Over the next week, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and Brewers-hopefuls will trickle into Maryvale and begin their preparations for what should be an exciting season in the NL Central. Among them: Erstwhile top prospect Jorge López, who recently dominated Winter League ball for the third consecutive year.
López has become something of a forgotten man among Brewers prospects since his 2015 breakout in Biloxi; a follow-up campaign consisting of a 6.65 DRA and 6.2 walks per nine innings can do that to a pitching prospect. The good news is that he retains possession of a starting pitcher’s arsenal. He features a plus fastball that can bump all the way up to 97 mph and a beauty of a low-80s curveball that’s still solidly above-average despite taking a beating in 2016 at Colorado Springs. His changeup lags behind those offerings, but it’s still an average pitch that occasionally looks even better. At the least, it’s plenty effective in keeping opposite-handed hitters off balance. These are the things that #3 starters are made of.
The bad news with López, and with that changeup, in particular, is command. Throughout his career, he’s struggled to keep his walks around three per nine innings, and has endured prolonged slumps where his ability to locate secondary pitches has abandoned him. This points more to mid-innings reliever than mid-rotation stud.
In the right farm system, and with a patient big league club, it’s not hard to imagine López splitting the difference and emerging as a competent, if streaky, back-end workhorse. But the Brewers intend to compete for playoff spot this year in the weakened National League, and López’s path to playing time likely lies through the ‘pen.
The Brewers, no dummies, took the 2017 season as an opportunity to ease López into what could be a permanent bullpen role. After battling through 13 inconsistent starts for the Shuckers in the first half of the season, López made 25 straight appearances in relief, never pitching more than three innings in an outing. These relief outings total 26 if you count his lone 2017 appearance as a major leaguer.
The move appears to have paid off. López ran a 2.43 ERA in the second half, allowing 28 hits and just 10 walks over his 37 innings of relief work. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that this was just another step in his development as a prospect. Former starters generally need some practice before they become good relievers. But if that’s the case, it should also be the last step in his development as a prospect. In this case, it’s time for López to develop as a major leaguer. Here’s what he’s done over the last three years in Biloxi, including his breakout 2015:
That’s very good, very stable performance. So never mind that the Brewers can send López back to the minor leagues to toil away in the Southern League for his fourth consecutive season, there’s simply no point in doing so. All prospects must eventually sink or swim at the big league level. If he’s to be kept away from Colorado Springs, it’s clear that that time has come for López.
But finding a path to big league innings will be difficult this season. López is already buried in the depth chart behind arms like Corey Knebel, Jacob Barnes, Josh Hader, Matt Albers, Boone Logan, and Jeremy Jeffress. At least one of Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Aaron Wilkerson, and Yovani Gallardo will likely open the year in the ‘pen, as well. That leaves López competing with folks like Oliver Drake, JJ Hoover, Taylor Williams, and Tyler Webb for somewhere between zero and one spots on the active roster.
López’s development has been crooked, to say the least. He was the first top pitching prospect to reach AAA after the Brewers affiliated with the Sky Sox. His signature pitch is a breaking ball, and breakers tend to flatten out and suffer in higher altitude. Compare his path with that of Brandon Woodruff’s one year later: both lit up the Southern League, and both struggled at AAA. López made 16 ugly starts for Colorado Springs in 2016, lost his confidence, and was demoted back to Biloxi; Woodruff made 16 less-ugly starts for the Sky Sox in 2017, gritted his teeth and kept his chin up, and was rewarded with a call-up to Milwaukee. That’s not to ding López’s talent, or his makeup. The human element is always a wild card, and some prospects are better equipped to handle adversity than others. Pair his struggles at altitude with off-field hardships concerning the health of his infant son, and it isn’t difficult to understand why López suffered. (He and Woodruff, incidentally, are exactly the same age.)
Although the prospect of a fourth year at the same level is bleak, making the Opening Day roster isn’t the only way to accrue significant big league service time. Should López not make that initial cut, he need only wait for someone to falter or get hurt. López, with his spot on the 40-man and pair of dangerous offerings, should be high on the list of names to call when that happens. He could be the beneficiary of a change-of-scenery trade, perhaps as part of a package for a controllable starter from a rebuilding team, for example. That way, he could continue his development in a low-pressure environment and maybe even make a run at becoming a controllable starter himself. One way or another, he deserves major league time in 2018. It’s beyond time for a big league club to see what’s in his arm.