It’s been no secret that I’ve been bullish on the 2016 Brewers throughout the offseason. Through a combination of “rebuilding” (shed MLB contracts, add future assets) and “counterbuilding” (move & acquire roster assets against expected organizational outlook) moves, GM David Stearns has constructed a roster that looks rather lean and (at best) efficient. Since Stearns added nine minor league players and four MLB-level rookies for the 2016 season, it’s easy for fans to dismiss the club as a bad (at worst) or inexperienced (at best) group that will have a tough time winning 70. Behind those clear expectations, which were readily primed by the dreadful 2015 season and 2014 collapse, the tools-profiles of the rookies and reorganization of key MLB assets (like opening a roster spot for Domingo Santana) contrasts the fan outlook with a good chance at a .500 campaign.
At best, this Brewers roster could even surpass the collapsing 2014 Brewers mark of 82 wins, for while that club faltered under the weight of heady expectations that stretched a largely veteran roster, the 2016 Brewers pack a midseason punch of elite call-ups (Orlando Arcia, Jorge Lopez/Zach Davies, maybe even Michael Reed), a strong bullpen core, and a surprisingly flexible and intriguing gang of optionless depth players to bide time in April and May (Rymer Liriano, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Ramon Flores, Jonathan Villar, to name a few).
Focusing on the “lean” roster for a moment longer, it is worth noting that the Brewers really don’t have much wasted space on their 2016 club. If you’re inclined to ignore my positive babblings given that my extended offseason outlook has been rose-colored, dig into NEIFI’s analysis of marginal roster assets: the group of professional (ex-Brewers, even!) analysts constructed a model of replacement value that measured the wins lost due to suboptimal roster construction. NEIFI constructed a threshold based on the “halfway point between replacement level and average,” and judged each team’s players below that point (citing & quoting “The Marlins, Depth, and Measurement of Front Office Strength,” January 13, 2016). In terms of reducing wasted roster space, only the Los Angeles Dodgers were better among all MLB teams, according to this measurement; NEIFI also found the Brewers to be the most efficient, least-garbage-riddled club in the NL Central. (Incidentally, NEIFI also found that the Brewers added more “net-present-value” than any other MLB club. By the looks of their work, professional proprietary analytics heavily favor Milwaukee’s offseason).
[As an aside, keep analytics teams like this in mind the next time you hear someone suggest that President & GM Doug Melvin‘s group was not an analytic front office.]
This should not be surprising to anyone that has also viewed the PECOTA projections for the 2016 Brewers: that model paces Milwaukee at 77 wins. Even if one is not inclined to work on this type of projection model, using Runs Scored and Runs Allowed as the bread and butter of the club and aggregating the Brewers’ additions and subtractions easily reaches a threshold of 76-78 wins.
What I am finding most difficult to quantify is the potential impact of midseason prospects. Unlike other MLB clubs, the Brewers can employ midseason tools-upgrades from within their own organization, without any real cost (other than potentially losing other roster assets to the waiver wire, which indeed is a cost). Milwaukee could find themselves in a golden midseason opportunity: if the club treads water early in the year, the front office will have the chance to trade away “marginal” roster assets in order to bring along their best prospects to the MLB level. Here, rebuilding and counterbuilding collide once again: as the prospects will take starting jobs, the club can secure stronger options for defense (especially with Arcia and Reed), speed/baserunning, and even gap power. These tools will complement the “louder” power of season-opening players like Ryan Braun, Chris Carter, and Santana. By trading away spare parts and recalling their advanced prospects, Milwaukee has a chance to rush along the future, while simultaneously feeding other contenders with roster depth and receiving more cost-controlled talent in return.
A common line tossed around in the media is that Milwaukee’s rebuild will take some time, or that the Brewers are in for an extended stretch of futility. However, it is quite clear that this is nothing more than ideology: a distortion of the truth to fit a binary narrative best suited for “winning now” / “tanking.” By contrast, Stearns has markedly improved the Brewers at the big league and minor league levels, even if one cannot necessarily judge his low-minors acquisitions yet. So, all hail “counterbuilding:” when one expects a club to embark on a rebuilding effort, but that club already has a banner year in the minors (as the pre-Stearns Brewers did in 2015), that club may exploit expectations to reassemble their roster quickly and efficiently. In this regard, Stearns is the fox in the MLB’s henhouse.
NEIFI. 2016, NEIFI LLC. Accessed at neifi.co