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.
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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
Drafted: Southern, 2003 (1st round)
Signed by: Ray Montgomery
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.
2. Prince Fielder, 1b
Age: 19. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 240.
Drafted: HS�Melbourne, Fla., 2002 (1st round).
Signed by: Tom McNamara/Jack Zduriencik.
Background: The son of former big league slugger Cecil Fielder is a completely different hitter than his dad. He bats lefthanded, hits for average, covers the plate well and goes the other way with pitches. His signature tool, however, is the same as his father�s: power. One of the Midwest League�s youngest players, he won the league MVP award at age 19.
Strengths: All of the aforementioned offensive skills make Fielder a prodigy at the plate. Few hitters with his youth or power are as accomplished and as knowledgeable. He takes walks when pitchers decide to work around him. His pitch recognition and quick bat make him a tough out at the plate.
Weaknesses: Fielder admittedly worked little on his fielding in high school, and it shows. He made strides last year under Beloit manager Don Money, who made him work long hours on his moves around the bag. Through discipline and use of a personal trainer, he has his weight under control but must continue to be diligent.
The Future: Fielder�s bat should get him to the big leagues in relatively short order, though the Brewers don�t want to rush him. He should be ready for Double-A in 2004, when he�ll again be young for his league.
3. J.J. Hardy, ss
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 180.
Drafted: HS�Tucson, 2001 (2nd round).
Signed by: Brian Johnson.
Background: The Brewers haven�t been afraid to push Hardy, whom they consider a special player. He spent 2003 in Double-A at age 20, making the Futures Game and Southern League all-star team. He also served as the backup shortstop on the U.S. Olympic qualifying team. Not a bad resume at this point of his career.
Strengths: Hardy has a strong arm and good range at shortstop. Scouts were uncertain about his hitting ability when he was an amateur, but he has surprising pop and rarely strikes out because of his plate discipline. What the Brewers really like about Hardy, however, is his competitive nature. His makeup is off the charts.
Weaknesses: Hardy sometimes gets long with his swing and goes into funks at the plate. He doesn�t run particularly well and isn�t exceptionally quick, but he makes up for those shortcomings with keen baseball instincts. His intense nature causes him to wear down at times.
The Future: It wouldn�t be a shock to see Hardy in the Brewers� Opening Day lineup. If not, many in the organization believe he�ll arrive in the majors later in 2004. He�s expected to be Milwaukee�s starting shortstop for a long time.
4. Manny Parra, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: American River (Calif.) JC, D/F 2001 (26th round).
Signed by: Justin McCray.
Background: Parra is a poster boy for the draft-and-follow system. After he went back to junior college for the 2002 season, he improved so much that the Brewers gave him first-round money ($1.55 million). He blossomed in 2003, when he was considered one of the top pitchers in the Midwest League.
Strengths: Parra features a rare combination of stuff and control, especially for a lefthander. He throws his fastball consistently in the 90-93 mph range, and he has a good curveball and an improving changeup. Parra keeps hitters off balance with two-seamers, four-seamers and cutters. He attacks the strike zone, usually working in good pitcher�s counts. He�s also a competitor who drives himself to be better.
Weaknesses: Parra needs to improve command of his curve and changeup. He strained a pectoral muscle near the end of the season and must stay on top of his mechanics to avoid future breakdowns.
The Future: Parra has all the ingredients to move steadily through the system, perhaps skipping a step or two along the way. He likely will open 2004 at high Class A High Desert and could reach Double-A by the end of the year.
5. Brad Nelson, of/1b
Age: 21. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 225.
Drafted: HS�Algona, Iowa, 2001 (4th round).
Signed by: Harvey Kuenn Jr./Larry Doughty.
Background: Nelson was the Brewers� 2002 minor league player of the year after leading the minors with 49 doubles and 116 RBIs at age 19. He broke the hamate bone in his right wrist early in 2003, however, and never recovered. He went to the Arizona Fall League to try to make up for lost time, but struggled there as well.
Strengths: When healthy, Nelson has a solid approach at the plate. He uses the entire field and can hit with power the other way. Switched to left field in an effort to clear the way at first base for Prince Fielder, Nelson made the adjustment. His arm remains strong, thanks to his amateur days as a pitcher. He has good makeup and work ethic.
Weaknesses: The broken hamate bone robbed Nelson of his power, and he�ll have to work to get his quick power stroke back. Like most young hitters, Nelson needs better plate discipline. Though a better athlete than he�s given credit for, he has limited speed and range.
The Future: The Brewers say Nelson will get back on track in 2004. They moved him to Double-A in the second half despite his injury, and he�ll probably return there to open the season.
6. Mike Jones, rhp
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: HS�Phoenix, 2001 (1st round).
Signed by: Brian Johnson.
Background: Jones was pushed to Double-A despite not turning 20 until a month into the season. He was performing up to expectations, making the midseason Southern League all-star team, until a lingering elbow problem prompted the Brewers to shut him down and monitor his health closely.
Strengths: When healthy, Jones throws a fastball in the low to mid-90s. He also has a tough curveball that he delivers from a three-quarters angle. Beyond his fluid delivery and athletic ability, Jones has impressed Brewers officials with his work ethic and poise.
