Milwaukee Brewers: Why It Is Fine To Be Thin On The Farm

The Milwaukee Brewers are currently the only major league club without a representative in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects for 2020.  They also have no prospects on Baseball America’s Top-100 prospect list or Baseball Prospectus’ equivalent list.

One would imagine this presents a major concern for the future of the organisation, except, I am not overly concerned.

When interviewed on Milwaukee’s Tailgate Brewers Podcast, Baseball Prospectus’ Jeffrey Paternostro offered some conciliation when he said that Brice Turang was the next shortstop on their list outside of the top-100.  The 20-year-old is known to be patient at the plate and has great fielding ability, but he has a real lack of power. Turang slashed a rather mediocre .200/.338/.276 in the second half of 2019 after being promoted to Milwaukee’s Class A-Advanced affiliate Carolina Mudcats.

Beyond Turang, there is not much to get too excited about, with no one expected to trouble the majors in the near future. Tristen Lutz is a well-regarded, powerful outfielder with a high strikeout rate. Mario Feliciano is a Puerto Rican catcher with great potential behind the plate; he slashed .273/.324/.477 with Carolina in 2019 and clobbered the most home runs in the Carolina League that year with 19 dingers.

There are a few interesting pitching prospects in Trey Supak and Ethan Small. Supak was acquired from Pittsburgh in 2015 and was named the Double-A Southern League’s Pitcher of the Year in 2019. He had a record of 11-4 with a 2.20 ERA and league-best 0.87 WHIP; it will be interesting to see if he can carry that form onto Triple-A in 2020. Small was the Brewers 2019 first-round draft pick (28th overall) and showed good command and initiative with Class-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

There are two guys who have an outside shot at seeing major league action in 2020, even if it is only for the briefest cups of coffee.

Corey Ray is a former top-100 prospect, reaching as high as 30 on MLB Pipeline, 41 on Baseball Prospectus top-100 and 42 on Baseball America top-100.  The centre fielder was Milwaukee’s first-round draft pick in 2016, going fifth overall, but has struggled with injuries and general confidence issues. His 2019 season in Triple-A featured a .188/.261/.329 line, with only seven homers and a worrying 89 strikeouts. He has played well in spring training so far, however, and could be viewed as a potential call-up should there be an injury crisis in the Brewers’ outfield.

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Drew Rasmussen is perhaps the best bet to be utilised in the majors in 2020. The 2018 sixth-round pick has been through two Tommy John surgeries but showed dominant stuff in 2019 when accruing 96 strikeouts in 74 innings across two levels. Given manager Craig Counsell’s tendency to shuttle bullpen arms at will, it is entirely possible that Rasmussen could be given a shot at some point if a funk encompasses the relief crew.

There are mitigating circumstances that go some way to explaining why the Brewers farm system is so light.

There were three promotions to the big-league team in 2019, weakening farm system depth. The most notable of the three was second baseman Keston Hiura, who was the Brewers’ first-round pick in the 2017 draft, going ninth overall. Hiura was called up in May 2019 to help the Brewers through some infield injuries and ended up making 84 appearances, becoming a mainstay in the team. While his fielding skills need work, he can already be considered an elite hitter, evidenced by his .938 OPS, 139 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR in 2019.

Trent Grisham was called up on 1 August and became an everyday player after Christian Yelich dislocated his knee on the road against Miami in September. The outfielder was a solid presence in the Brewers lineup right up until the unfortunate fielding error that allowed the Washington Nationals to score three runs and take the lead in the National League Wild Card Game.

The third notable call-up was Mauricio Dubon, who made history as the first-ever Honduran to play in the majors. Dubon only made two pinch-hitting appearances for the Brewers before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Drew Pomeranz and Ray Black.

All three of these players were considered great prospects in the past and went on to make positive impacts in the major league. Hiura, in particular, has the potential to serve as a power bat in the Brewers lineup for years to come.

Grisham was traded in the offseason along with starting pitcher Zach Davies to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Eric Lauer and middle infielder Luis Urias, who was as high as 16th on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 before becoming a permanent big league fixture.

By dealing Dubon to the Giants, Milwaukee acquired a multi-inning reliever in Pomeranz who absolutely dominated in the Brewers’ run to the playoffs. Pomeranz’s 188 ERA+, 2.68 FIP and 0.91 WHIP in two months with Milwaukee helped him land a four-year, $34 million contract with the San Diego Padres.

It is unfortunate that it took losing a great prospect in Dubon for what was ultimately a two-month rental, but Pomeranz’s ability to control late-inning situations was a key reason the Brewers made it to their second successive postseason. Had it not been for one unlucky bounce in Washington, the Brewers would have gone into the National League Division Series and then who knows what might have happened. That particular roll of the dice, for me, was worth it.

It is that sort of dealing from Brewers’ general manager David Stearns that leads me to think that the Brewers having the worst farm system in all of Major League Baseball is not really a huge issue.

The Brewers have had to trade away top prospects to land talent that have contributed positively to the big league club’s performance. The most obvious example of this is the trade that brought Christian Yelich to Milwaukee.

The Brewers dealt four prospects to the Miami Marlins to land Yelich: Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison and Jordan Yamamoto, who all, with the exception of Harrison, were on Miami’s big-league roster through 2019. However, Yelich’s contribution to Milwaukee has been beyond all expectations. In 2018 the outfielder put together a historic campaign in his maiden season in Milwaukee to win his first National League MVP title. Yelich was in the running for the same award in 2019 before his aforementioned season-ending injury.

I believe that the Milwaukee front office’s decision to prioritise current performance over grooming future potential has paid off. The last two seasons will live long in the memories of Milwaukee fans who have enjoyed back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in their history.

With elite talents like Yelich and Hiura, supplemented by quality veterans in Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun, the Brewers will continue to strike while the iron is hot, prioritising the short-term over the future. Things move so fast in baseball, and in David Stearns, the Brewers have a general manager who seeks to stay ahead of the curve, fine-tuning the roster to ensure immediate results.

Grooming talent is no guarantee of success, but playing the market and acquiring proven big-league pedigree at the right price is a formula that has achieved results.

All stats are from Fangraphs unless otherwise stated

Matthew Robinson is covering the Milwaukee Brewers during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @tacticsmatt

Make sure you subscribe to the Bat Flips and Nerds podcasts and follow us on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds. News, views and interviews, all with a British twist.

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