The Milwaukee Brewers are undeniably struggling. Only the Miami Marlins and New York Mets have a lower winning percentage than the Brew Crew in the National League, and they’ve also lost eight of their last ten games.
It’s obviously not time to throw in the towel on the season. When the team is playing like this, though, one tends to shift one’s gaze to the future. And in thinking about the future of the Brewers’ organization, I have regularly found myself wondering if the Brewers are flirting with a stretch of below-average seasons in the near future.
While that sounds bleak, consider the following points…
THE BREWERS ARE AGING
It doesn’t seem long ago that the Brewers were the young kids on the block in the NL Central. With Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and all the other young guns in the mid-2000s, the Brewers appeared poised for a long string of success. Though the organization didn’t become a perennial powerhouse, they enjoyed their first two postseason appearances in almost 30 years.
That was almost a decade ago, however, and the Brewers are starting to show their age, especially in comparison to their NL Central brethren.
The Brewers, as a team, are older than the Cardinals and the Reds, which is worrisome because those two teams are already in their prime window for competition and they’re not featuring an old roster. On the other hand, the average age for the Pirates and Cubs is slightly misleading because they’re peppering their respective rosters with aging veterans who are generally serving as placeholders for younger talent coming through the system.
For example, the Pirates have Gerit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and company charging through their minor-league system, but they still need to field a big-league rotation. Thus, they have older guys like A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald manning their staff until the younger arms are ready to take over in a year or two. Fortunately for the Pirates, PNC Park is quite pitcher-friendly and Burnett and Rodriguez still have tread on the tires and can help them compete, while they warm the seat for their stud prospects.
The Brewers, however, are getting older without ready replacements. Corey Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Norichika Aoki, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada, etc. are all approaching (or already in) the back-ends of their respective careers. Milwaukee will need significant contributors at key positions, notably at corner positions and the starting rotation, in the not-so-distant future.
TALENT DISPARITY ON THE FARM
Using the farm system rankings by ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America from this offseason, it’s easy to see how the Brewers are lagging behind the rest of the NL Central in terms of talent in the minor leagues.
|Team||ESPN Ranking||BA Ranking|
These rankings are largely predicated on impact talent in the minor leagues, meaning talent that has a chance to be above-average. And while the Brewers possess some depth of players who could potential make the big leagues, that’s very different than having a slew of potential All-Stars — especially for a team who doesn’t have the payroll flexibility to routinely purchase that level of talent on the free-agent market.
So, to make this point a bit more bluntly, the other NL Central teams are either currently in their window of competition (Reds), building toward their window contention (Pirates and Cubs), or a superhuman mixture of both (Cardinals), while the Brewers currently sit perilously close to the back-edge of their window without the assets to readily reload.
THE INTERNATIONAL GAP
Teams can stock their minor-league system with amateur talent from the MLB Draft and through trades, but teams also have taken advantage of the international market. Teams are investing in Latin America (and increasingly other places) with the understanding that they could be acquiring premium talent for a relatively small investment. Largely, though, the Brewers haven’t taken advantage of this in recent years.
Check out the disparity in six-figure signings last year:
To be fair, the Brewers experienced some turnover in their international scouting department last year, but the differential in talent acquisition is significant. Even the Reds and Cubs, who were on the lower end in the NL Central, made other notable acquisitions. The Reds signed a lefty in January out of the Dominican Republic for $730,000. The Cubs, on the other hand, signed Cuban youngsters Jorge Soler and Gerardo Concepcion, as well as Japanese free agent Kyuji Fujikawa.
So, in some respects, the differential is even larger than it seems in the above table.
In a baseball landscape that now limits the amount of resources that can be pooled into the MLB Draft — and even more so when forfeiting a first-round pick — the international market cannot be ignored. The Brewers have to acquire the same amount of talent as other organizations, otherwise they will eventually be lagging in young talent, arguably even more than they already are.
[EDIT 10:16pm -- I also wanted to add the following tweet from Ben Badler of Baseball America, who quoted a veteran baseball executive on the international market.]
Veteran exec: “The international market is becoming every bit as important—if not more important—than the domestic market.”
— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) November 14, 2011
The team nor the fans should throw in the towel on this season. Last season, they had four-consecutive losing months before catching fire in August and September, and the club finished with 83 wins and a winning record. With Corey Hart coming back next month and the starting pitching starting to show some signs of improvement, the Brewers are not dead in the water.
If they don’t put it together in the next couple months, though, the organization will have to decide whether they want to become sellers at the trade deadline. Judging by the factors outlined above, the organization may not be trending in the desired direction — they’re getting older and don’t necessarily have the pieces to seamlessly install a new core — and it could be time to invest in future seasons to avoid a worse situation.