Weaknesses: Scouts loved the ease with which Jones threw the ball in high school, but he fought his mechanics at times in 2003 as his strikeout-walk ratio declined. His changeup is decent but not completely deceptive. He sometimes gets too cute and gives hitters too much credit instead of just trusting his stuff, which is plenty good.
The Future: There has been disagreement regarding the severity of Jones� elbow injury, and some feared he was headed for Tommy John surgery. The Brewers say he�ll be OK with rest and rehabilitation. Jones will be closely watched when he reports to spring training.
7. Corey Hart, 3b
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: HS�Bowling Green, Ky., 2000 (11th round).
Signed by: Mike Gibbons.
Background: Just as they did with Nelson, the Brewers moved Hart to a new position in an effort to break up their logjam of first basemen. He had a difficult adjustment to third base, though the switch didn�t harm his offensive production. He was named the Southern League MVP at age 21.
Strengths: With a body that draws comparisons to Richie Sexson, Hart would make a nice big league first baseman. Like Sexson, he makes up for his lanky build with a short, compact stroke that generates good power, particularly in the gaps. Hart has a good arm and runs well for a big guy.
Weaknesses: Scouts say Hart is no third baseman. Though he continues to work hard on his footwork and overall defense, he committed 32 errors in 119 starts, most on throws because of poor fundamentals. The Brewers are considering shifting him to the outfield. Hart also is a free swinger who doesn�t take many walks.
The Future: Once the Brewers get Hart settled into the proper position, probably left field, his future will become better known. The plan is to move him up to Triple-A Indianapolis in 2004.
8. Ben Hendrickson, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 190.
Drafted: HS�Bloomington, Minn., 1999 (10th round).
Signed by: Harvey Kuenn Jr.
Background: Hendrickson has some of the best stuff in the organization and has methodically moved up the ladder. He had elbow problems in 2003, however, and was shut down for a couple of months. Hendrickson pitched well after returning, including a standout stint in the Arizona Fall League, so club officials believe the tender elbow isn�t a long-term problem.
Strengths: Hendrickson has a solid 89-93 mph fastball, but what sets him apart is his outstanding curveball. He throws it over the top and it has a sharp 12-to-6 break, freezing hitters even when they�re expecting it. Hendrickson has nice arm action, good command, poise and knowledge of how to set up hitters.
Weaknesses: Hendrickson relies on his curveball too much, which may have contributed to his elbow soreness. He took a regular turn throughout 2002 but must prove his durability again after making just 16 starts at Huntsville. He continues to work on his changeup.
The Future: Because Hendrickson looked so sharp in the AFL, the Brewers won�t hesitate to promote him to Triple-A in 2004. With his curveball and history of success, he could join Milwaukee�s rotation in the near future.
9. David Krynzel, of
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 180.
Drafted: HS�Henderson, Nev., 2000 (1st round).
Signed by: Bruce Seid.
Background: Much to the Brewers� delight, Krynzel got off to a fast start in Double-A, earning selections to the Southern League midseason all-star team and the Futures Game. He went into a swoon in the second half, batting .137 in August and losing nearly 50 points off his average by season�s end. His bat continued to run hot and cold in the AFL.
Strengths: Speed is Krynzel�s calling card, and he uses it to create havoc on the bases as well as to chase down balls from gap to gap in center field. Augmenting his range in the outfield, Krynzel has good arm strength. He has prototypical leadoff tools. Despite his slump, he�s mentally tough.
Weaknesses: The Brewers would like to see Krynzel bunt more, take more pitches and continue to slap the ball around. He needs to stop striking out more than 100 times a year, which is unacceptable in the leadoff role. He doesn�t possess great instincts on the bases and must improve his ability to read pitchers.
The Future: Despite the emergence of Scott Podsednik, Krynzel still is seen as Milwaukee�s center fielder of the future. He�ll start the 2004 season in Triple-A.
10. Lou Palmisano, c
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 205.
Drafted: Broward (Fla.), CC, 2003 (3rd round).
Signed by: Larry Pardo.
Background: Palmisano hurt his shoulder in 2002 and required surgery, but bounced back with a solid year in junior college that had some scouts calling him the best catcher in the draft. In desperate need of help behind the plate, the Brewers happily snapped him up in the third round. He earned MVP honors in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, leading the circuit in batting, on-base percentage and slugging. The only negative was that he broke his left ankle trying to bust up a double play.
Strengths: Palmisano is athletic behind the plate, with good quickness, soft hands and a strong arm. He also calls a good game and is a take-charge guy. At the plate, he has a quick bat and power to all fields. He runs well for a catcher.
Weaknesses: Palmisano arrived at the Brewers’ rookie camp with a definite hitch in his swing, and pitchers were able to exploit it. He made adjustments and the glitch wasn’t as noticeable. Sometimes he’s too aggressive for his own good, chasing high fastballs.
The Future: Palmisano will be put on a fast track. His aggressive nature and leadership skills should serve him well as he moves toward the big leagues. He should see high Class A at some point in 2004.