The Milwaukee Brewers are competing and have been for awhile now, there’s no doubt about that. The club finished one game out of a playoff spot in 2017 and is back in the thick of both the Divisional and Wild Card races with just over a month left of baseball to go in 2018 as they look to try and break their seven-year playoff drought. As is often the case, however, the ascendance of the big league club has coincided with a significant drop-off in the ranking of the farm system.
Of course, that’s not a bad thing on its own. The minor league system exists to benefit the MLB parent club, and that has certainly been the case for our Cream City Nine. Within the last two years, the club has been bolstered this season by some internal acquisitions and promotions - guys like Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, Taylor Williams, Josh Hader, and Brandon Woodruff - as well as external additions that have required prospect capital, such as Christian Yelich (four prospects), Mike Moustakas (two), Jonathan Schoop (two), Joakim Soria (two), Lorenzo Cain (draft pick forfeiture), Erik Kratz (one), Anthony Swarzak (one), Neil Walker (one), and Jeremy Jeffress (one). With that many trades and prospect graduations, any farm system would see a fall in the rankings.
We all love to follow the minor league system, and after a couple years of rebuilding and hearing about how strong things were down on the farm, it probably comes as a bit of a shock to the system to see stuff like MLB Pipeline currently ranking only one Brewer prospect (Keston Hiura, #26) in their top-100 overall, and Baseball America slotting the system in at #22 in their most recent organizational rankings. There are still a handful of players left over to get excited about, but barring another rebuild in the near future, it will take the continued development of their internal players as well as solid drafts going forward for Milwaukee to vault back up the minor league rankings. So, mostly a sound process, good fortune, and time.
In the meantime, however, David Stearns wisely continues to explore ways to add upside to his organization. In two separate transactions earlier this month, Slingin’ Stearns turned his attention to the waiver wire in order to add a couple of intriguing players to the cadre of arms within the veritable pitching factory that his front office and coaching staff have built over the last three years.
The first acquisition came on August 7th, when Milwaukee announced the claim of right-hander Ariel Hernandez off waivers from the Dodgers. Hernandez has bounced around quite a bit since beginning his professional career in 2008, including getting released by the Giants, signing with the Diamondbacks, getting plucked in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft by Cincinnati and later making his MLB debut, then a trade to Los Angeles before getting claimed by Milwaukee. Hernandez wasn’t exactly effective in his brief stint with the Reds in 2017, posting a 5.18 ERA and ugly 151 FIP- in 24.1 innings. He walked 22 batters and has struggled with free passes his whole career, issuing them at a rate of 6.6 BB/9 across 204 minor league appearances covering 307.0 innings.
The reason that the 26 year old keeps getting chances in spite of those control issues is because of his lightning quick right arm. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs thought highly enough of Hernandez to rate him as LA’s #23 prospect on his 2018 list back in May, citing “elite raw stuff” and spin rates. Hernandez’s fastball averaged 98.1 MPH at the MLB level in 2017 and Longenhagen graded the pitch as a 70 on the 20-80 scale. Ariel’s curveball is also seen as an outstanding offering, with a present grade of 65 and future grade of 70. He’s whiffed 9.9 batters per nine innings as a pro. You may remember Hernandez’s MLB debut, which came against Milwaukee. If not, here’s a reminder of what it can look like when everything comes together for Hernandez:
It’s pretty easy to see the ingredients are there for Hernandez to be a nonpareil reliever, and with a changeup graded at 45/55, a history of working multiple innings, and a workhorse build at 6’4” and 230 lbs, perhaps a starting role could be a possibility. What it’ll take for things to finally click after all these years is for someone to teach Hernandez how to have at least some idea of where his electric repertoire is going. But getting the most out of guys with fringey to below-average command is nothing new for pitching coach Derek Johnson and this front office regime; see Junior Guerra, Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin, Freddy Peralta, and Josh Hader as examples. Hernandez has been able to prevent runs at a solid rate in the minors this year, working to a 2.92 ERA across 52.1 innings at AA and AAA. But at the same time his FIP is more than a run higher at 4.09 and he’s walking more than six batters per nine, so there’s clearly more work to be done here by the coaching staff.
A week after grabbing Hernandez off waivers, Stearns negotiated and consummated an exchange of cash considerations with the Phillies in order to acquire DFA’d hurler Jake Thompson. The 24 year old is a bit more of a traditional prospect; he was a second round pick of the Tigers once upon a time, and was ranked as a consensus top-100 prospect entering the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He’s been swapped twice in packages for big leaguers: first from Detroit to Texas in a deal for Joakim Soria, then from Texas to Philadelphia in the Cole Hamels trade. Baseball America praised Thompson as someone who “profiles as a mid-rotation starter with the upside of a number two” prior to his big league debut season in 2016.
Since then, however, Thompson has struggled to gain a footing in the big leagues. He got lit up as a 22 year old rookie to the tune of a 5.70 ERA in 10 starts and 53.2 innings, and although his run prevention numbers were better in 46.1 innings in 2017 (3.88 ERA), the underlying statistics (128 FIP-, 35:22 K/BB, 1.7 HR/9) were not. Thompson has worked predominantly as a reliever in both the minors (32 appearances, four starts) and majors (nine appearances, zero starts) this season, though he is still covering multi-inning appearances. He’s allowed nine earnies in 16.1 big league innings and has authored a 4.47 ERA and 4.39 FIP in 50.1 innings at the AAA level with 9.49 K/9 but 5.18 BB/9.
Thompson has brandished six different pitches as a Major Leaguer: both a four-seam and sinking fastball, a cutter, curveball, slider, and changeup. He’ll sit in the 90-94 MPH range with his heater and the slider was always scouted as a plus pitch as a rising prospect, while the changeup and curveball typically received average grades for their projection. Scouts also projected Thompson to have solid command, as well, but to this point locating the baseball has been his biggest issue in The Show.
For now, the Brewers will stick with Thompson in a relief role and Stearns has mentioned him as someone who could be called upon to come on and get outs for Milwaukee this September. But given his build (6’4”, 225 lbs), delivery, and array of pitches, it would be a shame if Milwaukee doesn’t give Thompson the chance to report to camp as a starter next spring. Like Hernandez, the biggest issue that appears to be holding Thompson back from tapping into more of his upside is his inability to consistently pound the zone with quality strikes. The tools are there for Thompson to be a solid rotational option, now it’s up to DJ and the Brewers’ brain trust to try and work a little bit of their magic.
The Brewers are clearly not a risk-averse organization, and a major reason that the franchise has been able to turn from rebuilder into contender so quickly is because of the front office and coaching staff’s skill in finding and mining value from under-the-radar and second-chance type players. The ability for the scouting and analytics departments to identify promising lottery tickets, and for player development to help those moves pay dividends at the MLB level, is essential in order for a small-market team like Milwaukee to sustain success.
There is obviously no guarantee that Milwaukee will be able to turn either of their two new right-handers into useful big leaguers; there are clear reasons why both players were essentially freely available in the first place. At the very least, the Brewers may well have added two arms with minor league options remaining that could factor into the rotating carousel at the end of the bullpen in 2019. But given the current regime’s track record for developing pitchers, there may be reason for a bit more optimism than that regarding the futures of Ariel Hernandez and Jake Thompson with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs