When Reid Nichols was hired as Milwaukee’s Director of Player Development in 2002, the Brewers’ farm system ranked among the worst in baseball. Five years later, it’s one of the best. Currently ranked seventh by Baseball Prospectus, it has been a top-10 organization for four years running, graduating Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, among others, to Miller Park.
An outfielder for the Red Sox, White Sox, and Expos from 1980-1987, Nichols came to Milwaukee from Texas where he had served as the Rangers farm director for seven years. Now 48 years old, Nichols is a native of Ocala, Florida.
David Laurila talked to Nichols for Baseball Prospectus about the Brewers’ farm system, including their player development philosophy and use of biomedical evaluation.
David Laurila: What brought you to Milwaukee, and what approach did you bring to the table when you became the team’s Director of Player Development?
Reid Nichols: I had been in Texas for eight years–seven as farm director and the last as the Rangers’ first base coach–and Doug Melvin hired me when he came here to be the GM. My approach is basically hiring good people and letting them do their job. It all starts from there.
DL: In assessing the Brewers’ farm system, Kevin Goldstein said the “elite talent ends with Braun and Gallardo, but depth is among the best in the game.” What are your thoughts on that opinion?
RN: I think it’s true that we have depth at a number of positions throughout the system. As for Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, they’re certainly quality players. I think everyone in baseball knows what they can do. With Braun, the ball really jumps off of his bat. There’s something different about him when he takes batting practice. Gallardo commands the baseball very well. Watching him last year, he was hitting his spots like a big leaguer. They both have a chance to contribute in the not too distant future.
DL: Which is more valuable for a minor league system to have: one or two elite players but little depth, or a lot of depth but no elite players?
RN: If you’re putting together a roster, you need depth. If you need a player or two to move up and fill slots, you want elite players. I know it’s nice to see that at the major league level we have three guys in the infield who came through the system: Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and J.J. Hardy. They’re premium players, and Ryan Braun could end up being the fourth.
DL: If you were forced to choose, do you take the elite player or depth?
RN: Obviously you want both, but let’s just say that I’d rather have Prince Fielder at first base than three guys who are pretty good and waiting for a chance.
DL: Writing about Will Inman, one of your top pitching prospects, Kevin Goldstein said there is “a mismatch in terms of stats and stuff. Scouts wonder if (his) arsenal will work at the upper levels.” What do you see when you look at Inman?
RN: I see a pitcher who has been having success against his peers. He’s the same age, or younger, than the guys he’s been playing against. Not only does he know how to pitch, you have to give his stuff credit, too. It’s not below-average. He has an above-average curveball, and an average fastball. What he’s doing is legitimate.
DL: When you’re assessing prospects, how do you weigh eyeball-scouting versus statistical analysis of their performance?
RN: One, you like to have an upside, because you need to be able to project. But players also need to perform. What makes a prospect is someone who has the physical attributes to play at a higher level and is also performing. You need to match the two, because you’re looking at a package; not just numbers or the physical talent.
DL: If you have good organizational depth at a position to the left of the defensive spectrum, are you more likely to move players or keep them at the position as long as possible?
RN: It depends on the players involved. If two guys are competing for one spot, it often comes down to what will hurt either of them the least. For instance, if we’re deciding who will be playing shortstop on our Low-A and High-A teams, we need to evaluate both of them. We need to make sure they’re both getting playing time. But competition is always good. I know that when I played, if there was someone competing for my job, I worked harder.
DL: What is the organizational approach to where a prospect is assigned? Do you typically challenge players to succeed at the highest level possible, or do you tend to be more conservative?
RN: All of our players have a game plan, and we judge them on an individual basis. If a player’s make-up lends him to play at a higher level–if he is a guy who tends to rise to the occasion–we’ll challenge him. Other times, we’ll be more conservative. There’s not one set way.
DL: Do you feel that most major league teams share a similar player development philosophy?
