With teams beginning to purge their 40-Man rosters in order to gain some wiggle-room for the impending off-season, the Brewers will likely begin to whittle theirs down as well. But unlike last season, the majority of the moves will come as internal shuffles prior to the Rule-5 Draft.
In the off-season of 2016, GM David Stearns overhauled the roster, totaling 20 brand-new players on the 40-Man roster. Among them, only three players were added in order to protect from the Rule-5 Draft: SS Orlando Arcia, RHP Jacob Barnes, and RHP Damien Magnifico. All of the Crew’s protected players found themselves reaching the majors at some point in 2016, with Barnes and Arcia becoming mainstays by the end of the year. No players were lost over the winter draft despite it going six rounds deep. But while the list of potentially-protected prospects was slim last season, there are a large amount of players who will run the risk of getting drafted in December. Pair that with the fact that only one of the current 40 players is a free agent (RHP Blaine Boyer), and that means there will have to be a number of players who will be forced off the list to protect the valuable assets who are now eligible for this December’s draft.
OF Lewis Brinson: Out of all the positional prospects, protecting Brinson should be an easy choice to make. Though the organization’s new top prospect’s (in terms of MLBPipeline.com) walk-rate (2.2%) and K-rate (22.6%) took a step back when he came to the organization, he owned a .382/.387/.618 slash line in 23 games for the Sky Sox. His raw power and discipline will have improve to hit his above-average ceiling, but there is no doubt that a team would select him if he went unprotected – especially with his solid defense and above-average speed in center-field.
LHP Josh Hader: Similarly to Brinson, the top pitching prospect will also be eligible for his first Rule-5 Draft. But unlike Brinson, Hader had a successful and complete enough 2016 track record (25 starts, 126 IP 3.29 ERA, 161-55 K-BB, 0.87 GB/FB ratio) to warrant a potential spot-start late in the season. While it’s unclear what he might turn into for the future, there’s no doubt that he could pitch in the majors right now in a bullpen role. Exposing him to Rule-5 waters will mean that a team is sure to select him early and keep him for good.
OF Brett Phillips: A tick down from the other two, Phillips’ numbers didn’t appear as healthy as the organization would have hoped for. However, he still managed to smack 16 home runs and have solid sabermetric numbers – seen in his a .340 wOBA and 113 wRC+. If he were protected, he probably wouldn’t hit the big leagues as soon as the other two (still hasn’t played at Triple-A level yet) but would enjoy the hitter-friendly confines of Colorado Springs. His numbers will surely jump next season, but will they be roughly the same as this past season? It’s certainly a risk the Brewers must take to protect a good prospect, as other teams would have much more to gain than lose in drafting him.
OF Ryan Cordell: One of the more unpredictable minor league players the Brewers own, the PTBNL in the Lucroy/Jeffress deal will also be eligible for the Rule-5 draft this season. The 6’4″ converted outfielder (originally a corner infielder) has shown promising adjustments in every step of his minor league career. Now entering his first year of eligibilty, he had a nice season for the Double-A Frisco Roughriders despite missing August and September with a high-ankle sprain. Cordell owned a .264/.319/.484 line while smacking 19 home runs (46 extra-base hits), and stealing 12 of 16 potential bases, along with a positively-normal .299 BABIP. Though he too hasn’t faced any Triple-A competition, Cordell could easily be swept up by another before the Brewers get a look at him if any team looks for a versatile outfield option off the bench.
LHP Wei-Chung Wang: A former Rule-5 selection himself, Wang’s stock has risen as a potential long-relief/spot start option for the future. The former 11th ranked prospect in the Brewers’ farm system (prior to graduating in 2014) posted a 3.78 ERA in 133.1 IP between Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs. Wang could make an appearance in the majors in a Brent Suter-type role come the second-half of 2017, as long as he’s protected. But since he has two solid seasons under his belt since his selection, teams could be interested in drafting him as a back-end starting option/left-handed specialist (.226/.256/.298 line against lefties in 2016).
OF Kyle Wren: Wren’s speed and recent strong showings in the minors is what may get him drafted if he goes unprotected. Coming off a stellar 2016 (.322/.412/.412 line with 24 extra base hits and 29 SB), Wren’s ability to play as a backup outfielder looks more and more enticing as his career goes on. But because of his lower ceiling (and unheard-of .424 BABIP in 77 Triple-A games), teams may be skeptical on the validity of his numbers going forward. The Brewers have a long list of outfielders on the list already, and adding Phillips and Brinson won’t help matters for Wren.
1B Garrett Cooper: Cooper’s production and prospect growth has come along over the last couple of years, earning him a cycle of success and promotions every single season. While he isn’t rated highly on any organizational top-30 prospect lists, Cooper could make an impact as a major league regular if he can manage to maintain his contact rates. Despite his lack of power as a first basemen, Cooper notched a .292/.344/.423 line with 37 extra base hits in 468 plate appearances this season. Having another first base option behind Carter would be nice to have aside from 1B/OF Andy Wilkins (who could be designated for assignment to open up a spot). Though Cooper is one of the last players that could earn a spot, he might have to if a team is desperate for a cheap first basemen for 2017.
UTIL Nate Orf: Orf’s primary strength comes in his versatility, as he has experience in both the infield and outfield. He had a strong season in 2016, owning a .267/.357/.344 slash in 537 plate appearances between Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs. He’s more of a gap hitter with his 5’9″, 180 lbs. frame, and at age 26, he may turn out to be an organizational depth guy like UTIL Jake Elmore. While he’s getting pretty close to the majors, a team could feel safe in picking him up. It isn’t as likely as the other three, but it would be a hit to the depth the Crew has.
