MILWAUKEE — It was a draft that would change the course of Major League Baseball. And for the Milwaukee Brewers, 2005 meant the beginning of something great, it seemed. The Brewers had drafted their own superstar — even if they didn’t know it yet.
With the fifth overall pick in a draft known by many as the best in the history of baseball, the Brewers drafted a then-third baseman from the University of Miami, Ryan Braun.
Braun would mean another spectacular first-round victory for the Brewers, a team that had spent its top picks in two of the previous three years on players who would become all-stars and staples of the 2011 NLCS team, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks.
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Since 2005 though, the Brewers’ drafts have yielded significantly less positive returns. This season, just three players drafted since 2005 have played on Milwaukee’s major league roster — reliever Mike McClendon (10th round, 2006), starting pitcher Michael Fiers (22nd round, 2009), and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (third-round, 2007) — and none of them was a first-rounder.
And since Braun became one of the most successful Brewers’ first round picks in franchise history in that fateful 2005 draft, the team has traded three of its top picks and failed to sign another, while three of them (both 2011 first-round picks and 2008 pick Eric Arnett) are currently at high Class-A Brevard County, a long way from contributing to the major league roster.
But it was the trades the Brewers made in December 2010 that have put them in an interesting position as the 2012 MLB draft kicks off Monday.
First, the Brewers sent third baseman Brett Lawrie — their first-round pick in 2008 — to Toronto for starter Shaun Marcum. Two weeks later, they traded a bevy of prospects — including one of their top young talents in shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain — plus first-round pitchers Jeremy Jeffress (2006) and Jake Odorizzi (2009) for then-Royals ace and Cy Young winner Zack Grienke.
Those trades undoubtedly played a large part in the Brewers’ run last season that ended two games short of the World Series. But, as most big-time trades do, they also weakened Milwaukee’s farm system significantly. Couple that with a handful of mistakes in the draft, and the importance of making Monday’s selections — and the one’s that follow — a bit more successful is undeniable.
Escobar and Lawrie have become young, promising starters and possible future stars on their new teams since Milwaukee packaged them as key cogs in its wheeling and dealing. And now, the Brewers, having watched injuries decimate their roster so far in 2012, could sure use some young talent to plug in at the positions particularly hit hard.
But Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Saturday that, despite the losses, those trades were necessary to contend.
“We don’t win last year unless we do that,” Roenicke said. “It’s a trade-off. If you want to win, you’ve got to do those things.”
Winning in the future, though, will require a bit more finesse. And, well, a whole lot more luck.
After drafting two pitchers in the first round last season, right-hander Taylor Jungmann with the 12th pick in the draft and left-hander Jed Bradley with the 15th pick, the Brewers again have two selections in the opening round in 2012 — 27th and 28th overall.
Having four first round-picks in two years undoubtedly gives the Brewers a chance to build up some of the depth they lost in those big trades. But does the current scarcity of top-flight prospects in the farm system mean this draft is more important, more dire than it has been in recent years?
“The draft is always important,” Roenicke said. “That’s how organizations are able to produce these players that we can trade away to get what we need. When you’re trying to win, not just compete, but when you’re trying to win, you have to be able to do those things. You have to be able to develop the young guys so you can go out and get the pieces to win with. Every single draft is important.”
The Brewers won’t see talent like high school outfielder Byron Buxton or Stanford right-hander Mark Appel — both expected to be top five picks — at the end of the first round. But with a pair of picks, stockpiling talent for the future could make a huge difference down the line, whether it’s in the starting lineup or in a trade.
And as the chips begin to fall in the next few years, back-to-back seasons with two first-round picks could mean a true turning point, like 2005’s draft meant seven years ago, for a thin Milwaukee farm system and the Brewers organization as a whole.