Minor League baseball is underway, and the Brewers brought a strong system into 2018 in spite of recent trades and graduations. Expect plenty more graduations this year, and maybe some trades, too. What stands out about this Milwaukee system is its depth. There are plenty of talented players waiting to rise up and claim their spots on organizational top prospect lists to come. Below, I run down a few of the most compelling players at each full-season level, from big names to forgotten names to names that could be big or forgotten by this time next year.
AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox
Who to Watch: The pitchers. Good news for those who distrust the Brewers’ current starting rotation: Help is on the way! The bad news is that said help is pitching at elevation, in conditions which have caused more than one pitcher to lose their feel for a breaking ball. Still, the fact that the organization has top prospects Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta awaiting a call in Colorado is in itself exciting. After coaxing Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader through limited reps at Colorado Springs last season, there’s a template in place that could have Burnes and Peralta each recording big league outs as soon as the middle of the year. Both have potential to flourish as mid-rotation starters, with Burnes possessing both a higher ceiling and floor. But Peralta is no slouch; he should at least have impact potential as a reliever, and could wind up as a bullpen ace if the starting rotation isn’t his long-term home.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Sky Sox pitching staff is its depth. Burnes and Peralta are the top two names, but Junior Guerra and Wade Miley will make big league starts this year, and Brandon Woodruff is due back in Milwaukee any minute. Meanwhile, Jorge López is back in Colorado Springs to exorcise some personal demons two years after a disastrous turn for the Sky Sox tanked his prospect stock. Even if his path to the big leagues now lies through the bullpen, there’s plenty of reason to believe in his arm. If the big league staff stumbles, the call-ups could come in thick and fast.
Honorable Mention: Jacob Nottingham has quietly improved behind the plate to the point that he should be able to handle a big league staff. Take a peek behind his uninspiring slash line for Biloxi last year (.209/.326/.369), and you’ll see that he was actually a hair above league average with the stick last year by advanced metrics like TAv and wRC+. If he can continue to produce at that offensive rate (he’s off to a good start through his first few games), there’s plenty of reason to think that he’ll at least be able to hold down a job as a big league backup as early as next year.
AA Biloxi Shuckers
Who to Watch: The outfield. Corey Ray and Trent Grisham are the most familiar names here, but Troy Stokes, Jr. turned the most heads last year, reaching AA for the first time and posting a strong .279 TAv through 153 plate appearances. Stokes is a 5’8” right-handed hitter with good speed and some surprising pop. He’ll need to work on his barrel control and cut back on popups to take the next step.
The extraordinarily patient Grisham will watch his share of pitches sale by (his 98 walks were second in the minors last year), but when he does swing he uses his whole body to whip the bat through the plate at incredible speed. The hit tool needs to progress, but he’s got an elite eye and heaps of potential.
Meanwhile, Corey Ray struck out ten times in his first twenty at-bats, but still flashes the tools that made him a fifth-overall draft pick in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Kodi Medeiros is probably headed for a relief role in the majors, but the Brewers will keep developing him as a starter as long as they can. His funky delivery and low arm slot are hell on same-sided batters, albeit less so for those with the platoon advantage. Medeiros still has that wipeout slider that turned heads in high school, and he’s finally learning how to locate it. With a little more consistency, he could shoot up the fast track and into the big league ‘pen.
A+ Carolina Mudcats
Who to Watch: Keston Hiura, obviously. He’s off to a slow start (1-15, 5 Ks in 16 plate appearances) but there’s little doubt that he’s going to hit…and hit and hit. Unless his elbow implodes and necessitates surgery, Hiura stands a strong chance to taste Biloxi by mid-summer. Most don’t expect him in the majors until late 2019 at the earliest, but blue-chip prospects have a knack for setting their own timelines as they climb the organizational rungs.
Honorable Mention: Left-handed hurler Nathan Kirby, whose elbow actually did implode a few years back, is healthy for the first time since 2015. Back in college, he wowed scouts with a nifty fastball and two strong secondary pitches. Now 24 years old, he’s rebuilding his arm strength in Carolina and making up for lost time. If it all clicks and Kirby stays healthy, he could vault himself back to top-prospect status in a hurry.
A- Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
Who to Watch: Tristen Lutz is going to hit a lot of home runs. The Brewers grabbed Lutz with the 34th overall pick last summer, and word is that they were considering him at number nine, too. He’s a Texan, just out of high school, and he tore through the rookie leagues last summer. The folks at FanGraphs tabbed Lutz as the #68 overall prospect entering the season thanks to his light-tower raw power and elite exit velocities. He could be a Corey Hart-type force in the heart of the lineup, with plenty of arm for right field.
Honorable Mention: Catchers KJ Harrison (third rounder in 2017) and Payton Henry (sixth rounder in 2016) are variations on the same theme. Both are good-hitting catchers with pop. They’re also both very raw receivers, and it’s conceivable that both could get pushed out from behind the dish to first base or possibly left field, where they’d need the bats to play in order to retain much value. But if even one of them makes some defensive strides without slipping on offense, the crop of young catchers on the farm will start to look very appealing.