Brewers boast steady stream of talent

LaPorta, Escobar, Gamel making strides in Milwaukee's still-deep system

Alcides Escobar hit .325 in the Florida State League prior to his midseason promotion to Double-A. (Jerry Hale/

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / | February 26, 2008 5:00 AM ET

The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

How another team hasn't swooped in and made Jack Zduriencik a general manager remains a mystery. Take one look at the farm system he's built in Milwaukee and the bevy of talent it has produced, and it's hard to believe he's still "only" a scouting director.

That Zduriencik remains in Milwaukee is clearly a boon for the Brewers. Milwaukee continues to boast one of the finest farm systems in baseball, and that's after drafting and producing players like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. The Brew Crew has plenty of young talent on the horizon to complement those players who've already made their mark in Milwaukee, leading to what should be prosperous times in Wisconsin.

Much of this promise has to do with what Zduriencik and his staff have accomplished. They took a minor gamble by picking Matt LaPorta with their top pick last June, a selection that could pay huge dividends. Throw in a solid crop of infielders and pitchers and the Brewers are well-stocked, hoarding enough young talent to be used as trade bait or as complementary pieces on the Major League level before long.

Here's a closer look at what the Brewers have in their system as the 2008 season approaches.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Matt LaPorta, OF
If there were an all-nice team, LaPorta probably would be captain. He's as engaging a player as there is in the game today, but being a good guy doesn't make him one of the 10 most noteworthy prospects in the Milwaukee system. He's included in this select group because he can hit and has shown a willingness to work hard, traits that often are found in other players but don't necessarily go hand in hand.

LaPorta had a productive first season in the pros and capped it with a nice run in the Arizona Fall League. He's never going to be Barry Bonds in left field -- no jokes please -- but he doesn't have to be. LaPorta has proven to be a competent outfielder who won't embarrass himself while running down a fly ball. He may not have the speed to get to everything, but with time and experience he'll learn a quicker route to the ball.

As for his potential at the plate, it wouldn't be surprising to see him fit in nicely as a 30-homer guy, either in front of or following Braun and Fielder in the Milwaukee lineup. They'll offer protection and ultimately give him a chance to grow once he reaches the big leagues, which may happen sooner rather than later, a la Braun.
Audio: LaPorta homers twice
Audio: LaPorta rips an RBI double

Here's one player on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Manny Parra, LHP -- An overcrowded starting staff may force Parra to spend some more time in Triple-A this season. Health issues have limited him in the past, but he was strong last year, pitching a perfect game in the Pacific Coast League and posting a 3.76 ERA in 26 innings with the Brewers.

Alcides Escobar, SS
Escobar is a perfect example of the hot, young player Zduriencik and his staff have found and signed. He reached Double-A as a 20-year-old and was better than anyone could've imagined, hitting .283 with 28 RBIs in 226 at-bats. While he still needs to learn some patience at the plate (18 walks in 494 total at-bats), that will come in time. His approach at the plate isn't unlike Jose Reyes, though he doesn't possess Reyes' electrifying speed or smarts on the basepaths.

Escobar's got good range and a strong enough arm to be an everyday shortstop. He committed 21 errors in 552 chances, but most of those came in the Florida State League. He committed only five errors in 266 chances at Huntsville and there are no plans to move him off shortstop.

"He's a pure shortstop," Zduriencik said. "He can run like heck and throw like heck. There's no question, though, he needs to have more patience at the plate."
Audio: Escobar smacks a two-run triple

Mat Gamel, 3B
Gamel can hit, there's no doubt about that, as evidenced by his .300 average last year in the always-tough Florida State League. That included a 33-game hitting streak, the longest in the circuit since Joe Altobelli hit in 36 straight in 1951. His power is a bit spotty -- playing in windswept Brevard County didn't help -- but he knows how to get on base and produce runs, so it wouldn't be a shock to see him as a No. 2 hitter some day.

What he does in the field, well, that's another matter. Gamel had 53 errors in 305 chances (one miscue every 5.75 chances) and had a 1-to-1 putout-to-error ratio. There's no sugar-coating that stat, but he's headed to Hunstville this season and the work he'll do with Don Money should help drop that error total. Most of Gamel's miscues are throwing errors, the result of occasionally dropping his elbow. Zduriencik said there are no plans right now to move Gamel off third base.
Audio: Gamel goes deep

Zach Braddock, LHP
Who will the Brewers get this season, the pitcher who dominated the Sally League for two months (3-1, 1.15 ERA in 10 games, nine starts) or the one who spent the second half of the season on the disabled list with shoulder issues? His fastball isn't overwhelming -- it sits mostly in the low 90s -- but his slider can be biting. When it's on, it's effective. But he has to learn how to work that pitch and others into his repertoire if he's going to get maximum results with his fastball.

