MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Brewers have built from within, getting top picks and gems late in the draft to have the best farm system in baseball only a few years ago.
The approach netted them top first-round talents like Prince Fielder (2002), Ryan Braun (2005) and Rickie Weeks (2003) as well as Yovani Gallardo (2nd round), Jonathan Lucroy (3rd) and Corey Hart (11th).
The culmination of their savvy work came in 2008, when the Brewers reached the postseason for the first time in 26 years by trading four prospects for CC Sabathia in the stretch run.
The deep farm system built by former scouting director Jack Zduriencik allowed Milwaukee to trade their top pitching prospect for 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and top hitting prospect for Shaun Marcum.
Now, the young Brewers look thin again.
"People say our system is a little low, well, it's to be expected," general manager Doug Melvin said. "We traded for other players, and we had players that weren't ranked high."
They've also had problems hitting early in the draft recently.
The last nine first-round picks for Milwaukee since Braun are either gone by trade, deep in the minors or never signed. Six of the top seven prospects as recently as 2009 are no longer with the team.
Jeremy Jeffress (2006) was part of the Greinke deal along with supplemental first-rounder Jake Odorizzi (2008). Matt LaPorta (2007) went to the Indians for Sabathia. Brett Lawrie (2008) was traded for Marcum.
Right-hander Eric Arnett (2009) went 1-9 with a 6.70 ERA in 20 appearances in Class-A Wisconsin last year and hasn't pitched in the minors yet this season. Milwaukee's 2010 top pick, Dylan Covey, opted for college after finding out he had diabetes. Covey went to the University of San Diego instead.
With the system thinned, Melvin said the amateur draft that begins Monday is critical for the Brewers again. Milwaukee will pick 12th and 15th in the first round, followed by the 70th and 100th picks.
"We feel confident in the extra pick we'll get this year, it might be just as good as what Dylan would've been or even more advanced," said Melvin, who met with the scouting staff for three days last week and again this week to prepare. "I think the thing we can do better at, we can do better going deeper in drafts."
With Fielder eligible for free agency after the season, the organization must find a way to bridge the gap again while drafting and developing players like Lucroy, who reached the majors in 2 1/2 seasons while never being considered a top 100 prospect.
Melvin said this year's draft class is loaded with strong college pitchers.
Two players that could be around when the Brewers pick are right-handers Sonny Gray of Vanderbilt and Matt Barnes of Connecticut. They could go for a high school arm like righty Taylor Guerrieri or one of several polished outfielders like Mikie Mahtook of LSU or George Springer of Connecticut.
"We're getting into the stages where you can't say much as far as the strategy goes," Melvin said. "The list will probably change right up until the last day."
Then, the biggest issue will be signing the players, something that will certainly be part of Milwaukee's decision-making process this week.
Melvin said they want to pick the best player available, but that usually means the organization believes they'll be able to sign them quickly after the draft instead of waiting until the Aug. 14 deadline.
"The signing day has to be moved up. Development is a huge part of what we do, our success," Melvin said. "It's important to get them signed early."