Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Brewers officially promoted Orlando Arcia, the organization's top prospect and unanimously one of the top 15 prospects in all of baseball. The young shortstop turned only 22 on Thursday, and with a universally praised glove, he already looks the part of an established Major League shortstop when in the field. However, the present quality of his development at the plate makes the timing of his promotion very interesting.
Arcia is clearly not being promoted out of an urgent need at the Major League level. The fourth-place Brewers are 17.5 games behind the division-leading Cubs and eight games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot. They entered the 2016 season with no illusions of competing. There is no injury in creating a hole in the lineup during a playoff run — in fact, there is no real hole in the lineup for Arcia to fill.
Despite the team's poor record, shortstop, second base, and third base are stable positions in Milwaukee. Homegrown second baseman Scooter Gennett has provided roughly league-average production at the plate and, depending on your source, roughly average defense as well. With a 117 wRC+ and 40 stolen bases, Jonathan Villar has provided above-average production offensively while producing 3.2 WARP as the team's current shortstop. Baseball Prospectus' value metric considers him tied with Ryan Braun in total 2016 production.
Villar is moving over to third, a position previously manned by a combination of Aaron Hill (who was traded to the Red Sox) and Hernan Perez. Hill was acquired prior to the season as part of a larger trade and completely rebuilt his value with a strong start to the season, producing a 107 wRC+ and 1.8 WARP in 34 games. Following his trade, the 25-year old Perez took over, and he has exceeded expectations with a 100 wRC+ and 19 stolen bases (accumulating 1.4 WARP) in 70 games.
Even if Milwaukee is trying to get ahead of Perez's likely regression, it doesn't make a lot of sense to speed up a top prospect's timetable to fortify a currently productive position during a lost season. Instead, the assumption should be that the team doesn't believe that this is speeding up the player's timetable or in any way hampering his development. An interesting version of this argument was made by manager Craig Counsel.
The reports were (Arcia) was absolutely outstanding defensively... He didn't have the season he had last year but we feel like he's ready to handle big-league pitching. And the big thing is, you need experience. You need to face big-league pitching.
A compelling argument could be made that without the immediate expectations of winning on the biggest stage, a player can afford to learn at the highest level in a way that more closely approximates adjusting to a new Minor League level. This is purely conjecture, but calling a player up during a relative lull may allow that player to focus purely on the difference in talent between Triple-A and Major League pitching, without the typical distractions and pressure of producing in front of MLB crowds and the national media. Additionally, the player works out the kinks without bringing down a competitive team, and instead Milwaukee's window can hopefully begin with as many pieces as possible adjusted to the Major Leagues and producing at the same time.
However, regardless of the reason, this promotion begins Arcia's service time clock and makes him the first major prospect of the David Stearns era to reach the Majors. As it seems unlikely that a newly analytical team such as the Brewers wants to begin a key player's clock years before competing (especially when he wasn't knocking down the door to begin with), it's fair to wonder whether the Milwaukee front office expects a faster turnaround time to contention than has been seen in other notable rebuilds. Stearns' former team, the Astros, spent three seasons at the bottom of the standings before competing. The Cubs took several seasons to turn into a powerhouse, and the Phillies are currently in year three of their rebuild.
Practically speaking, the Brewers' rebuild only began with the trade of Carlos Gomez last July; the team hired Stearns last September, and Arcia's promotion came just days after the team sold off several of their major trade assets. Adding to an already deep farm system, Milwaukee made three significant moves ahead of the August 1 Trade Deadline.
As mentioned above, the first of the moves sent Hill to the Red Sox for starting pitcher Aaron Wilkerson and infielder Wendell Rijo. Wilkerson is already 27 years old and is without a plus pitch, but he has featured a 20.9 percent K-BB rate in AAA and offers some back-end rotation depth.
A deal that more impacts the Brewers' future is that of closer Will Smith to the Giants. In return, they received MLB catcher (and former Top-100 prospect) Andrew Susac and current Top-50 prospect Phil Bickford. Susac is potentially an everyday player behind the plate, as soon as this season. Bickford, a 2015 first round pick, has performed at every level he's pitched despite questions about his change-up. He's a potential mid-rotation arm.
The most significant of the three moves is undoubtedly sending franchise face Jonathan Lucroy and reliever Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers for top prospects Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and a player to be named later. Brinson, the number 21 prospect in baseball, has struggled in 2016 but still profiles as an impact bat in the middle of the order. Ortiz, the number 62 prospect in baseball, has a plus fastball, plus slider, and good command. He is another mid-rotation prospect.
In total, it isn't unreasonable to expect the Brewers' turnaround to be a bit faster than other recent rebuilds. At the Major League level, there are already a significant number of pieces under long term team control. Susac, Gennett, Villar, Arcia, Braun and Domingo Santana are each productive position players, while Jimmy Nelson, Zack Davies, and Junior Guerra form the core of an interesting starting rotation. Players such as Chris Carter, Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, and Tyler Jungmann are under control for multiple years and offer some potential rebound value.
Additionally, there are a significant number of prospects at Double-A and above, meaning they could see the Majors at some point in the 2017 season. Starting pitcher Josh Hader and the recently acquired Ortiz could fill out the rotation, while Brinson and fellow high-upside outfielder Brett Phillips provide offensive help.
Despite all of these options available, it is almost certain holes will remain, and some players will regress or fail to develop. Large numbers of high upside prospects in the lower Minors offer valuable trade chips and reinforcements beginning in the 2018 season. Starting pitchers such as Bickford, Cody Ponce, Marcos Diplan, Kodi Medeiros, Jorge Lopez, and Devin Williams are each enticing options. Middle infielders Gilbert Lara and Isan Diaz and outfielders Corey Ray, Trent Clark, and Monte Harrison all offer high upside positional value.
The Brewers system is so deep that MLB.com's list includes 19 prospects of at least grade 50 (a league average Major Leaguer) or better. In fact, the same source recently ranked the Brewers' farm system as the best in baseball, jumping eight spots following the Trade Deadline.
With all these internal options to either fill holes or acquire pieces from the outside, it isn't crazy to picture the Brewers coming together within the next season or two. It wouldn't even be shocking to see some of those chips cashed in on an impact player with multiple years of team control this offseason. Orlando Arcia may be both the first and the best of the team's current prospect crop, but he certainly won't be the last. His promotion is a signal that the team isn't going to wait for their division rivals to fade away before beginning to compete once again.