Braddock has recorded 98 strikeouts over 86 professional innings in two seasons. He's held opponents to a .195 average, allowing only four homers in the process. How quickly he bounces back from shoulder issues (tendinitis) will be telling. Considering he came back from Tommy John surgery in high school to pitch as well as he did through the early part of last season indicates that rebounding shouldn't be much of an issue.
Audio: Braddock strikes out the side

Jonathan Lucroy, C
Lucroy, along with Angel Salome, gives the Brewers a position of strength behind the plate. While Lucroy is a few seasons behind the more polished Salome, he demonstrated last season that he could close that gap in a hurry. The third-round selection out of Louisiana-Lafayette had a brilliant initial season in pro ball, finishing sixth in the Pioneer League with a .342 average.

Lucroy was particularly effective against lefties, hitting .383 in 47 at-bats. Overall, he had four homers and 39 RBIs, then followed that up by hitting .299 in Hawaii Winter Baseball. While he's expected to start this season in West Virginia, don't be shocked if he's in Brevard County or Huntsville before season's end.
Audio: Lucroy goes double-double

Caleb Gindl, OF
Gindl, a fifth-round pick last June, got a bit of a surprise when Milwaukee decided to try him out in the Pioneer League, a circuit generally not too friendly for someone with only high school experience on his resume. He responded by showing he was ready to take whatever the Brewers threw his way by leading the league with a .372 average and finishing second with a .420 OBP.

Gindl hit five homers, drove in 42 runs and struck out only 38 times in 207 at-bats, a nice ratio for an 18-year-old. He made just one error and had six assists in 81 chances in right field. He's got an above-average arm and, though he experienced some elbow problems at the end of the season, there's no cause for alarm.
Audio: Gindl slugs a three-run shot

Cole Gillespie, OF
The former Oregon State star came back down the ladder a bit last summer at Brevard County after making a big-time splash at Helena in 2006. His batting average dropped 77 points, his OBP decreased 86 points and his slugging percentage went down 128 points while his strikeouts per at-bat increased to one every 4.6 from one every 5.4.

Still, the feeling is that playing in windswept Brevard County had a detrimental effect on Gillespie, much the same way it did with other Brewers prospects who've played at Space Coast Stadium. Gillespie projects to be a gap-power kind of player -- he had 12 homers and 62 RBIs last year -- who has better than average speed, so it will be interesting to see how he fares at Double-A. He remained stellar defensively, tying for the FSL lead with 12 outfield assists.

"He's played all three outfield positions and the guy can hit," Zduriencik said. "And he's got really good strike-zone discipline. He's a good, steady, all-around player. As long as he draws walks, he'll be fine."
Audio: Gillespie clears the bases

Jeremy Jeffress, RHP
What to do, what to do. Jeffress is a talented young pitcher who has some off-the-field issues that may or may not continue to be a problem. The Brewers are committed to helping him stay on the right path and, to that end, will be working with him extensively as he begins the season by finishing a suspension for a positive drug test.

When Jeffress is on the mound, there's no denying his talent as he consistently hits triple digits on the gun. He was 9-5 with a 3.13 ERA in 18 starts for West Virginia last year before sitting out. Opponents were hitting .201 against him, but all that won't matter if he doesn't straighten himself out.

Zduriencik and his staff have no worries, however. They view Jeffress as a youngster who simply made some mistakes and is working to correct them. He's been throwing in Arizona for several weeks to prepare for his season, whenever that may start.
Audio: Jeffress records his eighth K

R.J. Seidel, RHP
The Wisconsin high school product was a 16th-round selection in 2006 but signed late and didn't start his pro career until last summer. He appeared in 12 games (eight starts) for Helena and was 4-0 with a 3.07 ERA. He held the opposition to a .207 batting average while striking out 36 in 41 innings.

A bout with tendinitis limited his effectiveness over the second half of the season, but he pitched well enough in the instructional league that it isn't considered a long-term issue. His father, Dick, pitched for a while in the Minors two decades ago, so he has the pedigree. He may begin the year in extended spring or head right to West Virginia.

Brent Brewer, SS
C'mon, you didn't think a guy named Brent Brewer would be left off the list of Milwaukee's most noteworthy prospects. That would be like excluding Mr. Met or Danny Dodger -- so for his name alone, this youngster gets his due.

He may need some help anyway, considering the obstacles he's confronting. J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar are ahead of him on the depth chart, which will keep Brewer in the background for a while. And that's not necessarily a bad situation, considering he struck out once every 3.05 at-bats last year in the Sally League. He made 48 errors in '07, so teaming him and Gamel on the left side of the infield probably wouldn't be a prudent idea. But he's young (20), has a decent arm and certainly has room for growth.
Audio: Brewer belts another

Under the Radar

Lorenzo Cain, OF
The headline writers in Milwaukee will have a field day if Cain ever reaches his full potential. Can you guess how many times "Raising Cain" will dot the back pages of dairyland periodicals? Often, if his career path continues its current route. Cain has speed, some power, an above-average arm and is solid defensively.