Lower, Yet Tricky Risks:
RHP Miguel Diaz: A top-25 organizational prospect by many outlets, the 21 year-old looked like last year’s Shelby Miller – posting a 3.71 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 94.2 IP but going 1-8. He has some good stuff in his arsenal as well: a mid-90’s fastball with late movement, a nice mid-70’s slider with a changeup that could work if he refined the rest of his game. He had an avulsion fracture in his throwing elbow last season, setting back his timetable a year (now 2019). Diaz could end up a starter, but the fastball-slider combo he has could translate quicker as a reliever. This is something teams will probably look more into, as drafting him as a reliever would be more beneficial to them as well as raising the chances of keeping him. Odds are they won’t have to protect him, but there are so many other players that will have to go before Diaz makes the list – possibly pushing him into the thoughts of opposing teams.
OF Johnny Davis: Speed is the thing that should come to mind with the 26 year-old outfielder. He swiped 32 bases split between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Biloxi. Add in the fact that he had a .278/.353/.336 slash in 127 total games, and we might be looking at a late surge as a prospect (though he was at least two-and-a-half years older than most of his competition). Any team that is looking for an Eric Young Jr.-type player with some potential to hit and play solid defense (only 3 errors in 949.1 innings). Losing the blinding sped and solid defense would sting the 2017 affiliates, but there’s plenty of youth that’s closer to the majors that should warrant a spot before Davis does.
RHP Taylor Williams: The Tommy John survivor has finally gotten through the rehabilitation process after posting stellar numbers in 2014 (3.26 ERA, 137-28 K-BB ratio, 9.3 K/9, 1.02 WHIP in 132.1 IP). He always had a strong low-to-mid 90’s fastball (touching upper 90’s at-times) to pair with an above-average slider with a potentially-average changeup. Now back in a uniform, his velocity may have returned already – a very promising sign for a bullpen hopeful. If he has a strong fall season by maintaining his velocity and regaining his secondary stuff, he might be a candidate for the draft. He hasn’t seen any action above High-A, so he’ll have along road to travel. But is it a risk the Crew – or any team for that matter – would be wiling to take?
OF Clint Coulter: Coulter’s early numbers indicated a continuance of his falling stock, but somehow came alive when he got a call-up to Double-A. His .337/.382/.442 slash was his best stretch since his 2014 campaign. If this means that he’s finally figured out what was going wrong in his quick and strong swing, he’s regained some prospect stock. It was a tale of two seasons – something teams may shy away with him after the year and a half of struggles. But at 23, he’s still young and could find himself as a right fielder for the Sky Sox sometime in 2017 – that is, if he isn’t on a major league Opening Day roster first.
Others On Rule-5 Watch:
LHP Stephen Peterson: A left-handed reliever is always interesting to look into for other teams – Brewers included. Peterson had a very nice Double-A season (52 games, 2.77 ERA, 55.1 IP, 8.0 K-9) before getting a call to Colorado late in the season. Walks are an issue for him (4.2 BB/9) and he’s already 28 years old. With so many relief options out there, the Crew shouldn’t worry about exposing him to the draft.
INF Javier Betancourt: The primary prospect piece in the Fransisco Rodriguez-to-Detroit deal, Betancourt was unimpressive offensively despite playing three infield positions. Chances are high that teams won’t bother to look at him in the first rounds of the draft.
OF Victor Roache: The former 2012 first-round selection (#28), Roache played in only 51 games after succumbing to injuries. He has solid power potential that could entice other teams, but the rest of his game has lagged behind. There surely will be better players to select beyond Roache, so expect him to get another look in Double-A Biloxi.
OF Tyrone Taylor: The former top organization prospect maintained his regressed numbers in Double-A Biloxi – far from the 2013-2014 days. The only big tools that could entice other teams would be in his speed and defense, both equally above average on scouting scales. Though the 22 year-old might have the highest chance to get drafted out of this bunch, it’s nearly impossible to argue placing him on the 40-man and not the other OF prospects on these lists.
RHP Josh Uhen: The Oshkosh native is currently placed in the Arizona Fall League, most likely to give the Crew more time to see him grow. He’s 24 years of age and did a solid job out of the bullpen this season, but relievers who don’t throw high-90’s usually don’t get drafted in the Rule-5 draft.
2B Wendell Rijo: Along with RHP Aaron Wilkerson, Rijo was brought over in the Aaron Hill trade earlier in the year. Similar to Betancourt, Rijo struggled in High-A despite being only 20 years old. With age and recent unimpressive numbers, the front office shouldn’t worry about leaving him out on Rule-5 eligibility.
Of course, opening up spots on the 40-Man roster for so many players (including currently injured and possible free agent signings) will be no easy task. As a rebuilding club on the upswing, there is only so much of the accrued talent that a team can hold at a time. But if Stearns & Co. can manage to sneak some names through waivers (Rowen, Scahill, Elmore, Wilkins, etc.) and convince some of the DFA’d players to stick around, the team could very well stay intact. Nonetheless, opening up 5-6 spots to protect players from the Rule-5 Draft along with a couple of other moves to add free agents or acquired players to the roster will be a daunting task.
NOTE: Photo credited to Meghan McNamara. Full Validated Player list on Brewerfan.net forum (http://forum.brewerfan.net/viewtopic.php?f=64&t=34466).