Pure stuff has never been a problem for Nick - he has a high 90's fastball with movement, a wicked slider, a good changeup and a serviceable curveball.
When you want to know how your minor league system compares with all the other 29 farm systems, look no further than what Baseball America, arguably the most knowledgeable think tank of minor league gurus out there, has to say. Here is an excerpt of what they had to say about the Brewers back before the 2001 season:
"The Brewers system has been down at out for awhile now... years of injuries, curious draft decisions and bad personnel moves have left the organization with little talent."
Baseball America ranked the Brewers' farm system dead last in baseball, #30. So, there is nowhere to go but up. This, however, takes time. Brewers GM Dean Taylor, Scouting Director Jack Zduriencik and Farm Director Greg Riddoch have all freely admitted in might take 5 years before the Brewers' farm can be looked upon with envy. In all likelihood, though, the Brewers farm will be in the bottom 5 systems in baseball as Baseball America ranks them again next spring. The question is, what progress has been made this season?
First off, one thing that I will not attempt to do is to relate the Brewers' total system talent to that of other minor league systems - I don't know any others well enough where as I could make a fair comparison. What I will try to do is show where the Brewers' system has gone this season, in relation to themselves, and in relation to where it was last season.
The roots of any good, solid farm system are obviously in the June Amateur Draft. When Dean Taylor and company took over the Brewers towards the end of the 1999 season, one of the things they vowed to do was to remake the farm system through the draft. This is a slow and tedious process, especially given the almost total lack of talent the system had when they arrived on the scene. The only bona fide prospect that the organization had was Ben Sheets. Taylor had two options of how to use the draft: to provide quick fixes towards the top of the system as the lower parts of the system were trashed, or two rebuild the entire system from the ground floors up. He chose the second option.
Sal Bando's last draft was the June 1999 draft, where the Brewers drafted and signed 37 players; 13 of the first 18 picks were college guys. In Taylor's first draft, in June 2000, drafted and signed 29 players; the number of high college picks dropped, as only 7 of the first 18 picks were collegians. In the June 2001 draft, the Brewers have (so far) drafted and signed 29 players; 6 of the first 10 picks were high-schoolers.
Maybe the first thing of note to say about the recent drafts is how few of Bando's '99 picks are left in the system now. #1 pick Ben Sheets is in Milwaukee. #2 Kade Johnson is in A+ ball. #5 Dustin Lansford is in A ball. #7 Jeff Robinson is in A+ ball. #8 David Pember is in A+ ball. #10 Ben Hendrickson is in A ball. Of the 37 players selected, only 17 are still in the organization and besides Sheets, only #24 Ryan Knox is above A+ ball. Taylor has weeded out a lot of what Bando had left him.
When Taylor started drafting in June of 2000, it was clear that he would follow the path taken by his former employer, the Atlanta Braves - draft very young players and try to develop them, rather than draft college players and see how they work out. To start with, both of his #1 draft picks have been high school picks: Dave Krynzel, a centerfielder from a Nevada HS in '00 and Mike Jones, a starting pitcher from an Arizona HS in '01. In both cases, Taylor could have drafted a more signable prospect, but opted for high-potential players that the Brewers could groom they way they wanted to. And the run on high school talent hasn't stopped with the #1 pick for the Taylor-lead Brewers. Of the 14 guys chosen by the Brewers with their first 7 picks in '00 and '01, only 4 were non-high school guys.
The thing that makes overhauling a system take a while, especially with numerous HS picks, is that it takes time for young guys to develop. This requires patience with the players from management, as well as the fans, as the system waits for these youngsters to make impacts on the system.
To focus on the 2001 draft, the Brewers went in well aware of the two big needs of the system: positional players and left-handed pitching. However, when Mike Jones fell into their laps, it was impossible to resist the 18 year old from Phoenix. The Brewers did, though, make their next two HS picks positional players: #2 pick JJ Hardy, a HS SS from Tucson and #4 pick, Brad Nelson, a HS 1B/3B from Iowa. They took a total of 3 high school pitchers in the first 10 rounds, although none of them was left handed, and they failed to sign their #12 pick, Ray Liotta, a lefty HS pitcher. The Brewers also took 3 college pitchers in the first 10 rounds, #3 pick Jon Steitz from Yale, #5 pick Judd Richardson from Miami (Ohio) and #9 pick Dennis Sarfate from Chandler-Gilbert CC. A couple of late-round HS pitchers were also signed, #30 pick Chris Gittings and #41 pick Hubert Pruett.
