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There is one player from the 2008 Huntsville Stars, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Double-A affiliate, on the 2014 Brewers club that has jumped out to a 10-3 start. That player is backup catcher Martin Maldonado, a 27-year-old who has hit just .222/.283/.351 through 150 games spread across the past four seasons.
Maldonado is a fine backup catcher, thanks to his ability to make breathtaking plays like his cannon toss from his knees to nab a would-be basestealer in Boston. But the 2008 Stars were billed as the future of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise, the next wave of prospects to replace Prince Fielder, Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia and any other departing stars over the next half-decade.
The Brewers didn’t sport an overly deep minor league system in 2008, but a vast majority of the talent either opened the season at Double-A Huntsville or arrived shortly after the season began. The Stars featured the Brewers’ top prospects at right field (Matt LaPorta), left field (Cole Gillespie), catcher (Angel Salome), shortstop (Alcides Escobar), third base (Mat Gamel), as well as its second-best starting pitching prospect (Jeremy Jeffress).
LaPorta was the cream of the crop, the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft. He slugged .750 in a brief stint at Low-A West Virginia after signing and ranked in both Baseball Prospectus’s and Baseball America’s top 40 prospects. Escobar had hit .306 between High-A Brevard County and Huntsville in 2007 and was lighting up evaluators’ eyes with his glovework. Gamel had nearly broken the Florida State League record with a 33-game hit streak in 2007 and swiftly earned comparisons to Ryan Braun.
Salome was a bit of an oddity at just 5-foot-6, but his power stroke earned him the nickname “Pocket Pudge” and appeared to be the catcher of the future. Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein wrote Gillespie’s “scouting reports scream ‘professional hitter,'” and one scout called him a “right-handed Rusty Greer.” And Jeffress, a 2006 first rounder, was pumping 100 MPH gas and had ace potential, even though a suspension for marijuana use left him ineligible to start the season.
“I think there are kids there that you’re going to see in a relatively short period of time and they’re going to add to what we have here already,” Zduriencik told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in October of 2007. Zduriencik was referring to the minor league system as a whole, but considering six of his club’s top seven prospects were heading to Huntsville, he was essentially talking about the 2008 Huntsville Stars.
Whenever a team has a particularly good farm system — as the Brewers did in the early-to-mid 2000s, or as the Kansas City Royals did in the late 2000s — there is a lot of talk about prospect waves. This is partially because it’s fun to think about — “Oh, wow, what if these guys all get here at the same time!” is one of the daydreams that accompanies rooting for a perennial loser — but teams actually do plan around getting multiple talented players to the majors around the same time frame. As Milwaukee found out with Prince Fielder, a star player’s stay in a city can be brief, and a team wants to keep its stars together for as long as possible.
“The plan we laid out was a pretty good plan,” Doug Melvin told the Journal-Sentinel. “I said to Jack a few years ago when Hardy and Prince Fielder were high school drafts, I said, ‘Jack, we need to focus on some college guys so they can catch up and play with Hardy and Fielder.’ Those guys were Braun and Weeks.” Obviously, this is a simplification of the draft and development process. But a big reason the Brewers managed to reach the playoffs in both 2008 and 2011 was because the first wave of prospects — Fielder, Braun, Weeks, Hardy, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo — all arrived in Milwaukee between 2005 and 2007.
Journal-Sentinel sportswriter Rick Braun wrote in conclusion of his October 2007 article, “The next step is to keep the waves coming. They may not be as big as the most recent one, but they probably won’t have to be.”
All six of the Huntsville prospects did make the major leagues, but that next wave never truly materialized. The Brewers cashed in on LaPorta’s sky-high stock in 2008 by trading him as the centerpiece in the CC Sabathia deal. LaPorta’s power never developed, and he was left as a punchless DH. He spent spring training this year with the Orioles, but was released as he failed to even make Baltimore’s Triple-A club.
Salome earned three plate appearances with the Brewers in September of 2008 on the back of a ridiculous .360/.415/.559 batting line in 98 games in Double-A. But he couldn’t hack it against Triple-A pitching in 2009, as all three of his slash-line rates fell by at least 70 points. Salome then was forced to move off the catcher position in 2010, tanking his value. He was sent down to High-A Brevard County to learn the outfield, was out of the organization by 2011, and was out of baseball by 2012. Gillespie wound up as a classic outfield ‘tweener, with the bat for center field but a glove for a corner. He never made it to Milwaukee, as he was dealt for emergency second base help in Felipe Lopez in 2009. He accrued -0.7 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) over the past four years with Arizona, San Francisco and the Cubs.
