Back in 1980, a techno-synthesizer musician who called himself "M" had a Top-5 hit with a song called Pop Muzic, which featured the lyric "New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody's talking about Mmm... pop music". Here at Brewerfan.net, we're wondering if we should write the lyric "Indy, Huntsville, High Desert, Beloit, everybody's talking about Mmm... baseball in Milwaukee". Gee, that would have rhymed so well if we were talking about the Tigers... But the point of all this is that with the exception of Brewer fans 70 miles from Milwaukee in Beloit, Wisconsin, the hard-core season ticket holders and team boosters in Indianapolis, Indiana, Huntsville, Alabama and Adelanto, California (home of High Desert) are not giving the Brewers a second thought. And why should they? With a few very fleeting exceptions (Ben Sheets being the most prominent), the current major league Brewers' roster does not feature players who have been showcased in recent years at the minor league level.
It's an odd relationship, that of the hard-core local minor league fan, and the parent club in the major leagues. The season-ticket holder in these locales wants to enjoy their summer months rooting on a league champion. They hope that the players are class acts, contribute their personalities and efforts to booster-related functions, and represent the community well. When some of these local heroes go on to long-term success at higher levels, a portion of the local fan base will follow with pride. But for most fans, it's all about living in the present and generating current-day excitement.
Another aspect to consider is the incredibly poor record of the Milwaukee franchise at the major league level in recent years. This past fall, the management with the Brewers' Pioneer Rookie League franchise in Ogden, Utah, chose not to renew their player development contract (PDC) with Milwaukee. In several news reports, it was cited that the Brewers had treated Ogden very well, which was true. The teams were competitive, and there was solid cooperation between the parties involved. But the lure of an association with a storied franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers, was too much of a temptation for the folks in Ogden, and the Brewers lost an affiliation with top-notch facilities and a low-travel routine (within the league). Similarly, the Brewers desperately want to maintain a long-term relationship with AAA Indianapolis, a franchise that is close in proximity to Milwaukee and that plays its games at Victory Field, the finest minor league facility in America. But there is little doubt that until the level of play improves at the major league level, you won't see many Indy fans beaming with pride about their association with the Brewers.
All this being said, with minor league rosters just about finalized as this article went to press, we offer a brief summary on the Brewer affiliates' chances to compete and entertain their local fans in 2003. Consider it a short-term perspective focusing on this upcoming season only, just for that season ticket holder drinking his/her slurpee and shelling roasted peanuts in their box seat each night.
Keep in mind that this is not a player-by-player breakdown, and any players not mentioned shouldn't feel overly slighted.
INDIANAPOLIS INDIANS (AAA):
Trying to predict the level of success of a AAA team is a tricky proposition. More and more in recent years major league teams have their top prospects make the jump to the bigs directly from AA, or only spend partial seasons at AAA. This leaves many AAA clubs with rosters composed of older players (28 or older) who may have had a taste of big league experience elsewhere, but are now hoping to create a buzz with a new organization. For most, they know time is running out on making an impact (and a big-time salary) at the major league level. Camaraderie among the players is minimal, true bonding is rare, and a sense of bitterness is often present among this collection of what many refer to as "AAAA" (4A) players roaming baseball's netherworld called AAA. It's no wonder that most organizations choose to restrict their 22-to-24-year-old prospects from such a clubhouse atmosphere.
That's not to say that you can't have a winning season, however. The 2000 Indianapolis Indians won the AAA World Series with just such a roster of almost-were's, but barely-to-be heard-from again, vagabond ballplayers. But similarly-styled Indy rosters in 2001 and 2002 have been much less competitive, and in a word, boring.
There is change in the air, however - it's not a gale wind yet, but it is a stiff breeze. On the mound, at least for April, Indianapolis fans will see former Brewer RHP's Jamey Wright and Ruben Quevedo in their rotation. Former Toronto Blue Jay RH starter Pascual Coco is only 25 years old. At 30, RHP starter Francisco Campos isn't young in terms of years, but the crafty Mexican is a viable candidate to see Miller Park before the year is out.