What Cain doesn't have much of now is patience at the plate. He's fanned 201 times over the last two seasons (once every five at-bats) while drawing 95 walks. His OBP was sluggish (it dropped from .384 to .338 last season at Brevard County) as well. If he can fine-tune his approach at the plate -- he doesn't turn 22 until April -- there's no reason to believe he can't be a productive fourth outfielder or even step in eventually as a starter in the big leagues.
Audio: Cain produces a walk-off win

Mark Rogers, RHP
It seems like only yesterday the Brewers were extolling the virtues of the 2004 first-rounder. But after struggling through three seasons (3-14, 4.99 ERA in 53 games, 45 starts), Rogers missed all of last year while recovering from shoulder surgery. He's still young (22) and has a huge upside, but he's looking more like the answer to a trivia question than a legitimate prospect, a fact that will need to change this season if he's to regain his standing.

"When he's healthy, his fastball hits 98 and he has a yellow-hammer breaking ball," Zduriencik said. "He just has to be healthy, and he is. He's throwing well right now. He has plenty of time, so we're not just going to run him out there."

2007 Draft Recap

LaPorta (first round) had a splendid debut, hitting .304 with 12 homers and 31 RBIs in 115 at-bats in the Pioneer and South Atlantic leagues while making the switch from first base to the outfield. ... Lucroy (third round) hit .342 with four homers and 39 RBIs to earn a spot on the Pioneer League's All-Star team. ... 2B Eric Farris (fourth round) batted .326 with a homer and 34 RBIs at Helena. He fanned only 22 times in 239 at-bats while stealing 21 bases. He hit .432 over his final 10 games, closing the season with an eight-game hitting streak. ... Gindl (fifth round) led the Pioneer League with a .372 batting average. He also had five homers and 42 RBIs. ... LHP Dan Merklinger (sixth round) was 1-0 with one save and a 3.95 ERA in 13 games for Helena. He struck out 40 over 27 1/3 innings. ... LHP Efrain Nieves (seventh round) spent the bulk of his time in the Arizona League, though he made a pair of appearances in Helena. Overall, he was 3-4 with a 4.76 ERA in 15 games (seven starts), striking out 49 over 45 1/3 innings. ... SS David Fonseca (eighth round) hit .213 with 25 strikeouts in 127 at-bats in Helena. ... LHP Kristian Bueno (ninth round) was 0-6 with a 7.75 ERA in 13 games (six starts) in the Arizona League. ... C Eric Fryer (10th round) hit .209 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 139 at-bats for Helena.
Audio: Farris doubles home a run
Audio: Merklinger notches his sixth strikeout
Audio: Fonseca hits a game-tying double
Audio: Nieves rings up another K
Audio: Fryer blasts a three-run homer


Organizational Player of the Year -- OF Matt LaPorta
The seventh overall pick in the '07 draft, LaPorta has impressive power and will continue to be a run-producer. If he proves serviceable enough in the outfield, he becomes an all-around plus to the organization.

Cy on the farm -- RHP Rob Bryson
We're going deep into the bag with Bryson. Manny Parra hasn't proven he can stay healthy, so we're looking at other options and the former 31st-rounder is an intriguing one. He pitched well at short-season Helena last year out of the 'pen and figures to move into the starting rotation this year in West Virginia.
Audio: Bryson breaks off a curve

The time has come -- RHP Luis Pena
Pena has meandered through the Brewers' system, finally reaching Double-A Huntsville last year after spending 2 1/2 seasons in Brevard County. That he went 0-4 in 35 Southern League games wasn't as significant as the fact that he had a 2.89 ERA and held the opposition to a .211 average. Perhaps the former free-agent signee, who has been in the system since 2000, has made the necessary adjustments to reach the upper echelon of the Minor Leagues and even get a taste of life in Milwaukee.
Audio: Pena picks up a save

He'll fit in -- RHP Cody Scarpetta
An 11th-round pick in 2007, Scarpetta missed last season after suffering a finger injury while pitching high school ball in the spring. The ensuing surgery cost the youngster some valuable mound time and a huge chunk of cash. But with a good fastball and a better-than-average curve, we think he'll start his pro career very well this summer in one of the rookie leagues.


"He has a big ceiling. Here's a guy who was going to play football at Florida State but passed it up. He has size, he can run and throw and he has power. It's just a matter of working on his strike-zone discipline. He's a positive kid with a great work ethic, so it's going to be interesting to see how he develops." -- Zduriencik on Brent Brewer.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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