As late as January 24th, 2018, Brewers fans were dreaming on a future outfield of Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, Monte Harrison, and Corey Ray. There was also Keon Broxton and Tristen Lutz and Trent Grisham and Tyrone Taylor.
An embarrassment of riches at the outfield position.
There were so many quality players, fans were wondering how they would all fit into the future and who would win the long-term jobs and be the starters a few years down the road in 2021. But we all “knew” that the outfield was going to be in good hands with that group of nine players. So which ones have won a starting job in the Milwaukee outfield?
None of them.
From 2016-2017, David Stearns acquired a plethora of outfield prospects for the Brewers.
Since getting the Brewers top baseball executive job in September 2015, David Stearns set out on his rebuilding plan, acquiring young talent and developing it to build a sustainable winner in the Milwaukee Brewers.
Stearns acquired Ramon Flores, acquired Keon Broxton, acquired Rymer Liriano, drafted Corey Ray with the 5th overall pick, and acquired Lewis Brinson and Ryan Cordell, all in 2016. Then he picked up Tristen Lutz with the 34th pick in the 2017 Draft.
Heading into January 2018, six of the Crew’s top 15 prospects per Baseball America were outfielders, and that isn’t including Broxton and Domingo Santana, who already graduated.
Only two of those players (Ray and Lutz) remain in the organization.
Despite being overloaded with a horde of outfielders, David Stearns was not satisfied, and pivoted.
On January 25th, 2018, David Stearns changed the future of the Brewers outfield with the acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain.
Very suddenly, after a surprising run at a playoff spot in 2017, David Stearns accelerated the timeline for contention. After picking up a bunch of young, unproven outfield prospects, Stearns went with proven veterans with the acquisitions of Yelich and Cain, completely blowing up the chances for Phillips, Santana, Broxton, and others.
Outfield went from one the youngest and cheapest position groups on the Brewers roster, to now the most expensive group by far.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Brewers fan who’s upset about the direction Stearns took the outfield, however. No one can argue that the Brewers outfield isn’t far better and the team isn’t far better because of the direction he went.
Credit must be given to Stearns for deviating from his original plan for the outfield, going for veterans over prospects. Some GMs wouldn’t make such moves, giving up on an entire batch of prospects like that. So why did Stearns make that pivot and why did it work out so well?
At some point, the Brewers knew their prospects didn’t deserve the hype they were getting.
Perhaps it was earlier in 2017, perhaps it was during the winter. We don’t know how or when exactly the Brewers came to the conclusion that their outfield prospects weren’t as good as places like MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, and even Reviewing the Brew were saying, but they came to that conclusion all the same.
The Brewers had a Top 5 farm system in 2017 according to MLB Pipeline, and of their Top 100 prospects that year, only one (Josh Hader) has done much of anything at the big league level.
But while the hype was still there and the rest of the teams around the league believed in the hype, it was the perfect time to sell high.
It’s interesting to see media outlets and talking heads say the Brewers farm system was decimated by trades over the last few years. That seems a little dramatic considering what those prospects have done since being traded.
Brinson is a sub-.200 hitter after four seasons in the bigs. Brett Phillips is a backup outfielder, yes he had the heroics in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series, but he was the 28th man on that roster. Monte Harrison strikes out over 30% of the time, Ryan Cordell hasn’t done anything, Santana and Broxton haven’t been able to replicate their success, and Corey Ray still can’t reach the big leagues.
Pretty much the entire group of outfield prospects the Brewers had through those first few years of the Stearns era, the prospects fans were so excited for, have all failed to live up to expectations.
The only one that has worked out at the big league level is Trent Grisham, who was an afterthought as a prospect after struggling to hit for three straight years after being drafted in 2015. The Grisham trade is the only one who has negatively impacted the team so far.
A new, different group of Brewers outfield prospects emerges.
Despite some opportunities for outfield prospects to earn jobs on the big league roster in recent years, the Brewers have been reluctant to give the jobs to them. Instead of giving a spot to Grisham, the Brewers signed Avisail Garcia. Then this year, instead of letting Taylor, Ray, and then the new additions of Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney, and Tim Lopes fight to earn the 4th outfielder job, they signed a veteran in Jackie Bradley Jr. instead.
The Brewers appear to have made changes to what they want from their outfielders and no one from that original group of prospects appears to be making the cut. So they’re rebuilding their outfield future with a new group.
At the head of this new wave of outfield prospects are Garrett Mitchell, the Crew’s 2020 first round pick, and Hedbert Perez, a 2019 international signee out of Venezuela. Also in this group is 2018 draftees Micah Bello and Joe Gray Jr, as well as 2020 fourth rounder Joey Wiemer and international signees Luis Medina and Carlos Rodriguez.
The major league group of Yelich, Cain, Garcia, and Bradley will hold the Brewers through at least 2021, and likely at least three of the four will be back in 2022. After that, it could be down to just Yelich that’s under contract. At that point, David Stearns will need to make a decision again. Are his outfield prospects worthy of the hype? Can they earn a job?
Do the Brewers actually have an embarrassment of riches in their outfield prospects? Or is it just fool’s gold?
Stearns determined his original group of outfield prospects was fool’s gold, and moved on quickly. With his lesson learned, hopefully this prospecting mission will find some real gold and real riches.
It’s not easy to make these kinds of determinations on young players, especially when you have an emotional attachment to them and want so badly for their success with your organization. But Stearns didn’t let that get in the way, and his agnostic approach has proven to be successful. Kudos to him for making the tough decision. It looks easy now, based on the results, but it had to have been difficult at the time.