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Saturday, June 9, 2018

2018 Brewers Prospects

It's beyond embarrassing that I haven't written one of these in quite some time, but there's no more time to waste: let's take a look at the current Brewers system rankings.

I compiled this list from Baseball Reference prior to the MLB Draft, and since signings will not be complete for quite some time, I'm punting on including draft rankings in this midseason update. Following last year's custom, I am extracting MLB players from the prospect rankings because even with any particular role concerns or shortcomings, a rookie that has worked in the MLB has quite a different assessment than a player that has yet to make the leap. After all, a true MLB floor, even "last guy in the bullpen" or "Triple-A Colorado Springs shuttle team," is much different than placing a "could be a 4th OF" floor on a prospect at Class-A Advanced Carolina.

Sharing Link: Prospect List and Risk Approximations

Additionally, since the Brewers system is in the nascent stages of developing a lot of low minors talent, I've divided the list into "Top Prospects," "Role Sleepers," and "Depth Roles." I believe there is enough information and risk asymmetry between prospects like Keston Hiura, Tristen Lutz, and Dustin Houle that they deserve to be assessed on their own merits. Really, a ranking is pointless. But, if it matters to you, this is probably how I'd do it (excluding current MLB guys):

Rank 2018 Brewers Comprehensive Prospects Highest Role
1 Corbin Burnes #2 SP
2 Corey Ray All-around CF
3 Keston Hiura Star 2B
4 Devin Williams #2 SP
5 Mario Feliciano All-around C
6 Luis Ortiz #2 SP
7 Tristen Lutz First Division RF
8 Mauricio Dubon Glove-first 2B
9 Marcos Diplan Ongoing SP Development / Elite Reliever (#FreeDiplan)
10 Zack Brown Power pitcher projection play
11 Trey Supak Brewers "systemic starter"
12 Trent Grisham Top order CF / Quality 4th OF
13 Nathan Kirby #3 SP / Quality reliever

If you'd like MLB guys who are currently rookies, I'd place Jacob Nottingham (full package C if the power bat comes around, quality half-time C otherwise) and Brandon Woodruff (full arsenal SP) as the long-development curve top MLB prospects. If there's one MLB guy I'm dead wrong on, it's probably Freddy Peralta. I think one could make a great argument that he's the best prospect among the MLB guys.


Compared to last year's prospect list, this one is a lot less fun in terms of recognizing (relatively) solid impact ceilings at the top of the system, but it's a great proving ground for looking deep into a system and understanding how roles can play out over a decade of development. After the trade involving Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto to Miami (to receive Christian Yelich, which may even have been a bargain return), as well as graduations involving Orlando Arcia, Josh Hader, and others, and the back-pedaling of some of the top prospects of the system in 2017, the Brewers do not have as strong a system in 2018. Baseball Prospectus ranked the system in the bottom of the middle tier of the MLB, which reflects the trades, graduations, and general lack of impact prospects.

However, I'm not content to simply stop there, because what is clear about the Brewers system is that they seem to have an abundance of high floor, potential MLB types in the advanced minor league ranks, as well as a number of extreme risk prospects in the low ranks. In the former camp, I'm thinking of everyone from Freddy Peralta and Troy Stokes to Jake Gatewood, Thomas Jankins, and even Quintin Torres-Costa, to name a few. Nationally, I do not think many of these prospects would gain notoriety in terms of rank, but Milwaukee's player development and MLB system has shown an ability to extract fantastic value from high floor guys (here I'm thinking of Zach Davies, Hernan Perez, and Jesus Aguilar, to name a few). Freddy Peralta is the best prospect of this bunch, and probably a legitimate Top 10 prospect in the system, but even with that ranking in mind his role is extremely difficult to pin down. NEIFI Analytics said it better than I could in their recent analysis of his stuff and deceptive delivery.


Lately, I've been obsessed with the time horizons of MLB player development. This is spurred in part by Keston Hiura prospect hype, which is leading me back to reports of previous "can't miss" impact, advanced college bats in the Brewers system. Here I'm thinking of Matt LaPorta, who was scouted as a top prospect in a relatively solid system a decade ago, hailed as a power-discipline bat with some questions about defensive position. Hiura is not LaPorta, for many reasons; Hiura is not a power prospect, and I'd argue to date he's not necessarily recognized as a discipline-first bat, either. Hiura is a hit-tool-first prospect, and the rest will have to follow on his ability to reach power due to his plate approach, bat speed, and use of the hit tool throughout the strike zone. Could power come for Hiura? Absolutely, I would not be surprised if some of that doubles power morphs into home run power with refinement and development at the MLB level; I'd cite Jose Altuve as evidence that even smaller stature players can reorient their approach with MLB refinement and turn a hit tool into a powerful hit tool.

