The inaugural season for the expansion Milwaukee Milkmen probably went about as well as anyone could have reasonably expected in 2019. The team didn’t end up at the bottom of the American Association standings (38-62) even though churned through 43 players by the end of their first campaign and were sellers in the second half. They didn’t finish last in attendance despite spending the first month of the season playing their home games in Kokomo, Indiana while the finishing touches were put on their brand-new stadium in Franklin. A handful of individual players enjoyed productive seasons, establishing themselves as potential building blocks for the Milkmen moving forward.
But at the end of the season, it was clear that some additional changes to the roster were going to be needed if the new Milwaukee Nine wanted to take the next step and become contenders in the AA’s North Division.
While the Milkmen pitching staff was solid overall during the 2019 season, too often a feeble offense was flummoxed by opposing hurlers. At an average of just 3.74 runs per game, only one team on the circuit was more inept when it came to pushing men across the plate. In fact, only two regular members of the lineup posted OPS marks better than the league average of .744 — All-Star backstop Manny Boscan (.803) and local slugger Adam Walker (.777).
The club’s latest transaction, however, should add an impact bat to the middle of the lineup, and of the infield.
The Milkmen recently announced a significant five-player trade with the Rockland Boulders of the former Can-Am League, which joined forces with the Frontier League for the 2020 season. Milwaukee agreed to send three players — Garrett Copeland, Glen McClain, and Sam Dexter to New York. All are 26 or under and were regulars for the club last season, but none of them bested even a .675 OPS (and only Copeland came close at .671 in 100 games). The Milkmen also sent some cash to the Boulders to complete the swap.
The centerpiece of the deal coming back to the Ballpark Commons is second baseman Ryne Birk. A former 13th-round pick of the Astros in 2016, the left-handed hitter from Texas A&M saw his professional career get off to a scorching start with a 150 wRC+ in 43 games between rookie and A-ball, then a 111 wRC+ with 15 homers in 118 combined games at high-A and Double-A in 2017. But Birk slumped to a 61 wRC+ during his first full year in the Texas League and he was released by Houston the following spring in advance of his age-24 season.
Birk caught on with the Boulders and quickly became one of the top hitters in the Can-Am League. He was voted as an All-Star at the keystone and by the end of the season, had compiled a sparkling .317/.395/.496 batting line in 72 games and 306 plate appearances. Among hitters with at least 250 trips to the plate, Birk ranked #6 on the circuit with an .891 OPS. He punched only five balls over the fence, but peppered outfields with 19 doubles and a league-leading seven triples.
When Birk was drafted and signed for a $100K bonus, he earned praise from Baseball America as “the kind of player who looks better and better the more that scouts see him.” Their evaluators lauded his consistency, hit tool, and power potential while naming him the first team All-American at second base. He has regularly shown off his bat-to-ball skills as a pro, whiffing in only 16.3% of his plate appearances with the Houston org before posting a 17.6% K-rate with Rockland during his first indy-ball season. The southpaw swinger’s 2017 season showed what kind of home run potential he possesses, though his power more regularly manifests itself in doubles and triples.
@DoubleGSports @RcklandBoulders second baseman #RyneBirk bashes go ahead and game winning 2 run home run in 1st inning today vs. @SCMiners 4th of the season for Birk and second round tripper in last 3 games #ROCKvsSSX #canamleaguetv pic.twitter.com/I8f0jpQkbb— Sunil Sunder Raj (@SunilSunderRaj3) July 22, 2019
Birk has previously stolen as many as 13 bases in a full season and snagged six bags in eight attempts last year. His defense has been called “fringy”, and he committed 10 errors on the way to finishing with a slightly below-average .967 fielding percentage in 66 games at the keystone. Make no mistake about it, though, the plan is for Birk to make his mark with the lumber in 2020.
There is a slight jump up in competition level from the Can-Am League to the American Association, but Birk’s previous experience in the mid-minors should help make him the transition with relative ease. The two independent leagues finished with comparable offensive environments in 2019 (.739 league OPS in Can-Am) and Birk’s final numbers would have been similarly elite in the AA. He figures to immediately become a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat for the Milkmen, and heading into only his age-25 season, he could be a cornerstone for the franchise for the foreseeable future (or as long as it takes for another affiliated team to come calling).
In addition to Birk, the Milwaukee also received soon-to-be 27 year old utilityman Angelo Mora in the exchange. He spent nine seasons in the minors with the Phillies and Dodgers and posted a .279/.337/.430 slash in 297 games across parts of five years at the Double-A level before aging out and getting cut loose by LA last summer. Shortly after that he agreed to a pact with Rockland and played in six games as the 2019 season concluded. Those two, along with previous adds of SS Chris Baker (.670 OPS with St. Paul in 2019), 1B Devon Rodriguez (career .311/.350/.424 hitter in five indy-league seasons), and 3B/OF Mason Davis (.374 OBP, 19 stolen bases for Kansas City in 2019), mean that we’ll be seeing an almost completely re-imagined starting nine from the one that the club began their inaugural season with.
Coupled with the forecasted returns of Walker and Boscan, there should be a far more potent lineup filing out of the home dugout at the Ballpark Commons in 2020. With a quality pitching staff already in place, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that the Milwaukee Milkmen will be right in the thick of a pennant race next summer.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference