The MLB regular season is already more than a week old, but yesterday brought a second Opening Day for prospect nuts such as myself. The minor league regular season kicked off yesterday, giving us even more baseball action to follow along with on a day-to-day basis. Milwaukee’s farm system took a hit this past offseason with the Christian Yelich trade, but the club still boasts an enviable amount of prospect depth at every affiliate level. While the rosters for the Class-AAA Sky Sox (five of BP’s top-20 prospects) and Class-AA Shuckers (six of the top-20) might jump off the page, there is a compelling affiliate right here in Wisconsin, about 90 minutes north of Milwaukee.
The Timber Rattlers began their 2018 season with a 4-3 loss to in-state rival Beloit in extra innings last night, but that shouldn’t take away anything from the performance of Opening Day starter Bowden Francis. The soon-to-be 22 year old right hander tossed 5.0 solid innings with six hits and only two earned runs allowed, striking out three while walking none. It was the full-season debut for the 2017 draftee, and he’ll be one of four members of his draft class that form Wisconsin’s starting rotation in the season’s early going, along with former international free agent Nelson Hernandez:
.@TimberRattlers starting rotation order to kick-off the season:
— Brewers Farm (@BrewersFarm) April 4, 2018
Francis (7th round) was the highest selection of the group of hurlers that includes Alec Bettinger (10th round), Dylan File (21st round), and Christian Taugner (37th round). The Chipola College product made the fewest appearances out of that group last season, however, finding his way into only 10.0 innings in the Arizona League. He allowed 17 hits and nine runs in his short AZL stint last season, but did put together an encouraging 13:3 K/BB ratio. A jump in velocity helped bump up Francis’s stock prior to last summer’s draft. According to Francis, in an interview with Brad Ford at Brew Crew Ball, he regularly throws in the 90-93 MPH range with his sinking fastball and will also mix in a slider and changeup. Baseball America (BA) projects Francis as a future bullpen arm, but he has the ideal build (6’5″, 240 lbs) to remain a starter and the Brewers figure to give him every opportunity to continue down that path, so long as he’s successful in his role.
Alec Bettinger was a senior sign for Milwaukee last summer out of Virginia, where he pitched mostly as a multi-inning bullpen arm. He was assigned to rookie-level Helena in the Pioneer League upon signing and wound up finishing third on the squad with 50.7 innings pitched across 15 appearances (9 starts). The circuit is heavily tilted towards offense, so Bettinger’s 4.97 ERA was actually quite a bit better than the league’s average ERA of 5.65. Bettinger was able to keep the ball on the ground at a 53 percent rate and he allowed only one home run, finishing 2nd in the league in HR/9 among those with at least 40 innings pitched. That helped him produce a terrific 84 DRA- despite a more middling 39:23 K/BB ratio. According to BA, “Bettinger shows a low 90s fastball and hits his spots” and the Baseball Draft Report describes a “potent sinker/slider mix.” His future could come as a ground ball specialist out of the bullpen.
One of Bettinger’s teammates in Helena was Dylan File, a righty who was selected from small Dixie State College in the 21st round, the second-highest player ever selected from the school. He left as the college’s all-time leader in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts, and continued that success into the Pioneer League. Using a fastball that regular ramps up to 94+ MPH, File posted a 4.02 ERA across 47.1 innings with Helena last season. Only three pitchers on the circuit pitched as many as 40 innings and had a lower earned run average than the 21 year old, who compiled 37 strikeouts against only 13 walks. That all added up to a better-than-average DRA- of 90 across his 12 appearances (7 starts) and he’ll get the opportunity to build on that success in the rotation for Appleton.
Finally, the most interesting arm in the group may be 22 year old Christian Taugner, a native of Trevor, Wisconsin. The 37th rounder out of Brown University spent last summer in the AZL, and was flat out dominant. It’s not unusual for a more advanced collegiate arm to perform well in the complex league in Arizona, but even with that in mind Taugner’s numbers jump off the page. He tossed 45.2 innings for the baby Brewers, whiffing 50 batters while yielding only eight free passes. His ERA may have read 3.74, but by Deserved Run Average, there may not have been a better pitcher on the circuit. Taugner posted a 1.87 DRA, which translates to a ridiculous 33 DRA-. Scouting reports on Taugner are difficult to come by, but according to Bobby DeMuro of Baseball Census, the 6’3″ right hander generates “great downward plane” and has a feel for a slider.
The Brewers have seen a couple of later-round collegiate draft picks exceed expectations in recent years. Brandon Woodruff (11th round, 2014) is in the big league rotation right now, Jon Perrin (AAA, 27th round, 2015) and Quintin Torres-Costa (AA, 35th round, 2015) both earned spots in the Arizona Fall League last autumn, Corbin Burnes (4th round, 2016) is considered one of baseball’s top prospects right now, and Thomas Jankins (13th round, 2016) skipped Class-A Advanced to be placed in the rotation this spring. So, which one of the four collegiate arms in Appleton’s rotation will be able to follow in those footsteps and take a major step forward in 2018?