The Manatees are an interesting team to follow because of their many extremes: the extreme pitchers park, the extremely lax media coverage, and sometimes the extreme performances of their players (including 7 all-stars!). The Manatees are also a challenging subject to write about, because more than any of the other Brewer teams, Brevard County has become a temporary stop for the best prospects. So, in order to talk about the Manatees season, one has to take into account that the best players on the team (Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Brendan Katin, and Steve Hammond) did not play a full season in Florida, or even close to one in some cases. It is also worth mentioning that the team's relative mediocrity did not lead to a playoff appearance, though the team was much better in the first half than they were in the second, missing the championship by only a game. Nonetheless, some interesting things happened in Brevard this year, and the Brewers appear to like the location for the High-A team (having just resigned with Brevard through 2010!), so this season review should prove entertaining.
This was a very tough decision for me because Hernan Iribarren and Charlie Fermaint both had very strong years in Brevard. It was also tough considering that Katin didn't play the full season in Brevard, but even with his call-up, Katin still lead the team in At-bats. Katin paced the team with a .813 OPS, as well as had the team high in homers at 13 and doubles at 34. Brendan only walked 34 times in his 450 ab's, so his on base percentage is not above average, but his power is legitimate. A .464 Slugging Percentage with 50 extra base hits in the Florida League is hard, but in Brevard County it is astronomical. Having traveled to Space Coast Stadium, I can tell you personally that the field is huge and that the fact that it is regularly submerged in water is very typical of the weather in central Florida. Katin finished the season in Huntsville and should open there in 2007. If he can improve his walk rate while maintaining his power, he will have a shot at becoming a starter in the majors.
Team Cy Young
Unlike the team MVP, which I was able to give to a player who played 90% of the season with the Manatees, a pitcher who barely played half his year in Florida wins the Cy Young Award. And I ask: how could Yovani have not won this award? Yo lead the Minors in k's with 188 in 155 innings, with 103 of those coming in Brevard County. He also maintained a WHIP of exactly 1.00 even though he was barely 20 when the season started. Perhaps even more amazing is that he was able to keep his opponent's batting average below .200 at both levels. Statistically, Yovani dominated everything. As for his actual pitching, I can tell you that his fastball pops at 94, and that he consistently pitches between 91-94 MPH (he hit 94 about 10 times when I saw him). His control is immaculate, leading to only 51 walks and a K: BB ratio well over three. On top of that, Yo only allowed 104 hits this season, meaning he actually pitched 51 hitless innings---a true feat for any pitcher at any level. Yo's presence on the mound as well as his awe inspiring stuff have allowed him to be compared to Roy Oswalt, and yet it is justified. Yovani is the best pitching prospect the Brewers have had since Ben Sheets, and we should all pray every night that nothing stops him from dominating at the MLB level.
Aside from the team MVP and CY Young, there were several other brilliant performers:
Hernan's excellent season was slightly marred by the fact that he was caught using a corked bat early in the summer. For this grievous offense, Hernan was suspended for three games. But when he returned, he was a different player. In April and May, Hernan carried an OPS under .700, which was quite possibly the reason he experimented with cork. After his suspension, Hernan turned back into the player that batted .439 in Rookie ball in 2004, hitting .356 in June and .402 in July. Hernan doesn't have much power, but his patience is average (39 walks in 398 ab's) and his ability to hit singles is extraordinary. Hernan isn't the fastest runner and his enthusiasm for base stealing should wane following a campaign where he stole 19 bases against 15 CS. His defense is not particularly flashy, but he gets the job done, and the Brewers have given no indication that they intend to move him from second base. Perhaps Hernan's biggest hurdle is that he's already on the 40 man roster, meaning that he's only got 2 options remaining. Therefore, Hernan's got to make it through Huntsville and Nashville and stick in the majors by 2009--- a tall order, but one that Hernan should be able to accomplish if he keeps slapping singles.
Fermaint was a bit of a surprise addition to the Brevard roster at the beginning of the season. Fermaint, still 20 years old, only briefly saw Low-A after his dominating performance in Helena. Of course, the raw talent Fermaint possesses, along with his clear ability to greatly improve himself as a ball player allowed the Brewers to take a risk which paid off. It seems like 10 years ago that Fermaint was a raw teenager striking out 83 times in 218 ab's in Helena, but that was only in 2004. Amazingly, Charlie managed to double his ab's from 2004 this year while only striking out 119 times at a much higher level. Like Hernan, Charlie walks at a decent clip (42 times in 424 ab's) and gets caught stealing way too often (14 caught stealing against 27 stolen bases). However, Charlie is a natural in the field, and his defense is a strong asset. While Charlie only knocked 31 extra base hits this season, he has shown in the past that he will develop average to above average home run power. Charlie should rise to AA in 2007 and using his previous statistical success as a guide, succeed with ease.
