1. Matt LaPorta, LF
2. Manny Parra, LHP
3. Jeremy Jeffress, RHP
4. Cole Gillespie, OF
5. Angel Salome, C
6. Alcides Escobar, SS
7. Mat Gamel, 3B
8. Caleb Gindl, OF
9. Luis Pena, RHP
10. Robert Bryson, RHP
11. Brent Brewer, SS
1. Matt LaPorta, LF
Drafted: 1st round, 2007, University of Florida
2007 Stats: .259/.289/.519 at Short-season (7 G); .318/.392/.750 at Low-A (23 G)
Year In Review: The 2005 NCAA home run leader recovered from a miserable junior year to reestablish himself as the best pure college hitter in the draft, going seventh overall to the Brewers, and then not missing a beat in his pro debut.
The Good: LaPorta has true impact potential offensively, with some scouts believing that he had the best power and the best pitch recognition in last June’s draft. He has the patience to wait for a pitch to hit, the bat speed to let balls carry deep into the zone, the strength to power them out to all fields, and the hand/eye coordination to hit for average as well. Moved to the outfield for the first time in his career after signing, the Brewers praised his work ethic in learning the new position, and his ability to leave his defensive issues behind him when he stepped to the plate.
The Bad: Not even a good first baseman in college, LaPorta is still an adventure in left field. He’s a below-average runner who needs to vastly improve his reads and routes. The Brewers themselves hold no high hopes for him there, hoping that he can develop into merely adequate, knowing that his bat will more than make up for it. His powerful swing will always come with a high strikeout rate, but he could use a better two-strike approach, and focus merely on hard contact at times. Because he played four years of college, he’s 23 years old with just 30 games of pro experience.
Fun Fact: A 14th round pick as a catcher by the Cubs in 2003, LaPorta earned Defensive Most Valuable Player honors at Charlotte High School in Florida, but quickly played his way to first base once he got to college.
Perfect World Projection: LaPorta’s entire value comes from his bat, but he has the potential to be a classic No. 3 or No. 4 hitter for a first-division team.
Timetable: LaPorta’s bat is nearly ready, and he’ll be moved aggressively through the system, making his full-season debut at Double-A.
2. Manny Parra, LHP
Drafted: 26th round, 2001, American River CC (CA)
2007 Stats: 2.68 ERA at Double-A (80.2-70-26-81); 1.73 ERA at Triple-A (26-15-7-25); 3.76 ERA at MLB (26.1-25-12-26)
Year In Review: After years of arm troubles, the high-ceiling lefty finally got healthy and pitched his way to the big leagues before breaking his thumb at the plate.
The Good: Parra has excellent stuff for a left-hander, beginning with a 90-93 mph fastball that can touch 94-95 and features late, explosive life. He also throws a 88-92 mph two-seamer, and both his curve and changeup rank as a tick above average due to his command. He’s an aggressive type who pitches with reckless abandon, and the team has always been impressed with his attitude as he worked through his injuries.
The Bad: Parra’s history of elbow and shoulder problems is considerable, so his long-term health is still a bit of a concern, and his mechanics are far from ideal. He needs to mix his pitches up more effectively, and can be overly reliant on his fastball at times.
Fun Fact: Big=league lefties facing Parra whent 4-for-23 with 10 strikeouts.
Perfect World Projection: An above-average starting pitcher, possibly as good as a No. 2.
Timetable: While Parra was primarily used in relief during his big-league stint, he’ll compete for a rotation job in spring training.
Year In Review: The fireballing teenager was very impressive in his full-season debut–on the occasions when he was available for duty.
The Good: On a pure velocity level, Jeffress ranks with any arm in the minors, as he parked his fastball consistently at 94-97 mph, and touched 100 mph on several occasions last year. He flashes a good curveball at times, and has begun to show some feel for a changeup as well, despite being very new to the pitch. He’s an outstanding athlete, and his arm action is clean.
The Bad: While Jeffress needs to improve his control and command and find more consistency with his off-speed stuff, his biggest issues are off the field. Jeffress has tested positive for marijuana on multiple occasions, and has seemingly learned nothing from the 50-game suspension he received towards the end of the regular season, as he tested positive once again during the instructional leagues. Nearly everything about his development becomes secondary to his issues with illegal drugs.
Fun Fact: Jeffress did not allow a second-inning earned run in any of his 17 starts.
Perfect World Projection: If Jeffress had a cleaner background, he’d rank No. 1 on this list. His arm is that special.
Timetable: Jeffress will not be eligible to pitch again until late May, so he’ll remain in extended spring training for an extra six weeks before reporting to High-A. The Brewers hope that more time in Arizona and Florida will help Jeffress mature a bit, believing that playing his first full-season close to his home contributed to his problems.
Year In Review: An offense-oriented outfielder, Gillespie got off to slow start in his full-season debut at High-A but finished strong, batting .333/.426/.494 in his final 50 games.
