Brewers need only look at Royals to see how to build a winner

When the Kansas City Royals celebrated winning the World Series on Sunday, the story line was that it was a culmination of a yearlong journey of redemption after coming up 90 feet short of tying Game 7 of the World Series in 2014 against the San Francisco Giants.

But that journey was a bit longer.

Experts took notice of the Royals a couple years ago as a team that was on the precipice of contending, having a young core of position players the franchise developed augmented with homegrown and acquired pitchers.

But it wasn’t an overnight success.

Left fielder Alex Gordon was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. Catcher Salvador Perez, the spirit of this Royals team and the Series MVP, was an international free agent who signed in 2006. Third baseman Mike Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007. First baseman Eric Hosmer was the third overall pick in 2008. Shortstop Alcides Escobar, the AL Championship Series MVP, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain, last year’s ALCS MVP, were among the players acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke before the 2011 season. Another player from the Greinke¬†deal, pitcher Jake Odorizzi, was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays along with outfielder Wil Myers for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis before the 2013 season. Shields was the anchor of last season’s rotation, while Davis has become the best reliever in the majors.

So when new Brewers general manager David Stearns preached to a gathering of season ticket-holders last week that his goal is to acquire young, controllable talent in order to make the Crew a consistent contender, he could use the Royals or the Houston Astros — a team he was assistant GM for until being hired last month and a team that had back-to-back 100-loss seasons just a few seasons ago — as primary examples.

There has been some heavy lifting already done. The Brewers’ farm system isn’t the barren wasteland it was a couple seasons ago. The development of players including shortstop Orlando Arcia and pitcher Jorge Lopez, as well as the acquisition of a handful of players not that far away from being ready for the majors has the Brewers not having to take a major step back.

But there will be growing pains. 2016 figures to be focused on development rather than contending. After that? Arcia, Lopez, center fielder Brett Phillips and pitchers Adrian Houser and Josh Hader figure to be in a group of prospects ready to break through no later than Opening Day 2017. They will join outfielder Domingo Santana, who established himself as an everyday option after his call-up, and right-hander Zach Davies, who pitched well in his September audition and figures to be a rotation candidate going into spring training.

Stearns, still officially formalizing his front-office staff, will begin in earnest the process of molding the roster in the vision he promised owner Mark Attanasio when hired, with first baseman Adam Lind‘s $8 million option his first significant player decision.

Brewers fans will have to be patient.¬†One more thing to keep in mind: The Royals were successful because, for the most part, they kept their core players together at the same level as they migrated through the minors. Everyone points to the talent at Double-A Biloxi — and rightfully so — but with an exception or two, most of that team should be at hitter-friendly Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2016 before becoming ready for prime time.

Future Crew: Who is on the way from the minors?

After taking a look at where the major-league roster stands, we take a look at what minor-league prospects could be lending a hand to the Brewers in the near future.

CATCHER

The skinny: The cupboard is pretty bare here. Juan Centeno got the call to the majors from Triple-A Colorado Springs when Jonathan Lucroy was hurt, but saw limited action, appearing in 10 games with 23 plate appearances. He was previously in the bigs with the New York Mets the last two years for a combined 14 games. But he appears to be just a backup as Nevin Ashley has gotten a bulk of the time at Triple-A, hitting .311 with eight homers and 60 RBIs in 90 games, while also throwing out 38 percent of runners attempting to steal (40 percent is considered good at any level). At Double-A Biloxi, Adam Weisenberger is the primary catcher and is hitting a mere .236 with two homers and 22 RBIs in 84 games. But he does well throwing out baserunners, having nabbed 44 percent of base thieves. Backup Parker Berberet also struggles offensively, hitting .215 with two homers and 20 RBIs in 51 games. He throws out 34 percent of runners.

When will help arrive? Ashley would seem to be the top candidate, but he also just turned 31 so he is more of a minor-league journeyman. Weisenberger has been in spring training, primarily as an extra catcher but if he is overmatched offensively at Double-A at age 26, the bat is not likely to come around to be anything more than a backup. Any help for this spot will need to come from outside the organization.

FIRST BASE

The skinny: Matt Clark has moved past prospect status and is more of a typical Triple-A first baseman. He is hitting .281 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs at Colorado Springs and showed well after making his major-league debut last season with the Brewers. At Biloxi, Nick Ramirez, a left-handed hitter like Clark, has 14 homers and 62 RBIs, but also has .241 average and 110 strikeouts in 124 games. Garrett Cooper hit .294 with eight homers and 54 RBIs before earning a recent promotion to Biloxi.

When will help arrive? Cooper is the best prospect here, although if Ramirez can increase his average and maintain the power numbers, he is a step closer to the bigs. Clark could provide immediate short-term help if needed. David Denson, the first openly gay player in affiliated baseball who just got promoted from rookie-level Helena to low Class A Wisconsin, could be an option but is probably three years away.

SECOND BASE-SHORTSTOP

The skinny: These two positions are being combined due to the Brewers’ shortstop depth. Orlando Arcia, 20, is the burgeoning star shortstop, hitting .305 with eight homers, 64 RBIs and 23 steals at Biloxi. Yadiel Rivera is at Triple-A and hitting .238 with one homer and 28 RBIs, while Luis Sardinas has split time at second and short, hitting .283 with one homer and 32 RBIs. Nick Shaw has been the primary second baseman at Biloxi, but is hitting .201 with no homers and 20 RBIs.

