Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
The Brewers' system is trending up.
Usually when we say that, the implication is that Major League success will follow. For Milwaukee, the big league club is already on a solid run, having made the postseason in four consecutive seasons -- easily the longest playoff streak in franchise history dating back to 1969.
On the flipside, the prospect pipeline's progress is a little less tangible, but there is hope. The Brewers ranked 28th or 29th in three straight MLB Pipeline farm system rankings in 2020 and 2021 before improving to 25th in this summer's midseason update. Adding a Top 100 talent in 15th overall pick Sal Frelick certainly helped, but so did the on-field development of players such as Joey Wiemer, Hedbert Perez, Ethan Small, Aaron Ashby and Jeferson Quero -- some of whom feature below.
On a team level, Brewers affiliates failed to make the Minor League playoffs in 2021 -- in part due to slimmer postseason formats this year -- but Triple-A Nashville (70-58) and Low-A Carolina (68-52) both found success at opposite ends of the full-season spectrum, boasting records well above .500.
Brewers Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Zavier Warren, Carolina (53 games), High-A Wisconsin (36 games): When the Brewers took Warren in the third round of the 2020 Draft out of Central Michigan, they surprised some by announcing him as a catcher, considering the bulk of his NCAA work had been on the infield. The 2021 season was the start of a process to see if the switch-hitter, who had some catching experience in high school and college, can stick behind the plate, but for now, his bat established a solid foundation for his budding career.
Warren hit .258/.367/.442 with 13 homers and a 122 wRC+ in 89 games at Carolina and Wisconsin. Continuing a theme from his Chippewas days, his best offensive skills came in the on-base department, though it's notable that he already surpassed his collegiate home run total of nine in his first pro season. The Brewers are committed to moving Warren around the diamond in order to fuel his offensive progression.
"Zavier continues to work behind the plate and has shown some strides receiving," said Brewers vice president of Minor League operations Tom Flanagan. "Work remains to be done back there, but he was able to balance his offense with his defensive work very well. He moved around and played a lot of first and third as well, and that will be something he does moving forward."
First baseman -- Thomas Dillard, Wisconsin (78 games), Double-A Biloxi (27 games): Like Warren, Milwaukee had hopes of using Dillard as a catcher when they took him in the fifth round out of Ole Miss in 2019. However, 73 of his 81 defensive starts in the field came at first base in 2021.
The move to first will elevate Dillard's need to make the most of his above-average power, and he answered the bell with a .247/.365/.444 line and 123 wRC+ over 450 plate appearances. The switch-hitter's 18 homers placed him third among all Brewers farmhands, and his .809 OPS ranked eighth among full-season qualifiers in the system. Dillard will be challenged to make more contact after striking out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances at both Wisconsin and Biloxi, but the pop potential is there for him to provide some value as a first baseman the higher he climbs.
Second baseman -- Felix Valerio, Carolina (85 games), Wisconsin (29 games): The first thing that stands out about Valerio is his height at just 5-foot-7. The second is the incredible level of performance at this early stage in his career.
The 20-year-old middle infielder, who was acquired from the Mets in a January 2019 deal for Keon Broxton, got off to a fast start with a .314/.430/.469 line, six homers, 27 steals and a 49/54 K/BB ratio in 377 plate appearances at Low-A. He couldn't quite keep that going following a mid-August promotion to High-A, hitting just .229, but he did manage to show a little more pop than expected with six homers and a .466 slugging percentage.
The right-handed hitter finished with a .401 OBP between the two spots, making him one of only five Minor Leaguers to post a number that high while also getting 500 or more plate appearances.
"Felix has exceptional ability to make contact, and he continues to improve his strike zone judgement," Flanagan said. "He’ll pick his spots and surprise with how hard he will hit a ball. Overall, he simply can hit."
Third baseman -- Ashton McGee, Carolina (71 games), Wisconsin (15 games): Then again, Valerio wasn't tops among Brewers qualified full-season hitters in on-base percentage. That honor belonged to McGee, who finished with a .423 mark over 357 plate appearances at two A-ball levels.
