If you’re expecting anything big from the 2013-14 iteration of the Milwaukee Brewers, chances are you will be disappointed. But this all depends on how you define “big.”
This offseason sometimes seemed like a deliberate effort by the team’s management to lower fans’ expectations. It was tough to see other, richer teams snap up every big name free agent –except Kyle “Boras-Burdened” Lohse, of course- even if each of Melvin’s decisions to pass made sense individually (McCarthy and Marcum are injury risks, Dempster is old and seemed to be asking for a stupidly long contract, etc.) Taken as a whole, the strategy was and is kind of a bummer. Even worse, it’s unexciting. It looks like waiving a white flag, especially in contrast to the last few seasons’ clear “Win Now” GM strategies.
One possible interpretation: the Brewers have depleted the farm in pursuit of a championship they failed to win, and are resigned to at least one season where the focus is on talent development -and, probably, financial stability. They’ve done the best they could in free agency, picking up a number of solid but unspectacular relievers. Basically, they tried to fix the relief pitching problem for cheap, and are expecting similar returns from the rest of the team (and hopefully a lotmore from Axford.)
It’s a gamble, but not a very big one.
Carlos Gomez’ extension makes a lot of sense in this context. As Doug in the comments pointed out, quite a few centerfielders with comparable value –but considerably less upside- are getting paid more than GoGo.
This may have something to do with the market overvaluing offensive production and undervaluing defense. Most people who follow baseball closely know that centerfield defense should come at a premium, but offensive production still feels like the thing you should throw money at simply because it’s easier to quantify (a home run nets the team a run, a stolen base makes a run… one base more likely?) UZR/150 and runs saved are useful evidence, but they still have the reek of subjectivity about them.
Couple this with GoGo’s persistently mediocre on-base percentage –largely a result of his persistently low walk rate- and it’s hard to immediately understand where all of his 3.5 WARs in 2012 came from, beyond the big uptick in slugging. (Yes, I have decided that the plural of WAR is WARs, even though that makes no statistical or grammatical sense. I am going to stubbornly stick with this, and I have Doug Melvin on my side.)
As our own James Anderson pointed out, those predicting a regression also have to contest with his steadily improving HR/FB %, which stands as further evidence –if not yet proof- of an increase in power. This is not entirely surprising for an obviously physically gifted player entering his physical prime.
All this… and 2012 was actually an off year for Gomez defensively.
Here’s the point: even if Gomez regresses to 2-2.5 WARs, the Brewers probably come out ahead. If he averages something like 3.5-4 WARs over the next few seasons, the contract is a steal. It’s a smart, calculated risk; the Brewers snapped up an already valuable player with potential upside on the cheap in an era of inflated free market value. The contract ties up Gomez for his best years, giving the Brewers offensive and defensive stability, but also the flexibility and time to try out their more exciting prospects (Hellweg, Segura, Peralta… Khris Davis?) without pulling a Royals and dealing everything of value for prospects.
The Brewers have a roster full of question marks, to be sure: starting pitchers who rarely made it deep into games last season, a bullpen torn apart and then cobbled together again on the cheap, and a closer who lately inspires fear in Brewers fans and not, you know, other teams’ hitters.
Viewed in the framework of a single season, these are big risks, and it won’t be shocking if they lead to a team that finishes below .500. In the long run, the Brewers are probably taking a single season to honestly evaluate what they have; Gomez’ relatively modest extension is just part of this evaluation. If they wait, and Gomez has another, slightly better season, his value will jump enormously. Maybe too much.
Why? There are a few good centerfielders set to enter free agency in 2014: Jacob Ellsbury could well get the biggest contract next year, despite having an injury-marred 2012 after an incredible 2011 performance. His slash line last year (.257/.309/.378) ended up a bit worse than Gomez’ (.260/.305/.463), albeit in famously pitcher-friendly Fenway. (Which may not actually be that pitcher friendly after all, incidentally.)
As Noah Jarosh at BCB pointed out deep in the comments section, Gomez had an above average 2012 in every major aspect of the game: 105 wRC+, .329 wOBA, 37 stolen bases, 102 OPS+, .202 ISO. And as a few folks have pointed out, Gomez’ .202 ISO is the latest stage in his rapidly improving power output.
Another comparison, for fun! Take a look at 27-year-old Adam Jones’ contract: 6 years, 85.5 million. Jones gets on base more, sure, but he’s not a plus fielder. He hits more home runs too, but he’s also had a lot more plate appearances (245 more in 2012 alone!) Jones and Gomez’ ISOs in 2012 were comparable, but Jones’ power tends to vary a lot from season to season.
I’m trying to find a convincing argument that Gomez’ contract presents the bigger risk here, but it’s not coming to me.
In any case, the Brewers probably won’t be in a salary position to land Ellsbury or Chris Young -and Logan Schafer has yet to show that he’s better than a platoon-level player- leaving a good chance that the 2014 Brewers would be going after… Carlos Gomez. You know, in free agency. In a market with few above average centerfielders under 30.
Basically, the Brewers anticipated a low supply, high demand 2014 market in centerfield, and took a relatively low risk gamble on an upside-type player at a premium position. If you apply this same logic to the starting pitching free agency market, it makes sense that Melvin took a pass. There were very few cheap pitchers with promise available, and older players like Lohse and Dempster are much more likely to fall off hard in 2013 than Gomez. (Maybe I’m underestimating Lohse’s at-home training routine. It’s entirely possible.)
So here’s what I recommend for fans anxious about a 60 or 70 win season: don’t think of this as a rebuilding year, because the Brewers still have most of the position pieces they need (shortstop of the future, guys!) The starting rotation won’t be magically fixed by adding an above average, expensive arm like Lohse. For a team that apparently can’t afford to carry an 100 million every season, it makes a lot more sense to sit back for a season and figure out what this team is actually worth.
Remember how much fun the second half of 2012 was, when it felt like there was nothing to lose? Let’s try that again.