Thank goodness that the real measure of success for a team's minor league system is not their affiliates' winning percentages.
The Brewers, after many years of minor league drought, finally have some prospects worth mentioning. Instead of having to fill out a top-prospect list that included the likes of Brandon Kolb, Roberto Miniel, Kane Davis, or Mark Ernster every year, the premium talent the Brewers now have can barely be contained in a top-10 or top-15 list. In 2001, Carlos Chantres (remember him?) was the 12th best prospect in the system according to Baseball America; I had Ernster there. Chantres was a free agent after that season and Ernster retired before the 2002 season (though he came back this season before being released last month).
Fast-forward to 2003, and the 12th best prospect in the system is an altogether different, and much more than likely better, player. BA had RHP Pedro Liriano (currently 5-10, 3.08 ERA in AA) there to begin the season, and #12 spot on the Power 50 is currently up for grabs between pitchers Ben Diggins, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Chad Petty, as well as CF Tony Gwynn, Jr. Ernster wasn't even in contention for a Power 50 spot this season, and Chantres is pitching in an independent league.
But, back to winning percentage for a moment. The Brewers' farm teams finished the 2001 season with a respectable 342-348 record, good enough for 15th best among all the baseball clubs. The players that achieved that mark were part of an organization that ranked dead last by BA in terms of talent. Going into the 2002 season, the talent level had definitely progressed some, as the team shot up to 26th best farm system, as ranked by BA. Their combined record? 320-372, which ranked the, yep, 26th in baseball in winning percentage.
Before the 2003 season, BA ranked the Brewers' talent 16th best, another big step up, 14 total places in 2 years. What has all this talent produced in the first half of the season? A stinky 191-222 mark, which puts them directly on pace to equal last year's "success."
It's kind of strange to think about, but besides the notion of needing players to have a "winning atmosphere" as they develop, the minor league are about the players, not about the teams. A minor league system's success is measured not by their winning percentage, how many teams they send to the post-season, etc., but by how many quality major leaguers they produce. Not to totally discount the positive impact of winning (see: the Huntsville Stars, discussed below), or the negative impact of losing (see: the High Desert Mavericks, discussed below), but when it all comes down to it, the big league club is what matters. The minor leagues need to be a proving ground for future big leaguers.
So, what do the Brewers' minor league teams look like at the break? Here's a synopsis.
Indianapolis Indians, AAA, 41-54 (.432), 17 games back
Unlike most other leagues, AAA seasons aren't split into two halves. This means that a team can win one half, be horrible for the other half, and still go to the playoffs. The Indians probably wish that this was the case in AAA, because an atrocious showing for the first two and a half months of the season has left the team virtually out of post-season contention, even with better play as of late.
The Indians are one of the big two affiliate casualties (High Desert being the other) of a new regime taking charge, and not making all the necessary moves to make the team fully competitive. The Brewers did their best to put quality minor league veterans into the AAA mix, but it didn't work, and even with a June roster overhaul, the team has almost no chances of making the playoffs, and their goal right now is just getting back to .500. Since the beginning of the season, the Indians have had 15 players be promoted, be released, retire, or be shipped off to another club. This roster turnover has made for a better team as of late, but the slow start doomed the Indians early on.
There have been a few highlights for the Indians this season, including the offensive production of infielders Billy Hall and Keith Luuloa, and outfielders Jim Rushford, Mark Smith, and Pete Zoccolillo, as well as solid-if-not-spectacular starting pitching from David Manning, Nate Teut, and Pasqual Coco. The strength of the club has been its bullpen, which has been used quite frequently, namely Jason Childers, Ben Ford, John Foster, and Shane Nance. Foster and Nance have split time between AAA and Milwaukee, somewhat lessening their impact.
Of the 24 players currently on the Indians' roster, only 6 or 7 have a decent chance to be with the organization next season, and only 2B/SS Billy Hall, OF Pete Zoccolillo, SP Wes Obermueller, and RP John Foster are considered major league prospects. None of them are in the top tier of Milwaukee's prospects, however. The Brewers might promote Hall to Milwaukee later in the year, and Foster will probably be recalled at some point as well.