The middle infield combo of Bill Hall and Steve Scarborough is homegrown and the players are 23 and 25, respectively. The catching tandem of Joe Lawrence and Cody McKay compares favorably to more recent Indy backstop duos in terms of talent and age. At 25, former Boston Red Sox 3B Wilton Veras is a legitimate option should Wes Helms falter badly in Milwaukee. RF Pete Zoccolillo (26) has become somewhat of a cult hero among Brewerfan faithful, perhaps because of his great name ("Zocco has Socko") and the fact that he was initially considered a throw-in from the Cubs in the David Weathers deal. Plus, he can flat-out hit (a .914 OPS in 75 games in the pitching-tough AA Southern League in 2002). And perhaps most entertainingly, Brooks Kieschnick will continue to fine-tune his pitching skills while continuing to swing the lumber, at least early on in the campaign, before an anticipated call-up to Milwaukee.
As noted, AAA is tough to predict, but Indianapolis fans should be looking at a team that remains within reasonable playoff contention throughout the year, and that takes a decent, but not quite quantum leap, in pure entertainment value.
HUNTSVILLE STARS (AA):
We're not sure what it's called when all the factors in the cosmos come together so optimally that perfection is reached, but darn near consider that the case with the 2003 version of the Huntsville Stars. This team and the individual efforts of its top players going forward will be Dean Taylor's legacy to the long-term health of the Brewer franchise, although Taylor obviously won't be around to potentially enjoy the fruits of the seeds he planted.
Let these truths be self-evident:
- The anticipated starting rotation of Ben Hendrickson (22 years old), Ben Diggins (23), Pedro Liriano (22), Mike Jones (19), and Luis Martinez (23) consists of four very projectable major league #2 to #4 starters, and the fifth pitcher, the LH Martinez, who may see some action out of the bullpen, has shown enough to still warrant inclusion on the Brewers' 40-man roster. The bullpen is deep, and includes 24-year-old Mike Adams, who pitched well at three different minor league levels last year, and 40-man roster player Matt Childers, also just 24. Catcher Brian Moon won't win games with his bat, but he's a defensive standout whose chore will be to guide these young guns.
- The top of the batting order should feature CF David Krynzel (21 years old), SS J.J. Hardy (20), and 3B Corey Hart (21), all of whom have been featured on top prospect lists throughout this past off-season. RF Cristian Guerrero (22) will again hope to unlock all his potential.
- Huntsville Manager Frank Kremblas and Pitching Coach Stan Kyles are generally considered the best and brightest among the player development staff in the Brewers' system.
- It is not a stretch to think that nearly half of the 24-man Huntsville roster will reach the major leagues in time, with several becoming major contributors, if those in the know (Baseball America, etc.) are accurate. But more than that, the core group of players has bonded for two-three years now, forming off-season workout relationships and sincere friendships. This will genuinely be a team, and it seems the Brewers are committed to keeping this group together for the entire 2003 season.
- Minor league fans love only one thing more than talent, and that's young talent. Huntsville will likely be the youngest team in the Southern League, yet anything short of an appearance in the league championship series would likely disappoint the parent-club Brewers, although management would never admit that. Heck, here at Brewerfan, we're predicting an undefeated season for the Stars. Well, not quite, as it will be interesting to see how such a young team reacts to the inevitable adversity it will have at certain points during the season. It would seem very likely that the biggest obstacle the Stars will face in 2003 will be dealing with the pressure, both as a team and individually, that they are likely to put on themselves.
And since so many of the Stars attended the Milwaukee forums which included seminar training in professionalism and even table manners, we expect them all to learn to be proper southern gentlemen, which will no doubt be most alluring to the young female fan base of greater Huntsville.
So jump on board, Huntsville fans, and enjoy the ride. The Stars (pun intended) might not line up so perfectly ever again.
HIGH DESERT MAVERICKS (high-A):
We're feeling a bit better about High Desert's potential for 2003 success than we did earlier in the off-season, but we do have to come off of our Huntsville cloud when we discuss the Mavs' chances.
