The Milwaukee Brewers loudly announced a change in organizational intent from ‘rebuilding’ to ‘competing’ this past offseason, and their once vaunted farm system understandably took a hit in the process. On the evening of January 25th, David Stearns and company sent three of their top six prospects from Baseball Prospectus’ top-10 list – #1 Lewis Brinson, #3 Monte Harrison, and #6 Isan Diaz, along with a fourth piece in young righty Jordan Yamamoto – to the Marlins in exchange for Christian Yelich. With that much potential impact talent getting shipped out in one fell swoop, it’s not surprising that Milwaukee’s minor league system has fallen out of the top-10 in organizational rankings in the eyes of outlets from Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America to MLB Pipeline.
At this point it doesn’t seem likely that Slingin’ Stearns will be doing any deals this summer that involve shipping out an MLB player for prospects, so he won’t be able to replenish his talent pipeline that way anytime soon. The amateur draft is held annually every June and the Brewers figure to be able to pick up some promising talent through that avenue. However, what would go the furthest to re-establishing a healthy farm system in the eyes of scouts would be the improvement of some of the prospects that are already in the system.
With that in mind, there is a trio of largely forgotten minor league hurlers that fans ought to consider keeping an eye on in 2018. According to Todd Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel, three formerly well-regarded pitching prospects should be ready to return to action for the upcoming season: Nathan Kirby, Daniel Missaki, and Devin Williams. Each individual is attempting to get back to full strength after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Kirby is probably the most recognizable name of the bunch, as it was just two drafts ago that the now-24 year old southpaw was Milwaukee’s selection as a supplemental first-rounder (#40 overall). After leading Virginia to a College World Series title, a post-draft physical revealed some elbow issues and caused Milwaukee to re-negotiate Kirby’s bonus, slashing some $300,000 off of their originally agreed upon total. Kirby would make just five appearances and toss 12.7 innings in Class A before being diagnosed with a damaged UCL that required him to go under the knife. That cost him all of the 2016 season. Just when it looked like he was nearing a return to the mound last year, Kirby was dealt another blow with a diagnosis of ulnar neuritits, an inflammation of the ulnar nerve that causes numbness or weakness in the hand. Because of the second procedure, Kirby was unable to throw a competitive pitch in 2017.
It’s been two years since Kirby has seen game action, but when he was last healthy Baseball America described his repetoire as “a fastball that sits in the low 90s with good life, an above-average changeup and the late-breaking slider in the mid-80s he used to put away Vandy. …His combination of athleticism and stuff should allow him to move quickly once healthy and make it to the majors as a mid-rotation starter.” Baseball Prospectus echoed this sentiment while listing the lefty as a “just interesting” prospect entering 2016, noting, “When he is healthy he’ll show two plus pitches in his fastball and slider, and there’s the makings of a solid-average change to boot. Add in feel for pitching and you get a solid mid-rotation starter, but we’ll have to see how he responds to the surgery before you can start placing him in the Brewers rotation.” Kirby is under no restrictions this spring as he tries to get his professional career going in earnest in 2018.
Like Kirby, Daniel Missaki has also not thrown a competitive pitch in more than two seasons. Missaki was one of the three teenage arms that Seattle parted with during the 2015-16 offseason in order to acquire Adam Lind, and at the time of the deal he was probably the most well-known of that group. The right-hander was the youngest player to appear in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, pitching for Brazil as a 17 year old. He posted a 2.76 ERA and 88 DRA- in 11 starts in the Appalachian League in 2014 and was in the process of an excellent full-season debut in 2015 before a UCL injury and subsequent Tommy John stopped him in his tracks. Missaki was still recovering from the procedure when the Brewers picked him up, but he had a setback during the rehab process that required him to undergo a second ligament replacement procedure.
Missaki missed all of 2016 and 2017, but this spring is nearing a return to throwing. When last healthy as a 19-year old, Missaki didn’t feature any plus offerings according to BA, but his repetoire played up due to his ability to command the baseball and pound the zone with strikes. The upcoming season will be only Missaki’s age-22 campaign, giving him plenty of time to get his development back on track once fully healthy.
Finally, Devin Williams was considered one of the org’s top pitching prospects during the pre-rebuild days back when the farm system was viewed as one of the weakest in the league. That shouldn’t be much of a knock against Williams, though, who actually posted some pretty promising results after getting selected in the 2nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Williams owns a career 3.79 ERA in 287.1 minor league innings, and had just made it to Class-A Advanced for the first time in his age-21 season in 2016 before going down with an elbow injury in Spring Training last season. He missed all of the 2017 campaign but his rehab process has progressed to the point where he is currently throwing off a flat mound.
Former BP scout James Fisher caught a glimpse of Williams during the final weeks of the 2016 season and came away with a positive impression. He gave the righty a 55 OFP and likely grade of 50, saying he could be a #4 starter or high-impact reliever at the game’s highest level. When last healthy, Williams was throwing a plus fastball in the 91-94 MPH range along with a plus changeup and a slider that projected as average. Williams has been praised for repeating his delivery well and generating velocity without much effort, but his command has been an issue as he’s struggled to maintain a consistent release point. Still only 23, Williams should have plenty of opportunity to reclaim his spot on the top prospects lists.
Returning from Tommy John surgery is no sure thing, but it’s no longer considered to be the death knell that it was a couple of decades ago. If even one of Nathan Kirby, Daniel Missaki, or Devin Williams can find their pre-surgery form, it would go a long way towards re-establishing Milwaukee’s collection of minor league talent as one that is in the upper-tier of Major League Baseball.