The problem with Hiura is his positional risk, as well as his elbow injury, and this has kept me from placing him at the very top of the Brewers system, for if Hiura becomes a LF, there are instantly questions about his bat (placing a premium on the development of that power), as well as his path to Milwaukee (where does Hiura crack the outfield in Milwaukee? Is a Hiura-Cain-Yelich outfield, left-to-right, suitable for Milwaukee's current fielding-first system?). If Hiura becomes a DH, there are obvious league-based barriers to entry for the prospect, making Hiura quite a rare advanced prospect with a relatively clear ceiling (perhaps the clearest ceiling in the system and a good route to get there!) as well as an extreme drop off in terms of role risk. Hiura is not an "impact-bat first 2B, but potential utility infield option" Overall Future Potential / realistic risk role type prospect; his value comes from 2B-or-bust. What's interesting is that with Corey Ray potentially finding a mechanical adjustment that suits his tools, as well as Corbin Burnes's solid rotational floor, there are very good arguments to be made that some order of Ray and Burnes are #1/#2 in the system, with Hiura as #3 with an asterisk.


Looking back at 2007-2008 scouting reports and system rankings for the Brewers helped me to reframe questions and frameworks about development at the MLB level. It is rather clear that player development cycles should not simply include a potential MLB ceiling, as well as a realistic floor with some risk assessment of reaching either of those levels. Here I have Lorenzo Cain in mind, who was a Top 10 organizational prospect in Milwaukee a decade ago, with quite a chasm between his ultimate MLB role (elite all-around center fielder) and his question marks (could he be a 4th outfielder if the CF defense did not stick?). When the Brewers included Cain in the Zack Greinke trade package, the outfielder was no sure bet to even perform as a starting CF in the MLB, let alone an elite CF, and it took Cain years of development and opportunities to reach his ultimate role.

The Cain development problem, and the decade-long MLB development cycle, is helping me to assess prospects ranking from Tristen Lutz and Jorge Lopez to Demi Orimoloye and Caden Lemons. Keep in mind that years ago, Baseball Prospectus scouted Jorge Lopez as a potential star pitcher who nevertheless might take a decade to reach that level; that places Lopez only about halfway through his development horizon for his ultimate MLB role. Now, it's tough to look at Jorge Lopez, who is a serviceable organizational depth arm that could potentially develop into an impact reliever with his fastball-curveball combo, and say that he could potentially become a star MLB pitcher. But here is a question about opportunity, as well: has Lopez reached an opportunity plateau in Milwaukee? Will the righty ever have a chance to become a starter in Milwaukee's system after losing his stuff / mechanics at Triple-A Colorado Springs? Or is this simply part of his climb back to a rotation role in Milwaukee?

With this series of questions in mind, Adrian Houser is perhaps the most interesting prospect in the Brewers system right now. Houser's ascent to the MLB after Tommy John elbow surgery recovery has been nothing short of remarkable, and as an MLB depth reliever Houser already has quite a solid floor. But the righty is also displaying multiple off-speed pitches at the MLB level, as well as a wicked fastball, which has produced some rumblings that the Brewers might develop Houser as a rotational arm if possible. In Milwaukee's short-starter set up currently exhibited by Brent Suter and Junior Guerra, Houser's stuff could potentially play-up as a starter, and he could attain an elusive role that may not exist anywhere else: "true classical middle rotation arm that becomes a runs prevented monster in Milwaukee."

Additionally, while researching recent features at Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, the primary concern coming to mind is, "Can a two-pitch starter work in Milwaukee?" I don't necessarily mean a two-pitch starter like Ben Sheets was, but rather a two-pitch starter that might grade lower on at least one of their pitches, or command, than Sheets. The reason this question is important is that the current Brewers pitching system under Craig Counsell's management requires basically 16 outs and two full times through the batting order as a starting pitcher. To my mind, this clouds the grades of potential prospects; if a prospect like Trey Supak never gets the third pitch down, but has the stamina and command of his first two pitches, could his stuff play "up" given the requirement for shorter starts? If starting pitchers are no longer expected to work three times through a batting order, their roles arguably change and therefore their qualifications necessary to meet a role can change. There are arguably a handful of pitchers in the Brewers system that this affects: Peralta, Supak, Jankins, Jon Perrin, and Marcos Diplan immediately come to mind. It is curious to think how another MLB club would value some of these prospects in terms of trade requests or other acquisition costs, and how the Brewers value these pitchers within their own system; in each case I'd argue that these arms could see their roles potentially "play up" in the current Brewers organization.

Finally, if one is using extremely long development windows to assess MLB prospects, the role grade of someone like Brett Phillips becomes quite murky. Phillips is an intriguing prospect because theoretically his defense is so good that he'll probably stick around in the MLB as a bench outfielder long after his bat fades. But he's entirely too young to surrender the bat, and there are many different ranges of roles that Phillips could fill. Within the span of a decade, could he find an MLB team that gives him a chance as a starter? If Phillips's bat comes around, he might not necessarily reach a .250 AVG, but his power and speed would be the tools to watch; with glove and arm, that's a profile that will play. On the other hand, Phillips could p-l-a-y as a "true" 4th outfielder, the next guy behind starters, still managing to grab 400 plate appearances at most. The defense and power are good enough here that Phillips could easily match Keon Broxton's WARP (as one model), although the underlying elements would be different (mostly, better glove and arm, maybe not as much of an impact bat at best). The trouble is, if Phillips has yet to find time on this Brewers squad, a squad that could really use his left-handed bat and bench strengths, one wonders where he will land in any reorganization of the club's outfield / first base surplus (or, roster jam). With this in mind, Phillips may be the current Brewers prospect that I am most convinced will have a chance to be a star elsewhere.