Part 1 was a success, so let’s keep the ball rolling. Fringe prospects get very little coverage, but many still make it to the Majors. These players are all the more important for a team like the Brewers, who will be valuing cheap, controllable players even more while they rebuild.
Age: 24 B/T: R/L
Johnson pitched all of 2015 in AA Biloxi at a slightly advanced age, thanks to four years at the University of North Carolina. In his senior year, Johnson appeared in 34 games, starting one, with a 2.25 ERA and an 81:24 K:BB ratio.
At the time of the 2013 draft, Johnson was considered a strike thrower with good command of three pitches, which was reflected in 2014 when he walked just 2.62 batters per 9 innings as a starter with High-A Brevard County. His 2.93 ERA was one of the best in the organization that year, and his opponents slashed just .221/.283/.324 (.256 BABIP) against him.
This year, however, Johnson’s walk rate more than doubled, and the lefty ended with a K:BB of 94:77. Johnson obviously still has solid offerings, with a 88-90 mph sinking fastball, a solid changeup with a good tail, and a fringy curveball and opponents still hit just .219 off of him (.266 BABIP), with an ISO under .100.
The question is if something fixable happened this year, if Johnson was playing through injury, or if he’s simply struggling as he advances through the minors. To me, such an extreme reversal of characteristics means something was going very wrong with his mechanics. Naturally this is all speculation.
Johnson is one of the many prospects that the Brewers have stuck in the rotation until they prove they cant make it as a starter. It gives even the least likely Big League starter the chance to pitch in as many innings as possible.
For me, this year raises a lot of questions about Johnson’s future as a starter, but a jump in K rate, and his continued success at stifling bats at an advanced age means that the lefty could see time with the Brewers quite soon.
The fact that his changeup is his best pitch means Johnson has a good shot at avoiding LOOGY projections, and he has shown no real struggles when facing righties.
CF Brandon Diaz
Age: 20 B/T: R/R
The excess of potential center fielder lead off guys for Milwaukee continues this week. Diaz is a double-plus runner, and shows a very advanced feel at the plate, though his batting average has dipped every year since joining the club.
Diaz has been remarkably consistent in his base stealing, swiping 21, 22, and 23 bags the last three years, while being caught nine, nine, and ten times. Unfortunately, this makes for a 70% success rate, which is low enough that you wouldn’t want to do it in the Majors.
Of course, Diaz is learning how to turn his speed into swiped bases, so we have to hope those numbers begin to show improvement. At the plate, Diaz hit .241/.357/.362, with 6 home runs in 340 plate appearances with Low-A Wisconsin.
This made him an above-average hitter in the pitcher friendly Midwestern League. His drop in production since posting an .854 OPS with the Arizona Brewers in 2013 appears to be heavily linked to his dropping BABIP which was .361 in 2013 and .318 in 2015.
Many of his peripherals in 2015 actually improved over his 2014 season, with a jump in power production and BB%, while advancing to a tougher league. His 24.4 K% is worrying, but he has been over a year younger than league average in each of his professional seasons, so he has extra time to figure things out.
CF Troy Stokes
Age: 19 B/T: R/R
I wasn’t kidding about those center fielders with on-base skills. Stokes has a similar burner mentality to Diaz on the bases, but has had more success in his early professional career. Between the Brewers’ rookie leagues in 2014 and ’15, Stokes has 45 stolen bases with an 83% success rate.
Everything about Stokes’ second year as a pro was improved over his first, upping his walk rate, cutting hits K rate, and improving every number in his slash line, hitting .270/.384/.407 in 2015, with 5 homers in 271 plate appearances in 2015.
Stokes looks to stick in center, though he has spent a fair amount of time in left, in deference to 2014 second round pick Monte Harrison, who has been his teammate for parts of each year. Stokes is just 5’8″, but reportedly has a chance to hit for some power, and his second year as a pro looked encouraging to that end.
Stokes’ workload will increase in 2016 with Low-A Wisconsin, where we could be looking at a very promising outfield, with Stokes, Harrison, and possibly top 5 Brewers’ prospect Trent Clark.
RP Jacob Barnes
Age:25 B/T: R/R
One of the most fringy fringe prospects I have detailed thus far, Barnes was in his second stint with AA when he struck out ten batters per 9 innings. He was older than league average, but his improved performance is hard to ignore. Barnes had a disappointing 2014 season with AA Huntsville while working mostly as a starter striking out just 6.39 batters per 9, with a 4.26 ERA.
Barnes began the 2015 season as a starter, but really shown once he was moved to the bullpen full time. He ended the year with a 3.36 ERA (2.69 FIP) and held opponents to a solid .262/.337/.337 slash despite seriously unlucky batted ball numbers (.365 BABIP).
Barnes was then sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he dominated, finishing with a 0.00 ERA (1.44 FIP) and a 17:3 K:BB in 11 2/3 innings. Understandably, he was invited to the AFL All-Star Game.
Barnes works a three pitch mix, with a fastball, slider, and changeup. None of these pitches are standout tools, and Barnes relies on solid command to get batters out. This obviously worked out in both AA and the AFL, but lack of pure stuff is always a concern when ascending through the minor leagues.
The Brewers obviously took note of Barnes’ progress, adding him to their 40-man roster to avoid potentially losing him in the Rule 5 Draft.