After the flurry of right-handed pitching trades (or trades-to-be?) yesterday, the Brewers late-inning loss seemed a fitting accompaniment to fans’ trade market inquiries and “sell ‘em all” proclamations. Aside from the pending trade of Chicago Cubs righty Ryan Dempster for one of the Atlanta Braves’ top pitching prospects (Randall Delgado), the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins swapped players, prospects, and draft picks (yielding Anibal Sanchez for the Tigers, and hurler Jacob Turner for the Marlins).
Even if Dempster nixes the deal with Atlanta (or such a deal never existed in the first place), the basic idea that right-handed pitching could yield a high-end pitching prospect on the trade market must be music to Brewers fans’ ears. For weeks, fans have speculated on Zack Greinke‘s trade value (including myself), and any confirmation that teams will pay a high price to rent a righty starter solidifies the idea that Greinke should return something to the Brewers. Previous RHP trade markets aside, if the Brewers do not extend Greinke, it seems that they should be able to command a good prospect in the trade market.
Closing Several Windows
If we know that the Brewers selling means that the front office is not going to fortify their club to make a run at the playoffs, what does selling mean for the future of the Brewers? For the 2011 season, Doug Melvin traded prospects for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, maximizing the club’s chances to compete during Prince Fielder‘s final year in Milwaukee. Beyond that, the Brewers’ front office had a solid core filled with several “one-year” windows of competition: in 2012, for Greinke and Marcum’s final season in Milwaukee, in 2013, for Corey Hart‘s final year, in 2014, for Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, and now, Aramis Ramirez.
My simple question is, does selling in 2012 mean that the club is no longer in a position to compete in 2013? Where does the overall roster stand?
During Spring Training this year, I analyzed the basic cores of regular contributors for National League Central clubs. Focusing specifically on players signed (or under reserve) for three or more years, I set out to foreshadow the Central’s best rosters for 2014 and beyond.
For the Brewers, I focused on the strength of their secondary core (regular players behind Ryan Braun), and, of course, the value of having Ryan Braun himself under contract. I wrote:
Ryan Braun (2020; ages 28-37): 3177 PA, 145 OPS+
John Axford (2016; ages 29-33): 139.3 IP, 177 ERA+
Jonathan Lucroy (2016; ages 26-30): 765 PA, 82 OPS+
Chris Narveson (2015; ages 30-33): 385.7 IP, 87 ERA+
Nyjer Morgan (2014; ages 31-33): 1832 PA, 94 OPS+
Rickie Weeks (2014; ages 29-31)” 3338 PA, 108 OPS+
Aramis Ramirez (2014; ages 34-36): 6958 PA, 114 OPS+
Yovani Gallardo (2014; ages 26-28): 712.3 IP, 113 ERA+
(Ages 29.1-32.6); .625 above average, .250 notably above average, 3214 PA / 412.4 IP
Aside from Matt Holliday and the Cardinals, the Brewers claim the division’s other true superstar in Ryan Braun, and they have him locked up for a long time. Not only can the Brewers claim to have the best player in the division under contract, but they also have a strong core of other above average MLB players, alongside a few useful parts. The question marks, once again, will be pitching for the club, although ace-in-training Yovani Gallardo remains with the club for years, as does useful low rotation southpaw Chris Narveson. While the Brewers nurture their young arms and next wave of prospects, they have the oldest long-term core in the division, and one of the best.
In hindsight, my final questions about the Brewers’ core could support the idea that the Brewers need to prepare for rebuilding after 2012. With the blissful 2011 campaign in the rearview mirror, I had the idea that the Brewers’ could continue to string together a few one-year windows of opportunity, filling needs and drawing from top prospects as necessary.
Think about how this worked in 2011, for instance. Jonathan Lucroy was not one of the club’s top producers in 2011, but the Brewers’ catching prospect was able to gain his MLB sea legs while Braun, Fielder, Weeks, and Hart guided the Brewers’ offense. Lucroy was then ready to step in during the 2012 season. I felt that the Brewers could continue to use their prospects to fill in behind productive veterans, emerging in the next year ready to produce on their own.
