Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Brewers stocked with prospects

Milwaukee rated to have MLB’s top minor-league talent

May 23, 2004

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— The reports that Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin keeps getting on his top prospects aren't the kind of calls he wants.

So far this season, his cell phone has buzzed with the bad news that pitchers Mike Jones and Manny Parra had ailing arms, outfielder David Krynzel broke a bone in his foot and shortstop J.J. Hardy was lost for the season because of a separated shoulder.

"That's why you never have enough prospects, right?" Melvin said.

Maybe so, but the Brewers, who haven't had a winning season since 1992 and have hovered around .500 so far this year, boast more promising young players in their stocked farm system than any other team in the majors, according to Baseball America, which evaluates minor-league talent.

"I know Brewers fans are probably tired of being told to be patient, that help's right around the corner," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "But I think this time it's really true."

The Brewers have legitimate prospects at every position and a deep pitching pool, something that makes Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik cringe as much as smile.

"It's a job that's unfinished yet because we've got to have these kids become good major-league players, not just good minor leaguers," Zduriencik said.

An impressive array of blue-chip talent is working its way to Milwaukee, led by Hardy, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, pitcher Ben Hendrickson, catcher Lou Palmisano and outfielders Corey Hart, Anthony Gwynn and Brad Nelson.

Hart was called up Friday from Triple-A Indianapolis after third baseman Wes Helms went on the 15-day disabled list because of a strained knee. Although more prospects could get a taste of the major leagues this summer, the pipeline isn't expected to start flowing until next year.

The Brewers, one of the biggest benefactors of Major League Baseball's revenue sharing, have funneled profits into the minor-league system for several seasons. This year, they trimmed their major-league player payroll from $40.6 million to $27.6 million -- the lowest in baseball -- so they could further focus on the future.

That is a prudent plan, said Callis, whose publication had the Brewers ranked dead last in minor-league talent in 2000 and 2001, and 26th in 2002.

"It's amazing they turned it around this quickly and also that they've done it almost entirely through the draft," Callis said.

They didn't stockpile talent through trades or hoard extra first round picks from free-agent losses. They haven't loaded up on international players, and they've adhered to recommendations from the commissioner's office not to overpay their picks.

They've simply made good decisions up and down the draft, Callis said.

Under Zduriencik's direction, the Brewers reversed a trend in which a series of dreadful drafts led to more than a decade of losing records at the big-league level.

"It's very easy to say the best thing Dean Taylor did by far when he was general manager of the Brewers was hire Jack as scouting director," Callis said. "Jack's made a bunch of good picks and he's done it without extra money or extra selections."

Weeks, the second overall pick a year ago, was a two-time NCAA batting champion. But Zduriencik mostly has concentrated on high school players, which means most of the top talent is advancing through the system at relatively young ages.

And they're making impressions along the way.

Hart in the Double-A Southern League, Fielder in the Single-A Midwest League and Palmisano in the rookie Pioneer League all won MVP honors last season.

Farm director Reid Nichols said the bevy of promising players was a beacon following a gloomy winter in which the Brewers were put up for sale, a public financial review showed the club was $133 million in the red, and the team president departed after publicly questioning the franchise for pinning its hope on these prospects.

"We've been through so much this last year, it's great that our guys can walk into the clubhouse and can say, 'We're the best organization in baseball,'" Nichols said.

The players say it's nice to have strength in numbers, too.

"You know there are so many other players coming up that you don't have to worry about just turning the whole team around by yourself," Fielder said.

After years of watching the system churn out duds, Brewers All-Star outfielder Geoff Jenkins can't wait for the franchise's future stars to start showing up in Brewers uniforms.

"I've seen other teams bring up stud after stud," Jenkins said. "It's kind of nice to see our turn's coming here."

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