Young trio injecting life into Brewers

Originally Published: June 21, 2005
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO – For at least a few days, the talk has turned to reality.

We've been hearing for several years now about the Brewers' farm system, about how several of its impact players will soon help turn around this atrophied franchise. We could be forgiven our skepticism: It wasn't that long ago that this same city had bragged about Braggs, and regaled us with Robidoux, with little to show for it – except, perhaps, atonement for Antone Williamson.

But as Doug Melvin and Ned Yost looked at their Milwaukee batting order on June 13, they could be forgiven an excitement that might, just might, spread past the Wisconsin borders. J.J. Hardy was at shortstop. Rickie Weeks, freshly minted from Triple-A Nashville, was at second base. And Prince Fielder, another prospect oozing with legitimacy, was at DH.

They are all age 21 or 22. They are all among the top young talents in baseball. They never had played a regular-season game together, majors or otherwise. But there they were, starting for the Brewers, infusing the club with a youthful hopefulness that could break a legacy of losing that stretches back to the days of Bill Wegman and Mike Boddicker.

These are not your commissioner's Brewers.

"The previous two years, we've talked about prospects a lot," said Melvin, the club's third-year general manager. "This year we have a chance to see some of them."

Or as Hardy put it: "Now that it's come together, it's pretty exciting. It's what they've been talking about since we were drafted."

It is amazing how fast these three players – the best triumvirate of rookie talent on any club today – have come through the system, one stuffed to the gills by scouting director Jack Zduriencik. Hardy, 22, was a second-round high school pick in 2001, and broke camp this spring as the starting shortstop. Weeks, also 22, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft out of Southern University, and was tearing up Triple-A Nashville before being summoned June 10. And Fielder, a 2002 high school first-rounder who recently turned 21, showed such terrifying power at Nashville in a three week period that he was called up June 12 to DH in the Brewers' interleague games – and showed enough talent to stick around.

Until now, the Brewers have for years been the dullest team in the major leagues, with boring players, boring management and boring results – heck, even the Devil Rays have developed some Rocco Baldellis and Carl Crawfords to keep them mildly intriguing. But these three prospects showing up at once are a big shot of adrenaline into the Brewer bloodstream, and make Milwaukee relevant again.

"It's good to finally see the guys make the jump," said right fielder Geoff Jenkins, the most tenured Brewer, around since 1998.

Added Yost, the third-year manager, "These kids are here to help us. There's a line between development and winning, but I see no reason why we can't do both."

Fielder is as powerful from the left side as his father, Cecil, was from the right – and proved it following a tepid start at Nashville. In his final 20 games, he mashed 12 home runs – 18 of his final 20 hits were for extra bases – while driving in 28 runs.

With series coming up at Tampa Bay and Toronto, the Brewers needed a DH and were so confident Fielder was their man, they added him to the 40-man roster. (The Brewers stood 13th in the league in runs at the time.) With a 6-foot, 260-pound frame that would make a tank jealous, Fielder has excellent power to all fields and proved it with a laser double to left-center in his second game against the Rays.

"That's more my type of hit – I try to drive the ball in the gaps," said Fielder, who entered Tuesday's games 5-for-17 with three doubles. As for his first week in the majors, he added, "It's the same thing – I grew up around it. The only thing different now is I get to play."

But for how long, and where? Both Fielder and Lyle Overbay, the Brewers' most productive regular, play only first base, with moves to the outfield unlikely. Teams have already started calling about Overbay – you can bet the Mets will be interested – as Melvin's decision marches toward him.

Fielder was supposed to return to Nashville following the Blue Jays series, but was enticing enough to stick around for a few more days as a left-handed bat off the Milwaukee bench.

"It's something we'll have to make a call on," Melvin said. "But for now we'll let them go out and perform. This team has not had talent depth in a while. We're starting to get a little bit of that. We're not motivated to move either one."

Weeks was called up a few days before Fielder to replace the traded Junior Spivey, though in reality Spivey was dealt (to Washington) to make room for the blistering Weeks. The right-handed hitter had been batting .320-12-48 in 55 games at Nashville and leading all minor leaguers with nine triples.

Weeks can be a three-hole impact hitter; he has some Gary Sheffield in him, from his phenomenal bat speed to the chopping twitch that triggers it.

"Rickie has as quick hands as I've ever seen – sometimes he gets too quick and starts chopping balls to the right side," Brewers hitting coach Butch Wynegar said.

Weeks has held his own offensively since the recall, batting 8-for-28 (.286) with five walks and 10 strikeouts.

"I'm trying to get accommodated to big-league life," said Weeks, who was called up briefly in September 2003 as part of his draft contract. "It hasn't been too hard, really."

Defense has been another matter. His two errors last Wednesday, first an errant throw and then a muffed ground ball, led directly to the Brewers' 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay. (He also erred on the bases, getting doubled off first on a lineout.) On Sunday, Weeks again displayed his rawness by botching a double play, but he also turned two nice twin-killings to show that his early work with coach (and former second baseman) Rich Dauer was taking hold.

"Of course I felt bad about it, but it's something I have to deal with," Weeks said of the miscues. "It's baseball – it's coming right back at you. I want the ball to come back at me."

Said Yost, "He just has to learn the nuances of the position. Rickie plays the position now on raw talent. He already has the quickness and range. He has to learn to stay smooth."

Hardy is plenty smooth with the glove – but not with the bat, at least yet. After missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, Hardy hasn't hit a lick this year, batting .183 with a .549 OPS that only Christian Guzman's .547 keeps from being the worst among major-league shortstops with 140 plate appearances.

The Brewers expect Hardy's numbers to improve markedly soon, though: He not only has a great approach at the plate, striking out just 14 times with 21 walks, but they know that many talented young infielders, like Robin Ventura in 1989, hit in the high .100s their first two months before turning it around.

"I'll bet a lot that J.J.'s going to be a .280 hitter with 10-15 homers and 80 RBIs, and play spectacular defense in the next couple of years," Yost said. "I don't think it'll take five years. He's a smart kid with tremendous makeup."

Hardy is known for great defense, but it's hard to know if it has been evident yet. He has just two errors, yes, but he also has made only 3.6 plays per game, by far the worst among all big-league shortstops. Given that the Brewers have a groundball-oriented pitching staff with two lefty starters, that's something to watch in the coming months.

But hey, at least the Brewers are finally something to watch as a whole. They're only 31-38, yet they have scored more runs than they've allowed, suggesting that they're better than their record indicates. (Though they were 45-41 last year before finishing a ghastly 22-53, in last place yet again.) The 2005 Brewers will have a chance to prove themselves before this year's All-Star break, with almost all of their games against the Cubs, Twins, Marlins and Braves.

OK, not all of their games. Some games will still be played between Weeks and Fielder, as they duel in MVP Baseball on their traveling Sony Playstation.

"I want to be the Brewers," Fielder lamented, "but Rickie always wants to be the Brewers."

If these guys play up to their potential, they won't be the only ones.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.