Counterbuilding or Rebuilding? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

As the national Top 100 prospect lists are published by the major baseball magazines & websites, the Brewers’ reified climb into the Top Tier of MLB farm systems has resulted in much praise for GM David Stearns from Brewers fans. At the same time, the GM rattled the MLB roster for the first time this offseason, trading away LF Khris Davis in the first real move from Stearns that does not improve the MLB roster. Notable MLB writers are now questioning Milwaukee’s approach, and perhaps with good measure: after the Jean Segura trade, two exceptionally quiet weeks gave fans and analysts a chance to understand that the Brewers were not going to be worse on the diamond in 2016. In fact, keeping Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, and Davis at the MLB level would have positively improved the offensive core, especially as the organization is only biding time until Orlando Arcia and other advanced prospects reach the MLB. But, no more: now, with Davis gone, the Brewers can slot Braun or Santana to LF, and hire Rymer Liriano or Kirk Nieuwenhuis as the starting centerfielder.

Brewers on February 9 Brewers on February 16
C Lucroy C Lucroy
1B Carter 1B Carter
2B Hill / Gennett 2B Hill / Gennett
3B Cecchini / Villar 3B Cecchini / Villar
SS Villar SS Villar
LF Davis LF Braun / Santana
CF Satana CF Niewenhuis / Liriano
RF Braun RF Santana / Braun

The only good that comes from this trade at the MLB level is that Santana may be allowed to unleash his arm at right field, while also providing his potential discipline-power thump in the batting order. So, the team is not necessarily that much worse off — in fact, it’s not even clear they lose more games specifically because of trade. But this trade stings because of the sheer identity of the club: Stearns finally traded one of the club’s best players (and if you thought losing Davis sucks, consider how it’s going to feel when Jonathan Lucroy is trading).

One week prior to spring training, Stearns finally began rebuilding. This is disappointing: his offseason has been clever, if sometimes unclear (adding to 2B and OF logjams with several moves), showcasing a GM willing to improve and stockpile talent at the MLB level while also stockpiling key areas of the minor league system. In fact, looking through the major deals, only a trio of Stearns moves are clear rebuilding moves (shedding an MLB spot for minor leaguers. Italicized below):

  • The K-Rod trade added a high-floor, advanced minors infielder.
  • The Sneed / Villar trade added a flexible, controllable “2nd chance / ex-prospect” option to the infield.
  • The Lind trade completed cleared 1B (to be filled by Carter), adding low minors RHP depth.
  • The Rogers trade added to advanced minor league pitching and CF depth.
  • The Segura / Wagner traded improved the rotation, added to 2B options, and added low minors 2B/SS depth.
  • The Davis trade cleared LF and added C & relief depth to the minors. 
  • The Nieuwenhuis / Wilkins / Pinto waiver claims added MLB/AAA level depth options for the club.
  • The Walsh & Jones Rule 5 picks added to the Brewers’ infield depth and bullpen options.
  • The Seidenberger / Liriano trade added to the OF roster crunch.
  • The Cecchini trade added “2nd chance / ex-prospect” depth to 1B / 3B / LF at MLB/AAA.

Now, frankly, with Lucroy and Braun sitting on the roster, watching Davis go does not make any sense: it is as though the Gm worked from the least-compelling MLB contracts to the most-compelling contracts, which is only to say that a clever offseason was only foreshadowing the rebuilding bloodbath.

Milwaukee fans may now exhale at the inevitable: had Stearns done something truly gutsy, and kept Davis on the MLB roster, there is some question about whether (and how) the gang of youngsters and veterans would have fared leading into 2017. But, Stearns traded in that counterbuilding mantra that define his November, December, and January, and now opted for the obvious rebuilding moves. So be it: but Lucroy will be gone, Braun too, and other still, I am sure.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, as fans and analysts (including myself) have expected this type of logic. Stearns’s exceptional trick this offseason has not been acquiring elite minor league talent for the future (the jury is out on that as these extremely young players step forward), but rather adding depth and carrying forward an MLB roster that would not necessarily or even obviously sink to the bottom of the National League. Now the only complaint moving into the season is that the Brewers are in limbo: they are not nearly bad enough to tank, but they have signaled that they do not wish to be good enough to keep their best players on the roster.

Welcome to rebuilding! The trouble is, thus far “counterbuilding” has fared as a much better strategy for Stearns. Who’s next out the door?

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