General : : Professional
Monday, January 17, 2011

Brewers deal from strength

Patrick Ebert        

If you are familiar with my background, you are aware that I am a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.  Because of that I try my best not to spend too much time covering the team here at Perfect Game as I don’t want my analysis to conflict with my own personal biases.

That said, I think their recent activity warrants attention with my usual focus on scouting and player development, with some in the business feeling as though they have had the most successful offseason of any Major League team.

Similar to some of my past stories that have focused on how some of the best teams have been assembled internally, I am going to take a look at how the Brewers roster stacks up for the 2011 season, their chances for the postseason, and the overall organizational outlook moving forward.

Long climb up

Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers have a special place in their hearts for the 1982 team that included current Hall of Famers Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton as well as several other notable and recognizable stars from the time.  They created a charismatic and fun loving cast of characters, who at the time epitomized and embraced the city’s blue collar work ethic.

Their success in 1982 had been growing since 1978, the first winning season in the history of the organization that began in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots.  They reached the playoffs in the strike-shortened season of 1981, and that success was expected to continue into the mid-80s if not further.

Unfortunately the 1982 season was the pinnacle of their success, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.  While the team remained competitive off and on from 1983 through 1992, the team really fell into a drought starting in 1993 (Yount’s last year with the team, and Molitor’s first with the Blue Jays) that continued until 2005, the first year the Brewers had a non-losing season in 13 years.

Dean Taylor was hired as the general manager in the fall of 1999, and while his tenure in Milwaukee was short, he was responsible for hiring Jack Zduriencik as the team’s scouting director with an organizational-wide shift in prioritizing their player development efforts .  Zduriencik was largely responsible for a drastically improved farm system that included current stars such as Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo.

Doug Melvin was hired to replace Taylor in the fall of 2002, and continued to place an increased emphasis of building from within, retaining Zduriencik and overseeing a system that was widely considered one of the best in baseball throughout the middle of the decade, producing the trio listed above as well as J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks.

Arguably the most important addition to the organization (outside of Miller Park which opened in 2001) was team owner Mark Attanasio, who purchased the Brewers during the fall of 2004 from the Selig family.

(Current Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig led an ownership group that was responsible for bringing the Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970, but passed the ownership role to his daughter Wendy as he didn’t want his affiliation with the Brewers to create a conflict of interest in his new role.)

Attanasio’s own financial investments, improving the organization both on and off the field, led to a dramatic increase in payroll.  That payroll went from just over $27 million in 2004 to over $90 million a season ago, a number that will likely be surpassed after acquiring Zack Greinke and retaining arbitration-eligible Prince Fielder.

Melvin, with Attanasio’s support, is doing his best this offseason to make sure the Brewers wild card season of 2008 isn’t the pinnacle of this most recent run of relative success.  He has been very aggressive this offseason acquiring starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum as well as reliever Takashi Saito, using some very talented pieces from within in an attempt to drastically improve a pitching staff that has ranked among the worst in all of baseball the past two years.

Making a big splash for a big-name pitcher isn’t new to Melvin, who used an impressive collection of talent midseason in 2008 to acquire CC Sabathia, who picked up the Brewers and carried them to the playoffs.  Rumors indicate Melvin was active in attempts to acquire Roy Halladay and Jake Peavy the past few years, and made sure not to lose out in his attempts to land not one, but two impact starters last month.

Expectations of course are going to be very high in Milwaukee heading into the 2011 season, and it will be a difficult task for the Brewers to make the postseason.  The defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds look as though they will return most of their squad with some modest improvements, the Cardinals are always in the hunt for the playoffs, and the Cubs should boast a solid pitching staff at the very worst.

On paper the Brewers very well may be the team to beat, and new manager Ron Roenicke hopes to infuse some energy into the team as the organization hopes to end their recent run of under achievement.

Talent from within

Five of the Brewers eight projected members of the 2011 every day lineup were drafted and procured from within the system:  Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, left fielder Ryan Braun and right fielder Corey Hart.  Centerfielder Carlos Gomez was traded straight-up for another homegrown product, J.J. Hardy.

(In 2007 the team’s base lineup, with the exception of catcher Johnny Estrada, was entirely homegrown.  That was Ryan Braun’s National League rookie of the year season when he debuted at third base, with Geoff Jenkins in left and Bill Hall in center.)

The team’s projected opening day starter this coming season, Zack Greinke, was acquired with four players entirely procured within the system:  Shortstop Alcides Escobar, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and right-handed pitchers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.

2008 first-round pick Brett Lawrie was used to acquire Shaun Marcum in a one-for-one swap.

Going back to the Sabathia trade from 2008 as noted above, the Brewers used three homegrown prospects (Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Robert Bryson) as well as another acquired in a previous trade (Zach Jackson) to land their second half ace.

Yovani Gallardo, a second round draft pick from 2004 and the team’s ace the last two years, now projects as the number two starter.  Left-handed bullpen mates Manny Parra and Zach Braddock were draft and follow signees from 2002 and 2006 respectively.

The team has also used several other prospects to pick up complementary pieces the last few years.

Left-handed pitcher Dana Eveland and outfielder Dave Krynzel (Zduriencik’s first pick as the team’s scouting director in 2000) were traded during the 2006-07 offseason as part of a package that acquired catcher Johnny Estrada.

Prior to the trade deadline in 2007, the Brewers dealt pitchers Will Inman, Steve Garrison and Joe Thatcher to the Padres for set-up man Scott Linebrink.

In addition to Sabathia, Ray Durham was also acquired in 2008 to give the roster some depth and a veteran presence, with left-handed pitcher Steve Hammond and outfielder Darren Ford going to San Francisco.

Outfielder Cole Gillespie and right-handed pitcher Roque Mercedes were traded to Arizona for Felipe Lopez in 2009 to replace the injured Rickie Weeks at second base.

The team has also made some shrewd waiver and other free agent acquisitions.  Casey McGehee, the team’s starting third baseman, was acquired off of waivers from the Cubs.  Closer John Axford was a free agent find thanks to the team’s deep Canadian scouting network after the Yankees cut ties with him.  Short reliever Kameron Loe, previously a starter in the Rangers organization, was another under the radar free agent score.

Quite simply, the Brewers have done an amazing job maximizing their system in just about every way imaginable.  There haven’t been too many prospects from within whose talents haven’t been used in some way in an attempt to improve the team.  The most notable of which have been Brad Nelson, Angel Salome and Brent Brewer.

In addition to the talent that the Brewers have developed from within, between the stars on the field and the players used to complement the rest of the roster, it is also important to note that several key members from the scouting staff have moved on to bigger and better things.

Jack Zduriencik’s success allowed him to move on to become the general manager of the Mariners, taking long-time Brewers scout and crosschecker Tom McNamara with him to Seattle to serve as the team’s scouting director.  Bobby Heck and Ray Montgomery, the scouting directors for the Astros and Diamondbacks respectively, are also former Brewers crosscheckers, with Montgomery replacing another in Arizona, Tom Allison.

Wave of the future

While developing hitters has never seemed to be a problem for the Brewers, dating back to their first ever first-round pick in Gorman Thomas, pitching has been more difficult for them to procure.

The injury bug has been particularly harsh on them, greatly effecting the careers of several notable pitchers in some way, shape or form including Teddy Higuera, Juan Nieves, Cal Eldred and Ben Sheets.  This is also true for a handful of their premium draft picks in recent years including J.M. Gold, Nick Neugebauer, Mike Jones and Mark Rogers.

In addition to being aggressive this offseason to address that need, they also have been targeting more arms early in the draft in recent years, particularly under the watch of current scouting director Bruce Seid.

I interviewed Seid two years ago, who at the time talked about some of his own styles and preferences when evaluating players.  While the organization’s overall talent doesn’t look as strong right now as it did two to three years ago due to the number of internal promotions and trades, Brewers fans can take comfort that there is still plenty of talent to look forward to.

Should any of the team’s 2011 starting pitchers falter and miss time due to injury, the Brewers will be able to turn to two promising arms projected to play at AAA Nashville:  Mark Rogers and Amaury Rivas.

Perfect Game and draft enthusiasts may remember Rogers, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft, from the inaugural Aflac All-American Classic in 2003.  A series of shoulder issues derailed Rogers’ career and put serious question marks on his future after he missed all of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  The Brewers have been cautious with Rogers each of the last two seasons, placing him on a strict pitch count as he attempted to pick up where he left off as one of baseball’s most talented young hurlers.  The reins are expected to be loosened this coming year after earning a cup of coffee with the big-league team last September.  He still has the ability to approach triple digits, sitting comfortably in the mid-90s from start-to-start.