Probably the best measure of the success of a farm system is how many good major league prospects there are. Going into the 2001 season, the Brewers had only a ragtag bunch of prospects. The only sure thing of the group was Ben Sheets. Ben started the season in Milwaukee, though, graduating out of the farm system, and leaving the farm looking even more bare. Other players had to step up.
Nick Neugebauer was the Brewers' #2 prospect entering the season and was more than up to the challenge of filling Sheeets' shoes. Pure stuff has never been a problem for Nick - he has a high 90's fastball with movement, a wicked slider, a good changeup and a serviceable curveball. Controlling where the pitched went was his big problem. In 209 IP before the season, Nick had struck out a whopping 299 men, but had also walked an equally whopping 214 men, while only allowing 128 hits. This season, largely aided by the efforts of Huntsville pitching coach Mike Caldwell, Nick turned himself around and began to show signs of good control, walking only 61 in 131 IP, while maintaining an excellent strikeout rate, with 175 K's. His number of hits allowed did rise a bit as he found more of the plate, but his promise as a pitcher can not be denied now. He was promoted to Milwaukee in late August, and although he had to have shoulder surgery, will likely start the season with the Brewers, too. He was named the Brewers' Minor League Pitcher Of The Year.
What typifies the Brewers' problems, though, is that once you look past the one main prospect, there isn't really a single bona fide prospect after him. There is some potential here or there, markedly more than a few years ago, but guys still have to step up to start making this farm system work.
If there is an area that the Brewers are strong in, it is right-handed starting pitching. Beyond Neugebauer, the Brewers have a number of right-handers that could blossom next season. Mike Jones, the 2001 #1 pick, is a fireballer with 3 quality pitches and possibly the smoothest delivery in the system, although he is only 18, so any major league contributions from him will have to wait awhile. Jose Mieses, a Dominican signee, was poised to break out this season, however his season was cut short, first by a cracked vertebra in his back, then with a labrum tear in his shoulder - he should be ready to go by spring training, but since he only throws in the mid 80's, we will have to wait and see if he has the command to fend off big league hitters. Ben Hendrickson, a '99 draftee, really came into his own in his first season in A ball, posting a sub-3 ERA - he had a plus fastball, good changeup and an excellent curve, but he needs to refine his command. JM Gold, picked in the first round ahead of Neugebauer in '98, had Tommy John surgery last season and had some recurring arm soreness as he made his comeback this year, but if he ever fully recovers, he has Neuegebauer's fastball with even more wicked breaking stuff. Just about the only decent left-handed pitching prospect the Brewer have is Luis Martinez, another Dominican signee, who has a good fastball and offspeed stuff, but struggles with control.
The main reason for the poor rating the Brewers' farm system gets is an almost total lack of quality position player prospects. The Brewers really don't have a single guy that looks to be on the level that Neugebauer is, or Sheets was. This is the area that presents the main challenge for Taylor - restocking the farm system with hitters. There is a little hope for the future. Dave Krynzel, the Brewers' #1 pick in 2000, has the makings of a decent leadoff hitter down the road. While he doesn't take many walks at the moment, he does make plus contact and is extraordinarily fast, both on the basepaths and in center field, where he also has a good arm. Jason Belcher, a fellow 2000 pick (4th round) also makes good contact, and has much better plate discipline that Dave, along with budding power - Jason's main problem right now is staying healthy and staying behind the plate, where he will be a liability if he doesn't progress there defensively. Billy Hall, the Brewers' Minor League Player Of The Year, had a great season at hitter-friendly High Desert, showing 5-tool skills that hadn't come to the surface before this season, but he needs to show that stiffer competition and better pitchers won't slow him down in AA and beyond. Cristian Guerrero, a cousin of Vlad and Wilton, has the most potential of any Brewers' hitting prospect with a 6'7 frame and long reach, as well as good speed and an outstanding arm, but he is still raw and needs a lot of time. JJ Hardy, the Brewers' #2 pick in 2001, like Hall, is also a 5-tool talent, but is just 18.
On The Whole
It is not fair to compare farm systems by the records of the teams in the systems, because at the minor league level, a team's goal is to develop players first, and win second. However, I don't think it is a bad idea to compare a system from year to year, especially a system that needs to get massively better. System-wide stats tell both how players are developing, and what the parent club is trying to teach. Here is an analysis of some of those statistics.
In 2001, the Brewers' farm system (excluding the Domincian and Venezuelan teams) hit .266/.339/.405, a 743 OPS, up from .258/.342/.382, a 724 OPS, a year ago. Just looking at that, it looks like some organizational-wide improvements were made, but a look a litter further into the numbers is needed. First, the Brewers moved their A+ team from Mudville to High Desert. High Desert is a hitters' paradise, almost a Coors Field of the California League, which really boosted the slugging numbers of the system. So, if you take out the improvement in slugging, which may or may not be real, the OBP actually dropped 3 points from last year to this season. Last season, the Brewers' minor leaguers walked about 10 times per 100 plate appearences; in 2001, that dropped to about 8.5 BB per 100 PA. Coupled with the fact that the strikeout rate rose from 18.9 K/100 to 20.1 K/100, and that OBP was generally higher in High Desert, it is tough to say that any organizational progress has been made, plate-discipline-wise. Contact hitting was better, but that too also can partially/mostly be attributed to the Cal League team.
On the pitching side, I am going to venture to say some progress was made, despite some numbers that looked worse than last season's. The system ERA rose from 4.19 in 2000 to 4.42 in in 2001, but that obviously was also skewed by the High Desert team. The number of baserunners allowed per IP stayed nearly the same from 2000 to 2001 (1.48 to 1.49), as did the opponent's OBP (.342 to .344), so without the High Desert influence, these numbers would have gotten a bit better this season. One of the most encouraging stats is that the K/BB ratio dramatically improved this season, from 1.88 last season to 2.21 this season. Also, even with High Desert, the number of HR allowed per IP actually dropped a tiny bit from last season to this one. This shows the pitchers are learning to keep the ball down and get it by hitters, which would be a welcome addition in Milwaukee.
Dean Taylor appears to know what it will take to get this system moving in the right direction. There are a number of good player in A ball and below that could turn into studs in the next few seasons, and much better coaches and developmental staff are in place than there were in recent seasons. This will not be an easy journey, even to the middle of the league, however. The Brewers need to stay the course they have pointed themselves towards: draft young players that can be developed how the Brewers can use them best down the road. There are no quick fixes here to be sure, but the last thing this system needs is a quick fix. Years of neglect have cost the farm system and mother club dearly, and it is about time that this team gets back on their feet. There are more and more reasons to be excited. Just wait for them a little more.
Brewerfan.com All-Minors Teams
Catcher - Lance Burkhart - A+/AA
First Base - Corey Hart - R+
Second Base - Marcos Scutaro - AAA
Third Base - Josh Klimek - AA/AAA
Shortstop - Billy Hall - A+/AA
Left Field - Jim Rushford - A+/AA
Center Field - Dave Krynzel - A/A+
Right Field - Jeff Deardorff - A+/AA
Utility - Florian Villenueva - R+
Right Handed Starter - Nick Neugebauer - AA/AAA
Left Handed Starter - Derek Lee - AA
Right Handed Reliever - Jason Childers - AA
Left Handed Reliever - Tim Davis - AA
Closer - Brian Mallette - AA/AAA
Catcher - Kade Johnson - A+
First Base - Bucky Jacobsen - AA/AAA
Second Base - Ralph Santana - R+
Third Base - DJ Clark - A
Shortstop - Steve Scarborough - A+
Left Field - David Gibralter - AA/AAA
Center Field - Thomas Carrow - R+
Right Field - Micah Franklin - AAA
Utility - Jeff Kenney - A/A+
Right Handed Starter - Ben Hendrickson - A
Left Handed Starter - Pete Smart - R+/A
Right Handed Reliever - Mike Shwam - A
Left Handed Reliever - Matt Williams - AAA
Closer - Mike Adams - R+