When the Brewers' Top 10 Prospects list was released by Baseball America, there was one name that was conspicuous by its absence. Outfielder Brett Phillips ranked 4th on last year's list (and 57th in the Top 100), but was nowhere to be found on the most recent list.
Whether it's due to a somewhat disappointing year at the plate or just a growing number of highly-regarded outfielders joining the system, Phillips has fallen down the team's prospect ranks. In the grand scheme of things, where a guy ranks in a Top 10 list doesn't matter much, but his 2016 season seems to have at least a few scouting types wondering how much of an impact he could eventually have at the big league level.
Phillips hit .229/.332/.397 in 516 plate appearances for Double-A Biloxi this past season. A low batting average might still cause some people to grimace these days, and striking out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances might turn off a few others. When Tom Haudricourt did his chat following the release of the BA Top 10, he mentioned some scouts are worried about his ability to make consistent contact against higher-quality pitching.
Meanwhile, scouting writer Bernie Pleskoff also says Phillips has fallen into the bad habit of trying to pull the ball, and both the Brewers and the Astros pre-Gomez trade have tried to get him to hit the ball up the middle more consistently. There's enough here to suggest Haudricourt and Baseball America weren't strictly scouting for an underwhelming stat line -- there are legitimate concerns about his swing that he needs to iron out if he's going to return to the prospect rankers' good graces.
Luckily, there's still some time for Phillips to figure it out. He'll only be 23 in 2017, and if there's a reason for optimism that he'll be able to turn himself into a useful big leaguer, it's another outfielder already on the Brewers' 25-man roster.
Like Phillips, Keon Broxton was toolsy outfielder taken relatively early in the draft (Phillips was a 4th rounder when he signed, while Broxton was picked in the 3rd round by Arizona in 2009) who struggled mightily once he reached Double-A. As a 23-year-old, Broxton hit just .231/.296/.359 in Mobile, striking out in 31.2% of his plate appearances. The performance was so poor, the Diamondbacks gave him away to the Pirates.
Broxton put it all together in his second full season in Double-A, though, hitting .275/.369/.484 at age 24, then getting a promotion to Triple-A and a cup of coffee in the majors in 2015. He kept making adjustments along the way, and as we know by now, one of those adjustments helped him find his power stroke in Milwaukee before he went down with a fractured wrist.
Broxton was also always considered a very good defender every step of the way and had the speed to be a good baserunner. He even walked at a good rate once he found himself in that repeat trip to Double-A, putting up a BB% of 12.5% in 2014, then 12.8% the next year in Triple-A. But like Phillips, the hit tool still lagged behind, and out of the 5 tools, that's probably the toughest for scouts to look past to find value in other ways. Unfortunately, it's hard to be taken seriously by many people if they see you striking out more than once per game in the minors.
Eventually Broxton found something that works, and while the .242/.354/.430 line with a 36.1% K-rate shows he's still far from perfect, he was still able to provide 2.1 WAR (according to both Fangraphs and B-Ref) in 75 games. Over a full season, Broxton could have challenged Ryan Braun for the highest WAR on the 2016 team.
Phillips has the added benefit of previously having the trust of scouts and prospect hype that Broxton never had, and he also made it to Double-A a full year sooner than Broxton did. Still, Broxton was able to still carve out a role as an everyday player despite a low-contact style at the plate, and that was without being as proficient at getting on-base in other ways as Phillips is. And in spite of the concerns about his hit tool, Phillips remains an above-average base runner and defender with a 70 grade arm, which should give him a solid floor for providing MLB value. The former top prospect will be fine, and falling out of the Top 10 in one of the many ranking systems (he still ranks 7th on MLB.com) shouldn't be taken as a sign his future is any less bright.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference