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Sheets was projected to go well before Milwaukee grabbed him with the 10th overall pick in the 1999 draft, but he fell into the Brewers' lap. As soon as they selected him, the plan was to fast-track him to the big leagues. And by all appearances, that's exactly what will happen. Sheets removed any doubts about his readiness to embark on a major league career with his remarkable performance for the United States in the Sydney Olympics. Immediately tabbed as the team ace, Sheets lived up to that billing and then some with a stunning shutout of favored Cuba in the gold-medal game. Team USA manager Tommy Lasorda became so enamored of Sheets that he even traveled to Louisiana after the Olympics to attend his wedding. The Brewers' decision to allow Sheets to play in the Olympics rather than come to the major leagues in September for a few meaningless starts was an astute one. The poised righthander showed he could handle the top two rungs of the minor league ladder, compiling a 2.40 ERA in 27 starts. "He has a burning desire to be a major league player," Brewers farm director Greg Riddoch said. "He rose to the occasion in the biggest game of his life. That tells you all you need to know." Sheets has an above-average fastball that he throws regularly in the 92-95 mph range, but his bread-and-butter pitch is an old-fashioned, 12-to-6 curveball that buckles the knees of hitters. Because he has a good, sinking fastball and a decent changeup, you can't sit on his curve, which is difficult to hit under any circumstances. Beyond his repertoire, Sheets is an intense competitor who doesn't lose his cool on the mound. Everyone involved with Team USA raved about the way he handled himself on the mound, especially against the intimidating Cuban hitters. "He's a throwback player," Brewers minor league pitching coach Mike Caldwell said. "He does all the things right. And he's as competitive as it gets." Lack of professional experience is about all that can be counted against Sheets at this point. He answered that shortcoming and most other questions with his eye-popping showing in the pressurized atmosphere of the Olympics. He still needs to work on his changeup to avoid becoming a two-pitch pitcher. And he could stand to add a bit of muscle to his frame. When his curveball takes the day off, he has to keep his fastball down to avoid an early exit. Never say never in baseball, but nothing short of an injury will keep Sheets from opening the 2001 season in the Brewers rotation. Management will put him toward the back of the starting five at the outset to avoid putting any undue pressure on him, but Sheets will have the best stuff of anyone in the rotation from the first day of camp. He's a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher who could go a long way toward returning the Brewers to respectability. "He's the whole package," Caldwell said. "He knows how to pitch."
In an effort to protect the strongest arm in the organization, the Brewers kept Neugebauer on a strict pitch count at the outset of the 2000 season. Because he continued to battle control problems that plagued him the year before, he rarely qualified for a win. But he wasn't intimidated and continued to show progress, so he was elevated to Double-A Huntsville in the second half of the season. The Brewers then pushed his development even further by sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where he finished well with eight hitless innings in his last two outings. Simply put, Neugebauer has a blazing fastball. When he really rears back, he can approach 100 mph, though instructors have tried to show him the value of backing off a bit to achieve better control. He has a nasty slider that makes him nearly unhittable when he gets it over the plate. He continues to work on a changeup that could be a devastating pitch in combination with his heater. In his first two seasons in the minors, though, Neugebauer has averaged a little more than a walk an inning. He has been able to overcome that wildness by allowing few hits and striking out hitters when he has to. He has worked hard on his mechanics and release point and must continue to do so. Improving his control is all that's holding him back. As with a young Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, Neugebauer must harness his pitches to pave the way to a successful major league career. If the Brewers are able to advance him to Triple-A for at least half a season in 2001, Neugebauer could be a very young, very promising pitcher by the time he makes it to Milwaukee.
Krynzel is the player the Brewers targeted from the get-go in the 2000 draft, and they were thrilled he was on the board when they made the 11th pick. He was considered the fastest player in the high school ranks and a prototype leadoff hitter/center fielder, exactly what Milwaukee sought. His $1.95 million bonus was the second-highest in club history. Speed is Krynzel's calling card, and he is a good defensive player who has all of the tools except power. As he fills out, the Brewers believe he'll develop more pop at the plate. He's an extremely hard worker with a desire to succeed. Other than the aforementioned lack of power, Krynzel has a lot going for him. As with most high school players, he needs to develop more strength but has the frame to do so. He'll need to make more consistent contact to be an effective leadoff man. Though Krynzel missed the second half of the Rookie-level Pioneer League season with a thumb injury, managers named him the circuit's No. 1 prospect. The Brewers will give him the chance to show he can handle Class A Beloit in 2001.
