Much has been made out of the Brewers’ rapid improvement to the farm system in the last calendar year. Doug Melvin started the process with trades of Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, and Gerardo Parra, and David Stearns has continued rebuilding since taking over. This has resulted in a farm system that Baseball America ranked 29th in 2014 and 21st in 2015 jumping to 9th in 2016.
Things are definitely looking up in the Brewers’ hopes for the future, especially compared to a year ago, but we also know that rankings only get you so far. Players still need to perform, and just because someone is highly rated by a publication doesn’t guarantee anything. As you’ll see, some of the Brewers’ best prospects have had underwhelming seasons to this point. Counting backwards from 10, here’s a look at each of the ten players on Baseball America’s Brewers Top Ten.
10. Devin Williams
A second round pick in 2013 but the first selection that year by Milwaukee, Williams was touted as a talented pitcher with a high ceiling. Now 21, Williams has reached the age where his numbers are more meaningful than the first couple years of his career. For the second straight season at A ball Wisconsin, Williams has been good, but not dominant by any means. Just like last year, he is striking out a batter per inning while walking 3.6/9 innings. Williams has yet to indicate that he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter, but he is still giving reason to hope he can be a big league contributor at some point. Since he was not promoted after last season, a mid-season promotion to High A Brevard County could be looming for Williams. Verdict: on track
9. Cody Ponce
After being selected in the second round out of college, Cody Ponce caught people’s attention with immediate success at A Wisconsin. In 46 innings, he struck out 36 and walked only 9. The Brewers promoted him to Brevard County this year but have clearly been careful with his workload; he is just getting into his season and has only thrown 19 innings so far. While noting the very small sample size, his 17 strikeouts to 3 walks are encouraging. Verdict: Incomplete (but still on track).
8. Clint Coulter
The Brewers selected Coulter as a catcher out of high school with the 27th overall pick of the 2012 draft, and the early returns were encouraging. He turned in a .930 OPS over a full season at Wisconsin at just 20 years old in 2014. Since then, things have gone downhill for Coulter. His struggles defensively led to a defensive switch to the outfield, and he’s struggled at the plate since being promoted to Brevard County. An underwhelming .725 OPS in 2015 has given was to a concerning .629 OPS in 2016 at the same level. It is still a bit early to call Coulter a bust, but unless he really turns it around in the second half, he won’t be on this list next season. Verdict: Disappointing
7. Tyrone Taylor
Billed as a toolsy outfielder with a ceiling, the former second round pick has given fans reason for excitement over his pro career, resulting in his appearance on Baseball America’s Top 100 list prior to 2015. Since then, though, he has underwhelmed. He has struggled this year at AA Biloxi, and now in 823 career AA plate appearances, he is slashing .251/.307/.335. At 22, he’s no longer all that young for his level, so he’ll also need to flip a switch in the second half in order to stay on this list next year. Verdict: Disappointing
6. Kodi Medeiros
The Brewers invested a lot in the high school lefty when they drafted him 12th overall in 2014. After performing well last year at Wisconsin (9.1 k/9, 3.9 BB/9) in 2015, Medeiros has struggled mightily in 2016 after a promotion to Brevard County. The particularly concerning number is his walk rate of 5.6. He has really struggled with his command, which has also led to him getting hit much harder. He is still only 20 years old and has plenty of time to figure things out, but nobody is encouraged by his performance this year. Verdict: Disappointing
5. Gilbert Lara
Almost exactly two years ago, the Brewers made waves by signing Lara for $3.1 million out of the Dominican Republic, shattering a team record for a signing bonus to an international free agent. Like many international free agents, Lara was very young at the time of his signing–just 16. As an 18 year-old, he is still in Rookie Ball and yet to be fully thrown into a full season of games. Lara is obviously a long-term project, and we won’t know for a couple years whether he’s on track to be an impact player. However, the tools at shortstop and the power bat remain exciting, and that’s why he’s this high on the list. Verdict: Incomplete
4. Brett Phillips
Here is where we start reaching the really impactful players on this list. Phillips should be well known to Brewer fans as the headliner of the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers deal to Houston, which looks better and better for the Brewers with each passing week. Phillips was billed as a solid defensive outfielder who excels at the plate, and his dominance in the Arizona Fall League in 2015 only encouraged fans even more. This year, in his first full season at AA, Phillips is displaying solid power and a .778 OPS. He certainly isn’t dominating, but at a level where many prospects fizzle out, Phillips is still giving every indication that he’s a future MLB starter. Verdict: on track.
3. Trent Clark
Selected 15th overall in last year’s draft, outfielder Trent Clark got off to a roaring start in his first professional season. This year, as a 19 year-old at Wisconsin, Clark has battled some injuries, leaving him with only 118 plate appearances to this point. Over this small sample size, Clark is slashing .227/.359/.412. The most encouraging thing to me about Clark is his advanced patience at the plate: In this 118 plate appearances, Clark has drawn 20 walks. In his year or so as a professional, Clark’s walk rate is 16%. Given what the Brewers have shown the last few seasons in terms of plate discipline, it is refreshing to see a prospect who projects as a strong option at the top of a lineup. Verdict: on track.
2. Jorge Lopez
After a very strong season at AA that culminated with him making two starts in Milwaukee last September, Lopez looked like he was on the doorstep of a permanent call-up. I certainly would have guessed that by this time, Lopez would already be in the Brewers’ rotation. However, the thin air of Colorado Springs had other ideas. Lopez’s run at AAA has been a nightmare. He sports a 6.40 ERA fueled by a walk rate that has just about doubled from last year, and he’s giving up hits at an alarming rate. While he should be listed among the Brewers’ biggest disappointments this season, it is unclear how much of this should be blamed on Lopez and how much should be blamed on the worst city in America to pitch. Verdict: Disappointing (and get a new AAA affiliate as soon as possible!).
1. Orlando Arcia
A consensus top-10 prospect league-wide, Arcia is best known for his electrifying defense at shortstop. He is only 21 and holding his own in AAA, hitting .268/.320/.397. The biggest concern here is his low walk rate: just 7.6% for his career. I have seen him regularly projected as a leadoff hitter due to his contact ability and plus speed, but that will never happen if he is unable to improve his plate discipline. He will surely be a valuable MLB shortstop, but it remains to see whether that value will come completely from his glove. He has been very young for every level he’s played, so it’s not like his offense is massively concerning or anything, but he also isn’t exactly banging down the door to Milwaukee. With the Brewers out of contention, there is no rush to bring him to the big leagues and start his arbitration clock. He certainly should not be called up before September, and my preference is to wait until next season. Verdict: on track.
Honorable Mention: Josh Hader
I had to mention Josh Hader because he has been one of the only prospects to actually excite with his performance this season. His absence from the pre-season top 10 looks pretty silly. Billed as the second best piece in the Houston trade last year, Hader is now at least on par with Phillips. In fact, just yesterday, Baseball Prospectus released their Mid-season Top 50, and Hader checked in at 45, four spots ahead of Phillips. Hader absolutely carved up AA hitters, striking out 73 batters in 57 innings for a sparkling 0.95 ERA. This led to the Brewers promoting him to AAA Colorado Springs where–you guessed it–his ERA has exploded. The good thing is his strikeout rate has stayed at its elite level, so I feel pretty confident here that this is mostly a byproduct of the terrible pitching environment. Have I mentioned the Brewers need to leave Colorado Springs?
The Big Picture
While the Brewers should certainly be commended for improving their farm system, the first half of 2016 indicates they still have much to do in the rebuilding process. I hesitate to describe the farm system as much better than “solid,” as many of the players billed as top prospects have disappointed this season. In fact, I’m willing to bet than no more than four of these names are on the top ten list next season. That is partially due to underperformance but largely due to the arrival of 2016 first rounder Corey Ray and newcomers who will hopefully be arriving within the next few weeks via trade. In the rebuild, the Brewers are maybe only halfway home. The journey continues to be entertaining, though.