Jones emerged as the overwhelming choice as the Pioneer League's top prospect.
With Baseball America's recent survey of the best 20 prospects in each respective league, it gives everyone an opportunity to step back from an abysmal season and once again look forward & hope for a better future. This year's crop of talented youngsters represented on those lists offer more & more hope, and show more & more proof that the minor league system is slowly but surely showing signs of life, at least at the lower levels. In 2-3 years, we can only hope that the talent keeps moving up progressing at an equally constant rate, so that all of the levels of the system are rich w/ talent, theoretically leading to more talent at the major-league level as well.
Here are the representatives from those prospect lists, and what Baseball America had to say about them followed by my own take. Starting from the bottom, and working up:
Arizona League-Rookie League
#10 PEDRO ESPARRAGOZA, c
Esparragoza's hitting skills are suspect. In three years as a pro, he has batted .248 with three homers in 448 at-bats. But managers loved his skills behind the plate.
There was no doubt that Esparragoza was the league's best defensive catcher. He threw out 41 percent of base stealers, trailing only Francisco D'Jesus of the Giants (74 percent).
"He's a cat behind the plate," Munoz said. "He has a quick release and blocks every ball. He's always in a game and really takes charge of a pitching staff."
My take: Being ranked #10 in any league based on defensive skills alone tells you how valued those skills are in all of baseball. Of course, Esparragoza is going to have to hit more at higher levels to continue to find his way onto more prospect lists. Hitting skills can always develop w/ time & maturity, or, we may just be looking at the next Henry Blanco, and for those that enjoy the best of defensive catchers, that is not a bad thing in the least.
Pioneer League-Rookie League
#1 Mike Jones, Ogden Raptors
Jones emerged as the overwhelming choice as the Pioneer League's top prospect. One manager described him as a smaller version of Andy Benes, while nearly everyone thought he has the potential to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter.
The 12th overall pick in June, Jones displayed tremendous poise for a pitcher taken out of high school. Managers liked his arm action, as well as his tall frame and lean body. His fastball explodes on the way to the plate, residing in the 92-95 mph range and reaching as high as 97.
"He's like many major league pitchers in that the last six or seven feet of his fastball really jumps," Casper manager P.J. Carey said. "He has an easy arm, a great body and a tremendous mound demeanor for a young kid."
The key to Jones' long-term success will be the development of his second and third pitches. His curveball looked good at times but remained flat on other occasions. His changeup is no better than average.
My take: Jones is the 2nd of 2 consecutive Brewers' 1st-round picks (Krynzel being the other) representing the league's #1 pick. Jones' ceiling is as high as it gets, that of a #1 ace starter to front a rotation. His fastball is impressive, as is his smooth delivery & pitching actions. His poise makes him seem a lot older than what he is, and may aid a more rapid minor league development. As noted, his secondary pitches will likely dictate how effective he will be at the higher levels of the system. Both Neugebauer & Sheets really took off when they realized the importance of mixing in an additional off-speed pitch, and it should be of no coincidence if Jones follows a similar path of success. Given the Brewers draft selection for next season, they may just add a 3rd consecutive top Pioneer League prospect.
#9 JON STEITZ, rhp, Ogden Raptors
Having apprenticed under the Braves' John Schuerholz for many years, Brewers GM Dean Taylor is taking the same approach and trying to stockpile young arms. In Jones and Steitz, Milwaukee had two of the most promising pitchers in the league.
Drafted out of Yale in the third round this June, Steitz has above-average stuff across the board. He possesses an easy arm and smooth delivery. He features a 90-93 mph fastball with outstanding sinking action and a sharp breaking ball with good rotation. He still lacks consistency in the strike zone, which led to some poundings, but the talent is in place and needs only some minor refining.
"He's a pitcher where batters seem to be getting good cuts off him, but he breaks a lot of bats," Sedar said. "Once he learns to develop a little more rhythm and confidence, he's going to be a dominating pitcher."
My take: I'm sure I wasn't the only one that was surprised to see Steitz rank as high as he did if at all on the Pioneer League top 20. It goes to show you how much scouts are looking for skills & projection over actual statistical performance. Steitz is not as polished as one would think being drafted out of college from an Ivy League school. Steitz reminds me a lot of John Smoltz for some reason, even w/ never seeing the guy pitch, although his slider has been compared to that of Scott Erickson.
#10 J.J. HARDY, ss, Ogden Raptors
Drafted between Jones and Steitz by the Brewers, Hardy was the league's top shortstop prospect. Possessing at least average talent in all phases of the game, Hardy shined on defense with several highlight-reel plays.
He drew comparisons to Robin Yount with his smooth and easy actions on defense, above-average arm, soft hands and steady footwork. Hardy also showed a consistent swing with solid potential.
"I really like what he's shown me in a short period of time," Sedar said. "He's got all the tools that you look for in a shortstop. When he develops as a hitter, he's going to have some power, too."
"I think some day he's going to be a hitter," Silvestri said. "He's just starting to figure out the wooden bat. Once he does that, he's going to take off. He has a great shot at being in the big leagues in a couple of years."