Because Guerrero was so young, the Brewers weren't discouraged when he failed at Beloit at the outset of 2000 and had to be sent back to Rookie-level Ogden. By the end of the year, he was playing so well that he rejoined Beloit in the playoffs and more than held his own. Guerrero not only has power but also runs well. In fact, he has five-tool potential along the lines of cousin Vladimir Guerrero. With a lanky frame that should fill out as he gets older, Cristian's ceiling is very high. His failure at Beloit, where he was bothered by the cold weather, showed he has work to do mentally. Projected as a right fielder because of his power potential and arm, he must continue to work on his defense to be a complete player. At this stage, comparisons to his cousin are premature and counterproductive. If it all comes together, Guerrero could be something special, though. He's still a teenager, so the Brewers have no reason to rush him. This time around, he should be ready for Beloit.
Levrault had an up-and-down season in his first full year at the Triple-A level but got his feet wet in a stint with the Brewers. Used sporadically out of the bullpen, the confident Levrault showed no fear of big league hitters. But his inexperience did show at times. An aggressive pitcher who goes right at hitters, Levrault has a low-90s fastball and effective changeup. He seems to pitch better in small spurts, which is why there's a movement afoot to convert him from a starter to a set-up man. He has the bulldog mentality to pitch at the end of games. He has had trouble stringing together wins as a starter because he too often is a two-pitch pitcher who struggles with his breaking ball. He can be stubborn at times, throwing too many fastballs, and his confidence sometimes crosses the line to cockiness. Levrault may get the chance to win a spot in the Milwaukee bullpen during the spring. He has been primarily a starter in the minors, but his future in the big leagues probably is at the end of games, possibly as a closer.
Mieses has been the biggest winner in the Brewers system the past two years, going 27-9, 2.61. He pitched two seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League before he was brought to the states for Rookie ball but could prove to be a real find. With a palmball that throws hitters off balance, plus an average fastball and curveball, Mieses mixes his pitches with maximum effectiveness. He has shown good poise on the mound and appears mature for his age. His solid strikeout-walk ratios are indicative of his plus command. He shelved his palmball in instructional league to concentrate on his fastball and curveball. He's not an overpowering pitcher, topping out around 89 mph, so he has to hit his spots. Most Midwest League managers felt more advanced hitters would lay off his palmball and take advantage of his other pitches. After pitching well at both Class A levels last season, Mieses probably will begin the 2001 season in Double-A. He could make it to the big leagues before the end of 2002.
Johnson was an unknown quantity until the end of the 2000 season. After setting a junior college record with 38 homers in 1999, he signed too late to play make his pro debut, then showed up last spring with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He turned heads with six homers in three playoff games for Ogden. Even before his playoff explosion, Johnson displayed his chief tool by socking 10 homers in just 98 at-bats. It was a welcome sight for an organization hurting for a legitimate power-hitting prospect. Prior to his shoulder surgery, he showed good arm strength, and he's a take-charge guy behind the plate. Johnson must show he can stay healthy, and he needs to play after barely seeing action since turning pro. He was throwing fine in instructional league, so the Brewers hope the shoulder surgery won't make him a liability with the running game. Though Johnson has played little as a pro, the Brewers believe he can handle a Class A assignment to begin the 2001 season. Catching depth is a real problem in the organization, so he could move up fast if he gets the job done.
Penney was strictly a starter for 2 1/2 professional seasons before finding a niche as short reliever in the second half of 2000. After proving he could close games at Huntsville, he was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis and served as a capable set-up man. Penney's Arizona Fall League debut was halted after three outings when he cut his finger in an off-field accident. Penny has a low- to mid-90s fastball and an above-average curveball. He has the poise and makeup to be a short reliever, and he has the ability to reach back and get a strikeout when he gets into trouble. As a starter, he habitually lost velocity as the game wore on, which led to his conversion to a short reliever. He's really a two-pitch pitcher with no reliable slider or changeup. Thanks to his new role, Penney realizes the big leagues are within his grasp. He'll probably start 2001 as the closer at Indy. Getting hurt in Arizona was unfortunate during what otherwise was a breakthrough year.
Until last season, Estrada had muddled through his minor league career with the Brewers. But 2000 was a breakthrough year as he pitched Indianapolis to the Triple-A World Series crown and emerged as a possible starter in Milwaukee this season. Estrada throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. He's at his best when he's moving the ball around, inside and out, up and down. With a good move to first, he's difficult to run on, and he fields his position well. Estrada is a painter, which means he has to hit his spots to be effective. His mid- to high-80s fastball isn't quite average, so he can't make mistakes up in the strike zone without consequences. To be successful, he has to get his curveball over when behind in the count. Estrada could give the Milwaukee rotation the lefthander it lacked in 2000. He'll get every chance to make the club in spring training.
