MLB Pipeline ranked the Brewers farm system as baseball's best in mid-2016. The talent percolating in the Minors at the time helped fuel three consecutive winning seasons, a first for Milwaukee since 1978-83, and back-to-back playoff berths, which hadn't happened since 1981-82.
That contingent didn't include anyone who has blossomed into a superstar, though it did provide the talent to trade for Christian Yelich. Josh Hader has made consecutive All-Star Games. The system also sent Brandon Woodruff, Orlando Arcia, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes to Miller Park and also produced the prospects dealt for Mike Moustakas and Luis Urias.
Three and a half years later, the Brewers system ranks 30th. That's the result of sacrificing prospects for veterans as the focus shifted to winning at the big league level, Keston Hiura racing through the system and no longer counting as a prospect, and other first-round picks not developing as hoped.
Milwaukee's last-place finish in our latest ratings doesn't mean the system is devoid of talent, however. Its strength is left-handers, in particular three intriguing southpaws who excel at missing bats.
Ethan Small, a first-round pick out of Mississippi State last June, led NCAA Division I in strikeouts (176) and finished second in strikeout rate (14.8 per nine innings) last spring. Antoine Kelly topped national junior college pitchers with 19.1 whiffs per nine inning last year before going in the second round out of Wabash Valley (Ill.) CC. In 2018, Aaron Ashby paced national junior college hurlers with 156 strikeouts and 18.8 per nine innings en route to becoming a fourth-rounder out of Crowder (Mo.) JC.
The three lefties rack up strikeouts in different ways. Small has a low-90s fastball that hitters don't catch up to, Kelly overpowers them with mid-90s heat and Ashby features a nasty breaking ball with curveball depth and slider velocity.
Small reached 96 mph as a freshman reliever at Mississippi State in 2016, but he couldn't throw strikes and blew out his elbow that summer, leading to Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2017. He has been a totally different pitcher since returning, excelling with a fastball that ranges from 86-92 mph but plays much better than that. The 23-year-old creates plane with his 6-foot-3 frame and high three-quarters delivery, varies the tempo of his delivery and adds more deception with some crossfire action.
"It's one of those invisiballs that you'd think hitters, especially right-handers, would see it well and sit on it but they don't," Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said. "Sometimes guys like that beat hitters up in the zone, but he can get away with it all over the zone.
"His changeup is probably his best secondary pitch and helps his fastball play up. Right now we're trying to really enhance his slider and he's picked it up pretty quickly."
Kelly popped up on Draft radars late in his 2018 senior season as an Illinois high schooler and turned down the Padres as a 13th-rounder. He opted to attend Wabash Valley, where he starred on a team that went 55-4 but got upset in its district tournament. With an athletic 6-foot-6 frame that easily generates fastballs that reach 98 mph, the 20-year-old draws physical comparisons to David Price, but his secondary pitches and control are works in progress.
"The velo and the size and body are there, and the delivery is pretty clean," Flanagan said. "He knows he has a big fastball and he needs other weapons. He just needs to believe in how good his other pitches can be."
Ashby pitched at Park Hill High (Kansas City, Mo.) and Crowder, just like his uncle Andy did before embarking on a 14-year big league career. While his breaking ball is his money pitch, he has added velocity to his fastball in the last two years and now works at 92-95 mph with running and riding action. In his first full pro season, he posted a 3.50 ERA, .222 opponent average and 135 strikeouts in 126 innings between two Class A levels at age 21.
"He has our best breaking ball, especially among our starters," Flanagan said. "He calls it a slider but the action is more curve-like. It gets consistent swings and misses and he pairs it up with velocity."
Another left-hander stood out in big league camp. Angel Perdomo, who was signed as a Minor League free agent in November 2018 and added to the 40-man roster a year later, allowed just one hit while striking out 10 in four scoreless innings. He gives lefties an uncomfortable look as a 6-foot-6 southpaw with a 93-97 mph fastball and a solid slider.
After signing for $1,113,500 as a second-rounder from a Mississippi high school in 2018, outfielder Joe Gray hit just .171/.308/.310 in two years in Rookie ball. But he showed some encouraging signs on the Minor League side, looking stronger than ever while also displaying a looser right-handed swing than in the past.
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2021
Right-hander Drew Rasmussen had Tommy John surgery as an Oregon State sophomore in 2016, but bounced back to go in the supplemental first round to the Rays a year later. A post-Draft physical revealed more elbow damage, however, and Tampa Bay declined to sign him. Though he had his elbow reconstructed a second time and sat out 2018, Milwaukee signed him for $135,000 in the sixth round that June.
That now looks like a wise investment because the 24-year-old Rasmussen came back last year to throw 93-99 mph fastballs and upper-80s sliders in short starts, mostly in Double-A. He'll continue to start in the Minors so he can get more innings, but the Brewers see him as a reliever who could help them in the big leagues this summer.
Something to prove
Milwaukee spent the No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 Draft and $4,125,000 on outfielder Corey Ray, but he has had difficulty staying healthy and making consistent contact as a pro. After seeming to turn a corner with 27 homers and 37 steals in Double-A in 2018, he missed half of last season with a right hand injury and batted just .218/.291/.363, mostly in Triple-A.
Ray still has plus raw power and speed as well as a chance to stick in center field. He's also 25 now and his original ETA would have landed him in Miller Park two years ago. He went 1-for-20 with nine strikeouts in big league camp as he worked to hold his hands higher in his setup.