Rounding the Bases: Brewers Winning in 2014 | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly discussion where we tackle some topic on the minds of Brewers fans at the moment. Follow @RyanTopp and @SteveGarczynski on Twitter to join the discussion.

Ryan Topp:

Ok, so we’ve spent a lot of time in this space talking about how we believe that the Brewers need to rebuild and that trying to contend in 2014 is most likely not a good idea. My personal feeling is that they would be better off using 2014 to showcase veterans for trades, clear payroll and give young players a chance to take their lumps and not worry about needing to win games. Particularly, they’ll need to give young pitchers like Jimmy Nelson, Johnny Hellweg, Tyler Thornburg and Taylor Jungmann some room to fail at some point so they can grow. Trying to win while doing that is fairly difficult.

That being said, it’s not like the Brewers are devoid of talent. On offense, they have three players putting up plus performances up the middle of the field in Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez. Nori Aoki is a solid table-setting bat, and it’s hard to imagine they get less from Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez collectively than they did this year. On the pitching side, they do still figure to have Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada in addition to some of those young guys mentioned before. In the bullpen, it seems that there is no shortage of interesting, cost-controlled arms.

So I guess what I’m asking is can the Brewers win in 2014, and what does that look like?

Steve Garczynski:

First off, they will need to be injury free. Even without the Braun suspension, he missed a lot of time on the DL. Ramirez is playing hobbled, and Gallardo and Estrada were both underperforming before missing time. The Brewers don’t have high-impact talent down on the farm, so losing anyone to time in the disabled list means young guys who likely aren’t replacement level.

Next, they need bounce-back seasons from Gallardo and Estrada. Both pitchers are capable of being better than they’ve performed this season. Gallardo may be to the point where a few miles off his fastball will force him to change the way he pitches, but his curve is still nasty enough to get swings and misses. Maybe he can evolve into more of a control pitcher.

If you go around the diamond, they don’t have a lot of room to add talent. First base is a glaring hole that they have to address. Juan Francisco has been better than the Yuniesky Betancourt/Alex Gonzalez platoon, but they shouldn’t rely on him as the answer. Rickie Weeks struggled again before a season-ending hamstring injury and Scooter Gennett can probably produce better at the plate and in the field at this point. Other than that, you can only ask for those guys to be healthy.

You asked, “What does a winner look like in 2014?” If it’s time to give Nelson, Hellweg, Thornburg and Jungmann a chance, I don’t think they can really field a winner. Maybe over 80 wins, but not the playoff bound team that we really consider a winner.

Ryan Topp:

I think you hit on a lot of keys, especially the parts about needing to be really healthy and getting bounce backs from some pitchers. They’ll have to avoid regressions from the breakouts they did get this year, and given how much Gomez and Segura have slowed down that seems a long ways from a lock. The biggest thing they’re almost certainly going to need is multiple surprises from unexpected sources, because the team almost surely isn’t going to be able to go out and make a bunch of signings to improve this off-season.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, if the Brewers pick up Aoki’s 1.5 million option next year, they’ll be at almost exactly 75 million dollars committed to nine players. That number doesn’t include a 2.5 million dollar bonus due Ryan Braun on April 1st, any arbitration offers  (Estrada, Francisco, Mat Gamel, Burke Badenhop and John Axford are all due), or the roughly $500,000 league minimum salary that the other spots require, at least. Unless they plan on offering no one arbitration or clearing a bunch of that salary somehow, they go into the off-season already well into the mid 80’s salary wise.

So, if the Brewers are going to add players this off-season, they need to be salary swapping trades, cheap or back-loaded contracts offered to veterans or the team is going to have to push back towards 2012 levels of payroll for 2014. Considering that the team drew 2.8 million fans that year and they still claim to have lost money on a 98 million dollar payroll, it’s hard to see them doing that again. Salary swapping trades and cheap signings aren’t exactly the sorts of things that sell the idea of contending to a fanbase, even if they are effective means of reshaping rosters in the right circumstances.

That all raises the specter of another back-loaded deal to a veteran on his way down career-wise as the most likely solution to trying to contend in 2014. Who that might be and what kind of contract it will take to bring him in is hard to say. Chances are the player will end up more of a burden than a help by the time the contact ends, and the money owed will probably linger on past the players stay anyway, once declined options and deferred money are considered. Does any of that seem remotely appetizing to you?

Steve Garczynski:

Oh, now you went and did it! I’ve never had pains like this before. This is the big one! You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya!

Seriously, back-loaded contracts to aging veterans are just creating a cycle where they have to keep pushing off money to the future to try and win right now and it’s going to constantly handcuff the team from making smart moves. That’s really where my problem with Mark Attanasio stems from. I believe he’s an owner that wants to win and is willing to spend money for a winning team. He’s just going about it in a very shortsighted way.

