The Brewers have the best minor league system in all of baseball.
Let's let that breathe for a second, and bask in its glow.
Not so long ago, the Brewers owned (or, were stuck with) one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, and there was no hope in sight for a floundering major league team. Beyond a top prospect or two, the minor league system was almost totally bereft of talent, and the Brewers were forced to fill in gaps on the major league side with cheap major league talent and even cheaper minor league talent, most of which didn't work out. Years of amateur drafts ranging from mediocre to plain horrible kept pounding the nail into the Brewers' coffin.
Enter Jack Zduriencik and his team of scouts. Since his hiring in October of 1999, Zduriencik has helped guide the Brewers slowly but surely up the ranks of minor league talent rankings. This season, the best of his work has come to fruition, as the Brewers jumped from No. 16 to No. 1 in Baseball America 's minor league talent rankings.
Zduriencik and the rest of the Brewers scouts have brought in a wealth of talented hitting and pitching. There is now hope in Milwaukee because of these young baseball players. There is a hope that a perennially moribund franchise will be able to reach into its minor leagues and bring up talent, and use that talent to finally put together some successful seasons. While the talent has not yet proven itself in the big leagues, and largely won't for a number of years, there may actually be reason to come to Miller Park and see some baseball.
And not only baseball, but quality baseball. Quality Brewers baseball. These words have not been strung together in quite some time.
The Brewers are now in the enviable position of having the best minor league system in the game, but the unenviable position of attempting to stay at #1. No farm system in recent memory has stayed at #1 for two years in a row, and not even all of them stay within the top handful. Even fewer organizations stay within the top 10 for more than a few years in a row.
The reason for this is that top minor league systems have, more often than not, a number of prospects close to the big leagues, and after those prospects graduate into the major leagues, the prospects behind them are either not quite as good or not quite as worthy of the same prospect status due to inexperience. So, how does a team stay at the top or near the top in terms of organizational talent?
While I am far from an industry expert, here are fifteen things I think the Brewers can do to help them stay at or near the top. The goals range from short term (with the goal of being a repeat #1) to long term (with the goal of staying at or near the top of the heap). The goals also range from specific, tangible things to new dynamics of baseball practices. The goals are in no particular order, though the short-term goals would obviously take precedent within the frame of mind of repeating as the best farm system in baseball.
Draft an Advanced Starting Pitcher (Short Term)
The problem: The hitting prospects in the system fairly clearly outclass the pitchers, and, to be cliché for a moment, a team can never have too much pitching. Not to speak ill of Manny Parra, Mike Jones, Jorge De La Rosa, Ben Hendrickson, but the Brewers need to augment their pitching core with an advanced prospect or two. A few more really good pitching prospects will help soften the blow created by the number of hitting prospects that will graduate to Milwaukee this season.
The solution: Luckily, the June draft looks to be top-loaded with high-quality college pitching, and the Brewers pick #5. It's almost a foregone conclusion that the Brewers will draft a college pitcher this June, which is probably the best move the organization can make.
Draft another Few Catchers in the First Ten Rounds of the Draft (Short Term)
The problem: Besides third base, catcher is the second most wanting position in the system. Despite hitting apparent pay-dirt with Lou Palmisano and Bryan Opdyke in last year's draft, the Brewers should be more than aware that catching prospects fizzle out more than any other non-pitching prospect. Very good all-around major league catchers are few and far between, and cornering the market on the position has not been the Brewers' forte for quite some time. Besides Palmisano and Opdyke, Kade Johnson and John Vanden Berg are also catching prospects of some degree, but no one outside of Palmisano is really considered anything more than a mid-level prospect at this point.
The solution: Despite the random nature of catcher development, it is important to keep trying, and the Brewers need to keep using high picks on the position. I would suggest trying to take another few catchers within the first ten or so rounds in the next June draft to augment the building blocks they have at the position. By finding and developing more and more catching prospects, the Brewers give themselves many options further on down the road.
Find a Third Baseman (Short Term)
The problem: One of the few weaknesses presently left in the Brewers' system is an almost total lack of third base prospects. While the Brewers do have a decent-to-average major league third baseman in the person of Wes Helms, it is hard to believe that the Brewers are content with Helms manning the position for the next five-ten years. The present group of third base prospects includes utility prospects and unproven organizational soldiers, including Justin Barnes, Jeff Eure, Enrique Cruz, and Froilan Villanueva.
The solution: The Brewers would not be wise to bank on any of the in-house talent breaking out this season. Barnes is probably the most prototypical third base prospect of the bunch, but he scuffled around in rookie ball last season. The Brewers need to look long and hard at amateur players in the June draft, and take a chance on one fairly early on. Another option may lie in person of Jason Belcher, an ex-catching prospect who was converted to the outfield full-time last season.
