MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' farm system has gone from worst to first in the last three seasons thanks to some timely trades and a consistent draft philosophy: take the best player available, regardless of position.
With the foundation in place, is this the year to stray from that philosophy and stockpile talent based on need?
Don't bet on it.
"It's nice to hear people say nice things, but, come on, I'm realistic about where this organization is at," said Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik, who will preside over his fifth Brewers draft on June 7-8. "I know what we have to do."
The Brewers have the fifth overall pick in this year's First-Year Player Draft. Last year, with the second pick they selected Southern University infielder Rickie Weeks, who made it all the way to Milwaukee for a September callup.
Milwaukee's minor league system was rated No. 1 by Baseball America magazine and was last year's Topps Organization of the Year. Three Brewers affiliates went to their respective league championship series and three farmhands won league MVP awards: Corey Hart (Double-A Southern), Prince Fielder (Single-A Midwest) and Lou Palmisano (Rookie Pioneer). Fielder, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2002, was named the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year.
The strength of the system, by all accounts, is in position players. Most observers say this year's draft crop is heavy with college pitching, which would seem a good fit for a Brewers team expecting the arrival of the first wave of prospects as soon as 2005.
"I've seen a lot of teams burned by saying, 'We'll take the best catcher available,'" Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "Well, the best catcher might be the 25th-best player, so you're downgrading by doing that. That's why you focus on taking the best player available. It's not like the NFL and the NBA, where the guy is a year away. The minimum is four years for a player to get [to the Major Leagues], the way I look at it."
Still, a number of mock drafts have the Brewers selecting a college pitcher with their first-round pick. The last college hurler selected in the first round by Milwaukee was Northeast Louisiana University right-hander Ben Sheets in 1999, and he was in the Majors two years later.
Baseball America's first-round projection had the Brewers selecting Rice University junior Philip Humber, part of a talented trio of Rice pitchers likely to go in the first round (Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend are also considered top talents).
"I knew coming to Rice would help me a lot," Humber said. "Being around this type of program makes you a better player."
The Brewers' scouting team will gather at Miller Park on Wednesday and Thursday to assemble its draft board. Whomever the Brewers select in the first round, Zduriencik stressed that there is a lot more to the draft than the first pick.
"Obviously, that is a great pick -- the fifth pick in the country," he said. "But there are 49 guys we are going to select after that."
The team has found success past the first round in recent seasons with players like Corey Hart (11th round, 2000), Brad Nelson (fourth round, 2001) and Manny Parra (26th round, 2001, signed as a draft-and-follow the following season).
Past five No. 1 picks
2003 Rickie Weeks, 2B
2002 Prince Fielder, 1B
2001 Michael Jones, RHP
2000 David Krynzel, CF
1999 Ben Sheets, RHP
All of those players were selected out of high school, though Parra played a year in junior college to improve his standing. Zduriencik tends to favor high school picks (from 2000-2003, the team took high schoolers Dave Krynzel, Mike Jones and Prince Fielder in the first round) and many so-called experts peg Melvin as a fan of college picks.
Zduriencik said the distinction is not so sharp.
"Doug and I talk about ideas a lot. I don't think he's necessarily a 'college guy' and I don't think I'm necessarily a 'high school guy,'" Zduriencik said. "When they day is done, we want to look each other in the eye and say that we took the very best players that are going to make this organization as strong as it can possibly be."
If that means picking middle infielders, a position at which the Brewers are stacked, so be it.
"If your system is strong position-wise, you can trade positional players for pitchers from an organization that is strong in pitching," Melvin said. "A lot of times, those pitchers are already at Double-A or Triple-A, and you probably know a lot more about them than you do about players in college and high school."
Said Zduriencik: "I don't care who you are, where you are, you can never have enough prospects."