Of course, this is a best case scenario (but then again, most building scenarios are probably best case scenarios in the MLB). On some level, though, the Brewers will need to call upon prospects and low cost options to fill in around their expensive core. Since the Brewers already have $50 million worth of player contracts set for the next two years, it’s not as though the Brewers are going to be able to do significant building through the free agency market (thank goodness!).
Exposing the Brewers’ roster core, we can look at the positional needs in order to address the following question: to what extent should the Brewers look to rebuild?
Perhaps one of the surprises for the 2012 Brewers is the strength of their pitching rotation. Not only have regular starters — such as Greinke — stepped forward to improve from their respective 2011 campaigns, but the Brewers’ replacement starters and swingmen have provided the team a boost in the face of injuries. Both Marco Estrada and Michael Fiers are holding their own in the rotation as regular starters, which suddenly changes the Brewers’ pitching picture for 2013 and beyond.
Overall, the Brewers’ rotation is nearly 30 runs better than the National League / Miller Park thus far, as their 4.18 runs average compares very well to the NL average of 4.58 runs per 9 IP (park adjusted for Miller Park’s three-year profile).
While Chris Narveson‘s spot in the rotation might be questionable moving forward, the Brewers retain the services of Yovani Gallardo for two more seasons (given the increasing cost of starting pitching, yielding $100+ million contract offers for pitchers like Greinke, the Brewers might seriously consider extending Gallardo beyond 2014 before the contract sizes increase again). According to Cot’s Contracts, the Brewers reserve Estrada’s rights for three more years, as the top swingman hits salary arbitration. The club also holds an option for Randy Wolf, and they continue to reserve Fiers. Conceivably, the club could also offer Shaun Marcum arbitration, as a one-year, $12 million commitment could be a steal should Marcum return to the mound.
Before the Brewers even reach their up and coming pitching prospects, the organization suddenly has several viable rotation options for 2013 and beyond. This situation improves when mid-to-back-end options Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg enter the picture. Top organizational prospects Jed Bradley, Taylor Jungmann, and Jimmy Nelson round out that rotational forecast over the next few years.
1. Gallardo ($5.75M)
2. Marcum ($12.75M)
3. Estrada (arbitration)
4. Fiers ($0.5M)
5. Wolf ($10.00M)
6. Thornburg ($0.5M)
7. Peralta ($0.5M)
8. Narveson (non-tender / minor league rehab candidate)
No segment of the Brewers’ roster has been hit harder with injuries and ineffectiveness in 2012 than the infield. Beyond injuries to Mat Gamel, Jonathan Lucroy, and Alex Gonzalez — almost immediately rendering useless any question about how the Brewers might replace Fielder, ineffectiveness by shortstop replacements, Weeks, and even Taylor Green raises plenty of questions about the organization moving forward.
Luckily, the Brewers have solid options at the catching position, as Lucroy and Martin Maldonado are key contributors to the Brewers’ offense and defense from behind the dish. Unfortunately, both of these players are too valuable behind the dish to move elsewhere. First and foremost, Lucroy is an unlikely candidate to move elsewhere on the diamond because of his contract (yes, his contract), as well as the fact that he’s never touched any position besides catcher in his professional career. Maldonado has some work at 1B during his career, but he’s an extremely valuable secondary catching option for the Brewers. In fact, given the wear and tear catchers face over 162, I see little reason for fans to expect anything other than Lucroy and Maldonado sharing innings and plate appearances from behind the dish (maybe a few replacement innings at 1B here and there are realistic, but not a wholesale move).
Hart is working well at 1B (so long as Norichika Aoki produces at RF). Perhaps this answers one question for the 2013 Brewers: Hart could very well serve as the club’s opening day first baseman. This leaves questions about Weeks’s 2012 campaign and his ability to produce at 2B in 2013 and 2014 for the Brewers; given the size of his remaining contract years, it’s unlikely that the Brewers could move Weeks without sending some cash to their trade partner (doing this would be pointless, given that trading Weeks and sending away cash does not solve any production problems at 2B). At SS, Gonzalez’s option for 2013 will not vest, although one hopes he might be willing to give the Brewers another shot in 2013.
