Milwaukee Brewers Top 10 Prospects For 2017
The Milwaukee Brewers suffered through a rough season on the field, but their rebuilding efforts took a big step forward. What can they expect from those prospects in 2017?
Our minor league top 10 series is coordinated by Benjamin Chase, one of our contributors at Call To The Pen.
He has poured over thousands of minor league games over the course of the year via milb.tv along with speaking with a number of team and independent scouts. These lists are based out of those conversations.
Each system will have prospects from 10 to 1, and then finish with one newcomer to the system that is worth keeping an eye on that is not in the top 10 at this time.
Conversations are certainly encouraged in the comments section on each system as we go along!
Brewers System Review
It isn’t all that long ago that the Brewers were coming off of their best run in franchise history. The team had averaged 82 wins per season between 2005 and 2014, and for an organization that suffered for a long time as perennial cellar dwellers in their division, outside of a period in the early- to mid-1980s, that was fun for the team and for fans.
However, when the team fell from leading the division late in the season in 2014 to 3rd place and out of the playoffs, it became clear that the financial structure of the team wasn’t going to allow them to keep that team together, and the Brewers entered a time of rebuilding.
It’s hard not to like the multi-faceted way the Brewers have approached their rebuild. They have scanned over the DFA lists, snapping up players like Garin Cecchini and Rymer Liriano as flyers, trading for guys with nowhere to play like Jonathan Villar, and then drafting and trading for a mix of high-floor players and high-ceiling players to bring a breadth of talent into their minor league system throughout.
While the Cecchini and Liriano gambles show that not all of those risks work out, Villar is a great example of how fun it can be when they do. They’ve also seen typical progression from unforeseen sources, like Keon Broxton and Hernan Perez to provide plenty of value to the big league club as the reinforcements work their way up the system.
All in all, this is a drastically improved system, and right now, it’s a system I’m considering as a top 3-5 system in the game, along with the Braves, Dodgers, Phillies, and Yankees. That’s an incredible turn around for a system that was considered on of the 3-5 worst in the league when they started their rebuild just two years ago!
Let’s take a look at the top ten!
10. Marcos Diplan, RHP
Birthdate: 9/18/96 (20 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A, high A
Stats in 2016: 113 1/3 IP, 3.02 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 10.27 BB%, 26.49 K%
In a system with a lot of very exciting arms, Diplan may have been the most fun individual game I got to see this year. Diplan is still growing, yet he flashes premium velocity, a slider with nasty bite, and a change that was leaving hitters shaking their heads in the game I’m referencing, which was his final game of the year, where he went 7 innings in relief, striking out 9.
Diplan is not huge by any means, but there isn’t a ton of effort to his delivery, so his size isn’t a major concern at this point.
Diplan has received multiple comments in my calls about his maturity for his age and his work ethic, as he has a strong desire to be a starter and is willing to work with coaches to be exactly that.
Diplan made his full-season debut in 2016 and jumped from low-A to high-A. Whether the Brewers start him back int eh Florida State League to let him get another look at the league or push him up to AA will be an interesting spring decision, but he has definitely impressed scouts and will be pitching all of 2017 at 20 years old.
9. Jacob Nottingham, C
Birthdate: 4/3/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: AA
Stats in 2016: .234/.295/.347, 11 HR, 9 SB
After a rough season at the plate that saw him struggle in nearly every facet of the game, Nottingham went to the Arizona Fall League, and after mixed reviews in his first couple of weeks in the AFL, he closed strong, and left many in attendance very hopeful for his future at catcher and in general.
Nottingham is a surprisingly good athlete, which you wouldn’t peg just taking a look at his 6’2, 230-pound build, but he was a FBS recruit in college football as a tight end, so he does have some natural athleticism.
Nottingham is not ever going to be premium defensively at catcher, though he does present an excellent target for his pitchers, and he did get good marks for his handling of new pitchers in the AFL.
He’s got a solid enough arm to keep runners honest on the bases and footwork to let the arm play, which is something that surprises many given his size.
