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Gamel gives Brew Crew powerful bat

Slugging first baseman dominated Triple-A pitching this year
November 18, 2011
This offseason, will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

The Milwaukee Brewers' affiliates struggled across all classifications in 2011, posting a composite winning percentage (.466) that ranked second-to-last among all 30 franchises.

The Triple-A Nashville Sounds finished two games below .500 and nine games behind the leaders in the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division, and the Huntsville Stars missed out on a playoff spot after posting the Southern League's worst record (27-40) in the second half.

Class A Advanced Brevard County overcame a disappointing first half to challenge for the Florida State League's Northern Division crown, only to miss the postseason by four games, while the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers failed to finish better than fourth in either half of the Midwest League's Western Division standings.

In the Pioneer League, short-season Helena compiled a 30-46 record overall and did not challenge for a playoff berth.

Still, there were some outstanding individual performances from players at all levels, proving the organization has talent throughout the system.

Catcher -- Martin Maldonado, Huntsville (64 games), Nashville (39 games), Milwaukee (3 games): Maldonado set career marks in virtually every offensive category this season. Now in his seventh year of pro ball, the 25-year-old smacked 11 homers and plated 59 runs in 103 games -- all personal bests -- between the Southern League and Pacific Coast League.

No catcher in the Milwaukee system went yard more than Maldonado, who also scored 47 runs and drew 35 walks. He was rewarded with his Major League debut as a defensive replacement on Sept. 3 in Houston, and he went on to appear in two more games off the bench against Cincinnati and Florida.

"He's a very good defensive catcher, and it started to click with the bat," said Reid Nichols, Milwaukee's director of player development. "He's a solid defender who handles the pitching staff well and shuts down the running game. He's a competitor. I like him a lot."

"He's a tremendous defensive catcher, without question," added Darnell Coles, the Brewers' Minor League hitting coordinator. "Was he able to make adjustments hitting-wise to make himself better? Absolutely.

"He did a great job understanding his deficiencies and seeing what he needed to do to improve. The numbers speak for themselves. He went up in average, he went up in home runs, doubles, all across the board. He's put himself in a position to maybe make the Major League team as a backup."

First base -- Mat Gamel, Nashville (128 games), Milwaukee (10 games): The slugging infielder had quite the year. His 28 homers and 96 RBIs topped all Brewers farmhands, while his .310 average was third-highest in the system. The former fourth-rounder spent the entire year with Triple-A Nashville, his third season at that level, with the exception of 10 Major League games in June and July when he was called up for interleague action.

Gamel has seen time with the Brewers in each of the last four seasons. Following his third straight year of growth in the Pacific Coast League, it may just be a matter of time before he lands a regular job there. Prince Fielder's free agent negotiations this winter could impact whether the Florida native starts 2012 in the big leagues.

"There's no doubt Mat can swing the bat," said Nichols. "He's a talented individual, and he's a good hitter all round. He has the talent to hit, and he's getting better defensively. He's another one of our standouts. I think he has a chance to make the team [in 2012]. He'll have to come into Spring Training ready to play at his peak performance. The one thing we know he will do is swing the bat."

Second base -- Scooter Gennett, Brevard County (134 games): Gennett followed up his All-Star rookie season in Wisconsin in 2010 with an equally impressive year with the Manatees in the Florida State League. Selected in the 16th round of the 2009 Draft out of Sarasota High School in Florida, the 5-foot-9 left-hander seemed to handle the jump in class without growing pains.

Milwaukee's No. 5 prospect, Gennett hit .300 with 20 doubles, nine homers and 51 RBIs en route to being named to a mid- and postseason All-Star. Among his highlights was a 16-game hitting streak between April 21 and May 7 -- during which he hit .440 -- and a quartet of four-hit games, including a 4-for-4 effort at home against Tampa on June 26 when he fell a triple shy of the cycle.

"He's a consistent contact hitter. He has a plan and he stays with his plan," said Nichols. "He improved at second base this year -- he made some outstanding plays, and he was more consistent on the regular plays. Scooter's doing well in the Fall League now, batting against pitchers two levels up. He's doing more than holding his own there. He's impressing people."

Coles added: "Scooter understands what it takes to hit. He's just a pure hitter. He methodically works himself around the field and knows what he needs to do to prepare every day. He understands who's pitching, what the pitcher throws, what that pitcher's out-pitch is. He doesn't worry about the guy pitching tomorrow -- he's worried about the guy going today.

"He loves to hit in clutch situations, and he wants to be the guy. He thrives on it. He's pretty special."

Third base -- Taylor Green, Nashville (120 games), Huntsville (3 games), Milwaukee (20 games): Green was about as productive a hitter as they come in 2011, leading all Brewers Minor Leaguers with a combined .336 average between Huntsville and Nashville. He also drove in 91 runs -- the second-highest tally -- and he smacked 22 homers -- third in the system.