The 2019 18th-rounder out of UNC put himself on the map with a .301/.434/.519 line and 10 homers in 71 games at Carolina, proving to be advanced for the Low-A level. Though he was challenged some with the Timber Rattlers, he managed to finish second in the organization with a .913 OPS and 150 wRC+, trailing only Wiemer in both categories.
Like others on this list, McGee's position remains up in the air. He played 30 games at third base while at Low-A, but he was first-base only during his brief spell at the higher level. Improving his 30 percent strikeout rate will likely be a focus for the future.
Shortstop -- Freddy Zamora, Carolina (70 games), Wisconsin (22 games): Zamora was a .300 hitter over his two seasons at the University of Miami. The 2020 second-rounder is a .300 hitter once more following his first professional season.
In fact, Zamora's .300 average between Carolina and Wisconsin led all qualified Brewers Minor Leaguers, including those from short-season ball. He especially caught fire late and hit .372/.469/.531 with 18 extra-base hits in 40 games from Aug. 1 onward -- a stretch that included his promotion to Wisconsin on Aug. 25.
The former Hurricane is a gifted defender at shortstop and is only growing more into himself offensively now that he's settled after undergoing left ACL surgery in 2020.
"His second half really went well," Flanagan said. "As he got further and further away from his injury, he looked more and more comfortable, and I think this may have impacted his numbers in the second half. But he’s a guy that knows the zone and makes really good swing decisions."
Honorable mention: David Hamilton led the system and finished tied for fifth in all of the Minors with 52 stolen bases. The 2019 eighth-rounder had a .258/.341/.419 line in 101 games between High-A and Double-A before heading to the Arizona Fall League for the past two months.
Joey Wiemer, Carolina (75 games), Wisconsin (34 games): Wiemer quickly launched from being a 2020 fourth-rounder with groundball tendencies to a household name in Brewers prospect circles. With 27 homers and 30 steals this season, the former Cincinnati Bearcat was one of only three 25-25 players in the Minor Leagues this season, joining top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Anthony Volpe.
Wiemer had the above-average power and speed to reach those marks, but it was an adjustment to get more into his back leg and limit his head movement that allowed him to lift the ball more often on the pro side. That was evident after his move to Wisconsin, where he went deep 14 times and slugged .719 in 34 games. The right-handed slugger's swing and approach remains, in a word, kinetic, but the Brewers are happy to leave that part of his game be, so long as he keeps using that energy to make hard contact, be aggressive on the basepaths and unleash some elite throws from center and right field.
"The biggest surprise with Joey was simply how hot he got toward the middle of the year, and that he really never cooled off," Flanagan said. "Everyone who sees Joey notices that he does it a little different. But he consistently squares up the baseball and hits it so hard that he does big-time damage. ... He brings it to the field every day and can impact a game defensively or running the bases just as often as at the plate."
Joe Gray Jr., Carolina (51 games), Wisconsin (59 games): It would have been important enough for Gray to get on the field again in 2021. A bout of pneumonia, a hamstring strain and the canceled 2020 Minor League season left him with only 55 games on his résumé coming into the year. The 2018 second-rounder accomplished a lot more than getting back on the diamond.
Gray joined Wiemer as one of the 16 20-20 players in the Minors this season with 20 homers and 23 steals of his own. The bulk of his production came with Carolina, where he hit .289/.407/.632 in 51 games. His 1.039 OPS and 169 wRC+ each held up as the third-highest numbers among Low-A batters (minimum 200 plate appearances). Gray's performance took a hit in Wisconsin (.219/.306/.381), and he admitted after the season that he may have been pressing too hard to impress at the highest level of his career to this point.
Gray still has a decent floor thanks to his impressive defensive tools, and the hit tool could come back around with even more playing time in 2022 and beyond.