Nottingham’s carrying tool will be his bat, and his 2016 was not a positive one with the stick, so he will need another building year with the bat. His pitch recognition has been better in the past than he displayed in 2016, as he seemed to get fooled by even sub-par breaking stuff.
8. Trent Clark, OF
Birthdate: 11/1/96 (20 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A
Stats in 2016: .231/.346/.344, 2 HR, 5 SB
Clark was a very highly regarded hitter in the 2015 draft class, and the Brewers were very pleased to get him at #15 overall. They pushed him to full-season ball in the Midwest League this season, but injuries derailed his first season.
At his best, Clark has a quick swing that allows him to get to balls throughout the zone in spite of an odd swing mechanic in his grip of the bat where he holds the ball like you’d hold your golf driver.
Even with his odd bat grip, Clark showed that he could tap into at least gap power consistently, and with his high level of athleticism, he should be able to develop that into more over the fence power, along the lines of a 15-20 homer hitter down the road with plenty of doubles and triples.
Clark uses his fringe-plus speed plus excellent instincts both in the field and on the bases to receive high marks for his base running and his fielding in center field. While he has a below-average arm, the way he covers ground and gets to balls will allow that to play in center as he moves up.
His instincts on the base paths should allow Clark to turn his well-struck balls into plenty of doubles and triples as he builds on his strike zone recognition, which is still a piece that needs to come. He has a solid walk rate, but he did strike out in 26% of his plate appearances, which is a high rate for a guy who profiles best at the top of the lineup.
Clark will likely see time in high A in 2017.
7. Luis Ortiz, RHP
Birthdate: 9/22/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: high A, AA
Stats in 2016: 90 2/3 IP, 3.08 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 5.93 BB%, 20.1 K%
When the Brewers acquired the 6’3, 230-pound Ortiz from the Rangers in July, the first people that saw him walk in the clubhouse probably thought he was a high-velocity, big whiff sort of pitcher.
Ortiz has an excellent delivery, coming from a high 3/4 arm slot with little effort that runs his fastball up sitting 92-96 and touching 98. His high release point works well in generating plane on his fastball to give him tremendous sink on the pitch.
He mixes that sinking fastball with a slider that grades out as plus due to its excellent late movement. He’s really developed a solid feel for a change up that gets sink and arm side run as well.
Ortiz may not be a guy who strikes out 30% of guys he faces in a year, but he has tremendous command and control that will allow him to find the weak spot of the bat and generate easy outs, which allows him to get plenty deep into ballgames.
Ortiz profiles as an excellent #2/3 starter with a chance to have a short run of success akin to Brandon Webb with his excellent work low in the zone.
6. Josh Hader, LHP
Birthdate: 4/7/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: AA/AAA
Stats in 2016: 126 IP, 3.29 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 10.52 BB%, 30.78 K%
Those who can harken back to the early 1990s and remember a certain long-haired reliever for the Phillies nicknamed “Wild Thing”, Mitch Williams, will have a good idea of what to expect when they watch Hader on the mound. Hader has the similar long hair, explosive delivery, and similarly difficult stuff to hit.
In 2016, however, Hader took a big step forward in the one thing Williams struggled with – keeping the ball in the strike zone. As he did that, everything else played up, and Hader shot up national rankings in response.
Last fall in Arizona, Hader took the first step in finding that control by doing a mechanical tweak to his delivery that allowed him to be more consistent in his delivery. His late break in his fastball and big-time depth in his slider will always end up out of the zone some, but he certainly is much more consistent in location with them both now.
His change will really be the determining factor in his future role. While he’s shown the consistency to be a starter going forward this year, his change is still a fringe-average pitch with flashes of more, though he was flashing excellent movement low in the zone with the pitch during the season that could allow it to generate weak contact.
If the change doesn’t develop, Hader would immediately be an elite reliever, along the lines of what we saw out of Andrew Miller this season. The Brewers will let him start in the PCL again this year most likely, but he will be competing for a chance at a starting job out of spring training.