We will note that Brewerfan nation spent much of the summer of 2002 speculating on how Beloit's dynamic starting pitching duo of Mike Jones and Matt Yeatman would fare in Adelanto's extreme hitters' paradise. With Jones unexpectedly in AA and Yeatman traded to the Twins' organization, others will need to step in and fill the bill.
Early indications are that the Brewers are doing the wise thing here, and that the unquestionable strength of a pretty weak 2002 Beloit squad, its bullpen, will get a chance to shine in a starting role in High Desert. Between them, RHP's Dan Hall (23 years old), Dan Kolb (22), and Chris Saenz (21) made 110 appearances in 2002, only 20 of them starts, none for Saenz. Each was effective, and the key to the High Desert season likely belongs to their arms in the starting rotation, along with holdover 25-year-old nine-game winner LH Pete Smart. 22-year-old RH Tony Stavros (1.68 ERA in 69.2 IP in 2002, 1.39 WHIP), an undrafted find, should fill the closer's role.
It's just an oversight that we're four paragraphs into the Mavericks analysis without mentioning 1B Brad Nelson, who led all of minor league baseball in doubles and RBI last season, amazing considering he had minimal offensive support around him for most of the year in Beloit. The Mavericks are gearing a great deal of their marketing plan on Nelson's presence, and the young man should be quite capable of living up to the hype. It's scary to think what numbers Nelson is capable of with Friendly Mavericks Stadium playing host to his exploits for half of his games.
Many of the other position players on the roster have something specific to prove. Can 1999 2nd rounder Kade Johnson make a successful return to catcher after an injury-induced stint in the outfield? Will corner outfielders Jason Belcher and D.J. Clark sustain hitting success and stay healthy while adjusting to new defensive roles? Will speedsters Chris Morris (CF) and Johnny Raburn (2B) continue to be able tablesetters? Will young middle infielders Ozzie Chavez and Ralph Santana recapture offensive skills seen in their rookie ball seasons of 2001, that were for the most part missing in Beloit in 2002?
Those are a lot of questions to answer. The Mavericks' franchise enters the 2003 season having lost their last 17 road games. This team will need to overcome that psychological hurdle early on and sustain some semblance of competitiveness away from home to battle for a California League playoff spot. With lots of potential but few sure things, it may be that a record prediction of just over .500 would seem reasonable. Mix in the fact that Mavericks Stadium allows for plenty of offensive excitement, and High Desert fans should receive fair value for their ticket dollar in 2003.
BELOIT SNAPPERS (low-A):
The full Beloit roster hadn't been released as of this article's press time, but it stands to be more successful than last year's squad, which set a franchise record for futility, finishing 57-82.
Having 1B Prince Fielder around from the start certainly won't hurt. Battling a sore groin and the effects of the flu during his late-season Beloit call-up in 2002, Fielder only flashed glimpses to Snapper fans of what he's capable of - just ask people in Ogden. Look for Prince to mash, and mash, and walk, and walk, and then mash and mash some more - it should be great fun.
The strength of the Ogden rookie league club was its starting pitching, which will be welcome to a Beloit fan base that didn't see much in that regard last season beyond Jones and Yeatman. Two 20-year-olds, RH Calvin Carpenter and LH Manny Parra, should be rotation mainstays, along with Khalid Ballouli (23), the former Texas A&M ace.
If 18-year-old Josh Murray (2nd round, 2002) breaks camp with Beloit, it will say volumes about what the Brewers think of his maturity, as many fans thought that Murray would certainly benefit form a second season in rookie ball (with the new Helena franchise).
The Ogden Raptors offense of 2002 was more clutch and efficient than it was prolific. Beyond Fielder, the likely offensive standout among those making the move to full-season ball will be 2B Callix Crabbe, the 20-year-old from the Virgin Islands who hit .328, stole 22 bases, and walloped at an .879 OPS last season.
All four affiliates begin play this Thursday, April 3rd. Brewerfan.net is ready to keep you abreast of every aspect of the minor league season. To our loyal readers from these four very distinct and unique fan bases, we salute you and wish you a fantastic spring and summer!