My take: Anytime you mention Robin Yount w/ the same breath as anyone, you're going to have the devout attention of any & all Brewer fans. His tools sound incredibly impressive, as he should be a fan favorite to keep your eye on as he progresses through the system. He's on the top of my list, along w/ Mike Jones, of players I am most excited to see play at Beloit next season. Watch for him to progress quickly because of his overall skills, with his bat being the last thing to mature.
#19 JON HART, 1b, Ogden Raptors
Hart attracted favorable comparisons to Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson from three of the league's managers. After hitting .287-2-30 in the Pioneer League last year, he tied for third in RBIs and ranked seventh in batting average.
Hart possesses good bat speed and budding power. At 6-foot-6, he has long arms that can create holes in his swing when his mechanics falter, thereby making him susceptible to breaking balls. Nevertheless, his hands work well in his swing, and everyone agreed that he'll start driving the ball consistently once he learns to shorten his stroke. He provides a big target at first base and showed above-average athleticism on defense.
"He's made some big strides since last year," Molina said. "He was a sheltered hitter in a good offensive lineup last season. This year he is driving the ball and hitting 50 points higher. He's definitely headed in the right direction."
My take: Toby isn't this website's minor league specialist for nothing, as he has astutely been keeping a watchful eye on Hart ever since he was drafted. Hart's hitting skills as evidenced through his numbers were very impressive, as one can only hope that he develops a more selective batting eye than what Sexson has so far, not to diminish the importance of 40+ HRs.
Midwest League, A ball
#15 BEN HENDRICKSON, rhp, Beloit Snappers
Managers rated Hendrickson's curveball the top breaking pitch in the MWL. Massarelli and one scout, who both saw Hendrickson reach 94 mph with his fastball, went a step further and called him the best pitching prospect in the league.
He more commonly pitches at 90-91 mph, though he has a projectable body and could pick up more velocity. His curve is definitely his out pitch, and he had some success using his changeup against lefthanders. If he continues to refine his changeup while addressing some command and delivery issues, Hendrickson could be special.
My take: Projection is one of the biggest things scouts praise regarding Hendricksen. At 6'3", 185, he posseses the perfect pitcher's body, which leads many to believe that he is only going to continue to get better & add velocity to his pitches, particularly his fastball. If he has touched 94, that could be a great sign of things to come given his outstanding curveball. He keeps the ball down in the strike zone, leading to fewer HRs allowed while inducing more ground balls. Those traits hopefully will aid his cause next season in hitter-friendly High Desert of the hitting-friendly California League.
California League, high A ball
#9 BILL HALL, ss, High Desert Mavericks
Hall did a little bit of everything before his midseason promotion to Double-A. After hitting .262-3-41 as a Midwest League all-star last season, Hall began the year at the bottom of the High Desert batting order, but he eventually moved up to the third spot in the lineup after surprising the Mavericks with some pop.
He hit 15 homers in 89 Cal League games, though hitter-friendly Mavericks Stadium may have inflated his numbers. Hall batted .337-10-34 at home and .265-5-17 on the road, then slumped to .256-3-14 overall in the Southern League. He needs to develop more strength to hold up over an entire season.
He's most impressive defensively, where he shows good range with a strong arm. Hall made 30 errors in 89 games, but most attribute those to his youth.
My take: Bill Hall is the exact reason why scouts love players with good all-around athletic skills & tools, because sometimes those tools turn into great baseball skills w/ the statistical results to match. BA's take is right on in noting that he does need to get stronger so he can be more effective deeper into the season. And AA is a true test for him. Even if his statistics don't reflect success in the Southern League, he needs to make the proper adjustments to prove he is a legitimate talent. Like Hendricksen, his projection & overall makeup give him the chance to truly be something special.
#15 DAVID KRYNZEL, of, High Desert Mavericks
Kyrnzel batted .305 in 35 games in the Midwest League, but didn't do much else offensively except hit for average. Nonetheless the Brewers promoted him to High Desert at age 19, and he played to mixed reviews.
Those who saw him shortly after his late May callup were left unimpressed. But those who had to play against him when he hit .378 over the final month saw why he was a first-round pick in 2000. His speed makes him an outstanding center fielder and base stealer, though he needs to get better reads on pitchers.
My take: David Krynzel is probably more closely followed & examined than any other Brewers prospect. He stands for so much more than his current skills dictate, as he almost stands as a figure of hopeful impending success being Dean Taylor's first first-round pick as the Brewers' GM. Krynzel, like basically all of the players on these lists, has so many baseball tools that it makes it hard not to like his chances. He made outstanding adjustments after being challenged & promoted to high A ball, not even 1-year out of high school. The Brewers organization may be spending more time & effort in Krynzel than anyone else, and will continue to be pushed up the ladder as long as he keeps producing. If he doesn't make it to the big leagues, it certainly won't be because of a lack of effort.
