Aside from the trade market, major-league organizations have two options for acquiring amateur talent: the MLB Draft and the international market. The Milwaukee Brewers had developed a reputation for being conservative in both areas. They seemingly prioritized collegiate talent in the Draft, and they didn’t toss around mountains of money to woo many high-school prospects away from their collegiate commitments. Furthermore, the organization acted cautiously in the international market — perhaps inking a few players to low-end, six-digit bonuses. They certainly sat on the sidelines while other teams dished out millions of dollars to 16- and 17-year-old international kids with high ceilings and monstrous risk.
With such a conservative approach to the acquisition of amateur talent and a spate of win-now moves that netted a couple postseason appearances, the Brewers eventually hollowed out their farm system of elite talent. That’s not to suggest the organization didn’t still develop talent. Guys like Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Lucroy, and Wily Peralta have still worked their way into meaningful roles on the big-league club, but aside from the unexpected step to stardom from Lucroy, the organization has produced nothing but role players in recent years.
That has been fine, though, because the team has been working with a solid core. Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez have anchored the club — as well as Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, etc. in previous years, obviously — and the Brewers have only needed to develop role players to fill out the roster. Mix in a couple trades in 2011 and a few free-agent signings over the years, and the Brewers have fielded a roster that has been largely competitive. The key was that they built around the core that already existed from the farm system.
And while it’s been an enjoyable season thus far in Milwaukee, it’s imperative to simultaneously keep an eye on future roster construction. It’s only four or five more years until Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, and Matt Garza all leave via free agency. By that point, Ryan Braun will be in his mid-30s and he’s already dealing with nagging injuries every month. Where’s the future core? Where is the base of talent around which the organization can build?
That question casts a massive cloud over the organization because the farm system hasn’t been flush with high-end talent in recent years. Players like Jimmy Nelson, Orlando Arcia and Mitch Haniger are nice, but they won’t define a franchise. Those are #3 starters and potential solid everyday players. Organizations need those types of players. Without the stars, though, those role players don’t mean much in terms of overall contention. And the Brewers do not possess the financial resources to buy the superstar talent on the open market.
Milwaukee’s sudden switch in strategy on the amateur market makes me believe the organization fully understands their future core is missing. The organization seemingly flipped a switch last summer and began prioritizing high-risk, high-ceiling talent in the draft and on the international market. In the first two rounds of the draft the past two years, Milwaukee has drafted zero collegiate players — Devin Williams, Tucker Neuhaus, Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood, and Monte Harrison. Additionally, the $800k bonuses to Franly Mallen and Nicolas Pierre last summer were franchise-records for international players, and the organization obliterated that mark with the reported $3.1M deal for Gilbert Lara this month. Every single one of those prospects possesses the potential to be a first-division player in the majors. The Brewers even made a lucrative offer to Cuban slugger Jose Abreu over the winter before he signed a six-year, $68M contract with the White Sox, which is completely out of character with their previous modus operandi.
Although it’s fun to dream about that group’s future, Brewers fans must understand the volatile nature of the talent they acquired. Any of these guys could flame out before reaching Double-A, and hell, the international kids may never even make it to the states. Jacob Gatewood, for example, has massive ceiling, but I haven’t talked to a single talent evaluator who believes he’ll ever figure out how to hit enough to tap into his plus (maybe even plus-plus) raw power. However, each of those people echoed that it was worth the chance because if he does figure it out, the Brewers have a franchise-altering superstar on their hands. The likelihood is just crazy low.
Thus, it’s clear to me that the organization hasn’t randomly shifted their overall approach on the amateur market; instead, they’ve prioritized high-risk, high-ceiling talent because they recognize that they must establish their future core to build around. It currently doesn’t exist, but if a few of the recent acquisitions can begin to put it together at the lower levels over the next couple years, the Brewers may find that core.
I had been tough on the organization at times because it seemed over the past few years that they were worried about competing now and they’d simply figure out how to build for the future later. That’s over. The Milwaukee Brewers clearly understand the lack of elite talent in the farm system, and they’ve taken meaningful steps to fill that gaping hole. However, for me, I’m more encouraged by the change in approach than I am about any of the particular prospects. They have sky-high potential, but each of them have real limitations to their profile that could keep them from even sniffing the big leagues. However, the organization needs to be willing to swing big and miss big if they want to acquire the elite talent. It’s not enough to develop nice players who can be platoon guys and #4 starters. For the future to be bright, the organization needs to find their next superstar talent. I’m not sure who that will be at this point, as the youngsters need a couple years to develop, but the groundwork is finally being put in place to find that talent. And that’s not something we could say a couple years ago.