Guest Article: How Brewers Should Try to Contend in ’14 | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Guest articles are not often featured on Disciples of Uecker. This week, though, I wanted to publish a guest article from Jonathan Judge, who is a regular reader of DoU. He occasionally contributes to the FanGraphs Community blog, and I linked to an article of his last month.

For most observers, the Brewers are a team in clear decline. Prince Fielder is long gone, Rickie Weeks is finished, Corey Hart can’t stay on the diamond, and Yovani Gallardo’s best days are behind him. The farm system is also consistently ranked one of the worst in the league, meaning that barring some dramatic breakout performances, the Brewers are going to be drafting high, and performing low, for years to come.

Given the likelihood that the Brewers will be terrible in the long term, the question is what to do in the short term, specifically 2014. I think the answer is clear: do everything you can to win, and do it now.

First, there is little reason to believe that the Brewers will be able to trade veteran assets before 2014 begins. Of the Brewers’ top players, only Kyle Lohse might be attractive. Aramis Ramirez spent most of 2013 hurt; Ryan Braun spent much of 2012 suspended, and could probably block any trade anyway; Yovani Gallardo is trending in the wrong direction; and Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez seem unlikely to find a match of prospects for their talents. Moreover, the recent July trading deadline suggests that teams are coveting prospects more than ever, perhaps even overvaluing them. As such, while the Brewers probably should take fair value for almost any player, no one should bank on it happening over a hot stove in the coming months.

Second, the Brewers will be returning a significant number of bats to the lineup in 2014, including Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura, and Carlos Gomez. In addition, they are likely to insert Khris Davis somewhere, and may very well re-sign Corey Hart. Even if the pitching does not substantially improve, that lineup — which would substantially resemble, if not better 2012’s wall-banging squad — seems likely to drive a .500 record — for reasons that will be described below. A .500 record is probably adequate to keep fans showing up to the ballpark, but fails to provide either a good draft pick or postseason contention. So, if you’re probably stuck going .500 regardless, you should probably aim higher.

Finally, as noted above, the Brewers have some lean times coming. While it is fashionable to laud the Astros for their manipulation of the collective bargaining agreement — by which I mean, deliberate tanking —the Astros’ perpetual losing has not come without consequences that are instructive for the Brewers. Fan attendance for the Astros this year has similarly tanked, down to 1.65 million fans. In 2007, the Astros drew over 3 million fans. Moreover, the tanking has similarly tanked the Astros’ plans to recoup their losses on their local television network. Providers are reportedly balking at paying several additional dollars per subscriber to display the current results of Jeff Luhnow’s master plan.

And these are the woes of a team in Houston, which is America’s tenth-largest media market. The Brewers, by contrast, have one of the smallest media markets in baseball. I suspect they cannot afford an attendance dip of over a million fans, and are already struggling to get decent revenue from a local network that does not even belong to them. Even if the Brewers make a good faith effort to win in 2015 and beyond, the fact remains that down seasons have consequences, and a team like Milwaukee needs to avoid having too many of them in a row. Put another way, when a team like Milwaukee knows it has bad seasons coming, it needs to make the most of the season right in front of it, provided they can do so without damaging the team’s inevitable rebuild.

Obviously, if the Brewers want to compete for the division, they need to catch up to the teams that performed better in 2013. To do that, I’m going to focus not on actual team “wins,” but on production wins, specifically Wins Above Replacement or WAR.

Team Offense Runs Defense Runs Position WAR Pitching WAR Total WAR
Cardinals 37.9 -8.3 23.3 17 40
Pirates -12.1 42 23.1 16 39
Reds -27.9 65.1 24.4 14 38
Cubs -99.3 73.6 16.9 10 27
Brewers -49.4 33.6 18 7 25

All data is from FanGraphs, and the division’s 2013 playoff teams are highlighted. A few things of note. First, observe the similarities and differences between the NL Central’s three playoff teams: only the Cardinals distinguished themselves offensively. As has been their pattern, the Cardinals were largely content to put statues in the field of play and count on those players to drive in runs at the plate. The Pirates and especially the Reds, on the other hand, settled for adequate but not great offense, and combined it with stellar defense to compensate. However, all three teams boasted similar strength of pitching, generating wins above replacement (fWAR) in the mid-teens. Although the Cardinals came out on top, the Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals combined their pitching and positional play for total WAR of 38, 39, and 40 respectively. It is no surprise the division was so competitive in the season’s final weeks.

But, onto the Brewers’ predicament. The Cardinals won the division with 40 WAR; the Brewers had 25 WAR. For the Brewers to make up the difference, they need to find 15 WAR in 2014 that was not available in 2013. In making this projection, I want to stress that I am NOT predicting the Brewers will contend in 2014; only that, if they do so, here is how I would expect it to happen.

