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Brewers' youngsters turning heads

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Gary D'Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, March 10, 2017

Brett Phillips was a 17-year-old kid just starting his professional baseball career with Houston in 2012 when the Astros gutted their major-league roster and radically rebuilt their farm system.

Three years later, they were in the playoffs.

Phillips looks around the Milwaukee Brewers' locker room at Maryvale Baseball Park and sees the same kind of young, uber-talented players who turned around the Astros. Only here, there are more of them.

“I think we have better talent over here than what was in the Astros organization,” Phillips said. “I played with guys who took their major-league team to the playoffs and I see that unfolding here. It's awesome. The fans should be super-excited, because I truly believe that's where this team is headed.”

Spring training has provided a showcase for many of the prospects general manager David Stearns has stockpiled over the last 1 years. They're not ready for the bigs just yet, but their talent and potential foreshadows a way out of the abyss for a small-market franchise that has lost far too often for far too long.

One day it's 21-year-old third baseman Lucas Erceg, a non-roster invitee whose name isn't yet on the back of his jersey, smashing two home runs, including a tape-measure grand slam. The ball hung in the air forever and eventually wound up where few have gone—on the roof of a pavilion in right field at Goodyear Ballpark.

“That's not normal,” said manager Craig Counsell. “That doesn't happen a lot. I don't care what spring training you're in and I don't care what camp you're in, I don't care how many years you've seen this, that doesn't happen.”

The next day it's Mauricio Dubon or Isan Diaz making slick plays in the infield, or outfielder Lewis Brinson ripping the cover off the ball, or left-hander Josh Hader showing why he's one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. None of them is older than 22.

“If I look back at last year we weren't in that spot where we were putting (young) guys on the field like this,” Counsell said. “That's a positive step forward, for sure.”

Ryan Braun, one of just a couple veterans to weather Stearns' storm of trades—and only because the GM's attempt to deal him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August fell apart—said this was the best group of young players he'd been around in his decade-plus with the team. Braun predicted “10 or 12” of them would someday be impact players with the parent club.

“That's awesome coming from Ryan Braun,” said Phillips, a 22-year-old outfielder. “This is his 12th spring training. He's seen everything. He's been to the playoffs, he's seen it all. So for him to say that, it's awesome.”

Erceg, a second-round draft pick out of Menlo College in 2016, has been opening eyes with his play at third base and with his bat. The lean 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has displayed maturity beyond his years and many believe he is on the fast track to the majors.

“I'm in no rush at all,” he said. “I understand the process and I know it's going to be a long one but hopefully soon—whatever soon means—I'll be with the major-league team.”

Hader, 22, is working on fine-tuning his changeup, which would make his plus fastball even more effective. He went 1-7 last year at hitter-friendly Colorado Springs, the Brewers' Triple A affiliate, but struck out 88 in 69 innings. Before that he'd compiled a 0.95 ERA in 11 starts at Double A Biloxi.

“Once you hit Triple A, you're right there,” Hader said. “It's only the little things that you have to master to get to that next level.”

Phillips, Brinson and Ryan Cordell, batting .400 through Thursday, are part of a crowded outfield picture. With Braun in left, 24-year-old Domingo Santana in right and 26-year-old Keon Broxton the front-runner in center, there isn't room for all of them. Yet.

“I know my time will come if I go about my business and I'm performing,” Phillips said. “When my time comes I just have to make the most of my opportunity. But I hope each and every one of these guys gets to experience their dream, as well.

Spoiler alert: Not all of the prospects are going to make it to Miller Park. Young players develop at different rates and even the most talented of them are subject to setbacks, slumps and injuries. Some will find success with the Brewers, some in other organizations, others not at all.

“You're going to strike out, you're going to make outs, you're going to get hits, you're going to hit home runs,” Brinson said. “It's all part of baseball. You fail 70 percent of the time and you're hitting .300. It's a funny game. You're failing more than half the time. You've got to just learn to deal with that.

“I've had a lot of failure early on in my career, for a season or two, and you've got to figure out how to handle that. I have kind of figured out what I need to do to not get so down and not feel uncomfortable. That comes over time.”

While they're waiting, Brewers fans will have to put up with another year or three of losing. This is Plan A, and there is no Plan B. The organization would do no one a favor by rushing these kids to the big leagues.

When they're ready, though, it could be a beautiful thing.

“We've got a lot of talent in this locker room,” Brinson said. “Just being a part of that is very exciting. I definitely feel in a few years we're going to be something to reckon with.”


Last updated: 10:21 pm Friday, March 10, 2017


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