5. Phil Bickford, RHP
Birthdate: 7/10/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A, high A
Stats in 2016: 120 IP, 2.92 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 8.47 BB%, 27.22 K%
I’m certainly higher than many on Bickford, but I do believe there is some draft report bias in effect in his valuation in many places.
Coming into the 2013 draft, Bickford was considered a fire-balling high schooler. He chose not to sign with the Blue Jays after being selected 10th overall. After a year at Cal State Fullerton and a year of junior college, Bickford was eligible in 2015 to be drafted again, and the Giants grabbed him with the 18th overall selection.
Bickford has hit 98 in his past, and he flashed that velocity at the Futures Game during All Star week festivities. However, he sits more low-90s with excellent heavy sink.
He pairs that with a plus slider that seems to perfectly work along side his above average change up that he’s put a lot of work into in the last year, making it a pitch that got a ton of swing and miss in my many viewings of Bickford this year.
Bickford is a guy who I’ll admit that if you see him over one start, he might not impress you all that much. It’s when you see him over 2-3 starts and note how he has put in the time to truly figure out how to sequence hitters individually that the talent works with the preparation to become a much bigger deal.
Bickford will likely face the upper minors test to open 2017, and that will be a good determining factor in his future progression.
4. Brett Phillips, OF
Birthdate: 5/30/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: AA
Stats in 2016: .229/.332/.397, 16 HR, 12 SB
I have been out on an island on Phillips as a top 50 player for almost a year now as he’s been a top 100 guy fairly consensus, but not quite as high as I’ve had him, and his on field performance this year probably isn’t going to win me any converts.
When you watch Phillips play you see all the skills you’d want in an elite corner outfielder. He has the quick, powerful stroke from the left side in batting practice. He has the raw speed that flashes constantly. He has an arm that makes scouts drool and has received full 80 grades on the 20 to 80 scouting scale.
The problem for Phillips to this point has simply been consistency. Whether it’s a mental thing, or what’s going on, he seems to get into funks that just rip apart his stat line for weeks at a time.
This year, he had a full month from July 9th to August 9th where he had a .160/.280/.230 line and struck out 37 times in 119 plate appearances. Coming into that, he had a .246/.333/.455 line on the season. Leaving that month, those numbers were .223/.318/.394, which is just about where he ended up on the season.
Phillips has struggled in his pitch recognition against premium breaking stuff, yet he seems to own certain pitchers who have excellent breaking stuff. He does get extremely high marks for his work ethic and coachability, so I have high expectations that he can continue to make progress going forward.
The Brewers will likely send Phillips to AAA Colorado Springs in 2017, which will inflate his raw numbers a bit, but if you see that strike out rate start to head toward the 25% strikeout rate, you could see that progress made.
3. Corey Ray, OF
Birthdate: 9/22/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A, high A
Stats in 2016: .239/.307/.370, 5 HR, 10 SB
Readers of mine from Tomahawk Take may recall that I was not a big fan of Ray this spring. However, that was more as a member of the Braves organization and not as the player in general.
When I look at Ray, I can definitely see the talent that others do. There’s a broad tool base that’s very impressive. However, the claims that he was near major league ready were what I contested, and he did struggle with that.
Ray does have an impressive collection of tools, with a quick swing that makes hard contact, leading to fringe-plus grades on both his hit tool and power tool on top of a legit plus run tool.
Defensively is where there’s some disagreement among scouts, and I was in the camp that saw Ray as below average in center but a solid option in left. His arm has shown to be more average than even shown in college, and his jumps off the bat are rough, to say the least.
Ray certainly has the speed to allow hard work on his jumps in center to translate to a better overall defender, but I think he will be limited by his arm to left if he can’t make center work.
Offensively, Ray showed some of the same struggles I saw at the plate with pitch recognition. When he’s on the bases, his instincts at stealing are absolutely top-notch, but he does struggle with recognition of pitches, especially good pitch sequencing.
While he may not be a guy who is ready in 2017, Ray is a legit top-100 talent that the Brewers should see in AA this season and working his way through his pitch recognition and defensive reads to get to the big leagues.