But enough about Attanasio. What are the chances that they can make salary swapping trades that improve the team on the field? Milwaukee is the team trying to unload payroll, and to get that salary relief implies that they won’t receive any talent in return. They don’t get to ditch cash and get legit guys in return. Who could they trade in the off-season for salary relief and still try and compete in 2014? Rickie Weeks is the obvious candidate followed by John Axford, and Weeks is the only one blocking a player that has a chance to step right into the lineup.

So again, I’m Debbie Downer. What steps can the Brewers possibly take in the off-season to make the team relevant in August and September of 2014?

Ryan Topp:

Frankly, they’re just going to need most things to go right. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, though. If guys like Braun, Gallardo, and Ramirez can capture something of their recent pasts, the team has some pretty decent star power. If Segura, Gomez, and Jim Henderson can sustain somewhat unexpected breakouts, then they have decent depth. If some of the younger players like Francisco, Gennett,  Nelson, Thornburg and Hellweg can break out in ways we wouldn’t currently count on, they may just be able to avoid the kinds of roster holes that have sunk the last couple seasons.

That is quite a few question marks to count on, but stranger things have happened. At this point it doesn’t seem overly likely that the team can truly contend without somehow adding quite a bit of talent not currently in the picture. As I mentioned before, they probably have a salary issue at this point and it would be at least a little surprising to see them go out and add tons of money to the 2014 payroll without shedding other money first. They could also elect to trade off some of the minor league talent they do currently possess for whatever someone is willing to give up of more immediate use. Given the state of the farm system, that’s not likely to yield massive returns, but again, crazy things can happen.

I guess at this point, I just hope that whatever they do to try and improve their odds for 2014, that they don’t make deals that will hurt them too badly down the road. I hate to call an effort to win next year “throwing good money after bad,” but it does seem like the most likely outcome at this point, and so it’s probably best if they don’t sacrifice resources that could be used on more likely winners sometime down the line.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Vin B says: August 16, 2013

    The Brewers aren’t in very good shape for the future; stuck between rebuilding and contending. However, back loaded contracts are not part of the problem.

    Back loaded contracts are good for the finances of any business, including baseball.

    Once you agree on a contract, say 3 years/30 million, it makes all the sense in the world to push back some of the money to the second and third year. As long as the owner is smart about the money saved in the front years and doesn’t use it to make more purchases in the first year, back loaded contracts provide a TON of flexibility.

    They allow you to: a) Make trades that shed salary, b) use some of the saved money from the first year to spend in a contending year, c) Eat the cost of remaining contract to trade for a better prospect package.

    The problem is that we tend to think about baseball as operating on a fixed annual budget and payroll. As if Mark A goes to Melvin and says, “Hey, Doug you have $80 mil to spend each year: GO.” That may be true of video games but not in reality. In reality, owners and GMs think long term and understand that when you save money in the present, you may have to use it in the future.

    • Bob M says: August 16, 2013

      I disagree with most of your analysis here. The reason the Brewers have signed back-loaded contracts is to prioritize the present over the future.

      Your point “A” essentially irrelevant. In the NBA you can trade a high cost/low impact player on an expiring contract thanks to the salary cap. Teams are willing to trade current cap space for future potential. MLB has no salary cap, so there is no competitive benefit to trading salary – only the economic side. Do sales support payroll X? In MLB, the closest thing you can find to a salary dump is what the Dodgers participated in last season. The 4 players of “bad salary” they took on has provided 8.5 WAR for $75.1 million (Gonzalez, Crawford, Ramirez, Beckett). This is 4 of their top 6 paid players. For comparison, the Brewers are paying $38.5 million to 4 of their top 6 players (Lohse, Gallardo, Braun, Ramirez) for 4.2 WAR. The Dodgers have the better performing players, the better $/WAR, and are sitting with the 5th best record in baseball.

      Point “B” is similarly irrelevant in a sports league that has no salary cap. In the NFL you can roll over cap savings from season to season, allowing you to slowly build up the cost of your roster. The 49ers even *front-load* contracts when they are projected to have cap room, to generate space in the future. MLB has no such need of salary cap manipulation. The Brewers sales can support “Payroll X”. There is no incentive to shift it around, other than to load up for a playoff run. However, the way the Brewers use it is to spend more now, and stay under “Payroll X” and make a conscious decision to spend less in the future – even as backloaded contracts become due.

      Point “C” is irrelevant to backloaded contracts.

      • Vin B says: August 16, 2013

        A) Salary cap has nothing to do with my points. The Red Sox/Dodgers trade last season is a PERFECT example of salary shedding. The Red Sox were out of contention and thus decided to relieve of some salary burden. Had they front loaded any of those contracts, that money would’ve been lost. This way they let to Dodgers pay for it.

        B) Again, I’m not talking about salary cap stuff. The money saved from the front years can be used to either to pay the player in contract OR trade player to invest in lesser FAs.