Give Jack Zduriencik a Long Term Contract (Short Term)
The problem: The success the Brewers have enjoyed under Zduriencik will cause other teams to target him to join their organizations. The Brewers have been known to trade star players when they get expensive, and while they can't trade Zduriencik, the potential loss of him to another team would be highly detrimental to the organization. There's no telling how well his replacement would fair, and that is a risk the Brewers can't afford to take. The team needs to keep a strong crop of prospects coming, and that all starts with Jack Zduriencik.
The solution: Sign Zduriencik to a long term contract, and pay him for what he's been worth. The Brewers will likely have to overpay him to stay, but that's a bullet they should bite. This all depends, of course, on Jack Z's desire to stay in Milwaukee , but there have been no rumors of discontent, and a nice, fat paycheck is good motivation. The Brewers simply can not afford not to keep him right now.
High-tail it out of High Desert (Short Term)
The problem: High Desert is, frankly, one of the last places you want to have a team in the minors below AAA. It is virtually impossible to get reads on any prospects that go there due to the ultra-offensive nature of the stadium. Much like the Coors Park effect that playing in that park has on Colorado Rockies, players tend to go into slumps when they go on the road. High Desert players also tend to go into slumps when they are promoted to Huntsville . The problem affects both hitters and pitchers. High Desert also marks a point very, very far away from Milwaukee , and more importantly, far, far away from the Brewers' affiliates directly higher and lower on the organizational chain, Beloit and Huntsville , Alabama , respectively.
The solution: When the Brewers' playing agreement with High Desert is up after this season, the Brewers need to thank the Mavericks' organization, and run away quickly. I'd also prefer that they move out of the California league altogether, and find a spot in the Carolina League, if possible. The Carolina is more of a hitting-pitching neutral league, as opposed to the California League, which is generally a hitter's league. It's hard to gauge the direct effect High Desert has had on players over the past few years, but it's not hard to gauge that it isn't helping the organization any.
Move out of the Pioneer League into a Short-Season A-ball League (Short Term)
The problem: There are a number of things working against the Brewers having an affiliate in advanced rookie ball. First off, the Brewers will likely focus more on college players in the coming drafts to help support the ranks of high school players they have drafted in the past. College players tend to slightly overmatch less advanced competition in the Pioneer League, especially hitters, due to the offensive nature of the league. This offensive nature of the league also puts more stress on the pitching staff, especially younger arms. Also, with the disbandment of the Brewers' training complex in the Dominican Republic, there won't be the same need for an intermediary stop between rookie ball and class-A ball because there probably won't be as many younger players coming through. The Brewers' rookie team in Arizona should be able to handle the load of the younger drafted players and foreign prospects signed. Finally, it is my belief that high school pitchers would benefit from three seasons in class-A ball beyond rookie ball as opposed to an extra season in rookie ball and only two seasons in class-A ball.
The solution: Find a team in the New York-Penn League or, as a second choice, in the Northwest League. If a team could be had in the New York-Penn League, the Brewers would have all of their affiliates (except for their rookie team in Arizona ) in one half of the country, making the prospects more easily accessible. This would also allow the Brewers to save a little bit on traveling expenses.
Take a Top College Reliever or Two Early in the Draft (Short Term)
The problem: The Brewers haven't developed a stream of relief prospects, or really any major relief prospects at all, in quite some time. While this shouldn't be a top priority, it is somewhat surprising due to the fact that the Brewers have had so many starting prospects flame out over the years. It's common wisdom that when a pitcher fails as a starter, a move to the bullpen will help rejuvenate him, but for whatever reason, that hasn't been the case in Milwaukee . The Brewers have had pretty decent luck with other teams' spare parts in the major league bullpen, but the Brewers would help themselves by not having to rely on that. Furthermore, the Brewers haven't developed a regular in-house closer since Dan Plesac. This exemplifies the problems have had with the minor league system for the past decade and longer. While current minor league relievers like Mike Adams, Tim Bausher, and Nick Slack are highly regarded by the team, none of those guys, or any other relief prospects in the system, really stand out in the crowd.
The solution: Under any other conditions other than the present, it might be foolhardy for the Brewers to draft anyone considered a relief prospect, but relief pitching is a hole (albeit a relatively minor one) in an organization that doesn't have a whole lot of them in terms of prospects. The Brewers should seriously consider going after one of the draft's top relief prospects in hopes that the team can finally develop on their own someone who can eventually be relied on at or near the end of a game. Relievers are a tricky and fickle bunch, but if the Brewers are able to latch on to one or two guys that will eventually provide solid service at the major league level out of the pen, the team will be that much better for it.