The Good: Gillespie’s scouting reports scream “professional hitter.” He has the best approach in the system, draws plenty of walks, and laces balls into both gaps with decent power at times. He’s a baseball rat who is often the first to arrive at the park and the last to leave. He makes up for a lack of athleticism with an outstanding feel for the game.
The Bad: Gillespie’s speed and arm are both below average, which limits him to left field, so he’ll need to really mash to profile as an everyday player. Despite being right-handed, he often has problems picking up breaking balls from lefties, and he shows little power against southpaws.
Fun Fact: Gillespie was an all-state performer at West Linn High School in Oregon, the same school that graduated “The Wild Thing,” Mitch Williams.
Perfect World Projection: One talent evaluator referred to him as “a right-handed Rusty Greer.”
Timetable: Gillespie will make the big jump to Double-A in 2008, and is at least a year away from the Brewers figuring out where/if he fits into their future.
Year In Review: The small, squat catcher was having a fine offensive season in the Florida State League before his season was interrupted by a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.
The Good: Salome has above-average offensive skills for a backstop, with a quick bat, excellent feel for contact, and occasional power. There is some dispute over Salome’s positive test and what caused it, and team officials insist that it’s not a long-term issue.
The Bad: Salome is a free swinger and bad-ball hitter who will likely never draw many walks. He’s a poor defender who needs to dramatically improve his receiving skills and the accuracy of his throws, which are thrown off by poor mechanics.
Fun Fact: While George Washington High School has an impressive baseball history, with graduates including Manny Ramirez and Rod Carew, non-baseball alumni include singer Harry Belafonte, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, and ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Perfect World Projection: A hit-first, field-later catcher in the major leagues.
Timetable: Like Jeffress, Salome’s 2008 season will be delayed by his suspension. Where things stand upon his return will determine whether he gets an assignment back to High-A, or a promotion to the Double-A Southern League.
Year In Review: Already the top defensive player in the system, Escobar began to show some life with the bat, hitting (at least for average) at both High- and Double-A.
The Good: Escobar is one of the top defensive players in the minors, effortlessly gliding to both his left and right while showcasing an excellent arm that allows him to often make spectacular plays. At the plate, he has a quick, smooth bat that laces line drives from one foul line to the other, and he has the wheels to turn balls hit into the gap into triples.
The Bad: Escobar’s offense comes solely from his batting average. One scout called him “about as strong as my sister,” and he has just 78 extra-base hits in 406 career games. Further complicating matters is a highly-aggressive approach that limits his on-base ability. He also has a sizable platoon split, with much more effectiveness against southpaws.
Fun Fact: Escobar’s slugging percentage was equal to his batting average until May 1 last year, when he stroked a double in his 24th game of the year.
Perfect World Projection: An outstanding defensive shortstop, but the kind who hits .280 while somehow managing to keep his OPS below 700.
Timetable: Escobar will likely begin the year at Triple-A, but there’s no opening for him in the big leagues at this time.
Year In Review: Gamel continued to show plenty of potential with the bat, and plenty of problems with the glove.
The Good: His offensive skills are considerable, as he works counts well and began to tap into his power during the second half of last year, hitting eight of his nine home runs after the All-Star break. He’s a good athlete with above-average range at the hot corner and a strong arm.
The Bad: Despite his physical gifts, Gamel is a horrible defender who made 53 errors last year, followed by 10 more in 33 Hawaiian Winter League contests. It’s frustrating to scouts, as he has the instincts and athleticism to play the position, but at times it almost seems that he has a case of the yips concerning his glove work. Offensively, he has few faults, although good left-handers often give him trouble.
Fun Fact: Gamel stepped to the plate nine times in extra-inning situations last year, and while he didn’t get a hit, he did draw five walks.
Perfect World Projection: A solid everyday big-league third baseman.
Timetable: Gamel will move up to Double-A in 2008, and while he’s not yet approaching a crossroad, his prospect status would be assisted greatly by an improved showing defensively, while that same status would take a big hit if he’s forced to switch positions.
Year In Review: A sweet-swinging high school outfielder, Gindl fell in the draft due to his size, but led the Pioneer League in batting while finishing second in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging.
The Good: Few question Gindl’s ability to hit. He has a mature approach and a quick quiet swing that allows for consistent contact and gap power. His grinder’s mentality endeared him to scouts, and he’s a maximum-effort player who gets the most out of his tools.
The Bad: Gindl is small, and a bit stiff athletically. He’s no more than an average runner with an average arm, which limits him to a corner in the outfield while raising considerable questions as to his ability to develop enough power to become an everyday player there.
Fun Fact: When leading off an inning for Helena, Gindl went 25-for-44 (.568).
Perfect World Projection: An everyday corner outfielder who makes up for middling power with outstanding on-base skills.
Timetable: Gindl is ready for a full-season debut at Low-A West Virginia, where contending for a batting title seems like a legitimate possibility.
Year In Review: The burly right-hander overcame years of arm troubles to pitch his way onto the 40-man roster.
The Good: Pena profiles as a late-inning reliever with good command of two plus pitches. His low-90s fastball can get into the 94-96 mph range at times, features heavy sink, and gets an additional downward plane from Pena’s height and arm angle. When he’s not getting ground balls with the pitch, he’s setting up hitters with a very good slider that has nice two-plane break.
The Bad: As a shoulder-surgery survivor with violent mechanics, Pena’s ability to stay on the active roster will remain a concern for some time. He can get around on his slider at times, causing it to sweep across the plate and be hittable.
Fun Fact: Pena’s full name is Luismar Alexis Colina Pena.
Perfect World Projection: A good set-up man.
Timetable: The Brewers feel that Pena is close to being ready, and while he’ll be given an outside shot at earning a big-league bullpen job in spring training, he’ll more likely be given an assignment to Triple-A with the goal of a second-half look.
Year In Review: A $300,000 draft-and-follow from the gambit’s last season in existence, Bryson looked to be worth every penny in his pro debut.
The Good: Bryson offers plenty to dream on. He has strong mechanics with a good leg drive and quick, fluid arm action, which allows him to pound the strike zone with 91-94 mph fastballs while occasionally hitting 96 when he rears back for something extra. He shows some feel for a slider, and seems to bring his entire game a step forward in pressure situations.
The Bad: Because he’s from Delaware and has just one year of junior college experience, Bryson is pretty unrefined. He needs to find much greater consistency with his breaking ball, and his changeup is rudimentary, which gives him problems against left-handed hitters. More than anything else, he just needs innings. He has a stocky build, and might need to watch his conditioning down the road.
Fun Fact: In Bryson’s final start for Seminola College, he struck out 12 over eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits–while throwing 132 pitches.
Perfect World Projection: Bryson’s ceiling is considerably high, but he’s also far from it.
Timetable: Bryson will make his highly-anticipated full-season debut at Low-A.
Year In Review: The perfectly-named shortstop blew away scouts in his full-season debut, showing just how good he can be, and just how far he is from being there.
The Good: Brewer’s tools rank with those of anyone else in the system. Long and wiry, he has plus power potential at the plate, and plus-plus speed on the basepaths, projecting for 30-50 stolen bases a year down the road. His wheels help him in the field as well, where he has excellent range and a very strong arm.
The Bad: Brewer is beyond raw. On a baseball level, he’s nearly embryonic. He struck out 170 times last year, and if a pitch is breaking, he nearly always chases it. He needs to shorten his swing and stop falling in love with his power, as he has the wrists and bat speed to power balls out without muscling up his swing. Defensively, he’s extremely erratic, committing 48 errors last year.
Fun Fact: Brewer never went more than three consecutive games without a strikeout last year, and he did that only twice. He also had 15- and 20-game streaks with a strikeout.
Perfect World Projection: Brewer is an all-or-nothing type of prospect who will either look like a star within the next couple of years or be off the radar.
Timetable: Brewer is a one-level-at-a-time type of prospect who will play the 2008 campaign in the High-A Florida State League.
The Sleeper: Another 2006 draft-and-follow, 6’5″ right-hander R.J. Seidel received an even bigger bonus than Bryson, and already has one of the best sinkers in the system.
The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies Under 25 (As Of Opening Day 2008)
1. Prince Fielder, 1B
2. Ryan Braun, 3B/OF
3. Yovani Gallardo, RHP
4. Matt LaPorta, LF
5. Manny Parra, LHP
6. Jeremy Jeffress, RHP
7. Cole Gillespie, OF
8. Carlos Villanueva, RHP
9. Angel Salome, C
10. Alcides Escobar, SS
Fielder is coming off a 50-homer season as a 23-year-old, which means that kind of productivity could be an annual expectation as he hits his prime. Braun had one of the great offensive seasons in rookie history, and the Brewers have taken care of his defensive problems at third by moving him to left field. Together, the two provide one of the top slugging combinations in the game at any age level. During his outstanding minor league career, scouts were mixed as to whether Gallardo’s ultimate ceiling was as a No. 2 or a No. 1 starter, but the balance started to swing in favor of the latter following his impressive big-league debut. Villanueva pitched very well out of the bullpen last year, and looked good in a handful of starts at the end of the season. He’s likely headed for a back-end rotation job this year, but that’s also his ultimate ceiling.
You really could mix up those top three talents in nearly any order and make an argument for why without slighting any of them. Throw in second baseman Rickie Weeks, and you could make it four high-upside players already in the majors. The point is, the current Brewers minor league system is not especially good or especially deep, but at the big-league level they have a very talented and very young team that is lined up for annual playoff contention over the next few years.
Next: A depleted New York Mets system.