Gamel remained blocked by Prince Fielder through 2011 and then suffered ACL injuries in both 2012 and 2013. He hasn’t taken a regular season plate appearance at any level since 2012. His bat showed promise when he was healthy, and Gamel would have had every chance to hold down the position had he stayed healthy either year. Escobar, one of the slightest players in the big leagues, was one of the league’s worst hitters in 2010 after the Brewers shipped out J.J. Hardy to make Escobar the new starting shortstop.
Escobar was gone the next year as the centerpiece in the Zack Greinke trade. He showed promise with the bat in 2012, as he posted a .721 OPS to complement his excellent glove. But he has slipped to a .235/.260/.300 line in 169 games the past two seasons, with just four home runs in 679 plate appearances. Escobar has produced 74.5 runs fewer than the average major league hitter in the 2010s according to FanGraphs, with only Brendan Ryan (80.6 runs below average) coming in farther below average.
Jeffress was suspended for marijuana for a second time in 2009, a 100-game suspension that pulled the brakes on his career. He had struggled for the past two seasons, with ERAs over 4.00, and the lost time in 2009 effectively forced a move to relief pitching. He thrived in the role in the minors and was good enough to serve as a throw-in with Escobar in the Greinke deal, but he never pitched more than 20 innings in a major league season. Jeffress was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2013 and was using marijuana as a self-medication method. One can only wonder how his career would have turned out had the illness been discovered earlier.
Two of the best players from that Stars team were afterthoughts at the time. Michael Brantley, an outfielder who posted just a .647 OPS in 59 games at Huntsville the year before, hit .319/.395/.398 and caught enough eyeballs to become a secondary piece in the Sabathia trade. His 6.5 WAR with Cleveland ranks just half a win behind Escobar despite Escobar having played over 100 more games.
The best player from that team by WAR has been, somewhat shockingly, Lorenzo Cain, who spent much of that 2008 season fighting behind Gillespie, Brantley and LaPorta for playing time in Huntsville’s outfield. Cain has dealt with myriad injuries since going to Kansas City in the Greinke trade, but his defense rivals that of Carlos Gomez. His bat hasn’t been great — just a .687 OPS in three years as a Royal — but that combined with his elite defense has been enough to produce 7.7 WAR in 235 games. He is off to a hot start in 2014, with a .324/.361/.353 line in 10 games.
This is what was missing in 2012 and 2013. Braun (the sportswriter) was probably correct when he said the waves wouldn’t have to be as big as the massive first wave, the group that made baseball relevant in Milwaukee again. But that wave needed to at least exist. When it didn’t, the result was Yuniesky Betancourt, or Juan Francisco, or Randy Wolf, or Alex Gonzalez, or Blake Lalli, or Hiram Burgos, or Alfredo Figaro. Even the surest of prospect waves, it turns out, is never a sure thing.
The prospect wave the Brewers saw hit Miller Park in late 2013, on the other hand, wasn’t expected by many. But players like Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler are suddenly turning into the major leaguers that 2008 Huntsville Stars team was supposed to provide, with others like Caleb Gindl and Jimmy Nelson not far behind.
That has been the most striking thing about the Brewers in 2014’s early going. Fewer and fewer at-bats are taken by players who do not seem like they belong in the major leagues. Fewer and fewer pitches are thrown by players who encourage us to cover our eyes as they release the ball. Everybody on this roster, with the possible exceptions of Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang (who looked solid in Monday’s debut, I must note), looks like a major league player. For the past two years, as well as in their poor seasons in 2009 and 2010, the Brewers were relying on unfinished prospects and washed-up veterans in places where the prospect wave was designed to fill holes.
The stars are there. Ryan Braun remains, joined by Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez instead of Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy. Melvin, as usual, has found his scrap heap bargains, in players like Mark Reynolds and Marco Estrada. Now, it looks like the Brewers have finally gotten the wave of prospects they needed to support them, even if its a far different group than the one we expected six years ago.