Because he was the first non-General Manager to win the Baseball America Executive of the Year award, and because he’s attained a cult hero status among saberists, it seems to me the ebbs and flows of the Milwaukee farm system over the next few years will be credited to the loss of Jack Zduriencik. It’s true, the guy is a fantastic scout, and his framework of going after power provides a direct line to draftees like Prince Fielder, Matt LaPorta, and Ryan Braun. But, even more than just losing Jack Z, we have to remember this team also lost his right-hand man in scouting, Tom McNamara, a former crosschecker in Bobby Heck, and the voice of sabermetric reason in Tony Blengino. It’s not the same group making decisions in the draft war room, but I think we would be foolish to suggest that esteemed GM Doug Melvin hasn’t replaced them with a new squad of successful scouts.
But they do have some work ahead of them. The Brewers have graduated so much talent, and because they haven’t had great luck in the middle rounds for a few years, there just isn’t a lot of depth in this farm system. The future middle infield is there, serviceable bats at third base and catcher, and then you’re left wondering which of their many raw arms drafted in 2008 and 2009 will work out. At least there’s Ryan Braun, ranked as the eighth-best commodity in baseball by Dave Cameron, who will be around Milwaukee through 2015. If the walks keep up and the defense comes around, Braun quickly vaults into annual Most Valuable Player talks. The other young Major League star is Yovani Gallardo, who is right on the cusp of brilliance, if only he can get that walk rate back to three per nine.
The team has just two more seasons with three other offensive success stories from the previous scouting era, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks. J.J. Hardy, the fourth member of the posse, was shipped out this offseason to make way for top prospect Alcides Escobar. Weeks, I presume, won’t be re-signed with consensus #2 prospect Brett Lawrie knocking at the door. Both players are worth opening up a spot for, albeit for completely different reasons. Lawrie is the traditional offensive prospect, just a little physical maturation away from being a 25 home run guy, and a lot of hard work ahead to be an average defender. Escobar has always been that defender — the Brewers must think his glove is better than J.J. Hardy‘s, even — and is just now showing some signs with the bat. The hope for Escobar, the perfect world projection, is the shortstop version of 2009 Franklin Gutierrez.
After that, it thins out quickly. I like Jon Lucroy a little bit, and it helps that his path to the Majors looks undeterred. With his pitch recognition, I have some good confidence he can be a .340-.350 wOBA guy, play two-thirds of the season behind the dish, and put up 2.5-3 WAR. That’s about the level I see Mat Gamel at, but with less confidence that he’ll be the best option available at any point in time. The team also must believe in Carlos Gomez and his defense in center field. He at least has to bridge the gap until Kentrail Davis is ready, but give the team credit for having a plan at every up the middle position. If you want a sleeper, I like Josh Prince, the shortstop from Tulane who is crazy patient and crazy fast, but he is a ways away without a clear path.
The plan for the pitchers is just as transparent, if a little more problematic: throw a lot of hard throwers into the pot, and see who comes out. This strategy dates back to Zduriencik’s first-round selections of Mark Rogers and Jeremy Jeffress, those mythical prep 99 mph guys, who might overcome their own adversities and become big league relievers. You have the 2009 guys, who we just can’t predict, both because they don’t have much time in the minors and because they were never very consistent in college: Eric Arnett, Kyle Heckathorn. Because of my proximity to their high schools, I have some hope for Jake Odorizzi and Cody Scarpetta, but each has their own warts. The only pitcher in the system that I have total faith to reach the Majors is Zach Braddock, if only because he has the LOOGY fallback thanks to a great slider.
To an extent, I think Milwaukee’s string of successful Major Leaguers makes us believe that these guys, these top prospects, will naturally slot into the holes Doug Melvin opens for them. But, more than ever, the Brewers face the onus of needing these guys to succeed, because there’s just not enough depth for them to put together plan B.