Perhaps no team in baseball needed their prospects to take a jump than the Milwaukee Brewers. Universally ranked as one of the bottom two systems in all of the Major Leagues; the Brewers lacked not only in top notch, game changing type prospects, but also in the overall depth of their farm system. Most anybody who was even worthy of looking at was in A-Ball or lower and too far away to get a clear read on.
While I am not ready to claim the Brewers as one of the top farm systems in baseball, I do believe that the farm system as a whole has taken a big leap forward. Doug Melvin has provided a blueprint for all the various ways that an organization can acquire young, controllable talent. The additions of Jacob Gatewood, Kodi Medeiros and Monte Harrison in the 2014 First Year Player Draft gave the Brewers blue chip, toolsy prospects at premium positions and still only 18 years old.
Melvin also used more unorthodox methods to acquire young talent with a very high ceiling. By taking Wei-Chung Wang from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule Five draft and storing him on the 25-man roster through July, Melvin acquired a left-handed starting pitching option for pennies on the dollar of what a prospect of his caliber would normally cost. Although the roster spot that Wang used up caused a ton of controversy, the damage to the Brewers was minimal and the team was in first place for all of his tenure on the major league roster.
The Brewers also got involved in the high spending world of International Free Agency, when they inked July 2nd Dominican standout Gilbert Lara to a record setting $3.2 million deal. At just 16 years old it is a little early to say where Lara will find a home in his career, but the young Dominican was one of the top power hitting prospects available in the July 2nd signing period. By maximizing his options for acquiring talent, Melvin and the Brewers front office were able to bring five players, including two shortstops, a center fielder and two left-handed pitchers that will be among the Brewers top 10 or 15 prospects in the coming off-season.
Acquiring these five players would go a long way on its own towards turning the farm system around, but the Brewers have the fortune of mixing these acquisitions in with a number of players who are coming into their own as prospects. The most obvious case is Jimmy Nelson. Already in the majors to stay, Nelson broke out with a huge first half in Triple-A Nashville. The big right hander absolutely forced his way into the starting rotation by being the most dominant pitcher in all of Minor League Baseball (MILB).
Right behind Nelson on the scale of importance are the pair of Orlando Arcia and Tyrone Taylor who are both in High-A Brevard County at just 20-years-old. Brevard County is a part of the Florida State League which is known as one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in all of MILB. Mix that in with the fact that Taylor and Arcia are both well below the average age of 22.6 and any offensive struggles these two might face would be completely justified. Instead both players have absolutely thrived.
Arcia, a defensive first shortstop, has put together a triple slash line of .279/.334/.385 in 105 games. He has 33 total extra base hits and has managed to keep his strike out rate down at 12.1% while keeping his walk rate at a respectable 7.1%. Arcia’s best trait is his impressive acumen for the game of baseball. It is not really a quality you can quantify, but as Jason Park’s of Baseball Prospectus called it a season ago, the “it” factor is there. Arcia also had the disadvantage of missing an entire season of development time in 2012 due to an ankle injury. This kid has fought through a lot and keeps coming out even better, he may just be my number one for the Brewers this off-season.
Taylor is a centerfielder who has given no indication he will need to be moved. More impressively is the way he has hit in his first two full season. This year in the FSL, Taylor leads the league in doubles with 36 and total extra-base hits with 45. Among those 45 extra-base hits are just six home runs, but don’t let that fool you in to thinking he cannot develop more home run power. Although it is important to watch and see what kind of doubles a hitter is getting, I think that doubles and total extra-base hits in the lower levels are a strong indicator of the way a player’s power will develop. With 15-20 home run potential as a centerfielder, Taylor has turned himself into a legit prospect and will be atop many Brewers’ rankings this off-season.
Clint Coulter is another Brewers prospect having an absolute breakout season with the bat. At Low-A Wisconsin Coulter leads the Midwest League in OPS, second in home runs, on-base percentage, walks and slugging percentage. His approach at the plate is too advanced for the Low-A level, he patiently waits out the pitcher looking for the exact pitch he wants to drive. With this approach comes a high amount of strikeouts and walks, but his power is great enough to make this a legit weapon to get him to the big leagues. Coulter in my opinion cannot remain at catcher unless significant upgrades are made. I do not doubt that his bat will force him to move out of the position sooner rather than later.
Besides Nelson, the team has had success with a handful of pitchers. The younger, higher upside guys Devin Williams and Jorge Lopez have had their ups and downs this year, but are progressing in a way that allows a lot of optimism. Williams, despite an ERA over five in the Rookie Ball Pioneer League, has shown progression from a season ago. The Brewers have stressed being aggressive in the zone and limiting free passes to their minor league pitchers. Williams has seen his walks go down from 5.5 per nine innings to 3.04 this season. This has also come while maintaining nearly a strikeout per inning average. The ERA and WHIP and other stats may not look pretty, but the Pioneer League is a launching pad with a lot of college aged hitters, so for 19-year-old Williams there are a lot of positives to take from his numbers.
Lopez has battled some inconsistencies this year, but has come a far ways from his 2013 season in Low-A Wisconsin. Lopez has used the attacking the strike zone method this year and has seen his strikeout rate increase from 17.9% to 19.1% while his walk rate has decreased from 3.69 to 2.82%. Just 21-years-old, Lopez has a plus curveball that mixes well with his fastball. His changeup right now is a work in progress, it features the arm side movement that a right handed pitcher wants from the pitch, but it is coming it too hard in comparison to his fastball. The development of this pitch could be the difference between Lopez being looked at as a starter or a reliever, which of course is huge for his prospect status.
College drafted arms Taylor Williams and Tyler Wagner are pitchers that in the past couple of years might have been looked at as the best the Brewers have to offer, but with the increase in talent they are more properly rated in the 10-15 range. Both players have dominated their levels with a fastball, breaking ball mix. They are both 23 years of age and just recently became teammates at Brevard County. At some point in 2015, the two will make the jump to Double-A and the real test for their prospect status will begin.
This list is promising news for a farm system that many claimed to be desolate in the not too distant past. While none of these players might turn into perennial All-Stars there are a number of major league regulars among them. These guys are before we get to names like Taylor Jungmann, Jed Bradley, David Goforth, Yadiel Rivera and more who all possess at least one major league caliber skill if not more. The rebuild is far from complete, but Melvin and Co. are showing an ability to go get high end minor league talent while maintaining a first place parent club.