His .413 on-base percentage was fifth-best in the Pacific Coast League, but the real story of Green's season came post-All-Star break. After hitting just .222 in April and .268 in May, Green went on a tear. He hit .398 in 26 June games and .383 overall in the second half. In July alone, the native of Canada blasted six homers with 29 RBIs, 23 walks and 22 runs scored in 29 appearances.

"He's gotten it for a couple years -- he just got it a little more this year," said Nichols. "He was very impressive. It was a justified call-up for him and to be on the playoff roster. He got quicker defensively, and his range side-to-side got better. He just got better all around."

"Taylor's unbelievable," Coles added. "He made some minor adjustments and a lot of that was me and [Triple-A hitting coach] Sandy [Guerrero] sitting down and going over what he needed.

"He made some changes that allowed him to stay inside the baseball and become a good two-strike hitter. He understands when to drive the ball and when to put the ball in play. Ultimately, once you get to the big leagues, unless you're going to unseat Price [Fielder] -- which is unlikely -- you're going to have to do a lot of other things that will allow you to be successful."

Shortstop -- Yadiel Rivera, Helena (74 games), Wisconsin (32 games): Rivera celebrated his first full year in the Minors with a Pioneer League postseason All-Star selection. Selected in the ninth round of the 2010 Draft, the shortstop hit a combined .236 with nine homers and 43 RBIs over 106 games.

He also smacked 16 doubles, legged out eight triples and scored 53 runs. No shortstop in the system had more homers, triples or RBIs than Rivera, who struggled in his first look at the Midwest League but looked much more comfortable playing rookie ball in the second half.

"He's got great potential, and he's playing guys who are two, three and four years older than he is," said Nichols. "He's still growing. He's an inch or two taller than he was at the start of spring, and he's going through some changes with his body that he's adjusting to. He's got some leverage in his swing, and he's at the right place at the right time defensively. The game slows down for him. I think he'll be average across the board with the bat and above-average defensively."

Added Coles: "He's something special -- 6-foot-3, maybe 6-foot-4. He may outgrow shortstop. He's got some kind of easy power. If you watch him take batting practice, he almost swings like [16-year Major League veteran] Wally Joiner. He doesn't swing very hard, but the ball jumps off his bat. He's a special talent."


Brock Kjeldgaard, Brevard County (65 games), Huntsville (61 games): The 25-year-old slugger mashed 24 long balls in 2011, second only to Gamel in the organization. Kjeldgaard hit a combined .270 with 18 doubles and 76 RBIs between the two levels, hammering 18 of his homers in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.

Despite starting 5-for-33 (.135), Kjeldgaard found his groove toward the end of May when he was named the FSL's Player of the Week for three consecutive weeks. Among his season highlights was a seven-RBI, two-homer game against St. Lucie on May 17 and back-to-back multi-homer performances against Daytona on June 4 and 5.

"Brock is a Canadian kid who probably didn't get as much playing time growing up as the rest of the professional players, so he's had to take a little more time to adjust," Nichols said.

"I don't know what happened to him, but in the middle of the year he looked like a different hitter. He had very high strikeout totals until that stretch of the season and then something clicked with him and he turned a corner. He started making contact, and hard contact."

"You're talking a special young man, a special kid," said Coles. "He works hard and goes beyond the call of duty. He understands himself as a player and he has tremendous power.

"He had a great first half in Brevard, then he didn't play right away in Double-A because he would DH one day, play the outfield the next day and then sit the third day. He got to where he was comfortable with that role and then he played a lot more. The rest is history. He has tremendous upside."

Khris Davis, Brevard County (90 games), Huntsville (35 games): Davis spent the first three months in the Florida State League before graduating to the Double-A Stars. The outfielder hit .309 with 15 homers and 68 RBIs for the Manatees and .210 with a pair of homers and 16 RBIs upon his call-up to the Southern League.

Across the two classifications, Davis' 84 RBIs ranked third among all Brewers Minor Leaguers and first among outfielders. In his third year of pro ball, the former seventh-round Draft pick was also named to the Florida State League's midseason All-Star team, a feat he accomplished in the Midwest League the previous year.

"He has a big league swing. At the plate you'll see him change his approach at times to where he wants to go more toward right field, and he's able to do that against pretty good pitching," said Nichols. "He has good bat control and he needs to stay with the same plate approach with every pitch."

"While Brock has as much pure power as you're going to see, in Davis' case he has a tremendous knack for hitting the ball to right-center field," Coles added. "He stays inside the ball really well, but he gets in trouble when he tries to pull a little too much.

"His power is straightaway and to gaps. He hits a lot of doubles and drives in a lot of runs. He studies a lot on how he's being pitched and pitchers' tendencies. He does his homework."

T.J. Mittelstaedt, Wisconsin (113 games): After appearing in just 45 games in his rookie season in the Arizona League last year, Mittelstaedt spent all of 2011 in the Class A Midwest League. He hit .293 and drew 76 walks, giving him a .410 on-base percentage that ranked second in the league.