After a solid showing as the closer at Triple-A Las Vegas, Kolb got his feet wet in the big leagues with 11 relief outings with the Padres. Kolb is a power pitcher who gets his fastball up to 96 mph at times. He also has a hard, sharp-breaking slider and can mix in a curveball. Lefthanders didn't homer against him in the minors or majors in 2000. A starting pitcher at the outset of his pro career, Kolb was moved to short relief because he's primarily a two-pitch pitcher. His control has been erratic in the minors and was even worse in San Diego last season. Kolb is the oldest player in the Brewers' top 10, but sometimes power pitchers take a little longer to develop. He'll be given the opportunity to win a spot in the big league bullpen this spring but has minor league options remaining if needed.
He hit for both average and power. That he bats from the left side is just an added perk. His defense is lagging at this stage, and some wondered before the draft if he might have to be moved to another position, but the Brewers want to keep him at catcher for now to see if he improves. Belcher is strong and has a solid catcher's body. He's a tough competitor who shows up to play every day and appears mature for his age. If he improves behind the plate enough to establish himself as a legitimate catcher, he could move quickly through the system because of his advanced offense. The Brewers like his work ethic, so they aren't about to make any rash decisions about whether he can handle the work defensively. He'll get a chance to catch at Beloit this season.
It's not often that a six-year free agent is listed among an organization's top prospects, but Chantres left the pitching-rich White Sox organization in hopes of getting a better shot with the Brewers. He essentially went from baseball's deepest system to the leanest. Milwaukee thought so much of Chantres that it placed him on the 40-man roster. He's a finesse pitcher who knows how to work both sides of the plate. His fastball tops out at 90 mph or so, and he has a good curveball. He also throws a changeup and has dabbled with a splitter. Though he has spent seven seasons in the minors, Chantres could break through and make an impact in the big leagues because he has a feel for pitching and recognizes hitters' tendencies. At the very least, he gives the Brewers a reliable pitcher in Triple-A.
Ernster made it to Double-A in 2000, no small feat considering he broke his wrist after five games the previous year and missed the rest of his rookie season. Drafted after playing second base at Arizona State, he's getting the chance to play shortstop as a pro. The Brewers know he can play second and are trying to increase his value as a possible utilityman. Ernster held his own in the Arizona Fall League, batting .295 in 26 games. He has extra-base pop in his bat, and at this stage he's more of an offensive than defensive player. The game plan for Ernster in 2001 is to start him at Double-A with the hope he can move up to Triple-A by the end of the season.
Artman didn't take long to make an impression with the Brewers. His numbers weren't overwhelming in Rookie ball, but he was fresh out of high school and displayed the ability to make adjustments. He has a fluid delivery and good poise on the mound, and the Brewers expect he'll pick up 4-5 mph on his fastball as he gets older and stronger. Artman has a solid frame and should get stronger. He's not a power pitcher at this point with a high-80s fastball. He mixes in a sharp-breaking curveball and a decent changeup. The Brewers have a dearth of bona fide lefthanded pitching prospects in the organization and had no lefties in their rotation in 2000, which is why they targeted Artman as an early draft pick.
Miniel was signed as a skinny, raw 17-year-old pitcher in 1997 by famed scout Epy Guerrero. Used as a starter and a reliever the past two years, Miniel came into his own as the best pitcher in Ogden’s rotation in 2000. Getting stronger as he fills out his wiry 6-foot-4 frame, he has a fastball that tops out in the 91-92 mph neighborhood. He also throws a curveball and changeup and has been dabbling with a splitter. A year makes a big difference with some players, especially those signed in their teens, and scouts were amazed at the step forward Miniel took last season. He showed improved control and seemed more confident on the mound. Depending on how things shape up in spring camp, Miniel will begin 2001 at Beloit or high Class A High Desert.
If raw ability and a strong arm were all it took to make it to the big leagues, Childers would be in the express lane. But after a successful first half at Beloit in 2000--his third stint in the Midwest League--he struggled in high Class A. In fact, Childers pitched much worse than his older brother Jason, a Mudville teammate who's not considered a prospect. Matt throws his fastball consistently in the low 90s and reaches 95 mph on occasion, but he gets the ball up too often and gives up the longball (10 in 85 innings at Mudville). He doesn't lose his cool often and bounces back from tough outings, but he must get his curveball over when behind in the count to keep hitters off his fastball. Childers probably will start 2001 back in the California League. At 23, it's time for him to get to Double-A and stop spinning his wheels.
