We’ve made it. Finally, we arrive to the cream of the Brewers crop, the top five prospects in the system. These five are universally regarded as being the best that the Brewers have to offer, and it is easy to see why. All possess game-changing talent, and could realistically be perennial all-stars if they reach their respective ceilings. Only time will tell, but these five are the crux of why David Stearns and Co. are brewing something special in Milwaukee.
5. Phil Bickford P
Hours before the 2016 trade deadline, the San Francisco Giants decided to make a move to bolster the back-end of their bullpen by acquiring reliever Will Smith from the Brewers. Due to his value as a near elite left-handed specialist, Smith did not come at a low price, as the Giants had to give up top-100 prospect Phil Bickford and catcher Andrew Susac. Bickford was a two time first round draft pick, being the 10th overall pick in 2013 out of high school and then the 18th overall pick in 2015. His fastball is considered to be his best pitch, as he has a four-seam that can reach 98 mph (more recent reports however have suggested that his velocity has dropped) and a two-seam that comfortably sits anywhere from 89-92 mph. The two-seamer can be especially effective, as it possesses good arm-side run that makes it a swing and miss pitch. Bickford also throws an above-average slider and has a below-average yet developing change-up that should become a serviceable offering. One area in which he has reportedly struggled is with his command, with some saying that he is wild while others say he has pinpoint control. I do not perceive any major issues in that area, and assume the variability in reports is due to his ongoing development as a pitcher. His walk rate did balloon to 5.0 BB/9 after his trade to the Brewers, but he is a young pitcher, and command issues are bound to happen at times with stuff as “electric” as his.
Bickford started his professional career strong in 2015 with the Giants’ Arizona League affiliate, pitching to a 2.01 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP with 32 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. This earned him a promotion to Class-A for 2016, where he spent only 11 starts (2.70 ERA and 10.4 K/9) before being promoted to Class-A Advanced. He thrived there as well, and had a 2.73 ERA with 9.8 K/9 prior to being traded to the Brewers. He struggled by his standards upon arriving with the Brewers Class-A Advanced affiliate Brevard County, but still achieved a respectable 3.67 ERA with 10.0 K/9 in a league where he was more than three years younger than the average player.
Bickford has all the makings to be a front of the rotation starter. He stands at 6’4” and weighs 200 lbs., with there still being room for him to add more muscle. If Bickford does not make it as a starter, he possesses the skill set to be a high-leverage reliever and closer, but I do not expect him to take that route. He may begin his big league career in the bullpen if the Brewers need help, but he should eventually find a spot in the rotation. I expect him to get off to a fast start in 2017 and continue ascending through the farm system.
4. Corey Ray OF
Corey Ray was the Brewers compensation for their awful 2015 season, as they selected him with the 5th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Born and raised in Chicago, Ray played for the highly regarded Racine Hitters travel team in high school, making him quite familiar with baseball in Wisconsin. He did not sign as a 33rd round draft choice in 2013, opting to instead attend the University of Louisville. After seeing limited action during his freshman year, Ray emerged to be an elite threat as a sophomore, hitting .325/.389/.545 while driving in 56 runs and stealing 34 bases. He built on this by putting together a similarly spectacular junior campaign in which he was in the running for the Golden Spikes award. He hit .310/.388/.545, hitting 15 home runs, driving in 61 runs, and stealing 44 bases without getting caught even once.
Ray was profiled by many as the best available position prospect prior to the MLB draft, and was highly sought after due to his elite power-speed combo. Once he fully develops, he could easily be a 20-20 player, and that is on the modest end of the projection scale. Ray started off his professional career with an aggressive assignment to Class-A Advanced Brevard County. After a rough July in which he hit .221/.262/.265 with no home runs and only four extra base hits, Ray righted the ship with a successful August. He hit .250/.328/.491, with five home runs and ten doubles. Disappointingly, he did not display his speed, stealing only nine bases across 57 games, but I expect this to be more due to situational reasons and because he had some troubles getting on base.