Team MVP: OF Mark Smith (.294/.345/.465, 299 AB)
Team Cy Young: RP Dan Kolb (1.37 ERA, 39.1 IP, 26 H, 13 BB, 46 K)
Team Silver Slugger: UT Keith Luuloa (.259/.325/.496, 228 AB)
Huntsville Stars, AA, 51-38 (.573) overall (12-10 second half), first half champions, .5 GB
One thing the Indians brass is looking forward to is the promotion of this group of prospects to AAA next season. For the time, however, Huntsville gets to bask in their talent. That Stars are not only the most talented team in the system, they are arguably one of, if not the, most talented group of players in all of minor league baseball. Though they haven't dominated the competition, they won the first half fairly easily, and are right back in the thick of things in the second half.
The Stars' team comes largely from a group of high schoolers drafted by the Brewers in previous years. While high school kids generally take longer to develop, the Brewers have apparently struck gold with a number of them, and they were able to place them together as a team, and the team has gelled. Every member of the regular starting 8 batters are on the Power 50, the rotation features all 5 members on the Power 50 (none lower than 29), and the bullpen adds one more to the Power 50, as well as two other guys who have been on and off the list. It is rare for any minor league team to have this much concentrated talent, and the Brewers are banking on almost this entire team as part of the future.
Offensive and pitching highlights come at you from all angles. 1B Brandon Gemoll leads the team in home runs, with 9. Recently acquired 2B Alejandro Machado's total stats for the year would put him 3rd on the club in steals, and he has committed the fewest errors on the infield. SS JJ Hardy is the team's #1 prospect, and has had an OPS close to 900 all season. 3B Corey Hart leads the team in doubles (22), leads in RBIs (67), is second in home runs (8), and is fourth in stolen bases (15). LF D.J. Clark carries an OBP of around .400. CF Dave Krynzel leads the team in batting average (.311), runs scored (53), stolen bases (30), and is second in walks (38). RF Noochie Varner, acquired in mid-May, is second in slugging percentage (.445).
And the pitching is just as good. The rotation features three starters with ERAs under 3.00, and two more with ERAs under 4.00. Ben Hendrickson (2.25), Luis Martinez (2.34), Mike Jones (2.47), Pedro Liriano (3.08), and Mike Adams (3.50) make runs scarce for opposing batters. The bullpen has been amazingly solid as well. In fact, the highest ERA on the current club belongs to RP Brian Adams, at 4.31.
Unlike Indianapolis, most of the Stars will be around in the organization next season. Only backup C Mike Kremblas, UT Rich Paz, and RP Ken Ray are due to become free agents after the season. The Brewer say they want to keep the team together, which means both that any promotions to the Indians for the rest of the season will be few and far between, and that this whole team will be playing together again in AAA in 2004.
Team MVP: CF Dave Krynzel (.311/.397/.416, 296 AB)
Team Cy Young: SP Luis Martinez (2.39 ERA, 109 IP, 87 H, 50 BB, 113 K)
Team Silver Slugger: SS J.J. Hardy (.305/.394/.490, 243 AB)
High Desert Mavericks, Advanced-A, 29-64 (.312) overall (4-20 second half), 10.5 GB
Imagine, if you will, the Colorado Rockies fielding a team consisting of AAA fly-ball pitchers and speedy slap-hitting utility men. If you haven't been to High Desert to see a game this year, you've just pretty much visualized the 2003 Maverick team. While the Indians have been toiling in mediocrity this season, the Brewers have at least made moves to strengthen that club. However, for some reason or another, the Brewers have not made the same moves to bolster the personnel of the Mavericks, and as such, the Brewers not only have one of the best prospect-laden teams in the minors in Huntsville, but one of the flat-out worst teams in the minors in High Desert. Through a combination of promotions from High Desert, no promotions from Beloit, roster mismanagement, lack of planning, and general apathy towards the club (SP Brian Mazone went almost 60 IP with a 9.00+ ERA before he was let go), High Desert has a truly bad team on their hands. You really have to believe in the "records don't matter a whole lot" mantra to get past this.
