Top Ten Prospects: Milwaukee Brewers
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Tom Haudricourt
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
After taking over a team beaten down by years of losing, general manager Doug Melvin and manager Ned Yost had two simple goals for 2003: Create an atmosphere conducive to winning, and show improvement in terms of wins and losses.
It was mission accomplished on both fronts. The Brewers had their 11th consecutive losing season, but the franchise’s leadership said the organization was headed in the right direction after bottoming out in 2002.
“We’ve heard from a lot of scouts, people that have been through here, coaches from other teams,” Yost said. “People would warn them that this is not the old Brewers. ‘Don’t take them lightly.’ That was good to hear.”
After generating enough enthusiasm for a perennial last-place club to draw 1.7 million people to Miller Park, however, much of that goodwill was lost in November. The team’s board of directors, claiming the franchise was still losing money, called for slashing the payroll to a major league-low $30 million for 2004, which caused a huge public-relations fallout. Team president Ulice Payne, who came in as part of the team’s overhaul after the 2002 season, spoke out against the move and then decided to have the remaining four years of his contract bought out. Fans spoke out, and legislators called for an audit of the Brewers’ books. After promises that a publicly funded new stadium would allow the Brewers to generate enough money to put together a competitive team, they instead have cut payroll every year since the park opened.
Brewers fans have reason to be impatient, but in improving from 56 victories in 2002 to 68 in 2003, the Brewers showed a fighting spirit that wasn’t evident in previous years. Outfielder Scott Podsednik, a waiver claim, finished second in the National League rookie-of-the-year voting. Dan Kolb, like Podsednik a Melvin reclamation project from his former club (the Rangers), took over the closer’s role in the final weeks and became a keeper. Third baseman Wes Helms, second baseman Keith Ginter and starting pitchers Wayne Franklin and Matt Kinney—all obtained from other organizations—settled into regular roles.
While trying to stabilize the big league team, Melvin and his minor league staff decided to keep groups of prospects intact at Double-A Huntsville and low Class A Beloit to foster a winning attitude, and both Huntsville and Beloit advanced to their league finals. Three players were voted MVPs of their leagues: Corey Hart (Southern), Prince Fielder (Midwest) and Lou Palmisano (Rookie-level Pioneer). Scouts in other organizations said the Brewers, thanks in large part to scouting director Jack Zduriencik’s 2000-03 drafts, have the most improved system in the game. There also was excitement over the selection of second baseman Rickie Weeks with the second pick in the 2003 draft.
The Brewers know player development is their only hope of becoming competitive again. Some prospects could begin trickling into the major leagues in 2004, and Melvin and his staff first expect a noticeable impact the following year. As far as long-suffering Brewers fans are concerned, it can’t happen soon enough.
Top Prospect: Rickie Weeks, 2b
Age: 21 Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 195 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: Holding the second pick in the 2003 draft, the Brewers knew they were going to get an offensive prodigy, either prep star Delmon Young or Weeks. When Tampa Bay selected Young No. 1 overall, the Brewers happily took Weeks, Baseball America’s College Player of the Year and two-time NCAA batting champion. After two months of negotiations, the Brewers finally signed Weeks to a five-year major league contract—a first in franchise history—that included a $3.6 million bonus and guaranteed at least $4.8 million. The Brewers sent Weeks to low Class A Beloit for the final weeks of the Midwest League season, then summoned him to Milwaukee in mid-September to get a taste of big league life. Keeping Weeks in the fast lane, the Brewers assigned him to the Arizona Fall League. He wowed scouts with his progress at Southern, where he finished with an NCAA-record .473 career batting average. He was a two-time All-American and considered by far the closest to the major leagues among position players available in the draft. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted and barely recruited out of a Florida high school.
Strengths: Weeks has a lightning-quick bat and was the purest hitter in the 2003 draft. His bat is so quick through the zone that he can make good contact even when he’s fooled on a pitch. Weeks has surprising pop for his size, as well as tremendous speed and quickness on the basepaths, a combination that has many scouts comparing him to a young Joe Morgan. He also has a good eye at the plate and gets hit by a lot of pitches, which will allow him to post high on-base percentages. Weeks has worked hard to improve his defensive play. He’s a superior athlete who takes instruction well and always looks for ways to get better. “He has a special focus,” Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik said.
Weaknesses: There’s not much to quibble with. Weeks does some fundamental things wrong defensively, such as throwing from odd angles at times, but there’s nothing that good coaching and experience can’t correct. He’ll also have to improve his double-play pivot. He makes up for his minor flaws with good hands, quickness and determination. Some have suggested he’s better suited for center field, though the Brewers have no plans to move him from second base. Whether he’ll hit for as much power as he did in college remains to be seen.
The Future: For a first-year pro, Weeks got a lot of experience, appearing in the big leagues and then heading to the AFL. The Brewers will continue to expedite his development, starting him at Double-A Huntsville in 2004 and getting him to the majors to stay no later than 2005.