I'm not the smartest person around, I will be the first to admit that. I rely more on a sense of humor than my ability to make statistics say intelligent things like some esteemed participants here, and I don't have the patience to memorize the data and trends of some people, whose enthusiasm reminds us that 'fan' is short for 'fanatic'. I admire these things, and I can't duplicate them.
But I can chip in my view, right or wrong, as a point of discussion. Something that has been bothering me for a couple of seasons now is how the Brewers are being criticized for not having a good farm system and/or not being proficient at drafting and developing talent. I'm going to argue that the perceived problem is at least much less substantial as people think it is, if it exists at all.
The statements I hear that I will try to dispute somewhat are:
- The Brewers are bad at drafting
- The Brewers are bad at developing talent
If you are discouraged by failure then you shouldn't get too involved with baseball because it is full of it. A success story in baseball involves a team who fields players that fail 70% of the time to hit the ball and lose 40% of their games. Clubs draft dozens of new players out of the ranks of thousands who want to play each year. Most of them never make it to the major leagues, and those who do are mostly replaceable. Only a handful of people are truly exceptional at any time, and capitalizing on the trajectory of their careers is a difficult and expensive undertaking.
When it comes to the perfect draft pick, it looks like this: You draft a guy that scouts, fans, and the press all think is great, he has a massive upside to his potential, he develops quickly in the minors, produces quickly in the majors, and has sustained success or retained value. There is only one way to get this result: Lose a lot of games and get a good draft pick.
You can get lucky and spend a late-round pick on a prospect that scouts have panned for a number of reasons (Albert Pujols was famously drafted in the 13th round because he was a fat kid who chased too many pitches) but primarily the guys who everybody thinks will succeed and actually do are drafted in the top 10 picks each year. If you want a 'sure thing' pick like Chipper Jones or Bryce Harper, you need to lose 90+ games. There is no trading of draft picks in baseball, this is the only way.
From 2001 to 2004 the Brewers were very bad at baseball. They lost an average of 97 games each year for four seasons, and turned those top-10 picks into the core of their success in 2008 and 2011. If you look at the history of the franchise you'll see that most of the best players the organization has had came from top-10 draft picks: Robin Yount (3), Paul Molitor (3), Ryan Braun (5), Prince Fielder (7), Geoff Jenkins (9), Ben Sheets (10), etc.
Fact: Top-10 draft picks by the Brewers have generated on average 19.3 career WAR, so far.
You won't always hit with a good draft pick, because baseball is a game of failure. For every Ryan Braun there's a few Mark Rogers, and while the chance you took on Prince Fielder worked out, the gamble on Matt LaPorta didn't. But that's how things go. You pick the best guys you can find and you throw them in the minor league mix, and the cream rises to the top.
The main argument I am hearing about the Brewers lately is that in recent years they supposedly have not drafted well, and they don't have a bunch of high-value prospects in their minor league system like other organizations do. If you look at the 'rankings' from 'experts' about the value of minor league talent, you'll see the Brewers somewhere near the bottom. This might be true. Then again, it might not. But mostly this is the result of hype.
The Brewers have had a number of young, successful players lately that would generate an enormous amount of hype and teeth-gnashing if they were heralded by scouts when drafted, and appreciated when Baseball America decides to make their prospect lists, and covered in spring training by a horde of big-media-market reporters with paragraphs to fill.
Unfortunately for guys like Jonathan Lucroy, a 3rd round draft pick and 11th catcher drafted in 2007, he was not heralded by scouts, did not appear on a top prospect list, and his coverage in spring training went something like this:
The 23-year-old backstop isn't expected to take Milwaukee by storm-he doesn't possess a Wieters-esque pedigree-but he does profile as a solid, everyday regular thanks to a discerning batting eye and strong defensive chops.
Compare that to the big-market evaluation for Yankees' top prospect (and Baseball America #3 overall) Jesus Montero:
It’ll sound like hyperbole, but Montero is the organization’s best hitting prospect since Derek Jeter, and the best power hitting prospect since who knows when. The only problem is finding a spot to play him, but that’ll work itself out.
The result of these two players who came up at the same time is that Lucroy is now a top-5 MLB catcher, and Montero was shipped off to Seattle and has a negative career WAR in three seasons. It's safe to say that the system that evaluates players and assigns rankings to talent and organizations was completely wrong in that case.
Fact is, the overall rankings thing is mostly for our entertainment, partially for self-confidence, and filled with a lot a lot of hype and guessing. At the top of those prospect lists (which are filled with guesses and crap, and then in turn used as the basis for evaluating the state of organizations' player development systems) are the "can't-miss" guys who got there by spending high draft picks that were earned by losing lots of games.
Since the argument is recent organizational performance, I'm going to use probably the most recent relevant prospect list as an example, Baseball America's 2011 prospect list. This is a good one, because it totally shuts out the Brewers. I think the only guys we had on the list were Jake Odorizzi and Brett Lawrie, who we traded for Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, who we in turn traded for Jean Segura.
This is the list we want to look at if we're going to see some proof for the argument that not having guys on this list means our pipeline is broken. Forget about the state of the pipeline for a moment and entertain this argument: The list itself is mostly worthless.
At the top of this list is Bryce Harper. Damn you Brewers, you suck! Why didn't you draft him? Well, the Nationals won that right by losing 103 games in 2009. Instead we picked Dylan Covey, who in spite of being a highly regarded selection at the time, turned into a diabetic shortly after who went back to college, was re-drafted by the A's in 2013 and isn't the same prospect he once was. As sad as that might seem, please note that there is only one player in that first round selected after Dylan Covey that has a positive WAR so far: Christian Yelich. Guys drafted in 2010 aren't really expected to make an impact in the majors in 2013. It's just speculation that even three years later any of them will amount to much of anything.
So when we look at that 2011 prospect list, which should be a list of guys who are expected by the best minds in baseball to shortly make it to the major leagues and show some kind of success, it is not surprising to see wunderkid Bryce Harper at the top of it, and it's not surprising they were right, that Harper has been successful so far. You didn't need to be an expert to predict that, and his inclusion on the list is mostly obligatory, sort of like of course he's a valuable prospect, so we should include him, at the top, only because he isn't in the majors already.
And then there's the rest of the guys. Some hit, some miss, some of them we're still waiting on three years later. Fact is, like the draft, there's the very top of the list and then there's every one else. The top quartile is worth watching, and the rest of the guys are mostly replacement players. Here's the top 100 and their career WAR to date, at a glance:
That's it right there. If you're highly regarded on this list, there's no sense for you to really even be on this list, they're already writing articles about you in spring training in the local papers. The rest of you are replacement players, and you're virtually indistinguishable from anyone who wasn't on this list and still made it to the major leagues.
The Brewers had their representation on this list, in and among the other teams like the Royals who are believed to have well-stocked systems (they have two players in the top 20 on this list who still haven't reached the majors), but those players were traded away for a playoff series victory over the Diamondbacks and our starting shortstop. Meanwhile, the Royals haven't won 90 games in 25 years.
There is much more data to be analyzed, and there is a lot of context to be applied to it all in terms of turning talent into wins and how much you spend on it. But I think it's fair to say that while the Brewers may not have a talent pool as celebrated as some other franchises, we are still managing to find young talent through the draft, trades, free agency, and bring those players to the major league level where they make substantial contributions. We aren't the best, but there's nothing deficient going on.
And if you really want to change your quality of your young talent, the best way is to lose 100 games.