The 23-year-old, who hit in every spot in the lineup, smacked a dozen homers, swiped 28 bases and scored 72 runs. He predominantly manned left field, but he also saw time in right, at second base and as the team's designated hitter. Completing his utility makeup, Mittelstaedt also pitched in two games, tossing a scoreless inning on each occasion.

"T.J. has done a great job coming in as a guy battling for a position, but he's shown our organization that he can take pitches, take close pitches, work the count, see a lot of pitches per at-bat and help the guys behind him and the guys in front of him," Nichols said.

"He's a fantastic utility guy who swings the bat well," said Coles. "He puts the ball in play. He's a headsy player like Willie Bloomquist. He plays every place well, he understands when to bunt and he reads the game well."

Utility -- Hunter Morris, Brevard County (126 games), Huntsville (4 games): Morris looked sharp in his second season in the Minors. A fourth-round pick out of Auburn, first baseman Morris hit .274 with 20 homers, 69 RBIs, 29 doubles and seven stolen bases.

His 20 long balls ranked fourth in the system. Morris hit safely in 12 of his first 13 games of the year, and he went deep three times in four games from April 23-29. One of his biggest performances came in a 19-9 rout of the St. Lucie Mets on May 17 when he went 4-for-5 with three doubles, four RBIs, five runs scored and a walk.

Michael Walker hit 15 homers and plated 72 runs for Wisconsin, and Kentrail Davis, Milwaukee's No. 8 prospect, swiped 33 bases, legged out eight triples, slugged eight homers and recorded 46 RBIs for the Manatees.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Michael Fiers, Huntsville (22 games), Nashville (12 games), Milwaukee (2 games): Fiers led all Milwaukee pitchers in both wins (13) and ERA (1.86) on his way to an All-Star season. He was 5-3 with a 2.64 ERA in 22 games -- including eight starts -- with the Stars before going 8-0 with a sparkling 1.11 ERA in 12 appearances with Triple-A Nashville.

His ERA would have ranked first in both leagues if he had enough innings. One of his finest starts came in his penultimate outing of the year, when he scattered three hits and struck out nine batters over nine scoreless innings in his first career shutout.

Also worth mentioning are Brewers No. 2 prospect Tyler Thornburg, owner of a 7-0 record and 1.57 ERA in Wisconsin; top prospect Wily Peralta, who compiled an 11-7 mark in 26 games between Huntsville and Nashville; and Frankie De La Cruz, who won seven Triple-A games and earned a call-up to Milwaukee.

"You had a good group to pick from, but Fiers had the best results," Nichols said. "He's a guy that pitches above his perceived abilities.

"He's got an average fastball and at times he'll throw an above-average changeup. He's got a below hitting speed curveball that hitters have a hard time adjusting to, and he'll throw in in most counts. He's not afraid to throw it behind in the count. He mixes his pitches so well.

"Thornburg is a standout in the group, too. He has a plus fastball and a big curve, a bit of an unorthodox delivery and some deception."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Dan Merklinger, Huntsville (28 games): Merklinger went 9-9 with a 4.10 ERA and 133 strikeouts over 158 innings -- all first among left-handers -- in 28 starts with the Stars. Only Thornburg (160) and Peralta (157) had more punchouts in the entire organization.

Merklinger, who allowed fewer hits (156) than innings pitched, was particularly effective in the second half of the season when he knocked a run off his ERA (4.63 to 3.66) and threw the first complete game of his career. The 2011 season marked solid growth for the former sixth-round Draft pick, who made 25 of his 27 appearances last year in the Florida State League.

"Merk is a good left-hander. He battled some inconsistency, but he started to get more comfortable in uncomfortable situations, which will help him big time," said Nichols. "His curveball is his best pitch, his changeup is good and he works the plate with his fastball. The key to it is keeping the hitters off balance. He works front to back well."

Relief pitcher -- Santo Manzanillo, Brevard County (28 games), Huntsville (20 games): Manzanillo saved 17 games across two levels this year, the second most in the organization behind Greg Holle (19). But while Holle posted a 4.57 ERA in 41 games in the Midwest League, Manzanillo recorded a 1.52 ERA in 28 Florida State League outings and a 2.21 mark in 20 games for Double-A Huntsville coming off an injury-plagued '09.

The 22-year-old native of the Dominican Republic improved in almost every meaningful statistical category from a year ago when he posted an unsightly 5.77 ERA in 26 games with Wisconsin. The differences came from limiting hitters to a .194 batting average and striking out more than one batter an inning.

"He's a plus-plus fastball guy with a good slider," said Nichols. "He's taken some time, but the time it's taken has solidified his approach. You really have to develop that kind of makeup and he is in the process of doing that. I do believe he has the capability to be that kind of pitcher.

"Holle was used well by our staff. He's a fastball-slider guy and we're working on getting him a third pitch to get a little more difference in the speed of the pitches."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to