PHOENIX -- When asked about his outfield logjam, Brewers vice president of Minor League operations Tom Flanagan thinks back to a completely different position -- first base, specifically in 2002.
Milwaukee had just named first baseman Brad Nelson its Minor League Player of the Year after he’d hit 20 homers and 49 doubles at two A-ball levels on his way to becoming a Top 100 prospect. At the same time, then first baseman Corey Hart was coming off his own 24-homer season at High-A and Double-A while earning a spot in the 2002 Futures Game. Oh, and that was the same summer in which the organization drafted Prince Fielder seventh overall.
“When that was happening, our scouting director turned to me and said, ‘Trust me if they can hit, they’ll play somewhere,’” said Flanagan.
Twenty years later, that is becoming a mantra again in Milwaukee’s player-development circles, this time on the grass.
Seven of the Brewers’ top 15 prospects in MLB Pipeline’s updated rankings call the outfield home. In particular, the top three names on that list -- Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, Garrett Mitchell -- were each selected in the past two Drafts. Frelick and Mitchell were college bats defined by their plus-plus speed and ability to be above-average hitters.
That isn’t necessarily by design, per se, but perhaps more like luck, Flanagan believes.
“On the amateur scouting side, I think they've been pretty consistent to truly taking the best guys on our board,” he said. “It’s been more bat-heavy Drafts, so that’s started to maybe stack up a bit, which we are quite happy with. … I think that’s just the way it's fallen the last few years. A center fielder has generally been the pick.”
Those picks are about to bump into each other pretty seriously this summer. Though assignments hadn’t been officially solidified as of Flanagan’s comments Wednesday, it appeared that Mitchell and Wiemer were headed to Double-A Biloxi while Frelick and No. 13 prospect Joe Gray Jr. were ticketed for High-A Wisconsin. All four of those players have the range necessary to play at least an adequate center field, and the Brewers have a plan in place to make sure they at least get some exposure up the middle, despite the crowded roster.
“This year, we'll probably just chunk it up where it might be three or four games a week [for one player] versus two games a week for another guy that we want to get some time,” Flanagan said. “It's one of those things where I think we got to find that balance of getting a guy enough time defensively in center where it's not hurting the other guy. At the end of the year, you want to look up and think OK, you got a fair amount of games in center under your belt and you’re ready to go for the next season.”
Reading the tea leaves and the scouting reports on those four, it would appear Mitchell and Frelick would get the majority of center field looks in those middle levels, while Wiemer and Gray -- both with strong arms -- will see a little more time in the corners. But as Wiemer proved with his breakout in 2021, anyone in the group could push past the others to be the future center fielder in Milwaukee.
You may recall that Fielder eventually won the first-base job roughly two decades ago while Hart moved to the outfield and Nelson never quite stuck.
“It works itself out,” Flanagan said.
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2023: Hendry Mendez
The Brewers did plenty of talking about Mendez last year, and this might be the season the rest of the industry catches up.
The 18-year-old outfielder wasn’t a massive name as part of the Jan. 15, 2021 signing class, but he quickly established himself by hitting .296/.391/.481 with seven extra-base hits and only two strikeouts over 21 games in the Dominican Summer League. Milwaukee moved Mendez up to the Arizona League ahead of schedule, and he continued to handle himself in a smallish sample with a .333/.425/.460 line over 19 games stateside. The Brewers named the left-handed slugger their Complex Player of the Year.
“There's a decent chance he could see [Single-A] Carolina from the get-go,” Flanagan said. “We're still working through the final roster projection. But he was really impressive with what he did in the DR. We got him over here, and he didn't miss a beat, and then he's looked really good in spring. The Carolina team for us is going to be very, very young.”
Mendez thrives on spraying the ball all around the diamond from the left side with good bat-to-ball skills -- talents that should translate in a move to full-season ball -- and if he can elevate a little more on contact, he could become an even bigger name on the crowded Milwaukee outfield chart.
Something to prove: Hedbert Perez
You try not to get too wrapped up in small samples, but when a player who some projected to be an above-average hitter strikes out 25 times in 68 plate appearances (36.8 percent of the time) in his first taste of full-season ball, it can be at least a cause for concern.
That was the case for Perez at Carolina in 2022, causing him to drop to No. 8 on the Brewers Top 30. In general, it looks like more of a power-first profile these days for the 18-year-old outfielder, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility he could learn and adjust from those initial struggles.
“I think by the time he got to Carolina he was worn out,” Flanagan said. “It was the most baseball he's played. This year, he’s coming in fresh after a huge learning experience, and I think he's in a much better position to build on what he experienced last year and take that back to Carolina. I think you'll see a different guy this year.”
Camp standout: Abner Uribe
“He’s close enough that if you get on the right track, it could affect us this year.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell said that about Uribe after the No. 20 prospect faced two batters in his Cactus League debut on March 26. It may seem odd to say that about a player with only 17 Single-A appearances on his resume, but it’s not if you look at Uribe’s stuff. The 21-year-old right-hander regularly touches triple-digits with his 80-grade fastball, making him an instantly fascinating figure every time he steps on the mound. A plus slider gives him another weapon, and both pitches helped him fan 34.7 percent of the batters he faced during the 2021 regular season.
Serious control issues (25 walks, 14 wild pitches in 33 2/3 innings) have held him back, but Flanagan says the 6-foot-2 right-hander has made strides in that department this spring. Those improvements helped catch the attention of the Major League staff too.
“He gets emotional a little bit on the mound like many young pitchers do,” Flanagan said. “But he’s got that fastball weapon. It’s that old cliché. He has to stay within himself. It rings true for him. He knows what he can do. The slider could be his best pitch, despite the below, because he can command it so well. But once he can command that fastball, then we’ll really have something. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer.”