MILWAUKEE -- “You’re always loyal to the first team that brought you to the big leagues,” said Jeff Cirillo, who is among the players who rewarded the Brewers’ faith after being selected by the club in the 1991 MLB Draft.
Here are the best homegrown players in franchise history.
1) Robin Yount
77.3 bWAR with Brewers
In the months before the 1973 Draft, Yount had been universally regarded as one of the nation’s top prospects in a crop that included fellow future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Eddie Murray. Brewers general manager Jim Wilson and scouting director Jim Baumer were split on who the team should pick third overall. Wilson was a former Major League pitcher who threw the first no-hitter at County Stadium for the Braves in '54. He favored Rich Shubert, a left-handed pitcher from New York. Baumer was a former infielder who had reached the big leagues with the White Sox in '49 at just 18 years old. He favored a shortstop from Woodland Hills, Calif., named Yount.
“I do remember finally being called into a scouting meeting, which never happened,” then-owner Bud Selig said. “Wilson and Baumer were having a tremendous disagreement. So much so that it affected their relationship forever. It was ugly. Wilson wanted the pitcher. We needed pitching, and Wilson was a pitcher. Baumer wanted this kid from Woodland Hills.”
They battled furiously, Selig remembers. But in the end, it was the scouting director’s call.
Baumer chose Yount.
“And thank God he did,” said Selig.
2) Paul Molitor
60.0 bWAR with Brewers
Molitor wearing Cardinals red? It almost happened.
In 1974, St. Louis drafted Molitor in the 28th round out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School, a parochial school in St. Paul, Minn., that later produced a catcher named Joe Mauer. The Cardinals offered Molitor $4,000 to sign, but he asked for more -- some accounts say he wanted $8,000; Molitor remembers asking for $10,000 -- before departing for an American Legion tournament in Ralston, Neb.
“I played poorly, and the regional scout the Cardinals had sent to watch me, I think, walked away unimpressed,” Molitor said. “They stuck on their $4,000.”
Molitor almost accepted it. But the University of Minnesota came through with a partial scholarship at the last minute. Molitor took it, altering the course of his own career -- and the history of the Brewers, who made him the third overall pick in the 1977 MLB Draft. They installed him at shortstop a year later, launching a 15-year tenure in Milwaukee that included its share of injuries, sure, but also sent Molitor on a path to Cooperstown. It all hinged on a few thousand bucks.
“He got me in the Hall of Fame,” Yount said of Molitor. “I hit behind him all those years, and he was on base an awful lot, putting pressure on the defense and those pitchers. I was very, very fortunate to hit behind Paul Molitor for all those years.”
3) Ryan Braun
46.9 bWAR with Brewers
Holding the fifth overall pick in the talent-rich 2005 Draft, the Brewers were torn between University of Miami third baseman Braun and Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Since both were impressive college hitters likely to advance quickly to the big leagues, position was a factor, no matter what teams always say about “best player available.” Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who already liked his young incumbent shortstop, J.J. Hardy, called Tulowitzki’s advisor and asked whether the player would consider moving to third. The answer was that Tulowitzki wanted to stay at short. Melvin relayed the intel to scouting director Jack Zduriencik.
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking we had first base taken care of [with Prince Fielder], second base [with Rickie Weeks], we had shortstop [with Hardy] and now we could have Braun at third,” Zduriencik said. “I thought of the Dodgers when they had that home-grown infield in the 1970s, with [Steve] Garvey, [Davey] Lopes, [Bill] Russell and [Ron] Cey.
“So in the end, we went Braun. Tulowitzki went two picks later. Braun could hit, he could run, he could throw. The question was could he be a third baseman? I think he could have been in time. But the bat came so quick, we had to get him to the big leagues.”
Less than two years later, Braun arrived, and the rest is Brewers history.
4) Ben Sheets
25.6 bWAR with the Brewers
Sheets couldn’t hit a lick, even in Little League, so he earned notice with his arm. The Brewers drafted him 10th overall in 1999 out of the University of Louisiana-Monroe, and Sheets became a national hero in 2000 when he shut out mighty Cuba in the Gold Medal Game at the Sydney Olympics. The Brewers rushed him home in time to attend the final game at County Stadium. Sheets emerged from the Milwaukee dugout between innings with his medal around his neck and drew a standing ovation. He was in the Majors the next year and made the National League All-Star team as a rookie.
“He was a gamer,” said longtime Brewers TV analyst Bill Schroeder. “He loved to pitch. He was good to us who were around the team. Everything Sheeter would put his mind to, he would do 100 percent. He tries to play off like he doesn’t know anything, but he does. Don’t let him fool you.”
5) Jeff Cirillo
26.2 bWAR with the Brewers
What do Yount, Molitor, Braun and Sheets all have in common? They were first-round picks. Then there’s Cirillo, an 11th-round pick in 1991 out of the University of Southern California who began his baseball life as a pitcher. As a freshman at USC, so focused was Cirillo on the mound that he wasn’t even in a hitting group -- and on the days between outings, he struggled to channel the kinetic energy that would become his hallmark. It wasn’t until he went undrafted as a junior that Cirillo found his way into the batter’s box. He found a city league team in Grand Rapids, Mich., willing to let him learn third base, which Cirillo adopted as his position of choice on the advice of scout Dale Sutherland.
The inner-pitcher wound up helping Cirillo at the plate, and eventually, in his post-playing career job as a scout himself.
“I have a pitcher’s brain,” he said. “I had a lot of experience pitching in college and that helped me a lot in terms of what pitchers were trying to do and to identify what they were having a hard time getting over. I was ahead of the game as far as that. I knew the importance of drawing a walk and being selective, because I know how hard it is to throw strikes. It helped my ability to move up quicker.”
HONORABLE MENTION (bWAR with the Brewers)
Jim Gantner (22.4 bWAR; 12th round, 1974)
Geoff Jenkins (22.1 bWAR; first round, 1995)
Chris Bosio (18.6 bWAR; second round, 1982)
Gorman Thomas (18.4 bWAR; first round, 1969)
Bill Wegman (17.8 bWAR; fifth round, 1981)
Jonathan Lucroy (17.3 bWAR; third round, 2007)
Prince Fielder (16.8 bWAR; first round, 2002)
Corey Hart (15.4 bWAR; 11th round, 2000)
Jim Slaton (15.6 bWAR; 15th round, 1969)
B.J. Surhoff (15.4 bWAR; first overall, 1985)
Greg Vaughn (15.3 bWAR; first round, 1986)
Rickie Weeks (12.5 bWAR; first round, 2003)