For the Milwaukee Brewers, a farm system that was considered barren not long ago is now thriving. The Brewers used this year’s draft and non-waiver trade deadline to add several promising, high ceiling talents like Brett Phillips, Trent Clark, and Cody Ponce to their stable of prospects. As I have noted previously, Milwaukee’s own existing prospects have taken significant steps in their developments, as well.
Bruce Seid has taken some of posthumous heat for the Brewers’ perceived lack of prospects, but many of his former picks are now looking like they’ll become major league ballplayers. 11 of the Brewers top 20 prospects according to MLB Pipeline were drafted by Milwaukee prior to Ray Montgomery’s arrival in late 2014. We’ve noted the breakout seasons being experienced by Michael Reed and Kodi Medeiros, but one pitcher who is shining above most others in the system in 2015 is Jorge Lopez of the AA Biloxi Shuckers.
Lopez was a 2nd round selection out of high school by the Brewers in 2011, and prior to this year he has sort of plodded along through the minor league system level by level, pitching full seasons in A- and A+ the last two seasons before debuting for the Shuckers this season. The lanky righty doesn’t have the traditional build of a starting pitcher: he stands at an intimidating 6’4″ tall but tips the scales at just 165 lbs. The 22 year old hadn’t experienced a tremendous amount of bottom line success in the minors prior to 2015: his lowest ERA in the last three seasons was 4.59 last season for Brevard County (A+) while demonstrating below average control. Combined with his lightweight stature and a lagging third pitch, some projected that Lopez wouldn’t be more than a reliever at the major league level. Still, Jorge was selected as the Brewers’ representative in the 2014 All-Star Futures’ Game, and ranked as the 8th best prospect in the system following the end of last season (perhaps more of an indictment of a weak system at that time).
This season, however, has been a different story for Lopez. While he has continued to attack hitters with his low 90s fastball and a curveball called the “Best in the Southern League” by Baseball America, Lopez can finally count his formerly below average changeup as a weapon against hitters. This has helped trigger a significant uptick in strikeouts: Lopez is generating Ks to 24.4% of batters, a career high. Lopez has always generated a significant rate of ground balls, but as I discussed recently about Wily Peralta, a ground-ball heavy pitcher won’t generally have consistent success unless he can miss some bats, as well, which is why the increase in Lopez’s strikeouts is a significant development. Lopez’s walk rate is still a tad below average at 9.4% of opposing hitters, but his improved K rate has led to a career best strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.61.
All told, Lopez has been one of the top performers in the Southern League this season. Despite being nearly two and a half years younger than league average, the lanky Puerto Rican has posted a 2.32 ERA/3.34 FIP in 22 starts and is on pace to set a new career high in innings pitched, having already thrown 131.2 this season (his current high is 137.1 innings pitched last season). He has struck out 128 batters while allowing just 0.55 HR/9, thanks in part to an impressive 53.8% ground ball rate. As I mentioned before, his control isn’t always on point, as he has walked 49 hitters, hit three batters, and thrown 13 wild pitches, but his overall consistency improving. Lopez has done a great job limiting hits, allowing just 6.4 H/9 this season on a .256 BABIP against. While this is in part boosted by a strong Shuckers defense that ranks second in the league in fielding percentage and fewest errors, the fact that Lopez has allowed only a 15% line drive rate against helps to illustrate that he inducing plenty of weak contact.
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Lopez was an All-Star in the Southern League this year, and he currently paces the circuit (among qualified starters) with 12 wins and a 1.086 WHIP, ranks second in strikeouts and ERA, and ranks fourth in innings pitched. Now ranked as Milwaukee’s 9th overall prospect (thanks to the additions via trade) and second best pitcher in the system, others have begun to take notice of Jorge’s success this season. Fangraph’s Kiley McDaniel recently published his revised top 200 prospects list, and Lopez was one of the new players that had been added. In a recent chat, McDaniel noted that Lopez has experienced a velocity spike and has been hitting 92-95 MPH this season, and adds that he would put Lopez in his top 50 overall prospect ranking. After grading his future value at a 45 prior to the season (on the 20-80 scale, with 50 being average), McDaniel bumped Lopez’s FV up to 55, now rating him as an above average prospect and potential mid rotation starter, according to his explanation of the 20-80 scouting scale. Lopez could continue to develop into a #3 starter if he can sustain his strikeout gains, and should eventually settle in somewhere between the middle and back end of a major league rotation.
While the big league Brewers haven’t made much noise this season, it’s easy to get excited about the big strides that Milwaukee has made on the minor league side. The system is flush with quality pitching prospects like never before, with 22 year old righty Jorge Lopez leading the charge among those having strong campaigns this season. With his breakout performance in 2015, Lopez is shooting up prospect lists and establishing himself as a strong candidate to become a big leaguer in the near future. While we won’t see Lopez in Milwaukee this year, there’s a strong likelihood that Lopez could make his major league debut as soon as next season (hopefully limiting his time in pitching nightmare Colorado Springs). With the organization in the beginning stages of a rebuild, there should be ample opportunity for Jorge Lopez to cement himself in the major league rotation in the near future.
Collaboration with Staff Writer Steven Jewell (@SDJewell)