2. Isan Diaz, SS
Birthdate: 5/27/96 (20 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A
Stats in 2016: .264/.358/.469, 20 HR, 11 SB
Last offseason, the Brewers traded away their starting shortstop in Jean Segura, in part to make way for Orlando Arcia, who did eventually get the call in the second half of 2017, but also because of the opportunity to acquire a premium talent like Diaz.
Diaz is a guy that I was pushing up last offseason before his trade to Milwaukee as a guy who could explode onto the prospect radar in 2016 after very solid seasons in the Arizona Rookie League and then the Pioneer League in 2014-2015.
More from Call to the Pen
The Brewers sent Diaz to the Midwest League for his full-season debut, and he showed the raw tools that both make him exciting as a prospect and show that he’s got some refinement left in his game.
Diaz has excellent pop off the bat, and only a fairly line-drive approach kept him from hitting even more home runs in 2016. He had 34 doubles and 5 triples to accompany his 20 home runs, however, showing his tremendous raw power.
Diaz isn’t a premium runner, but he does have very good instincts on the bases, which allowed him to steal 11 bases on the season and flash his skills going first to third on singles to the outfield.
Diaz has flashed the ability to play shortstop, but with Arcia in place as a premium defender at short, Diaz could slide to second, where his skills would rate extremely high among second basemen defensively.
Diaz will start at high-A in 2017, but he’s the type of player that I could see the Brewers pushing if he keeps up the excellent showing he had in 2016.
1. Lewis Brinson, OF
Birthdate: 5/8/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: rookie, AA, AAA
Stats in 2016: .268/.305/.468, 15 HR, 17 SB
Brinson may have the highest-graded mix of tools in the minor leagues right now. While many may have higher hit grades or power grades or such, Brinson has a legit plus or fringe-plus on every single tool across the board.
He came out in his first professional season after being a first round selection in 2012 to have a 20/20 season in 2013, flashing his power and speed, but also finishing with 191 strikeouts on the season. Since, he’s made impressive progress to the point of striking out only 87 times this season in 104 games.
After being traded from the Rangers to the Brewers, Milwaukee jumped Brinson up to AAA, and he responded well, hitting .382 with a 1.005 OPS, 4 home runs, and 4 steals in his 23 games with Colorado Springs.
Brinson has come a long ways in reducing his strikeouts, but he does still struggle to take walks. Part of his avoidance of strikeouts has been attacking pitches he can work with earlier in the count, which means he doesn’t often get deep enough into the count to work a walk.
Brinson has also done excellent work defensively, taking raw plus speed and a fringe-plus arm and turned them into a very good center fielder as he improved his routes to balls.
Brinson will likely open the season with Colorado Springs, but it wouldn’t surprise if he made a push to Milwaukee’s lineup sooner rather than later.
Newcomer To Keep An Eye On: Lucas Erceg, 3B
Birthdate: 5/1/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: rookie, low A
Stats in 2016: .327/.376/.518, 9 HR, 9 SB
Erceg was an enigma in draft time, with a wide array of opinions on where he would go and where he should go in the draft. He left Cal after his sophomore season, and the reasoning why depended on your source, which led to some worried about his make up.
Erceg got tremendous marks as a pro for his work on and off the field, which should wipe all those sorts of questions away. He has the physical tools to be a high-end third baseman both on the offensive and defensive end.
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One of the more intriguing comps I got on Erceg was a “lefty-hitting Ryan Braun coming up”. That’s intriguing, though from my own video on Erceg that I’ve seen, I’d say he’s a legit third baseman, whereas Braun really stayed at 3B only to keep his bat in the lineup as he moved quickly up the system.
Erceg could be a guy who ends up a top 50 guy by midseason with the power he has and the high-end defensive tools. I was surprised to see some places listing Erceg with only an average run tool as he exhibited at least an above-average run tool, if not fringe-plus.
Erceg will likely start 2017 at high-A and could be a guy that moves fast through the Brewers system if his bat keeps producing.
Agree? Disagree? Someone you have a question about from the system? Leave a comment down below!