High-Risk Talent & Establishing a Future Core | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

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.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Matt T says: July 8, 2014

    What about Coulter?

  2. dbug says: July 8, 2014

    Is the theory that the Brewers historically drafted conservatively that well founded? Looking back at their first round picks over the last several years, I’m not sure that they were really drafting that conservatively. Coulter and Roache were considered high-upside reaches. Jungmann and Bradley were drafted about where Baseball America projected them, but a more conservative approach might have led to the drafting of Sonny Gray, who BA had ranked ahead of Jed Bradley.

    Aside from the abomination that was the first round of 2009, I’m not sure which picks can really be classified as conservative, but I’m certainly open to suggestions. It seems like you would want a mix of high-risk talent along with conservative hedge bets. Is the real problem just that the high-risk bets haven’t paid off as well as hoped?

    • J.P. Breen says: July 8, 2014

      Coulter, Roache, Jungmann, nor Bradley had the kind of upside that I’m talking about. Jungmann and Bradley were potential #3 starters, but were seen to be good bets. That didn’t pan out. There’s also Eric Arnett, Kentrail Davis, Kyle Heckathorn, Evan Frederickson, Cody Adams, Cutter Dykstra, etc.

      And, in my view, there is zero way to argue the Brewers hadn’t been conservative in the international market.

      • dbug says: July 8, 2014

        Very true about international players, no one can deny that. However, if you look back on the 2008 and 2009 drafts, where all of those second group of named players were drafted, there just weren’t that many players that turned out to be good ballplayers. I suppose guys could still emerge, but 5 years in, there don’t seem to be many high-upside HS guys the Brewers passed on.

        I like the discussion, I just wonder sometimes if we look at the lack of superstars and just assume they must be doing something wrong. Luck and time are two factors that are hard to factor in.

      • BrewersAA says: July 9, 2014

        I agree about the international market completely, it’s been frustrating. On the other hand I don’t think the brewers have been that conservative in the draft in recent years, they have just been burned by underperformance and have traded a bit away. I think the brewers became a little conservative with pitchers near the top for a year or two but quickly shifted away. It’s easy to poke at their drafts with what-ifs, but I think about 25-27 teams can do the same so I am not that worried. I think it’s been more of a talent evaluation issue leading to the misses than it has been a conservative approach. Honestly the most conservative draft in recent memory IMO was 07 and that draft netted lucroy and by proxy CC. People dump on 08 because of frederickson, who was a risky pick not a conservative one, but in the first two rounds the brewers took lawrie, odorizzi, lintz, and dykstra all high risk high upside high schoolers. In 09 they went for college arms and kentrail in the first round, but even with those picks I think they were not playing safe since arnett was a guy they thought they was top of the rotation (bad evaluation ) and Davis was considered to be a big risk to not sign because he was thought to be top half of the first round before his injury. The brewers then backed that up with one of the top high school power bats and the second best high school catcher available in the second round with walla and Garfield. 2010 was covey and Nelson in the top two rounds, nothing conservative about that. 2011 I can see being considered conservative because they took two college guys, but they took them in the right spots, and in the second round they took a super raw Lopez who will be in the futures game. 2012 was a great draft I think going with the top super high ceiling guys at the top with coulter and roach (who, if he beats the odds and realizes his power could be a franchise cornerstone), then they hedged it with haniger as a third 1st rounder which I understand if you have 3 1st rounds you wanna make sure one of them is safe to the bugs. Then in the second it was Taylor who is the exact type of guy you like where he was picked a potential cornerstone at a premium position. So, I agree that that last 2 drafts have seen the brewers really go for upside, I think one could argue that they have been doing that in the top 2 rounds since 08, they have just been victims of the high risk rather than winners of the high reward.


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