Lopez's turnaround has Brewers' attention

Pitching prospect brilliant in winter ball after voluntary instructional work

Lopez's turnaround has Brewers' attention

MILWAUKEE -- A voluntary stint in the Brewers' fall instructional league helped prospect Jorge Lopez carry his late-season momentum to Puerto Rico, where the right-hander could be pitching his way back into the picture for 2017.

Lopez, who reached the Majors as a 22-year-old at the end of 2015 only to struggle to a 6.81 ERA at the start of 2016 in his first 17 games at the Triple-A level, finished strong at Double-A Biloxi and has continued to pitch well since the end of the regular season. He scattered two hits and struck out five in five scoreless innings for Mayaguez in Puerto Rico's Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, lowering Lopez's WHIP after nine starts to a league-best 0.87 and his ERA to 1.56, which ranks second in the circuit.

"Jorge started to turn the corner with Biloxi to end the season, and then to his credit, he took advantage of some time at our instructional league program," Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said. "He attended that program for two weeks and was committed to solidifying some issues with his delivery and working on some things that he had gotten away from.  But he is in a very good place now."

Lopez was not the only Brewers farmhand to struggle at Triple-A Colorado Springs, where the conditions and field dimensions are unfavorable to pitchers. The Brewers moved him to Biloxi at the end of July for eight starts, and Lopez finished strong, compiling a 2.67 ERA in his final five games.

After his stint in the instructional league, Lopez sustained that success at home in Puerto Rico.

"It's been very encouraging to see what Jorge has done in Puerto Rico," Brewers GM David Stearns said. "All of the reports we've gotten have been very positive. There's likely not one singular reason for his success. It's likely a combination of factors from confidence, to a comfortable environment, to improved stuff."

The Brewers are deep in starting pitching at the big league level, so there will be no rush to advance Lopez past his comfort zone this year. Stearns, Flanagan and other club officials must decide what to do with Lopez next: send him back to Colorado Springs with hopes that his improved mechanics will produce better results or keep him away from the thin air.

Stearns will lead similar debates about assignments for other pitching prospects as Spring Training inches closer. To date, the Brewers have not protected top prospects from the perils of Colorado Springs, but that could change as the affiliation enters its third season.

Wherever Lopez starts the season, he will seek to climb back up the Brewers' prospect chart. He has slipped to No. 14 on MLBPipeline.com's list of Milwaukee's top prospects, and is the organization's seventh-ranked pitcher.

Lopez will turn 24 on Feb. 10, three days before pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale Baseball Park.

"By all accounts, he has continued to work hard in winter ball and is returning to the pitcher we know he can be," Flanagan said.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.