I think it should be pretty obvious as to why I'm working on Bowman right now. Bowman is the prospector's set -- particularly the Draft Picks and Prospects set since its debut. Since I've gotten only a few cards into my collection recently, I thought I'd take my opportunity instead to look at past Brewers prospects to hit the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects.
BA started its ranking back in 1990, so we have 26 years to work with. And, since I enjoy cautionary tales as much as I enjoy success stories, let's focus on the overhyped and overrated. Let me tell you -- there are plenty of those.
That's Elvira's 1991 Bowman card, of course.
Of course, for those of us old enough to remember the early 1980s, the name "Elvira" really brings to mind only one thing:
Brewer fans' hearts were on fire for Narciso Elvira in 1990 and 1991. On BA's inaugural Top 100 Prospects list, Elvira was the #23 overall prospect in all of baseball in 1990. He dominated at lower levels -- averaging over 10.6 K/9 over 251 innings over two seasons in the California League at the ages of 20 and 21 in 1988 and 1989.
Unfortunately for Elvira, his pitches must have looked like cherry wine after that. Two issues were going on here. First, the Brewers Double-A and Triple-A outposts at that point were a gauntlet for pitchers -- Double-A El Paso, Triple-A Denver. I mean, how about just take a sledgehammer to their arms instead? At least that pain goes away quickly rather than lasting six to eight months.
The second issue is that Elvira was small (5'10" tall) and plagued by shoulder trouble. This being the Brewers under Sal Bando, that meant that minor league coordinator Bruce Manno spoke of Elvira in almost disparaging terms: "You're only a prospect so long and then you become a suspect. He has to establish what kind of pitcher he's going to be."
He did: it was a Mexican leaguer. Elvira pitched only 5 total major league innings, walking 5 and giving up 6 hits and three earned runs in 1990 while striking out 6. The Brewers let Elvira go after 1991, and Elvira's career wandered from Triple-A to doing nothing for the years between 1992 and 1996, then back to Triple-A in 1996 and 1997 to the sidelines again then to Japan in 2000 to Mexico and Korea in 2002 and 2003, back to the sidelines in 2004, and back to the mound in 2005 and 2006 in Mexico, then 2007 and 2008 off before getting into 2 games in 2009 in Mexico at the age of 41. He even pitched a no-hitter in Japan on June 20, 2000 for Kintetsu. Here's the 9th inning of that game:
Antone Williamson was another multiple year Top 100 prospect according to Baseball America, showing up at #64 in 1995 (the Brewers' only representative on the list that year) and at #81 in 1996. The Brewers drafted WIlliamson in the first round of the 1994 draft, taking him with the fourth overall pick that year. Playing the "what-if" game, the Brewers could have selected Paul Konerko,, Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, A.J. Pierzynski, Aaron Boone, Javier Vazquez, Troy Glaus, or Jay Payton, among others, with that pick. It wasn't a great draft, to be fair, with Garciaparra enjoying the most career WAR in that draft at 44.2. For comparison's sake and through August 6's games, Mike Trout has 45.9 career WAR according to Baseball Reference.The Brewers were very excited by the pick. Stories in The Milwaukee Journal hyped the pick. Williamson's own quote in the story, however, wraps up why Sal Bando was an unmitigated disaster (for the most part) in terms of making draft picks: "They drafted me because they needed a corner man."
See, that's a mistake. Draft the best player available. Draft the one who projects well, has upside, has tools, has ability, is the best baseball player available at the time you pick. Don't pick a guy because you "need a corner man" -- especially because those guys are on the right side of the defensive spectrum (left is hard side, right is easy side) and can be developed by moving a shortstop with a bat over.
Williamson failed not because he couldn't hit, to be fair. He failed because of injuries. Specifically, in 1996, he was playing in a spring training game and dove for a ball. He hurt his left shoulder badly enough that it hurt to swing. This was after having a history of problems with his right shoulder.
He returned, eventually, to make the major leagues in 1997 at the age of 23, but he hit just .204/.254/.259 -- pitifully bad stats in the age of the steroid freaks like McGwire and Bonds and Sosa -- over the course of 60 plate appearances. The Brewers gave up on him after the 1999 season. No other takers stepped up, so he played a season in the Texas-Louisiana League and "slugged" .303 in 182 plate appearances. That's where his trail ends.
To be fair, most of the guys who appeared in BA's Top 100 as Brewers prospects at least made the major leagues and, in fact, even went on to have pretty good careers. For example, the Brewers had 6 guys in the top 100 in 2004: #84 Mike Jones (a pitcher who did not make it past Triple-A), #69 Manny Parra (who pitched around the fringes of baseball through last year), #48 Brad Nelson (who also did not do much), #19 J.J. Hardy, #10 Prince Fielder, and #5 Rickie Weeks.
After the recent trades, though, if only 3 players turn out to have good careers as those guys in 2004 did, it would actually be disappointing. After all, 2016's crop includes #8 Orlando Arcia, #16 Lewis Brinson, #49 Trent Clark, #57 Brett Phillips, and #59 Jorge Lopez (who has been godawful terrible this year) -- and that does not include the changes in the ratings thanks to results this year which pushed Josh Hader up in the rankings and the drafting of Corey Ray. And that doesn't even include guys working their way back from injury like Nathan Kirby.
Farm systems are a place for eternal hope and optimism. But, for the first time in a long time, that optimism might actually be more than wishcasting. Bowman is the place for that optimism.