The major league portion of the trade that sent Alex Ochoa to the Reds for Mark Sweeney didn't work out very well for the Brewers. Hampered by knee and shoulder problems, Sweeney batted just .219. The Brewers were much more pleased with what they saw from Altman, a big righthander who also arrived in the deal. Formerly a starting pitcher, he made the adjustment to closer without missing a beat, and Milwaukee now projects him to stay in that role. He throws his fastball in the mid-90s, and he has a decent slider as well as a curveball that he shows on occasion. As a power pitcher, Altman has the stuff to protect leads in the ninth inning and get strikeouts when the game is on the line. He'll probably go to High Desert at the outset of the 2001 season.
The organization's No. 5 prospect a year ago, Gold blew out his elbow after seven starts at Beloit and required Tommy John surgery. Because he struggled with his mechanics from the time he was selected in the first round of the 1998 draft, his injury didn't surprise many scouts who have seen him pitch. Concerns about the flaws in his delivery as well as past arm problems prompted some clubs to pass on him out of high school. The good news is that Gold is only 20 and has plenty of time to bounce back from the yearlong rehab process. Whether he can regain the 95 mph fastball and sharp-breaking curve that made him a first-rounder remains to be seen, though it seems most pitchers these days are returning from Tommy John surgery better than ever. Once he's deemed ready to pitch, Gold probably will go back to Beloit, but not until the weather warms up.
Clark was the biggest surprise among the Brewers' 2000 draftees. He not only compiled an impressive batting average but also ranked second in the Pioneer League in homers. Questions about his defensive position hurt Clark in the draft, and the Brewers still aren't sure where he'll play in the field in 2001. He saw extensive action at first base in instructional league but still may be used at the hot corner this year. Clark's bat will be his ticket through the farm system, though. A lefthanded power hitter is valued by an organization that has very few. Equally impressive in his professional debut, Clark walked more times than he struck out, showing he has a good eye and discipline to go with his power. He'll spend 2001 in Class A.
Kirby's history has been to struggle after first moving up the ladder, then to make adjustments and do significantly better upon repeating the level. The Brewers hope the pattern holds true again in 2001 because the former third baseman followed a big season with Beloit in 1999 with a bad one at Huntsville. A guess hitter who gets fooled quite often, Kirby struck out a whopping 112 times in 344 at-bats and saw his homer production dip from 27 to 12. He righted himself somewhat in the pitching-rich Arizona Fall League by batting .265-3-18. One of the few positives form last season is that he has handled the move to the outfield well and appears set there for the future. Thanks to his third baseman's arm, Kirby is a natural in right field. Ranked No. 9 in the organization after the 1999 season, he now must re-establish himself as a player to watch. He'll try to do so at Hunstville.
After spending a year and a half in Rookie ball, Hall moved up to low Class A last season and made the Midwest League all-star team at midseason. Playing more than 100 games for the first time, Hall wore down as the season progressed, however, and he must work on his strength. Pitchers found holes in his swing often enough to strike him out more than seven times as much as he walked. Hall made 40 errors, but many came on a tough infield surface at Beloit. He actually came a long way defensively, showing a good arm and decent range. He appeared more comfortable going up the middle for balls than in the hole. Hall has time to work on his offensive game and concentrate on putting the ball in play more often. He's ticketed for High Desert but could make it to Double-A before the year is out.
Fox has one tool that is in short supply in the organization: speed. He put his swift legs to good use at Mudville last year, swiping 53 bases in 70 chances, pretty amazing considering he batted just .249 and struggled to make contact. Because he has virtually no power, Fox must bunt more and keep the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed. Otherwise, his value as a leadoff hitter decreases. He showed an ability to get bunts down last season by leading his club with 10 sacrifices. In center field, Fox can go get the ball with the best of them. After spending two seasons in Class A, Fox will get the chance to open 2001 in Double-A.
When people in the organization talk about tools, Rowan's name often comes up. Breaking his game down, there's a lot to like: strong arm, some pop in his bat, good head on his shoulders. Yet Rowan hasn't been able to put all of that together. He shows flashes of breaking through but has been unable to maintain consistency at the plate. His biggest problem is that he's a free swinger who hasn't learned the value of a walk. Rowan hasn't always shown good instincts at shortstop, which is why the Brewers are thinking about moving him to third base. On top of that, he missed all but 39 games at Mudville last season with a shoulder injury. How his arm bounces back remains to be seen.
