Milwaukee chose in the 2014 draft, and they gave him an overslot bonus to sign as a prep 12th-rounder. He won the ERA title last season while pitching for the Class A-Advanced Mudcats, producing a 2.51 mark in 111.0 innings to go along with a 113:30 K/BB ratio and a DRA- of 63.
Yamamoto didn’t rank in BP’s top 10 for the Brewers and wasn’t mentioned as one of the “next ten,” but I did recently cover him as a potential 2018 breakout candidate. He lives mostly in the low-90s with his fastball but has dialed it up as high as 94 MPH. He also boasts a plus curveball that he spins at some 2000 RPM. His changeup is considered below-average, however, and so is his command even though he’s never walked a ton of hitters. He’s also a tad undersized at 6’0″ and 185 lbs. Yamamoto’s most likely MLB role is as a reliever, but given his success as a starter to this point through the lower minors there doesn’t figure to be any rush to transition him away from the rotation. The possibility remains that he’ll become a useful #4 or #5 starter on a big league pitching staff.
So to bring in Yelich, David Stearns was willing to part with three of his top six prospects as well as a young arm who he himself has mentioned previously as one of his favorite under-the-radar prospects within his own system. But besides Brinson, each of the other three prospects probably has at least two years of development remaining before they are ready for a trial in the big leagues. All three of the positional prospects have significant questions about their hit tools as well. The Brewers are ready to compete right now and for the next several seasons, while Miami is only in the beginning phase of what looks like a lengthy rebuild. Ultimately this deal for a proven star on a cheap, long-term contract for four risky prospects with high ceilings looks like it will help both teams move closer to their goals for 2018 and beyond.