Steve Hammond entered the season already a bit old for Brevard County, so it came as no surprise that he displayed brilliant ability on the mound. Luckily for us Brewerfans, Steve's fantastic performance carried over to AA. In his time in Brevard, Steve managed a 2.54 ERA and struck out 70 men against 23 walks in 85 innings. He only allowed 68 hits, which led to a superb WHIP of 1.07. Upon rising to Huntsville, his k rate dropped a bit, but he maintained his ability to limit hits, so his performance did not suffer. His statistical performance should be considered even more impressive considering that Steve is a lefty. I have not personally seen Steve pitch, but his draft status (6th Round), his clear statistical dominance, and recent comments from the organization make me very optimistic about his future with the 'Crew.
Braun's time in Brevard was certainly not as absolutely awesome as his time in Huntsville has been this year, but his performance did warrant the organization to promote him. Braun carried a .784 OPS and had 21 extra base hits, along with 23 walks and 14 stolen bases in 226 at bats for the 'Tees. If he had played in Florida for the full season, he would have been an easy choice for Team MVP. While Ryan's defensive reputation is below average, his actual skills buck that thought. Ryan is not as smooth as all-star caliber defenders at 3b, but he knows how to play the position and he has a strong arm. Ryan profiles defensively to be a lot like Chipper Jones, who started out very rough at third base, but has advanced to being an average defender. Of course, if Braun has the offensive career that Chipper has enjoyed, he will be a major league superstar. Braun did not destroy the Florida State League, but his performance was strong enough to warrant a call-up, and as we now know, that was far and away the right move for the Brewers.
Many other players had bright moments in a mediocre season:
Manny Parra and Mike Jones
Manny and Mike both went a long way to prove first of all that they are still alive and second of all that they can still hurl the ball with some authority. Both players pitched about 55 innings and enjoyed relative success, though Jones had trouble controlling the ball at times and there were rumors that his velocity was way off (we've recently confirmed that Jones is currently throwing in the low 90's as opposed to the high 90's from earlier in his career, but there is reason to believe some more of the velocity might return). Manny managed to strike out 62 batters in his limited work, once again showing why he was and still is considered one of the best pitching prospect in the system. The best thing, of course, about 2006 is that we can all enjoy the off-season without waiting to hear the results of either Jones' or Parra's surgery. Here's to a 2007 with full workloads for both pitchers and exponential success!
Steve Sollman is an older college guy who doesn't have the greatest shot at being a starter in the majors. Nonetheless, Steve helped the team all season with his high OBP (.392) and made the all-star team. Sollman could easily make it all the way to the majors in a similar role to Chris Barnwell.
Alcides is a top prospect, even if his hitting statistics do not immediately explain why. Alcides is such a highly advanced defender that scouts and the organization drool over his skills even though he only managed a .601 OPS. In my limited experience watching Escobar I can back up all the statements about him defensively: he is genuinely excellent and he makes plays that don't even look possible. Alcides will play in the majors, but it's up to him whether he wants to be Rey Ordonez or Omar Vizquel. He has extreme talent with the glove and good ability with the bat, he just needs to put it all together and stay healthy wherever he plays next year.
Ryan Crew started the year in West Virginia, where he did pretty well. When Alcides went down, Crew came up and played very well. Ryan managed to bat .296 with a .372 OBP and 13 extra base hits, good for a .748 OPS in 223 Ab's. Those are very good numbers for a guy that plays a good SS. Crew's success must have been a surprise for the Brewers as he was drafted in the 40th round last year. Already 23, Crew is ready for the challenge of a higher level.
Robert pitched very well as a reliever and even better in his six starts. He struck out 95 guys in 88 innings, while only walking 26, so he demonstrates good control and nice ratios. Like Crew, Hinton was a 40th round pick, and his successes are enjoyable to follow. Here's to a fantastic year in Huntsville as he continues his progress to becoming a long man in Milwaukee.
Joe did a good job in West Virginia and was promoted to Brevard, where he pitched about as well as Brendan Frazier's character in The Scout. It's hard to describe how successful a pitcher has to be to throw 30 innings and only allow 1 run, while also striking out 32 guys. Joe had the best run by a pitcher in the Brewers organization this side of Yo and Inman, so he deserves to be pursuing a ring in Huntsville right now. Joe's 25 and he was signed as a minor league free agent last year, but he's doing everything he needs to do to play in the majors.
Well, that's about half the team---of course, there were strong performances by other players as well, including Josh Alliston, Josh Wahpepah, and David Johnson, but I tried to focus in on the main contributors and prospects. Brevard is a really unique place because of its extremes, but that doesn't make it a bad place for the Brewers to have a team. Sure, it's really far from Milwaukee, and yea there's not that much support, but it's a good place for the players and it doesn't seem to have the negative effect on development that High Desert did. Next year's team will have a couple of speedsters, some power, and an Ace pitcher, so it should be very exciting to watch.