Be More Proactive in Self-Promotion of Prospects (Short and Long Term)
The problem: This isn't a problem so much as something most franchises don't appear to do, and is somewhat difficult to give tangible meaning to. College teams will often promote players through mailing, web sites, and other marketing tools. These are generally geared towards gaining recognition for specific awards (such as the Heisman in college football), but there is something to be learned from the marketing of players. Generating good press and giving better depth of understanding of specific star prospects is never a bad thing. The more stuff others hear about a prospect may subconsciously give added value to prospects in some important minds. While I'm not saying that another general manager is going to base a trade proposal on newspaper clippings and press releases, but the more perceived positivity there is surrounding a player, the better chance there is for the Brewers to turn that into something of value. Also, a prospect's attitude towards himself and the organization may benefit from more/better press. It would make sense that someone would feel special if their bosses heaped public praise on them. Frankly, the Brewers need all the good press they can get.
The solution: The Brewers can start by giving more in-depth coverage of their minor system on their website and in press releases. Hyping players of the month and year more so than as a small news item somewhere in the middle of the front page would be a start. Player or manager diaries, daily reports, and player spotlight pieces should also be something they think about. The Brewers should also press the local papers and national magazines to do more features on their players (subtly, of course), and give open outside access when asked and where possible. And on a selfish note, why not make Brewerfan the official fan site? Now that would be a show of good faith and forward-thinkingness. Any major steps forward the Brewers could take in self-promotion of prospects would be major steps forward in front of the rest of baseball.
Develop a Presence in Latin America, Australia and Asia (Short and Long Term)
The problem: The complete lack of talent the Brewers have signed and developed out of Latin America and all other foreign countries is bizarre. While most organizations that Baseball America ranks high in minor league talent have a handful of prospects from outside of the United States, the Brewers currently have one, in the person of Gilberto Acosta. (Luis Martinez was on the list also, but has since been released.) The five teams following the Brewers on BA's list (with number of foreign prospects): Los Angeles (7), Anaheim (7), Atlanta (7), Minnesota (5), Cleveland (6). This dearth of foreign talent makes the fact that the Brewers have the most talented minor league system in all of baseball even more impressive. The Brewers can not, however, continue to lean on strictly American talent and expect to maintain a high presence on BA's list. After disbanding their training complex in the Dominican Republic and firing their scout there, the Brewers appear to be moving away from signing local kids en masse and hoping that one or two of them pan out, instead they'll be looking for a small handful of talented kids. This is a start to the solution. The Brewers still have almost no presence in Asia, Europe, Africa, or Australia , however, and need to get up to speed with the rest of baseball.
The solution: Correct the one foible within the scouting department. Hire more scouts if necessary, but make the jump into the rest of the world. The Brewers would also be wise to try and find a productive niche where some other teams aren't, like Australia , China , or parts of Africa . The jump into Asia is also important. Signing good foreign talent is a way to sign the player that you want, whenever you want, and quality foreign players really augment the farm system. If the Brewers could sign a few high-grade prospects from outside of the United States in the next year, that would be a great way to keep the farm system at or near the top of baseball.
Maximize Defensive Impact of Fringe Prospects (Short and Long Term)
The problem: Even in a system bulging with position prospects, many players in the system are fringe prospects, or prospects that at best translate into major league utility players, or AAA players. When a fringe player isn't cutting it at his given position, or when better prospect comes through and a player needs to be moved, the Brewers have gotten into the habit of moving virtually all of those players to the outfield. The corner outfield positions are generally not positions where a team needs extra, league average or worse help. D.J. Clark and Jason Belcher are higher profile examples of this particular Brewers' practice.
The solution: Exhaust all other options before moving a player into a corner outfield slot or even first base. Be creative and explore what skills the player has that may translate to an infield position, or center field. Also be smart, and don't put a player at a position where he doesn't want to be, or obviously wouldn't succeed at. My personal recommendations would be trying Jason Belcher at third base, Josh Murray at third base, Callix Crabbe in center field, and Manny Melo at either shortstop or second base.
Scour the Waiver Wire (Short and Long Term)
The problem: The Brewers get a little too complacent at times with their 40-man roster and major league squads, and don't take enough chances on younger players other teams have given up on. The Brewers are not in a position to be picky when it comes to major league talent as they wait for their deluge of prospects to make it to the show. This is especially true on the pitching front, where the Brewers' staff will be average at best during the upcoming season. It's been commonplace for players whom one would think the Brewers would take a chance on slip right by without so much as a wink.
The solution: I'm sure that the Brewers evaluate every player who comes by on the waiver wire, but I'd encourage more proactively on their part. For instance, the Brewers were very creative on the waiver front last season when they claimed reliever Mike Nicolas on waivers from the Padres and then swung him to the Red Sox for Brian Adams, another reliever prospect not on the 40-man roster. The Brewers need to do more of this. The Brewers need to take chances on players and not be content with their 40-man roster. One of the