It is hard to build a team to suit its park in the minors. The Mavericks' stadium is the Coors Field of the minor leagues, a true launching pad. Lots of runs are scored there, and it's just something you have to deal with. Something that you shouldn't have to deal with if you're a High Desert official is seeing an offense composed almost entirely of small ball type guys and a pitching staff of relievers-turned-starters, outfielders-turned-pitchers, and a whole bunch of guys that can't keep the ball down in the zone. What this is not is a knock against the players involved here. They're on the team, they can't help that. Not all the pitchers with astronomically high ERAs are that bad. There are some good hitters here, as well. This is just the completely wrong team for this stadium. The fans and front office of the Mavericks are counting the days until next season.
As I said, there are some highlights on offense. The Mavericks do have the man Baseball America gave the honors to for #1 prospect of the Brewers, 1B Brad Nelson (currently #2 on the Power 50). They also have the guy with one of the cleanest hitting strokes in the system, in OF Jason Belcher. Belcher has been solid all year, hitting .321, and showing good gap power. Nelson, on the other hand (no pun intended), broke his wrist and missed about 2 months. He is just now getting back into the swing of things. Besides CF Chris Morris (who leads the organization in stolen bases, with 48) and C Brian Foster, the rest of the team are basically utility guys, and while it's fun to look at the new and exciting lineups and defensive alignments dreamed up every night, playing 5-6 utility players at a time doesn't get the job done. And it's hard even to find a place to begin with the pitching staff. Of the current pitchers, RP Justin Backsmeyer leads the team in ERA with a 4.02 mark, and Jeff Hundley rounds out the pitchers with ERAs under 5, with a 4.88 mark. Without going into too much detail the rest of the way down the staff, let's just say that a team 6.54 ERA won't get it done, no matter the park. The staff has allowed 54 more hits, 36 more home runs, and 30 more walks than any other staff in their league. And the next lowest team ERA? 4.94.
This team is rather strange for a low-minor league club in that there was a lot of outside talent brought in to the club, and as such, a distinctly large number of guys might not make it to another Brewers club next season. The team's best prospects are Nelson, Belcher, SS Ozzie Chavez, and SP Chad Petty.
Team MVP: OF Jason Belcher (.321/.371/.451, 324 AB)
Team Cy Young: RP Justin Backsmeyer (4.02 ERA, 47 IP, 47 H, 13 BB, 43 K)
Team Silver Slugger: UT Froilan Villanueva (.302/.338/.419, 265 AB)
Beloit Snappers, A, 47-46 (.505) overall (15-11 second half), 1 GB
The Beloit Snappers should benefit greatly from the season's second half. In addition to the team winning the division each half, the second place team also goes to the playoffs, so the revamped Snappers should have a good shot at the playoffs. During the first half of the season, the team was prone to huge offensive slumps, and even their dynamic pitching staff couldn't keep them in some games. It got so bad in the middle of May that almost every time you saw a box score, you'd be surprised if the score wasn't 3-1 in favor of the other team. The offense eventually got out of their slump, led by 1B Prince Fielder, 2B Callix Crabbe, CF Steve Moss, and C John Vanden Berg, but it was too little too late to have any shot at the first-half title.
The real key to the Snappers' offense contributing to a second-half pennant lies on two players: Fielder and newly drafted CF Tony Gwynn, Jr. Fielder went into a "slump" for almost a month in the first half, his batting average dipping into the low .280's, with only sporadic home runs. Lately, though, Fielder has been on fire, and has seen his average rise to .307, and even more importantly, his HR output rise to a league-high 21. Gwynn, Jr. has also proven to be a spot in the lineup that opposing pitchers have to worry about every time through the order. In his first 72 AB as a Snapper, Gwynn is hitting .361/.471/ .486, and though he could be promoted to High Desert now, he'll stick around to help the Snapper with their playoff push. Elsewhere in the lineup, LF Kenard Bibbs (.365 OBP, 41 SB) is good top of the order threat, UT Jeff Eure (11 HR, 21 SB) has power and speed, and Vanden Berg is an emerging offensive threat behind the plate (.298/.360/.403).