"2021 was a great year for Joe," Flanagan said. "Coming into the year, Joe needed at-bats more than anything else. He didn’t have 200 at-bats in his career, and he ended this year with 405 plus a stint in the [Arizona Fall League]. So, from that perspective alone, it was a success. He really figured some things out at Carolina in terms of his approach, and I think it will be big heading into next season."
Korry Howell, Wisconsin (69 games), Biloxi (28 games): Howell was in the news recently as a Rule 5-eligible player who Milwaukee decided against adding to its 40-man roster before last Friday's deadline. (The organization didn't add anyone, in fact.) Don't let that distract from an otherwise solid season by the 23-year-old.
Howell hit .244/.349/.455 with a 122 wRC+ in his 107 games between High-A and Double-A. His 16 homers and 24 stolen bases each ranked among the top six in the organization, and he joined fellow outfielders Wiemer and Gray as the only 15-15 players in the system this season.
The 2018 12th-rounder has made the biggest name for himself with his plus-plus speed, and the Brewers have tried to make the most of that athleticism by giving him looks at shortstop and all three outfield spots (primarily center) as well as third base. He just needs to make enough contact -- as proven by his 39.6 percent K rate at Biloxi -- to take advantage of his otherwise full slate of offensive tools.
"[Howell] does damage on certain pitches and can be a more productive hitter attacking pitchers earlier in counts," Flanagan said. "He had a lot of success this year hitting the ball harder than he had before, and we hope to see more of this as he builds on a solid 2021."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Josh Lindblom, Triple-A Nashville (22 games, 20 starts), Milwaukee (eight games): The Brewers signed Lindblom prior to the 2020 season after he spent two seasons in the KBO, including a 20-win campaign in 2019, and he made 10 starts for the big club during last year's shortened campaign. He opened 2021 in the Major League bullpen but was designated for assignment in May. The 34-year-old right-hander stuck around as starting depth and thrived the rest of the way for Nashville.
Lindblom's 3.10 ERA over 104 2/3 innings was second-best among Triple-A qualifiers and made him the only qualified Brewers full-season hurler with an ERA below 4.40. His 117 strikeouts placed fifth in that Triple-A group, and his 1.22 WHIP was seventh.
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Ethan Small, ACL Brewers Gold (one game, one start), Biloxi (eight games, eight starts), Nashville (nine games, nine starts): On a rate basis, Small was one of the most dominant Minor League pitchers in 2021. He owned a 1.98 ERA in 77 1/3 innings mostly across the top two levels of the Brewers' system, and that was fifth lowest among the 547 Minor League pitchers with at least 70 frames during the season. He fanned 92 batters in that time or 29.1 percent of those he faced, giving him the fourth-best K rate in the Milwaukee system.
A strained tendon in his left hand, which he suffered only three starts into his Triple-A career and shortly after a trip to the All-Star Futures Game, limited the 2019 28th overall pick over the summer and may have kept him from making a Major League debut. Small is now pitching for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League and once again has a strong 1.80 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 20 innings, showing that his improving pitch mix and deceptive delivery can play anywhere.
"He was able to utilize his slider a bit more as that can be a really good pitch for him," Flanagan said. "He has a plus changeup and has had his way with some hitters by just using his fastball-changeup combo. He's a very cerebral pitcher and really competes, and he knows that once he gets the same trust in his slider, he will have added another big weapon to his arsenal."
Relief pitcher -- Luke Barker, Nashville (53 games): Closers aren't a huge deal (at least in the traditional sense) in the Minor Leagues anymore, but Barker fit the bill as well as anyone in the Milwaukee system. His 13 saves were tied for most in the organization and tied for fifth-most among all Triple-A relievers.
The 29-year-old right-hander dominated in other areas as well. His 0.80 WHIP was third lowest among the 327 Triple-A pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2021, and he produced that mark over 61 1/3 frames. He was especially good at filling up the zone and limiting contact with 77 strikeouts and only 10 walks over his 53 appearances.
The Brewers signed Barker in November 2016 following his stint in the independent Frontier League. Five years later, he makes his second appearance on an Organization All-Stars list.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.