The short season Pioneer League is considered to be the “advanced” rookie-level stop for minor league baseball players. Many players who are drafted out of college make their professional debuts in this league, and most players who start in the AZL will spend some time in the Pioneer League before heading off to full-season ball.
Milwaukee’s Pioneer League affiliate is the Helena Brewers, who this year finished in last place on the circuit with a 28-48 record. Despite their lackluster conclusion to the season, the Helena Nine featured many of Milwaukee’s high draft picks and well thought of prospects, including four that were ranked in the league’s top 20 by Baseball America:
3. Tristen Lutz (age 18)
Milwaukee’s selection at #34 overall in this past summer’s draft, Lutz was also named to the AZL top 20 prospects. After a few weeks in Arizona, Lutz was bumped up to Montana and proceeded to demolish opposing pitchers to the tune of a .333/.432/.559 slash with 6 home runs in 111 plate appearances. Scouts have been singing Lutz’s praises since he joined the organization:
He's an advanced hitter for his age, with his powerful wrists and strong body causing balls to jump off the bat. His above-average bat speed and torque generate plenty of power, and his advanced feel to hit should allow him to eventually get to more power. An above-average runner now, Lutz is bound to slow down as his body grows. He played mostly in center field in both the AZL and PL. A move to a corner outfield spot is likely as he matures physically, but an above-average arm will allow him to handle right field. He has good instincts in the field.
"He's the complete package," Helena manager Nestor Corredor said, "a real baseball player with a lot of tools."
8. C KJ Harrison (age 20)
The Brewers plucked Harrison in the 3rd round of last summer’s draft out of Oregon State, where he played mostly first base in the field. Milwaukee is working to transition him back to catcher, a position he played while in high school in Hawaii. With 4 passed balls and a 26% caught stealing rate in 17 games behind the plate, there’s still work to be done. The bat is going to be the carrying tool, but it’s a good one; Harrison hit .308/.388/.546 with 10 home runs and 14 doubles in 214 plate appearances for Helena this season.
He still needs plenty of work behind the plate, where he needs to clean up his mechanics and improve his agility, but he has soft hands and an above-average arm. A slow release keeps Harison from posting impressive pop times on throws to second base, but he threw out 26 percent of basestealers with Helena and should get better with experience. No one doubts Harrison will hit. He has good pull-side power but also takes what pitchers give him and doesn't over-swing. He can hit gap to gap and drive home runs to center and right field. The ball jumps off his bat, and he projects to be an average hitter with average power. He's a below-average runner.
18. C Payton Henry (age 20)
Milwaukee chose the Utah native in the 6th round of the 2016 draft and needed to offer a well over-slot bonus to convince Henry to spurn his collegiate commitment and sign. After debuting in the AZL last year, Henry was Helena’s regular catcher in 2017, starting 40 games behind the plate and batting .242/.344/.435 with 7 homers in 241 plate appearances.
Henry was Helena's primary catcher in his second pro season, and he became more consistent behind the plate with added experience. He made progress in calling games and consistently showed plus pop times on throws to second base, though his arm plays down because of poor footwork. He threw out 28 percent of basestealers in 2017, up from 19 percent last year. He has a stiff, slow body, with observers noting that he needs to get himself in better condition. Henry had some of the best raw power in the PL, with quick hands and good bat speed but with a long swing. He gets pull happy and needs to work on using the other side of the field. He projects to be a power over hit type when he starts generating more loft with his swing.
"He grew a lot," Helena manager Nestor Corredor said, "(He can be a) really good defender with a potential power bat."
20. SS Antonio Pinero (age 18)
Pinero was originally signed by the Red Sox in 2015, but was one of the prospects who had their contracts voided after Boston got dinged for skirting the international bonus pool rules. That allowed Milwaukee to swoop in and sign him to their international class in 2016. Pinero played in the Dominican Summer League during his first season in the org, and this year Milwaukee elected to skip him over the AZL entirely and bring him to Montana to make his stateside debut. Pinero may have been a bit overmatched at the plate, as he batted only .236/.258/.269 with a single home runs in 226 plate appearances. Pinero’s calling card is his defensive ability at shortstop.
The switch-hitting shortstop was challenged with an assignment to Helena, and his inexperience certainly showed at the plate. The undersized youngster struggled to drive the ball. He has the potential to develop as a hitter with added strength, because he barrels balls with a swing geared for contact and has very good hand-eye coordination. Pinero has the potential to be special defensive player at shortstop. He regularly made highlight reel plays for Helena. He's an average runner, and while he doesn't look fast down the line, he shows better speed on the field and has good first step quickness.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference