Last week, Keith Law and ESPN released their overall farm system rankings, placing the Milwaukee Brewers 6th overall. Throughout this week, Law released his top 100 prospects in groups of 20, counting backwards from #100 to #1 overall. The Milwaukee Brewers had eight players make Law’s list. They are:
100. Brandon Woodruff
The Brewers took Woodruff in the 11th round in 2014 out of Mississippi State, where he threw all of 90 innings over three seasons for the Bulldogs, who must have had Spahn and Sain on their pitching staff to find no use for this guy. Woodruff was one of the minors' biggest breakout guys in 2016, starting out as a High-A repeater but ending up the Brewers' pitcher of the year after dominating the Double-A Southern League all summer.
Woodruff has touched 98 mph but works more in the low- to mid-90s with good sink, generating a 50 percent ground-ball rate across all of last season, and an above-average slider that helped him finish fifth in the Southern League in strikeouts despite making only 20 starts there. He's a three-pitch guy with above-average control and a clean delivery that keeps him on line to the plate; given the Brewers' current rotation it seems very likely he'll get a chance to join it this season if he can survive the challenge of pitching in Colorado Springs.
79. Luis Ortiz
Ortiz was part of the package going to Milwaukee for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress. Although Lewis Brinson seems closer to the majors and has superstar upside, Ortiz might produce big league value sooner because he’s so much more advanced.
Ortiz’s fastball velocity will sit in the low to mid-90s, which he complements with a plus changeup. Although his breaking ball is fringe-average, his command is major-league-caliber already, and his control is above average, with just 23 walks in 90 ⅔ innings (5.9 percent) across three teams and two levels in 2016.
Ortiz has to watch his weight, as he’s heavy trending toward … uh … festively plump, and the 90 ⅔ innings represented a career high for him, so he has yet to prove any durability. He’ll probably start the year at Double-A, maybe spending the season there rather than going to Colorado Springs. The lack of a true breaking pitch limits his ceiling, but I see a very good No. 3 starter here and maybe a No. 2 because the command might end up better than plus.
71. Josh Hader
Hader’s gonna hade? That might be a stretch, but given how far Hader has come as a prospect since the Orioles took him as an unknown local kid in the 19th round in 2012, he has more than earned some sort of slogan.
Hader comes at hitters from a very low arm slot, just above sidearm, with a fastball that’s 90-95 mph, sometimes 90-97, that hitters just do not see. If I were a left-handed hitter, I’d be absolutely terrified to get in the box against him. Between the fastball and the hard slider he throws, Hader punched out half -- 50.4 percent -- of the left-handed batters he faced across two levels in 2016, including time in the hitter-friendly PCL. It’s such an unusual slot, and his fastball moves so much that he has been effective against right-handed hitters so far, without having an even average changeup.
There’s no real big league comparison for Hader. He isn't Chris Sale, but that’s the best comp for his delivery, and Hader has better raw stuff (and throws with a more valued arm) than Justin Masterson. I still don’t know if Hader is a starter in the long run, with the low arm slot and two to maybe two-and-a-half pitches. But where two years ago I would have given him close to zero shot, now that’s probably up to 40 to 50 percent, and if he does end up in the bullpen, he might be Andrew Miller redux. Or we can just call him Darth Hader.
70. Lucas Erceg
Erceg had first-round tools but fell to the Brewers in the second round in 2016 because he flunked out of Cal and played his junior year at NAIA school Menlo College, which meant he never faced quality pitching, and because teams were concerned that he might be too much of a partier to be worth the higher pick. So far, it looks like the Brewers got themselves a second first-rounder, as Erceg played like one in obliterating the Pioneer League (.400/.452/.552) and more than handling the low-A Midwest League (.281/.328/.497), which had to feel like a Kessel Run-length jump from the pitching he faced in college.
Erceg gets a lot of Matt Carpenter comparisons as a line-drive hitter who probably has average power with some subtle athleticism, though Erceg is an average or better defender at third right now and has a 70 arm, way ahead of Carpenter at the same age. Evaluating makeup in the draft is extraordinarily tricky, and teams often split into risk-averse and risk-loving camps. Erceg makes the risk-loving teams look good right now, and if his power ever gets from 50 (average) to 60, he could be an All-Star.