#2 NICK NEUGEBAUER, rhp, Huntsville Stars
No Southern League pitcher was more overpowering than Neugebauer. After battling control problems during his first three professional seasons, he found the handle on his devastating fastball and reached the big leagues by mid-August.
Neugebauer is a traditional power pitcher who had a comfort zone of 93-97 mph and was clocked as high as 101 by Mobile. He also reached 90 mph consistently with his hard slider, and showed improvement with his developing changeup. Managers were impressed with how Neugebauer seemed to reach back for a little more when the situation presented itself, usually resulting in a strikeout or double play.
"He's learned how to pitch a little bit," Orlando manager Mike Ramsey said. "The command of his offspeed stuff is getting better and that's only going to make him that much tougher, more than just a hard thrower."
My take: Well, we've already had a taste of Neugebauer, so we know what he can do. Obviously, he needs to stay healthy, but the same could be said about everyone currently within the Brewers organization. Not only does his 100 mph fastball make him special, but he beautifully complements that pitch w/ a 90 mph slider. He learned to mix in a servicable curveball & changeup to keep hitters honest. No Brewers pitcher has a ceiling higher than that of Neugebauer, as he should establish himself as the staff ace within a few short years, unless Sheets beats him to it. They could form one of he best 1-2 punches in all of baseball.
On top of that, BA added a section listing the top 10 talents from each league from 5 years ago. Here are the Brewers representatives from those lists:
Pioneer League, R:
#2 Kevin Barker, 1B
#8 Miguel Rodriquez, C
Midwest League, A:
#1 Valerio De Los Santos, LHP
Texas League, AA:
#6 Jeff D'Amico, RHP
#8 Ron Belliard, 2B
This year's honorees could represent 9 of our top 10 prospects from next year, although we know they won't fall into place in that order with several key prospects being omitted from such lists. Keep in mind, that a lot of people didn't even qualify given their service time in their respective leagues. Jason Belcher may have been on the Midwest League's list had he started his season w/ the Snappers & not in the instructional league working on his defense behind the plate. His late season injury certainly didn't help his cause either. J.M. Gold has the pure stuff that could easily place him at a tier similar to that of Neugebauer, given his 2 power pitches. Jose Mieses probably would have been represented on the AAA or AA list had he not suffered an extremely rare & odd back ailment, followed by a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Matt Yeatman, Calvin Carpenter, Judd Richardson, Gerry Oakes, Dennis Sarfate, Ryan Miller, Dane Artman, Greg Moreira, Brian Nielsen & Aaron Sheffield lead a list of pitching hopefuls that could blossom into top prospect type status. Brad Nelson, Bill Scott & Cristian Guerrero all have the offensive skills necessary to make a run at such lists as soon as next year.
And then there are our Latin American scouting ventures. Our DSL team has been very competetive the past 3 years, but truly took a step forward this past year winning the DSL crown handily. Gabriel Mendoza, Enrique Lasose & Jose Valera combined to go 24-3, as each went 8-1 over the course of the DSL season. Aldolfo Casimiro may have been the most impressive of Dominican pitchers, leading the league in strikeouts (92) & ending 2nd in ERA (1.56). Both he & Mendoza are coveted lefties. Melvin Perez led the league w/ 16 saves. As for the hitters, speed seemed to be the key. Manuel Melo led the league in runs & stolen bases, posting a .296/.419/.352 season. 3B Aldrim Gomez led the league in RBIs, while OF Mario Mendez was 2nd. Of course, DSL statistics have yet to prove to be reliable in regards to translating into successful pro careers, but these players along w/ the likes of Esparragoza, Villanueve, Manuel Ramirez and even Jose Mieses represent an important pipeline of Latin American talent. The Brewers need for some of these talents to progress just as much as some of the amateur talent to expect to have a successful talent development program.
The Brewers are doing an excellent job stockpiling pitchers & athleticism, much like some of the most successful farm systems do, in particular, the Yankees & the Braves. Like the Yankees & the Braves, we need to continue to follow that path, and at the same time need to continue to scour the Latin American countries for talent so that we may find our own version of Wilson Betemit. Our top 10 list & beyond will look a heck of a lot better by losing such represetatives as Allen Levrault (#5 from '00), Mike Penney (#8), Horatio Estrada (#9), Brandon Kolb (#10), Carlos Chantres (#12), Mark Ernster (#13) and beyond. With all due respect to Levrault, Penney, etc., our system will be much better when such players aren't considered top 10 talents.
To close, I offer a sleeper prospect to keep an eye on for next year. First of all, Jason Belcher may not be a true sleeper, but I'm sure I'm not the only one that expects big things from him playing at High Desert at some point next season. The same could be said for Daryl Clark, but again isn't a true sleeper. Derry Hammond is destined to be promoted along w/ Clark & Belcher to High Desert next season. After posting a .269/.330/.492 season at Beloit w/ 19 HRs & 73 RBIs, I think he may be ready to display a Bill Hall type of progression in a hitter-friendly ballpark & league. Like Hall, he's always had the physical tools & athleticism, but needs to make the proper adjustments to truly prosper.