While he stands 5’11” and weighs 185 lbs., Ray has the unique ability to play all three outfield positions, but probably profiles best in left field or center field. He is one of several impact outfielders currently in the minor leagues for the Brewers, and it will be interesting to see how this situation pans out. He will almost certainly start the season in Class-A Advanced, and should he succeed there, I could see him being promoted to Double-A near the mid-season mark.
3. Luis Ortiz P
The addition of Luis Ortiz in the Lucroy/Jeffress trade deadline blockbuster gave the Brewers a high impact arm to add to the top of their farm system. Originally a first round draft pick of the Rangers in 2014, Ortiz is only 21 years old, and stands 6’3” and weighs 230 lbs. He shows polish and skill that few other pitchers his age possess. He features three above average pitches, with a mid 90s fastball, a slider, and a change-up. Interestingly enough, Ortiz had a connection to the Brewers before they even acquired him. In high school, Brewers pitcher Matt Garza mentored Ortiz, inviting the youngster to work out at 5:30 in the morning. Ortiz obliged, and it pushed him to the next level, helping him achieving his goal of being drafted in the first round.
Since his introduction to professional baseball, Ortiz has experienced nothing but success. In 2015, his first full professional season, Ortiz pitched to a 4-1 record with a 1.80 ERA. He maintained excellent rates of 8.3 K/9 and a lowly 1.3 BB/9, both being quite exceptional for a pitcher as young as he. However, he was limited to only 50 innings as he battled arm issues over the course of the year. Nonetheless, he was deservedly ranked as a consensus top-75 prospect by numerous scouting outlets heading into the 2016 season. After seven successful appearances in Class-A Advanced, the Rangers decided to promote him to Double-A, which was quite a fast promotion given that Ortiz had such little experience in the minor leagues up to that point. Ortiz took the promotion in stride, and although he did not dominate upon his arrival, he still proved to be effective in a league where the average player was over four years older than he. After pitching to a 4.08 ERA in nine games at Double-A, the Rangers traded Ortiz to the Brewers.
The Brewers assigned Ortiz to the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers, where he dominated from the get-go. Ortiz started his Brewers career with five scoreless appearances over 17.1 innings, living up to the lofty expectations that he brought with him when he was acquired as a top-rated prospect. In his short debut with the Brewers organization, Ortiz certainly impressed, pitching to a 2-2 record with a 1.93 ERA.
While ascending through the minors as quickly as he has, it would not surprise me if Ortiz started the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs. If he succeeds there, we could see Ortiz in a Brewers uniform as soon as the second-half of 2017. The Brewers will surely be careful with the 21 year-old, but it is hard to not get excited about a prospect with his talent.
2. Josh Hader P
A tall, lanky, electric lefty that is a ripe 22 years of age, Hader reminds many of White Sox ace Chris Sale. Originally a 19th round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, then traded to the Houston Astros in 2013, Hader has outdone all expectations and turned himself into a premier prospect. Like Luis Ortiz, Hader has for the most part been extremely successful thus far in his career, with only a couple small hiccups along the way. In 2012-2014, he pitched to ERAs of 1.88, 2.77, and 3.29, respectively. In 2012, he struck out an unbelievable 15.1 hitters per nine innings. Although this was over a relatively small period of 28.2 innings, it still is an outstanding achievement, and a valid indicator of how dominant Hader can be.
In 2015, the Brewers acquired Josh Hader from the Astros in a trade deadline blockbuster. The Brewers sent centerfielder Carlos Gomez and starting pitcher Mike Fiers to Houston in exchange for a glut of prospects – outfielder Brett Phillips, outfielder Domingo Santana, pitcher Adrian Houser, and Hader. Prior to the trade, Hader had pitched to a 3.17 ERA with 9.5 K/9 with the Astros Double-A affiliate, and upon his arrival to Double-A Biloxi, he picked up right where he left off. Over the remainder of the season, Hader achieved a 2.79 ERA with 11.6 K/9 and a 0.98 WHIP, making it start to look like he may turn into the gem of the deadline deal that was originally thought to be headlined by Brett Phillips. Following this successful transition, the Brewers assigned Hader to the Arizona Fall League. This is where his stock as a prospect began to soar, with the rest of the league taking notice. In 16 innings, Hader pitched to a pristine 0.56 ERA and 0.93 WHIP, while striking out 10.7 hitters per nine innings for good measure. Couple with his impressive 2015 regular season, Hader vaulted into baseball’s top-100 prospect rankings headed into 2016.