RN: I think so. And we’ve been fortunate to have worked so well with our scouting department. They don’t just send players to us. Jack Zduriencik is our scouting director, and we talk to him all the time. I don’t influence what he does when it comes to the draft itself, but communication is a huge part of having a successful organization.
DL: What goes into putting together your minor league coaching staff?
RN: It’s not unlike the draft. When you have an opening, you take the best guy available at the time. We have a long interview process where our coaches give their input, and then I make a final decision after making sure that everyone is on board. We want to make sure we hire someone who understands our philosophy and is a good communicator. We also want someone with the ability to speak his mind, because we value the input of our coaches.
DL: Do all of the teams in the system play a similar style of baseball–Milwaukee Brewers baseball–or can the managers implement their own in-game philosophies?
RN: We have a manual that we’ve put together that our roving instructors help us implement. It covers everything, from how we run the bases, how we pitch, how we position our fielders, how we approach hitting, and the plays we run. We want to make sure we’re speaking the same language, starting from the major league team and working down. Of course, if we have a player with a certain skill-set, we want to take advantage of their talent. With someone like a Darren Ford, we’ll run him more than other guys so we can capitalize on his speed.
DL: How would you describe the hitting philosophy that is taught in the Brewers system?
RN: We emphasize and focus on swinging at good pitches and having a balanced hitting approach. We encourage our players that the more pitches they see, the more success they’ll have. We want our hitters to be selective.
DL: What are the priorities for pitchers in the system?
RN: Number one is keeping them healthy. For instance, we have pitch counts per season, per game, and per inning.
DL: Can you elaborate on the “per inning”?
RN: It depends on when in the game it happens. If we’re past the third inning and someone reaches 30 pitches, he’s probably coming out. That will happen more in the lower levels. By the time you reach Triple-A, the pitchers are more mature and more experienced. They’re better prepared to handle those situations.
DL: Next to health, what is the top priority for pitchers?
RN: Our philosophy is built around throwing strikes early in the count. We like to get outs in the first three pitches as much as possible. We stress fastball command and having the ability to throw a quality off-speed pitch for a strike.
DL: How important are strikeout rates when projecting a pitching prospect?
RN: I think it’s somewhat of an indicator. If you’re getting a strikeout per inning, or allowing a hit or less per inning, you’re generally being successful. Those aren’t hard fact numbers–they’re more of a thumb-sketch–but they tell you something.
DL: How about groundball/flyball ratios?
RN: Those tend to be helpful in projecting someone’s role. We generally want our quality arms to be starters at the minor league level, but as they move up their roles may be determined by things like groundball/flyball rates.
DL: How much does the organization monitor offseason programs?
RN: We have a conditioning manual that players should be following each day, and our trainers will call to check in for updates during the off season. We also encourage our players to spend their winters at our facility in Arizona. We actually implemented a program this year where we gave scholarships to twelve players to come here to work out.
DL: What did the program consist of?
RN: It was two six-week programs. The first was mostly conditioning, while the second incorporated more baseball-specific exercises. Our staff picked twelve guys with good upside that we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, but all of our players are welcome to take part. I firmly believe there’s a reason that elite athletes set records every Olympics. We’re always looking to improve the quality of our organization in any way we can, and better conditioning is part of it.
DL: Does the organization utilize the American Sports Medicine Institute or other, similar, diagnostic facilities?
RN: We do biomechanical evaluations at our facility in Phoenix, including injury risk assessment, motion analysis and evaluative kinesiology. Our Assistant GM, Gord Ash, heads the program, I oversee the staff, and our team doctor, William Raasch, leads the medical team. We’ve had some of this in place for a few years, but this will be our first season of full-go.
DL: Baseball America rates the Brewers’ minor league talent fifth-best in the game, and Baseball Prospectus rates you number seven. What does that mean to you?
RN: I’m happy that people feel we’re in the top tier, and I credit our amateur scouting department and development staff for that, but you can always do better. Of course, where you’re rated really only matters when you’re number one–then you’re in trouble, because there’s only one direction you can go! Still, that’s what we’re working to become.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.