The Brewers are constructing one of the deepest, though not necessarily most top-heavy, farm systems in baseball. That became evident last Saturday when five of their prospects appeared on MLB.com's updated Top-100 rankings -- No. 18 Lewis Brinson, No. 30 Corey Ray, No. 38 Josh Hader, No. 62 Luis Ortiz and No. 65 Isan Diaz. But if the rebuild is going to be successful, they'll need to turn those prospects and more from farm system promise to Major League ready.
That's where Brandon Woodruff comes in. The 23-year-old right-hander went from Minor League depth option to legitimate prospect in 2016 and represents the types of player development wins the Brewers will need if they're going to reach the postseason for just the third time since joining the National League in 1998.
Woodruff, a Mississippi native, made headlines in 2016 when he struck out nine over six innings and hit his first professional homer in Double-A Biloxi's 1-0 win at Pensacola on July 24, nine days after his brother died from injuries related to an ATV accident. But it wasn't just one tear-inducing start that defined his breakout season. He also happened to be the Minor League leader in strikeouts with 173 in 158 innings between Biloxi and Class A Advanced Brevard County, earning him spots on MiLB.com's Brewers Organization All-Star team and a nomination for a MiLBY Best Starting Pitcher award.
"I guess you can sit back and look at last year and be happy with it, but for me, I'm always worried about giving my team a chance to win," Woodruff said. "All those accolades, they come along with it. As long as I'm focused on pitching deep into games, that mentality will make everything else work. I've gotten a chance to look back and take it all in, but right now, it's still thinking about some things to do better."
Originally taken in the fifth round in 2011 by the Rangers out of high school, Woodruff fell to the Brewers in the 11th round in 2014 after a three-year career at Mississippi State that included an elbow stress fracture as a sophomore and a move to the bullpen. Milwaukee put him back in the rotation full time for his first full season in the Florida State League, and the 6-foot-4 hurler was solid, though not spectacular. Woodruff stayed with Brevard County all season, finishing with a 4-7 record, 3.45 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 71 strikeouts and 33 walks in 109 2/3 innings. Those aren't numbers that pop off the page, but Woodruff was developing a reputation as ground-ball specialist, and in his eyes, laying the foundation for what was to come.
"I think I learned a lot in the first full season," he said. "Pitching every five days, learning what to look for from batters, it was a big change in mentality. I couldn't worry about if they were going to hit it. I had to think more like, 'Here it comes,' and not back down. Along with that, one of the biggest things was not feeling too rushed, not forcing things. Baseball's a funny sport because you never know what's going to happen, and it took that first full season to take that to heart."
Perhaps as a peek into their view of him last spring, the Brewers returned Woodruff to Brevard County to begin 2016, and he did not disappoint. After striking out seven or more in three of his 21 appearances in 2015, Woodruff matched that through six starts. His May 14 outing saw him equal a career best with 10 punchouts in 6 1/3 innings at Dunedin, and that was when the Brewers decided he'd done enough to earn the bump to Biloxi -- not before earning his way to his first All-Star team with a spot on the FSL midseason squad.
During his second go-round with the Manatees, Woodruff noticed a slight bump in velocity from the lower 90s to closer to 94 with regularity and attributed the boost to normal Minor League development. But when he really took off, in his eyes, was under the tutelage of Biloxi pitching coach Chris Hook. Woodruff had struggled with control in the past, having averaged 5.1 BB/9 during his college career. To nip that in the bud, Hook worked on getting his new hurler into a better rhythm on the mound.
"It was just getting into more of a faster tempo," Woodruff said. "Once I got into it with him, we didn't want it to be choppy. It was just getting the sign, looking in for the spot and going, simple as that.... It really felt like a much better delivery. I was able to get ahead of guys more and felt a little more focused. I'm still getting a more comfortable with it even now."
But it wasn't just from his coaches that Woodruff took tips. The beauty of a deep system is there's a lot of talent around each other on a daily basis, and Woodruff took advantage by watching Josh Hader work his magic. They were together for less than a month, from May 15 to June 11, but that was enough for Woodruff to see the southpaw post a 0.81 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings. In particular, Woodruff paid attention to the way his Shuckers teammate used his changeup. Given a 45 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale from MLB.com, it's far from Hader's best offering, but Woodruff saw something in the way he used his third pitch that lit a bulb in the more senior hurler.
"[His changeup] was an equalizer at that level," he said. "You could see pretty easily how effective a pitch it was with the way he changed speeds.... It wasn't necessarily that he showed me a specific grip or anything. [It was] more about how he'd use it in certain counts and situations. It was all about showing how powerful just that can be."
Woodruff continued his velocity uptick and added his changeup to a solid slider, remaining one of the Southern League's best pitchers down the stretch. He finished the season among the circuit's qualified pitchers as the leader in WHIP (1.04), K/9 (9.8), FIP (2.49) and average-against (.208) and ranked second in K/BB (4.1) and third in ERA (3.01) over his 113 2/3 innings with the Shuckers.
The baseball community has taken notice. MLB.com moved him into the top 30 for Brewers prospects for the first time last summer at No. 25, and he's certain to climb when that list is updated later this month. One could make the case that Woodruff has become Milwaukee's second-best right-handed pitching prospect behind Luis Ortiz. As mentioned this week, the Steamer projection system, which doesn't take prospect rankings into account, already thinks he'd be the Brewers' fourth-best starting pitcher if he opened the season in the Majors.
In a system that's done so well to add pieces through trades in recent years, a homegrown talent like Woodruff could be the solid, reliable starter Milwaukee needs in the No. 3 spot of its rotation if this rebuild is going to produce fruit.
For now, Woodruff will continue throwing bullpens and working out in Booneville, Mississippi, before heading out to Arizona on Feb. 11. When he arrives, it might be as a new type of prospect.
"It's good to be considered a piece of a system like this," he said. "All I can do right now, though, is work hard because every day I'm working so one day I can help Milwaukee get to the playoffs and win a World Series. That's something all of us prospects want to be a part of."