Rivas doesn’t have the electric arm that Rogers possesses, but he too has been successful the last two years after battling arm troubles of his own.  Armed with low-90s heat and the best changeup in the system, Rivas has gone 24-13 the last two seasons with a 3.18 ERA, and was named the organization’s pitcher of the year in 2009.

In the eyes of prospect evaluators, the fact that Rivas is already 25 years old, and Rogers will be too later this month, doesn’t help their standing.  Their age is irrelevant when evaluating their talent individually, and the Brewers have been wise to be patient with both of them as they rehabilitate from serious arm injuries during their projected paths to the big-leagues.

And there is a nice collection of relievers that is poised to contribute in the big-league bullpen next season, with a few serving as candidates to make the club out of spring training.  Right-handers Mike McClendon, Tim Dillard, Robert Hinton, Dave Johnson, Michael Fiers and Brandon Kintzler, as well as lefty specialist Mitch Stetter (all of whom were drafted by the Brewers) will also be well represented at the AAA level.

The pitching talent doesn’t stop there, as AA Huntsville will offer some promising reinforcements of their own.

Big-bodied right-handers Cody Scarpetta and Wily Peralta have a knack for missing bats, and have been logging more and more innings with each season that progresses as they prepare for life in a big-league rotation.  Both have the ability to touch the mid-90s, and Scarpetta’s curveball is the best in the system.  2009 sandwich pick Kyle Heckathorn carries the same big-bodied, live arm profile, and he could join Scarpetta and Peralta on the AA staff.

While there are some more interesting arms scattered throughout the system, the most impressive staff may make their full-season debuts at the low-A level in the Midwest League.

2010 draftees Jimmy Nelson, Tyler Thornburg, Matt Miller and Austin Ross were integral parts of the Helena Brewers winning the Pioneer League championship last September, collectively going 12-3 with a 3.33 ERA in a league that typically favors hitters.

All four were drafted out of college, and there is some question as to where all four are best suited between the starting rotation and the bullpen moving forward.  Nelson (second round) and Miller (sixth) follow the athletic, big-body prototype for pitchers that Seid has shown to prefer.  Thornburg (third round) does not, but may have the most electric arm of this group.  Nelson worked in the 92-94 range last summer touching 96, Thornburg was 93-96 and up to 98, while Miller at times threw as hard as 95-97, although he tired some late in the summer after being used predominantly as a reliever at Michigan.

Ross (eighth round) doesn’t throw as hard as the others, but works in the upper-80s to low-90s and shows an advanced feel for pitching.

The pitching depth and system overall would look even better had their 2010 first rounder Dylan Covey signed with the team.  Covey, a former Aflac All-American, discovered that he has type 1 diabetes last summer, and decided that staying close to home while honoring his commitment to play for the University of San Diego was the best way to handle that life-altering diagnosis.

The Brewers will receive a compensatory pick for Covey, which will be the 15th overall selection in next year’s draft.  Between that and their own first-round selection (12th overall) the Brewers stand to add more high level impact talent to their system in the next calendar year.

There are still plenty of intriguing bats sprinkled in the system, including second basemen Eric Farris and Scooter Gennett, outfielders Logan Schafer, Erik Komatsu, Caleb Gindl and Kentrail Davis as well as sluggers Hunter Morris, Cody Hawn and Tyler Roberts (Gennett, Davis and Morris are former Aflac All-Americans).

Promising hitter Mat Gamel, who no longer qualifies for rookie status given his time spent on the big-league roster the last two years, also remains in the system waiting for his opportunity for increased playing time at the big-league level.

All 10 of these players, including the most recent additions in Morris and Hawn, have enjoyed success hitting the ball during their professional careers, similar to their predecessors that currently grace the big-league lineup.  And the positional depth suits the Brewers well, as their lineup should remain relatively intact over the next few years outside of second baseman Rickie Weeks (who the Brewers hope to sign to an extension before spring training) and first baseman Prince Fielder.

While not too many people will be too concerned about the farm system this year if the big-league team lives up to their potential, the continued development of these young players is crucial to the organization’s hopes for sustained success in the years to come.

The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA.  Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at

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