The Milwaukee Brewers are on pace to play themselves out of a Top 10 draft pick. While this is excellent news on the entertainment front — who wants to watch losing baseball?, the news is less heartening for the organization’s future plans. One might be quick to point out that a 77-win Brewers club in 2010 was turned into a Division Champion that claims one of the best seasons in franchise history. Yet, not only do the Brewers not necessarily boast a Brett Lawrie, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain to trade for serviceable pitchers, their woes stretch far across the diamond in 2013. The 2010 Brewers featured an offense nearly 50 runs above average, compared to one of the worst pitching staffs assembled by Doug Melvin. In 2013, both the offense and pitching are at least 25 runs below average (thus far).
Sources of Success
One of the specific issues with the current Brewers roster is that their current offensive success relies, to some extent, on newcomers and replacement players. While it’s no secret that the Brewers have relied on a replacement roster throughout the year, their offense has improved their runs scored per game over the course of the season, which is one of the reasons the club has hung around .500 since July. However, the plate appearances by Yuniesky Betancourt, Juan Francisco, and Logan Schafer have nearly matched the Brewers’ PA total from their top replacements in 2012 (mainly at SS and 1B), and that’s with a month remaining. One silver lining is that the Brewers can judge young organizational players, and determine future roles with the club. The benefit of this silver lining cannot be understated.
Oddly enough, despite the general offensive improvements in July and August, the club’s overall distribution of runs has not changed very much.
|Brewers RS (through July 1)||W-L||% of G|
This helps to explain why the club has been able to stay afloat without winning at an above average pace. Their improved pitching and more runs scored between three-and-five runs are their most notable explanation for staying afloat; otherwise, the club is still scoring two-or-less runs far too frequently.
|Brewers RS (July 2 onward)||W-L||% of G|
The Brewers’ lack of improved run distribution suggests that their offense has some distance to travel before it can once again be labeled a consistently competitive area of the club.
Success and Future Rosters
One of the issues for judging the 2014 club and potential directions for the big league club is that nearly every one of their core starters is in a slump (or underperforming) over the last month:
|Player||Season OPS||Last 28 OPS|
One of the drawbacks of this series of slumps might also serve as a silver lining for some Brewers fans. Namely, if the regulars for the club largely underperform as the season closes, the front office might be more inclined to trade players such as Rickie Weeks, Norichika Aoki, or Aramis Ramirez. While these players might not be traded for a strong return, such trades could provide crucial roster flexibility for the Brewers. Furthermore, if the Brewers land a Top 10 draft pick and foresee an aggressive, quick rebuild, roster flexibility could help the club land a key, elite free agent without surrendering their 2014 pick. While this might seem an unsavory probability, given the aggressiveness of the Brewers’ front office in the free agency market, a protected first round pick could be a blessing.
Protected Draft Picks
Over the last decade, teams that drafted 10th averaged 74 wins (74 wins was also the median).
Currently, the Brewers’ winning percentage paces them for 70 wins, which squarely places them within the range of a Top 10 pick. However, their pace in July and August could help them to significantly surpass that win total. If the Brewers continue to hover around .500, they could win as many as 74 or 75 games on the season. Given their current “battle” with the Giants, Phillies, Angels, and Twins, who are on pace to win between 70 and 72 games, a 74 or 75 win season could knock the Brewers down five spots (from their current position in the MLB). Since the Blue Jays, Rockies, Padres, Mets, and Mariners are on pace to win between 73 and 76 games, there are some scenarios in which a 74 or 75 win season lands the Brewers a draft pick closer to 15th than 10th.
I am mentioning these competitions for draft spots because of the labor benefits of drafting high. As mentioned above, if the Brewers land within the first 10 picks, they can sign free agents that qualify for compensatory picks without surrendering their pick, which gives them some conceivable advantage on the free agency market (if funds are available for such a player). More importantly, since the MLB offers specific slot amounts for draft picks, the Brewers earn more money if they land a higher pick. For example, for the 2013 draft, the difference between a 10th and 5th pick was a budget of $2.9 million versus more than $3.7 million. These draft budgets are important not only for signing top picks, but also to pad the budget for picks in the later rounds; ideally, if money remains from the first pick, clubs can use those excess funds to draft aggressively in the later rounds and spread their slot money across several picks.
For this reason, one of the recurring Twitter Mailbag and analytical themes at DofU this year has been Brewers fans’ wrestling with the balance between cheering for wins and hoping for a high draft pick. Since hoping for a high draft pick amounts to hoping for losses (in some sense), Brewers fans have obviously had some mixed feelings about their beloved gang of replacements staying afloat. It is worth noting that the club receiving a Top 10 draft pick should not simply be of interest to fans hoping for a rebuild, but also fans that are interested in competing in 2014. Basically, having the combination of protection from free agency compensation and a strong draft budget presents the front office with more tools for building their 2014 roster and strengthening the farm system.
Therefore, it is difficult to find silver linings in the performances of some of the Brewers’ regular bats. It is also difficult to determine the likelihood that the Brewers’ top pitchers will improve in 2014 (or, if you’re Kyle Lohse, maintain current performance). In some regard, the Brewers are arguably competing right now with a group of players that may not be present on the roster in 2014. As a result, the silver linings of a likely losing season rest with the growth of organizational depth and talent ceilings, and the growth and development of high-system minor leaguers at the big league level.
As these narratives unfold, it is important to take stock of the silver linings within a tough season. It is also worth noting the difficult balance that the Brewers’ front office must strike for the offseason. First, the club cannot be disappointed that their replacements and youngsters are competing; losing nearly a million dollars in draft budget (or even a protected, Top 10 pick) seems difficult to swallow, but if their solid 2013 finish helps the club determine the roles of some youngsters, that is arguably a necessary and worthwhile outcome. Simultaneously, the club cannot necessarily be disappointed with a finish below 74 wins, given their need to consistently rebuild the organizational depth and talent ceiling, and the necessity of high draft picks to add impact talent (and a strong budget to draft aggressively in later rounds). In this regard, two of the Brewers’ silver linings appear to directly compete with one another. While the slumps of some expensive regulars might also help the Brewers make trades that add roster flexibility, that also decreases their chances for trying to compete by taking a shot with an offense that boasted prolific run totals in 2012. One cannot help but feel that one era of the Brewers’ organizational development has closed, and the competing silver linings define difficult tasks for the coming year.
BaseballAmerica. GrindMedia, LLC., 2013.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Schafer (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)