How the Brewers Rebuilt Their Way Into KATOH’s Heart

Yesterday, I utilized my KATOH projection system to rank the 30 farm systems. By my math, the Milwaukee Brewers are the top dog. And it isn’t particularly close. Here’s a graphical representation of each team’s cumulative projected WAR according to KATOH.


The Brewers farm system outpaces everyone else’s by a fairly wide margin by this metric. That’s interesting in and of itself. But the path David Stearns and company have taken to put their farm system in this position is perhaps even more interesting.

For one, they’ve acquired a large chunk of their minor league talent in the very recent past. Orlando Arcia, their consensus top prospect, has been around for a few years; but many of the others are very new additions. In fact, KATOH’s #2 through #8 prospects all joined the organization within the past seven months. That’s Ramon Flores, Jacob Nottingham, Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, Isan Diaz, Zach Davies and Javier Betancourt. Domingo Santana would fall in that group as well were he still prospect eligible. They’ve also added Rymer Liriano, Keon Broxton, Garin Cecchini, Jonathan Villar, Adrian HouserBubby Derby (who I’m still not convinced is a real person) over that same period. Not to mention lower-tier prospects Freddy Peralta, Trey Supak, Colin Walsh, Zack Jones, Carlos Herrera, Daniel Missaki and Manny Pina.

A seemingly high percentage of their recent acquisitions have been KATOH Darlings. They’re minor leaguers with strong statistical track records, but who have gotten very little attention from prospect evaluators. Best I can tell, none of Flores, Diaz, Davies or Betancourt have appeared on any top-100 lists. Hader missed the cut on most lists as well. Yet KATOH thinks each one of these players can make a big-league impact.

Recent graduate Santana fits this mold as well. So does Bubby Derby, who dominated the Mountain West Conference at San Diego State, but fell to the sixth round before he got off to a dominant start to his pro career. Heck, even Nottingham and Phillips were drafted outside of the first five rounds. Both have hit their way onto top-100 lists, but only KATOH has ranked them in the top 50.

“Scouting the stat line” seems to be a key theme of Milwaukee’s approach to rebuilding, but they aren’t putting all of their eggs in that basket. They’ve also brought in a few prospects whose perceived future value is tied their physical — rather than statistical — projectability. Rymer Liriano, Keon Broxton and Garin Cecchini all have impressive tools, but unlike most of the players mentioned above, their recent performances have been underwhelming.

Once a top prospect, Liriano’s contact issues have caused his bat to fizzle in the high minors. Cecchini was also a top prospect once upon a time, but his 2015 season in Triple-A was about as bad as they come. Broxton is an absolute tool shed, but struck out 27% of the time as a 25-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A. KATOH isn’t particularly fond of these players, but these are exactly the types of players who are liable to blow past their KATOH forecasts.

Clearly, the Brewers are hoarding prospects. But they aren’t hoarding top prospects. Instead, they’re collecting the most compelling minor leaguers they can get their hands on, and many of them cost next to nothing. Every one of these players has promising characteristics, but they also have notable flaws, which makes them somewhat risky.

I wouldn’t bet the ranch on Ramon Flores blossoming into an All-Star. Ditto Brett Phillips, Rymer Liriano, Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton. But one or two of them is bound stick as an above-average everyday outfielder. It might just take a year or so to figure out which one or two it will be.

Similarly, one of Isan Diaz or Javier Betancourt could easily be Orlando Arcia’s double-play partner by opening day 2018. This duo won’t blow anyone away with their tools, but they’ve shown some semblance of offensive promise in the minor leagues. Middle infielders who can also hit are something of a rare breed. And although they’re both unproven in the upper levels, KATOH thinks there’s a good chance they’ll hit enough to be solid big leaguers.

Milwaukee’s small army of new acquisitions — along with their existing core of Arcia, Jorge Lopez, Trent Clark, Gilbert Lara, Tyrone Taylor, Michael Reed, et al — gives them quite an inventory of prospects. They have both quality and quantity. And by placing a premium on minor league performance, they’ve won over KATOH’s heart.

I’d understand if you were skeptical of KATOH’s organizational rankings. KATOH isn’t perfect, after all; and many of the prospects the Brewers acquired — the obscure ones with good minor league numbers — are the types that KATOH is prone to overrate. Still, even if Milwaukee may not have the best farm system in baseball, it’s at least very close to the top.

The Brewers aren’t going to be good this year. Odds are, they won’t even be mediocre. Instead, they figure to contend with the Phillies, Braves and Reds for the dubious title of “worst team in baseball.” They’re a rebuilding team, and David Stearns is doing exactly what the GM of a rebuilding team should be doing: he’s stockpiling interesting minor leaguers in the hopes that a decent percentage of them will blossom into useful pieces. He might not be done, either, as both Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy look like decent bets to be traded sooner or later. A couple of years from now, Milwaukee should have a solid core of young, cost-controlled players to build around. If nothing else, Brewers fans have something to which they can look forward.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Death to Flying Things
8 years ago

This kind of deep rebuild–sacrificing near future wins in hopes of getting repaid with interest in the future–is what some folks are calling “tanking.” I disagree. It’s probably the only way a small market team can escape from perpetual mediocrity. Nice work, Brewers.

oh Hal
8 years ago

I’m not as universally enthusiastic about every trade as the farm fevered fanbase, but I don’t think they’ve sacrificed much in the near term win category. Likely replacements are Villar instead of Segura, Santana instead of Davis, and Jeffress instead of Krod for instance. The corner infield is different though.

What they haven’t done is go out into the FA market for more certain upgrades.

Maybe the union isn’t happy about that because it means veterans without contracts as ST is about to start, but they should be happy that guys like Cecchini, Middlebrooks and Walsh are getting genuine shots at becoming veterans.

8 years ago

I’m not even sure the team is any worse than last year honestly. While they didn’t have a lot of bad contracts, they have been able to trade a lot of fringe players, veterans who over performed and short term contracts into basically what they were last year plus a pretty deep farm system by most accounts. We traded a lot of established players, but by most measures those guys were just not playing that well anyways except Lind, Parra, Braun, and Davis.

I don’t think you have to squint too hard to see a 70 win team (early betting line is 71.5 wins). Santana might be a better defensive Khris Davis. Braun can move to left where he is better. Carter in Miller Park could be fun to watch. Liriano/Nieuwenhuis/Flores in center is a downgrade from Gomez, but Gomez wasn’t great last year anyways. Villar is likely better on offense than Segura but worse defensively. Anderson is a rotation upgrade. If the young Brewers pitchers just play a little better the team could be vying for a top 10 pick instead of top 5 next year.