Let’s start with the position players. The lowest hanging fruit is at first base, where the Brewers set marks for futility in the 2013 revolving door that followed knee injuries to Hart and Mat Gamel. According to FanGraphs, Brewers first basemen were 4.6 wins below replacement, worst in the league by a factor of two, dreadful in both offense and defense. Signing Corey Hart should be good for above-replacement production (ZiPS projected him for 2.2 wins this year, over 141 games). Assuming Hart is only a 2-win player, which is nothing special, the Brewers would recoup 6.5 of the wins they need simply by re-signing Corey Hart to a “prove me” deal. 8.5 wins to go.

Let’s move to the other positions. The next position likely to improve is third base, where Aramis Ramirez, still a good hitter, missed much of 2013 with injuries. Before 2013, ZIPS projected Ramirez to generate 3.3 wins over 129 games played. That projection already assumes Ramirez would play about 80% of the season, and he is due for some injury luck after a weird 2013. Brewers third-basemen were .7 wins below replacement; let’s assume Ramirez is worth a mere 1.8 wins above replacement. That’s an improvement of 2.5 more wins. 6 wins to go.

Although I wouldn’t expect anything further from catcher (Jonathan Lucroy), shortstop (Jean Segura), or center field (Carlos Gomez) — if anything, their respective ebbs and flows may cancel each other out — we should expect more from second base. In 2013, Rickie Weeks spent half the year providing replacement-level performance with old men’s skills. Scooter Gennett, who turned out to be a surprisingly-adequate athlete, should be starting next year at second base, and almost certainly will be worth two wins if he does, and probably more. But, let’s be conservative and assume he is a 2 win player. 4 wins to go.

Off to the outfield, where Ryan Braun will be back and Nori Aoki, despite being a good value, is probably in decline. Left field held up well in 2013 with Khris Davis’s emergence (3.2 fWAR total), but ZIPS projected Braun to produce 5.4 fWAR in 2013, and before 2013, he had never been on the disabled list. Let’s conservatively estimate that Braun returns and generates 4.2 fWAR. 3 wins remaining.

At the other corner, Aoki is expendable with the emergence of Davis and Caleb Gindl, and Brewers beat writers claim that the team is trying to get Khris Davis in the lineup. If that happens, he obviously will take Aoki’s place, regardless of whether Davis is playing in left or right field. Davis has availability issues, and his defense is subpar, but it’s hard to see the Brewers succeeding in 2014 without a prominent role from Khris Davis. This year, Davis was worth 1.2 wins in 56 games; Aoki was worth only 1.7 wins in 155 games. It’s reasonable to assume Davis is worth at least half a win more than Aoki if he takes his place on the everyday roster. 2.5 wins left to go.

At this point, it’s fair to ask the pitching staff to do something. Next year’s rotation likely will be Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo, and “other.” Let’s burst the bubble on the bookends first. I’m a huge fan of Kyle Lohse, but fWAR is based on FIP, and I’m not expecting FIP to be any kinder to Kyle Lohse in 2014 than it ever has been. Similarly, the Brewers can’t depend on “other”; most teams (except the Tigers) are lucky to get one win from the fifth spot in their starting rotation, and the Brewers already got that this year from Tyler Thornborg in his first and surely his last year giving up so few home runs at Miller Park.

So, that leaves us with 2.5 additional wins to harvest from Estrada, Peralta, and Gallardo. Estrada is the strongest hope: he pitched well down the stretch, and profiles in many minds as a mid-rotation, 3-win starter if he can stay off the DL, which, admittedly, he has yet to do. Yet, Estrada is due some positive injury luck too; if he is able merely to be a 2.5 win player, he has supplied an additional win. 1.5 wins to go.

That leaves Peralta and Gallardo. Projecting the performance of either is difficult: Peralta because of his maddening inconsistency, and Gallardo because he is showing signs of both decline and an inability to compensate for it. But both players have the ability to last 200 innings over the course of a season, and as with the possibilities surrounding Khris Davis, there is no way the Brewers contend next year without improvement from both Peralta and Gallardo. Peralta generated only 1 win this year, due primarily to a horrible beginning, and Gallardo generated only 1.7 wins, a recent career low. It wouldn’t take much for Peralta to become a 2-win player, and Gallardo producing just over 2 wins would not surprise anyone as a modest bounce-back. Counting on Peralta for one of those additional wins, and Gallardo for the other half would bring us up to 40 wins — and a level of production sufficient to win the NL Central in 2013.

So, there you have it: a roadmap that is hardly likely, but likely in my view to be the way it happens, should the Brewers contend in 2014.

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