When will help arrive? Arcia is ready defensively to play in the majors and this season may have answered questions about his offense. With Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett the starters in the majors yet losing some of their luster, the Brewers could get aggressive and elevate Arcia to the majors and use Segura to platoon at short and second. Rivera could be stuck at Triple-A for another year, while Sardinas could be used in a utility role in the majors. The Brewers could also use their depth here for trades.

THIRD BASE

The skinny: Much like catcher, there’s not a lot here. Matt Dominguez is a former major-leaguer whom the Brewers picked up off the minor-league scrap pile after being put on waivers by the Houston Astros and is at Triple-A. Taylor Green is at Double-A who is still trying to live up to his top prospect promise (he was in the Arizona Fall League in 2008 and ’09). Brandon Macias is also at Biloxi, but is hitting .245 with two homers and 17 RBIs.

When will help arrive? Never is too drastic of a word, but that’s kind of where the Brewers are with prospects at the hot corner. Gilbert Lara, a top Dominican signing last summer, is currently a shortstop but has the big body and power that profiles ideally at third base, a move the will likely be made as soon as Lara runs into some of the minor-league shortstop depth. Lara was in the Arizona League this summer and was just bumped up to Helena.

OUTFIELD

The skinny: Outfield has the same type of impact players as shortstop, only a bit more dynamic. Center fielder Brett Phillips, acquired in the Carlos Gomez-Mike Fiers trade, leads this pack. Phillips hits for average and added power and is the Brewers’ No. 2 prospect. At three stops this year including Biloxi (the other two with the Astros), Phillips, a top-of-the-order hitter, is hitting .309 with 16 homers, 77 RBIs, 17 steals and 104 runs scored. Domingo Santana, who was also acquired in the same trade, has already been called up to the majors. Phillips’ acquisition moved promising center fielder Tyrone Taylor to right field at Biloxi. Taylor is intriguing as he was a high school football star before signing with the Brewers. The other key prospects are primarily corner outfielders: Kyle Wren, Michael Reed and Ben Guez at Colorado Springs, Victor Roache and Josh Fellhauer at Biloxi, and Clint Coulter, Omar Garcia and Michael Ratterree at high Class A Brevard County. A few others to watch who are more long-term projects are Trent Clark, Monte Harrison and Troy Stokes at Helena, and Demi Orimoloye and Joantgel Segovia at the Arizona League Brewers. Injuries have sidelined a few of these players this year, slowing there progress.

When will help arrive? Santana aside, as soon as Opening Day next year. Considering the Brewers’ outfield hole is in center, Phillips could have a chance to break with the big club, depending on what offseason moves are made. Phillips could benefit from a little more seasoning, while Taylor likely needs another year in the minors. Roache and especially Coulter, a converted catcher, are intriguing power prospects. Coulter will be a Biloxi next season in a crucial development year. Clark, the Brewers’ top pick this year, and Harrison, who broke an ankle rounding third base in late July, are a few years back. Regardless, there is quality depth here, at worst giving the Brewers chips to use in potential trades.

STARTING ROTATION

The skinny: The trade deadline did a lot to raise the level of pitching prospects. Zach Davies was picked up from the Baltimore Orioles for Gerardo Parra, while lefty Josh Hader and righty Adrian Houser came with Phillips and Santana from the Astros. Davies is set to be called up in the next week. Hader and Houser are likely to be invited to spring training and get at least a look at making the roster, although the minors are more likely to begin 2016. Also in the wings is Jorge Lopez, who is dominating at Biloxi, Johnny Hellweg and lefty Hobbs Johnson. A little bit further off is lefty Wei-Chung Wang (the former Rule 5 pick who spent 2014 in the majors with the Brewers) and Jorge Ortega at Brevard County, and lefty Kodi Meideiros, Cy Sneed and Devin Williams at Wisconsin. Lefty Nathan Kirby, a supplemental first-round pick this year who will likely be having Tommy John surgery, and Cody Ponce, this year’s third-round pick, are college pitchers who could progress quickly. Of course, Kirby’s progress won’t likely begin until 2017 if he has the TJ surgery.

When will help arrive? Davies will be given a good look in September in hopes he can earn a major-league rotation spot in spring training. Hader, Houser and Lopez could all be options for the rotation or long relief in 2016, but will benefit from any extra minor-league experience. Regardless of what happens at the major-league level in the offseason, there are quality arms ready to deliver next season should they get called to The Show.

BULLPEN

The skinny: Triple-A is filled with two types of players: older players who for one reason or another can’t crack a major-league roster and prospects who need seasoning. This article is focused on prospects. Ariel Pena came with Segura and Hellweg from the Los Angeles Angels in the Zack Greinke trade and is at Triple-A. He was in a relief role until recently making a handful of starts. He has a 4.11 in 76.2 innings with 78 strikeouts and 30 walks. Jaye Chapman is the closer at Colorado Springs, with a 2.79 ERA and 1.16 WHIP while 42 strikes and 11 walks in 38.2 innings. He has also only yielded one homer. At Biloxi, closer Damien Magnifico, lefty Michael Strong, Austin Ross and swingman Brent Suter all look like they could push for bullpen spots in the near future.

When will help arrive? As mentioned in the major-league article of this two-part series, not much help is needed in the bigs. But should a couple trades whittle into that depth, there are older players who could contribute immediately, as well as anyone on this list. With the volatility of bullpen spots, having a half-dozen or so arms you wouldn’t be afraid of calling up is a solid position. Of course, starters could always be used in long-relief roles, which is sometimes used to ease young starters into the bigs.