Once considered among the top pitching prospects in the organization, Garcia still is trying to catch up after missing the entire 1999 season with a somewhat mysterious elbow problem. He managed to get in 18 Double-A starts last year, and had his ups and downs before putting together a strong finish. At times he showed his old low-90s fastball and sharp curveball, but Garcia’s command still came and went as usual. The Brewers then sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he was solid if not sensational. Conditioning has been a problem at times for Garcia, who has a good pitcher’s body as long as he doesn't let it go soft. After two consecutive years of making the organization's top 10, his stock has dropped considerably. He'll get a shot to win a spot in the Triple-A rotation and re-establish himself as a prospect.
Not much was expected of Poe when he was selected in the 21st round of the 1998 draft. He began to gain some notice at Beloit in 1999 when he posted a 6-1 strikeout-walk ratio, mostly in relief. Poe has a low-90s fastball and knows how to move the ball around. Given a chance to close games as well as make a handful of starts at Mudville last year, he continued to excel. His versatility eventually earned him a promotion to Double-A, where he handled himself very well. Now the Brewers must figure out where Poe can help them most, as a starter, middle reliever or set-up man.
Davis rode the shuttle from Triple-A Buffalo to Cleveland and back again last season until he was included in the trade that brought Richie Sexson to the Brewers. Davis has a good arm, particularly considering he had reconstructive elbow surgery while in the Pirates organization in 1997. He went 1-11 the following season, after which he became a free agent and signed with the Indians. A power pitcher who relies too much on his fastball at times, Davis has been erratic yet shows enough potential to tease. He has been a starter throughout his minor league career but may have to pitch out of the bullpen to find a niche in the majors. He's out of options, so spring training will be important for Davis. He could prove to be one of those Quadruple-A pitchers who never quite makes it in the big leagues.
One of the best defensive catchers in the organization, Moon took a significant downward turn at the plate in 2000. The Brewers thought he would hold his own in Double-A after two years in Class A, but he batted .183 and continued to show absolutely no power. Moon performed much better in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .266. He has little hope of ever being more than a backup catcher in the big leagues if he doesn't produce more at the plate. Moon is an adept catcher who shows a good arm and handles pitchers well. He needs to get stronger and develop more pop. After last year's poor showing, he'll have to repeat Double-A in 2001 and show he can make adjustments.
Gordon, a late-round find out of a New England junior college, was converted from an outfielder to a pitcher and was understandably erratic with his command in Rookie ball in his pro debut. He looked much more comfortable when he returned to the Pioneer League last season and even caught the eye of some scouts and opposing managers. He's a fastball/curveball pitcher with a strong arm, and he simply needs to log more innings on the mound. His control was much better the second time around, though he still uncorked 10 wild pitches in 76 innings. The Brewers plan to give him a shot at the Beloit rotation in 2001. He's raw, but as a lefty who's still young at 21, Gordon is an interesting project to monitor.
Like his brother Julio, an Astros outfielder, Ruddy was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in Brooklyn. He was also a good shortstop in high school, but more teams liked him as a pitcher because of his arm strength. With all the similarities in their backgrounds, Lugo has drawn natural comparisions to Mariners righthander Frank Rodriguez. Lugo has heard more than once that he's too short to pitch in the big leagues, though, and the odds are longer for small righthanders because it's so difficult for them to get downward action on the ball. But most of those pitchers don't have Lugo's velocity. He gets his fastball to the plate in the mid-90s and has shown a good changeup and curveball. Control was a problem for him last year, when he had 52 walks, 12 hit batters and seven wild pitches in 92 innings. He also logged 88 strikeouts and showed an ability to work out of jams. Because he didn't play against much top-flight competition in high school, Lugo will need time to develop. But he has great determination and the desire to prove critics wrong.
Whatever else you might say about Jacobsen, how many minor leaguers have such a loyal following? The Bucky Backers were formed in 1998, when Jacobsen was playing for Beloit and a group of Kane County Cougars fans adopted him because they liked his name. They've been following his career ever since and have their own Website (buckybackers.8m.com), and the group even went down to Venezuela over the winter to see Jacobsen play. On the downside, Jacobsen's stock has dropped in recent years because of inconsistent play and his lack of a position. He originally was an outfielder but moved to first base because he's slow afoot. He didn't shine there, either, and was seeing action mostly as DH in the Venezuelan League. He has good power and draws plenty of walks, though he also strikes out a lot. Jacobsen was off to a good start at Double-A last year, among the Southern League leaders in home runs and slugging percentage, before an injury ended his season in July. He broke two bones in his left wrist in a collision while playing first base. He showed he was healthy in Venezuela, batting .304-8-28 in 138 at-bats. But Jacobsen needs to prove himself this year because his window of opportunity is closing rapidly.
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