Hader started 2016 back at Double-A Biloxi, but it quickly became apparent that he simply was too talented for the league. Over 11 starts, he pitched to a 0.95 ERA and an even WHIP of 1.00. Looking to further his development, the Brewers promoted Hader to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He faltered in the thin air, and finished the season with a 1-7 record and a 5.22 ERA. More concerning was his walk rate, which ballooned to 4.7 BB/9. However, at least some of his struggles can be attributed to the incredibly hitter-friendly environment in Colorado Springs. While pitching at home, Hader had a 6.10 ERA, while on the road, he had a 4.50 ERA. The discrepancy between the two environments can be seen further in his BAA, which was .301 at home and .194 on the road. A transition to a new minor league level is no easy task, and becomes even harder when your home stadium is one of the most hitter-friendly professional ballparks in the country.
There are many reasons to be encouraged with Hader going forward. He improved dramatically down the stretch of the season, and I expect him to bounce back in 2017. There is no questioning Hader’s ability as a pitcher. He possesses two plus-pitches with his mid 90s fastball and sharp slider, and he is working on developing his change-up into a more reliable offering. Much like Ortiz, we could see Hader in a Brewers uniform sometime in 2017 if he succeeds in his second bout at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
1. Lewis Brinson OF
Considered the jewel of the Brewers’ 2016 deadline deal with the Texas Rangers, Brinson possesses the potential to be one of the most special players in Brewers history. Drafted in the first round by the Rangers in 2012, Brinson has all the tools necessary to be a perennial all-star. Coupling his raw power with elite speed, he is a serious threat to be the first Brewers player to achieve a 30 home run-30 steal season since Ryan Braun in 2012. Brinson also has the ability to be a special defender, as his speed, arm, and instincts give him the ability to be a hawk in centerfield.
While he had shown glimpses of elite talent in the past, 2015 was truly Brinson’s breakout year, one in which he planted in the minds of many that it was not a question of if he would be a superstar in the MLB, but when. In 2015, Brinson played in 100 games across Class-A Advanced, Double-A, and Triple-A. Cumulatively, Brinson hit .332/.403/.601 with 20 home runs and 18 stolen bases. He followed this up with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .300/.408/.575. This success led to Brinson being ranked as baseball’s #16 prospect prior to the 2016 season, per MLB.com.
Brinson started 2016 with Texas’s Double-A affiliate, and he encountered much less success than in 2015. He struggled through injuries, and through the first half of the year he was hitting .219/.273/.417. He improved in the second half, hitting .268/.293/.455 prior to his trade to the Brewers, but he still was performing as only a shadow of his 2015 form. Upon arriving to the Brewers, Brinson was promoted immediately to Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he thrived. In his first game, he went 4-4 with a double, and the success kept coming. Over the remaining 23 games of the season, Brinson seemingly was back to being himself, as he hit .382/.387/.618. While some may want to attribute this success to Colorado Springs’ altitude, he still hit a gaudy .327/.346/.592 on the road. One alarming detail was his lack of walks, as he drew only two with Colorado Springs. This is one aspect of his game that he needs to work on to ensure that he is as successful as he can be at the major league level.
Brinson could certainly make a case to be the Brewers starting centerfielder on opening day in 2017, but I suspect that he will start the year with Triple-A Colorado Springs to continue polishing the rough edges that remain with the 22 year-old. The Brewers are in no rush to promote him to the big leagues, as they have plenty of outfield talent on their current roster with young players such as Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Hernan Perez all being worthy of playing time. However, should the Brewers trade Ryan Braun this off-season, it would create an interesting situation in which we may see Brinson sooner rather than later.