Given the dearth of serviceable infield options in the Brewers’ minor league system, the infield appears to be a key area for deadline trades. In fact, I’d wager that the Brewers should focus trading specifically for infield talent, even above starting pitching or outfield needs.
Speaking of outfielders, Aoki’s emergence as an everyday MLB player is yet another surprising revelation for the 2012 Brewers, which is nice to see during the otherwise disappointing season. Coupled with Ryan Braun’s continued steps into elite batting territory, and at least one extremely strong defensive option for centerfield, the Brewers’ outfield looks serviceable-at-worst for 2013.
Of course, Braun is under contract for as long as I’ll be paying off student loans. Beyond Braun, the Brewers owe Aoki just over $1 million for 2013, which could make him one of the most valuable and cost effective RF in the National League (seriously). Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan remain arbitration candidates in 2013.
It’s sad to look back at my preseason analysis and see that so much of my faith in the Brewers’ core revolved around closer John Axford. Given all the extension hype, as well as the fact that Axford was a legitimate candidate to eventually break Jonathan Papelbon‘s first year arbitration record for a closer, I was convinced Axford was the real deal.
I typically feel that relievers are just guys that can’t work out as starters. Obviously there are a few cases of elite closers or relievers in baseball, but beyond that, pitchers typically move to the bullpen because they can’t work in a starting rotation for one reason or another.
Luckily, the Brewers hold arbitration rights for Manny Parra, Kameron Loe, and Jose Veras, three middle relievers succeeding at some element of bullpen life. Axford remains under club control, and surely it’d be silly to non-tender a pitcher that proved so effective for a couple of years; I may be cynical about relievers, but I’m not going to proclaim each reliever that has a rough year an immediate and eternal burnout. Dare I add that some of the swingmen candidates I mentioned above — including Thornburg and Peralta — could be intriguing bullpen options if they don’t have a spot in the starting rotation.
If this year has taught us anything, it should hopefully be that the Brewers absolutely should not make long-term commitments to relievers.
Given some of the question marks on the Brewers’ infield, in the bullpen, and even at the end of the starting rotation, one might think that the Brewers should be resigned to rebuild next season. However, with the aid of a little health, and perhaps a bit of luck, the Brewers once again return several significant pieces of their 2011 core. Now, it’s beyond ridiculous to suggest that pieces of that core should be considered winners simply because that 2011 squad won 96 and NL Central crown, especially since Fielder is gone (and Greinke, Marcum, and Wolf could be gone). But, at the same time, given how performances fluctuate from year to year — enter Weeks, Morgan, Axford, Wolf, even Hart — one should not rule out improvements from members of the core.
The 2012 trading deadline is crucial for the Brewers because if they decide to trade one or several players, they need to do so with their greatest big league needs in mind. Frankly, the Brewers’ system does not have enough low-cost replacements at some positions to warrant young prospects and a long-term rebuilding project. If the Brewers make a few shrewd trades and strengthen just a couple of weak spots on the big league roster, they could be poised to use their core to create another window of competition.
As a result, this means that Doug Melvin should not necessarily be judged by the range of prospects he receives in trades. Given the dearth of replacements in the Brewers’ system, trading only with prospects in mind could put the Brewers in the difficult position of (a) spending resources to obtain prospects, and (b) having to spend resources to string together a serviceable big league roster. If Melvin can improve the Brewers’ big league club, he should; if that means that the Brewers do not necessarily receive the best prospect possible in trades, that might not be the end of the world.
One way or the other, 2012 consistently teaches us, week in and week out, that MLB players fluctuate, that unforeseen circumstances occur, that expectations are not always met each and every year. If Brewers fans apply a healthy degree of scrutiny to the Brewers’ roster, and also apply the rules of circumstance and luck to the rebuilding process, the Brewers’ ability to compete might look more promising for 2013 than their ability to rebuild for 2014 and beyond.
BaseballAmerica. Baseball America, Inc, 1999-2012.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2012.
Cot’s Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, 1996-2012.
Disciples of Uecker. Archives.