67. Trent Clark
The 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Clark had a disappointing, injury-riddled, full-season debut in 2016, as he played in just 59 games around a serious hamstring problem and never got consistent at-bats or a rhythm going at the plate. Clark is an unusually disciplined hitter for his age, working the count well and going the other way with authority, but he perhaps takes a few too many hitter’s pitches early in counts.
When he’s right, Clark is a threat to hit for high averages with doubles power to all fields, probably peaking in the 10-15 homer range, though his power was gone when he couldn’t use his legs last season. He never ran well all year -- he was caught 10 times in 15 stolen base attempts, at which point the first-base coach should just tackle you if you so much as think about running -- but that’s probably the effects of the hamstring injury too. It’s kind of a mulligan for Clark; he needs a full season of at-bats to reestablish himself as a legitimate offensive threat.
41. Isan Diaz
The Diamondbacks got more out of Jean Segura than they had any right to expect, as he produced a five-win season and allowed the new regime in Phoenix to flip him to Seattle for two former top prospects, but the part of that deal that is going to sting is Diaz.
Born in Puerto Rico, Diaz was drafted in the second round out of western Massachusetts, seemed a bit overmatched in rookie ball his first summer but has really broken out the past two years now, including a 20-homer, 72-walk season as a 20-year-old in the full-season Midwest League in 2016. Diaz led the league in homers and walks and finished sixth in doubles, which mitigates the part about his leading the league in strikeouts too. He’s a left-handed hitter with explosive hips that provide bat speed and the rotational action that produces power from his 5-foot-10 frame.
He has played short and second, but his body and arm will push him to the latter position as he moves up the ladder. He’s athletic enough to be a 50/55 defender at the keystone. But it’s the bat that sells him. He is already showing on-base skills and power at a young age, and it will take only marginal growth to make him a big league regular, with the potential for more if he improves his swing choices as he moves up.
38. Lewis Brinson
Brinson remains more tools than production at this point, struggling in his second stint in Double-A with the Rangers before the Brewers traded for him in July. But he’s also not that far off from an offensive level that would make him a major-league regular. Brinson is a gifted athlete who runs well, plays outstanding defense in center and has electric wrists that give him the bat speed to produce plus raw power -- which hasn’t shown up that much in games because he has often struggled with contact. He did post the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2016, and while he can be aggressive, his hands are so loose it’s a little surprising that he didn’t make more hard contact this past year.
If anything, the bigger concern going forward is his history of injuries, as he’s reached 110 games in just one season since he first signed, losing a month of 2016 to a shoulder strain, although he played marginally better after his return. Brinson will turn 23 in May and should start the year in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he’ll probably put up some great superficial numbers. His defense is so good that he can be a regular even with a .300 OBP and his kind of raw power, but he’s ranked here because any further increase in his contact rate or the quality of the contact he’s making would make him a star.
34. Corey Ray
Ray was the top prospect on my board in this year’s draft class, and while he was somewhat surpassed this summer by a few other players who showed more in their pro debuts, Ray also was pushed very aggressively to high-A right out of the draft, which exposed some of his weaknesses in a way that no other recent draftee experienced.
Ray has above-average tools across the board except on defense. He’s fleet enough for center but didn’t play it well in college, with the University of Louisville coaches moving him to left field (where, in my opinion, he was worse) late in games to put in a superior defender in center. Defense often gets better in pro ball where there is more instruction, and Ray has the athletic ability to play in the middle if his reads improve. At the plate, he has a patient approach and recognizes pitches well, and isn’t afraid to run deep counts to try to get a favorable pitch to drive.
I thought Ray offered the best combination of probability -- he had well over a 50 percent chance to be a good big-leaguer in some role -- and chance to be an above-average regular, a guy who hits .280/.360/.460 with at least average defense in center field. He may be behind a few guys with higher ceilings now (Quantrill, Groome, Senzel, Rutherford), but I still see the same future for Ray as I did in June.
Though Law didn’t rank the system in his personal top five, it’s very clear that he believes the Brewers have plenty of talent in their system. Law has obviously bought into the breakout campaigns of Brandon Woodruff and especially Isan Diaz from last season, and he remains very high on recent draftees Lucas Erceg and Corey Ray, who he ranks as Milwaukee’s top prospect. He seems to be a bit lower than some other outlets on the future of Josh Hader, though some questions do remain about his ability to remain as a starter. The same for Lewis Brinson, who Law notes still has to prove he can get on base consistently against competition.