This past offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers took a risk that has paid conspicuously excellent dividends for the 2011 season, trading away the young and (generally) talented Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, Brett Lawrie, and Jake Odorizzi for the slightly older and more reliably talented Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Greinke and Marcum, worth about six wins between them thus far in 2011, have been essential contributors to a Brewers team that, as of publication, is 7.5 games up in the NL Central and has something better than a 95% chance of making the postseason. It’s an extraordinary turnaround for a team that finished below .500 in 2010 and featured one of the NL’s worst starting-pitching staffs.
Of course, GM Doug Melvin’s offseason maneuvering wasn’t without its consequences. Not entirely loaded to begin with, the Brewer farm system was left largely barren after the departures, in particular, of Lawrie and Odorizzi. Baseball America included exactly zero Brewer prospects on its top-100 list and ranked Milwaukee 30th of 30 teams in terms of prospect-eligible talent. An intriguing piece by dougdirt at Minor League Ball placed the Brewers 29th overall — and last in terms of position players — using John Sickels’ prospect rankings. Adding injury (literally) to those (deserved) insults, the Brewers’ consensus top prospect entering the season, Mark Rogers, has (a) missed much of the season with a wrist problem, (b) pitched poorly when he has played, and was (c) recently suspended 25 games after a second positive test for a banned stimulant.
Though the Rogers Situation no doubt stings — and though the organization continues to lack high-upside talent in Double- and Triple-A — roster-expansion season reveals that the Brewers have some position players who both (a) were absent from notable preseason top-10 lists (BA, BP, Sickels, FanGraphs) and (b) profile as something better than replacement-level major leaguers.
Among the club’s recent call-ups, the most productive this season has been Taylor Green. Green, 24, slashed .336/.413/.583 (.360 BABIP) in 487 plate appearances at Triple-A Nashville. Though the BABIP is certainly high, his plate-discipline numbers (11.3% BB, 14.8% K) suggest a player who controls the strike zone nicely and have been similar throughout his entire minor-league career. In fact, the third baseman was actually the Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2007, a season in which he batted an almost identical .328/.407/.514 (.361 BABIP) — with an eerily similar 11.2% BB and 14.3% K — as a 20-year-old for West Virginia of the Sally League. Unfortunately, wrist problems plagued Green for some time after that, hurting his production and, as a result, his prospect status.
Logan Schafer‘s story resembles Green’s pretty closely. Like Green, Schafer is 24. Like Green, he was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year (in 2009). Like Green, injuries have been a problem for Schafer. And finally, as with Green, this season has represented a return to form for the center fielder. After recording all of 28 plate appearances in 2010 while dealing with what was eventually diagnosed as a sports hernia (and then a broken foot after that), Schafer slashed .315/.385/.439 in 446 plate appearances across three levels in the minors before his promotion this week. Schafer also controls the strike zone nicely, posting, for example, a 8.8% BB and 9.3% K in his 194 plate appearances at Triple-A Nashville.
While neither Green nor Schafer are likely to scale the heights of prospecting ecstasy like a Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, their performances this season suggest they could become contributors in the majors — i.e. an incredibly valuable thing. The changes in their respective prospect stati (plural of status?) add an interesting narrative layer to the Greinke and Marcum trade of the offseason. At the time, those trades were seen as a more or less cut-and-dried move by Melvin to sacrifice the semi-distant future of the franchise for the purposes of contending in 2011. And in Brett Lawrie’s rabid start to his own major-league career, we see the value of high-upside talent.
On the other hand, for two players absent from the eye of even the most able talent evaluators, Green and Schafer appear likely to produce at a level that many players from the bottom half of a top-100 prospect list never will. This isn’t, of course, to say that GMs should gut their farm systems post-haste, but rather that each situation carries with it a number of variables. Despite having lost some of the organization’s best prospects in a pair of aggressive offseason trades, the team has also found some prospects where there weren’t any before.
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