Snappers pitching has been the team's bread and butter all season. The rotation has two top-tier pitching prospects in Manny Parra and Tom Wilhelmsen, and two more solid prospects in Jeff Housman and Dennis Sarfate. The aforementioned all have ERAs under 3.00, with Housman leading the way at 1.85. The bullpen has consistently good, too, with relievers Bo Hall, Josh Alliston, and Jason Baker leading the way.
All this, and the team might get even more help from Helena towards the end of the season. This is the second best team of prospects, behind Huntsville, with 2 prospects in the top 10, and 4 in the top 15. With the Brewers' seeming new tendency to have top prospects skip High Desert, not all of these Snappers may don a Mavericks uniform next season, and guys like Gwynn, Parra, and Fielder seem especially likely to skip High Desert.
Team MVP: 1B Prince Fielder (.307/.406/.544, 342 AB)
Team Cy Young: SP Jeff Housman (1.85 ERA, 87.2 IP, 78 H, 25 BB, 48 K)
Team Silver Slugger: UT Jeff Eure (.258/.333/.408, 353 AB)
Helena Brewers, Advanced-Rookie, 18-8 (.692), 1 game ahead
On to the short-season leagues, the Helena Brewers are just 26 games into the schedule, but they already look like a very good team, thanks to the Brewers' drafting of a lot of college athletes and the contributions of some Latino kids. The Brewers do have the misfortune of having the 2nd and 3rd best teams in their league in their division, but since this league is a two-half league as well, they should have an excellent shot at the playoffs, giving the players there a good feeling on their way to Beloit next season.
The Brewers' lineup boasts a two-headed monster in the middle of its lineup, C Lou Palmisano and 1B Manny Ramirez (no, not that one). Palmisano, a 3rd round pick in the draft a month and a half ago, has 5 home runs, 8 doubles, and is hitting .444 in 81 AB, which leads the league. Ramirez, a converted catcher who played in High Desert last season, is batting .400, and also has 8 doubles and 5 home runs, in 55 AB. Other offensive leaders are 1B Barrett Whitney, 3B Justin Barnes, OF Drew Anderson, and CF Terry Trofholz. Under the heading of something you don't see every day, 19 year old 2B Guilder Rodriguez, who played in Arizona last year, is hitting only .247, but has 23 walks and only 5 strikeouts in 81 AB. He also has 13 stolen bases.
The Helena pitching staff has been solid, if not spectacular. The rotation ace so far has been 18 year old Carlos Ramirez, who has won each of his first 5 starts (rare for these days of pitch counts), and sports a 1.21 ERA. Starting pitchers Dan Grybash and Greg Kloosterman both have ERAs under 4.00. The bullpen has been headed by Dana Eveland, Nick Slack, and Brian Montalbo.
Team MVP: C Lou Palmisano (.444/.489/.728, 81 AB)
Team Cy Young: SP Carlos Ramirez (1.21 ERA, 29.2 IP, 17 H, 6 BB, 18 K)
Team Silver Slugger: 1B Manny Ramirez (.400/.492/.855, 55 AB)
Arizona Brewers, Rookie, 5-13 (.278), 8.5 GB
The flip side to drafting a lot of college players is that it is harder to fill out your lower rookie team with a lot of talent, and the Arizona Brewers are looking at their third losing season in their third year in existence. The club features 16 foreign-born players, by far the most of any other stateside team in the system, and the vast majority of the club is under 20 years of age, and even includes two 17 year olds and a 16 year old. Consistency is the big issue for most of these guys, and that's why they are here, to learn the basic skills needed to be good at higher levels. Early season stars on offense are SS Gilberto Acosta, who is batting .411 with 8 stolen bases in 56 AB, and 2003 4th round pick CF Charlie Fermaint, with a .386 average and 6 extra base hits in 57 AB. Pitching heroes include DFE signee Tim Dillard (2.70 ERA, 13.1 IP), Hubert Pruett (2.25 ERA, 12 IP), and Forrest Martin (0.93 ERA, 9.2 IP, 16 K).
Team MVP: CF Charlie Fermaint (.386/.407/.579, 57 AB)
Team Cy Young: SP Tim Dillard (2.70 ERA, 13.1 IP, 13 H, 3 BB, 9 K)
Team Silver Slugger: SS Gilberto Acosta (.411/.459/.482, 56 AB)