        C) The more back loaded your contract, the more flexibility you have between prospect package and salary considerations. If you owe Aramis Ramirez $15 mil, you can trade to Angels for some minor leagures at no $ cost OR you can pay $5-10 mil out of pocket, trade to Rays/A’s for some prospects.

        Remember this isn’t an additional cost. The contract is guaranteed and has to paid at some point by someone. Back loading contracts is essentially an interest-free loan.

    • Ryan Topp says: August 16, 2013

      I guess I need to be more definite in explaining exactly what I object to about these deals. From a purely accounting/business standpoint, it can make sense because the value of a dollar now is higher than what it will be in 2 or 3 years. The problem is that, the way most teams use them is to buy things they can’t afford now and pay for them later. It’s pretty clear based on how the Brewers structured both the Ramirez and the Lohse deals that they were buying value on credit.

      Don’t get me wrong, there can be a time and a place for this, but the Brewers seem to be doing it as a shriek on the retreat rather than as part of a smart plan. The biggest problem with these backloaded deals isn’t exactly the backloaded nature, but the fact that they’re getting players in their mid 30′s locked in for seasons where the player is very likely to have fallen off drastically by the end of the deal. Look at how it ended with Suppan and Wolf. Unless Ramirez can reverse his injury/aging issues, he seems to be headed down the same road. Lohse hasn’t started to crack yet, but he’ll be 35 next season and chances are pretty decent it’s coming before the end of 2015.

      A team in the Brewers position, trying to contend against teams with double (or more) of the budget, can’t really afford a lot of “dead money” on the books when trying to contend. Yet, they repeatedly sign up for deals where not only is the player quite likely to be vastly diminished by the end, but they also agree to pay that player more in the seasons that he’s likely to be diminished.

      This is the problem I have. It’s a team building issue, not a fiscal one. Perhaps I should stop complaining about the deals being “backloaded” as shorthand for the issues I’ve laid out.

      • Vin B says: August 16, 2013

        “The problem is that, the way most teams use them is to buy things they can’t afford now and pay for them later.”

        I don’t think we have ANY evidence for this. We have NO idea what their accounting looks like. Do they expect revenues to rise and are working on a large line of credit? Do they agree to a contract, defer some of it, and save it an a CD? We have no idea.

        “Perhaps I should stop complaining about the deals being “backloaded” as shorthand for the issues I’ve laid out.”

        You’ve hit the nail on the head here! Bad contracts are bad and teams can certainly make terrible decisions about player evaluations. Backloading is simply a business/financial maneuver for cash flow and flexibility.

        • Ryan Topp says: August 16, 2013

          That first point is all well and good, but I think you’re being exceedingly generous with them to assume this is all just being done as some brilliant cost savings plan. As you point out, we don’t know for sure, but let’s look at the evidence for a moment on the Lohse signing.

          Ownership and upper management talked all off season about how they were cutting back and were shooting for low 80′s in payroll. They stuck with that through the whole of the winter, and it was only in late March that they went and added Lohse on a VERY backloaded deal, only having to give up 4 million this year, and pushing the other 27 some odd million off to a later date.

          What’s more, it’s been reported that this was done by the owner, not as some sort of a plan, but because he watched the pitchers fail in spring training and just had to do something about it. I think it’s pretty clear that the reason they backloaded that deal was because they simply didn’t have the money for this year and wanted to delay paying as much as possible to a later date.

          The structure (if not the timing) of the Ramirez deal also suggests that they simply didn’t have the payroll room in 2013 to make it a more standard deal, so they heavily backloaded it as well.

          I’m sorry, but you’re not going to get me to agree that these are good things, being done for reasons more clever than desperate. They’re the actions of a management group that is more concerned about instant gratification than long term success.

          • Vin B says: August 16, 2013

            Those are some great points. I think the lesson is more “don’t buy contracts you can’t afford” rather than “don’t backload contracts”

            If you’re backloading because you’re expecting to win and pay off the player with future revenue growth; you’re in trouble.

            If you have cash in hand BUT you can get a player to agree to defer that money, that’s great!

  2. icbeast says: August 16, 2013

    Dump Weeks for a bag of peanuts and use the salary to sign a first baseman. Cross fingers, but don’t hold breath.

    • Ryan Topp says: August 16, 2013

      I do think they’re likely to try and move some of Weeks salary this off-season and use it to sign other players. The problem is, between the back to back bad seasons and the injury issue, they’re going to have a hard time moving more than a few million (maybe 4-5 tops) of that deal. So they’re not going to clear nearly the whole thing, and they’re still locked into 80+ million before they add a single thing. My guess is they’ll just do another deal where they pay as little as possible up front to get whatever the best pitcher they can.

      As for the need at first, I would rather see what Francisco and Morris can do than lock into just about anyone on this list for bad money:

      • dbug says: August 19, 2013

        A lot of red flags in that list. If I were a GM I would maybe pepper their agents to see who might be willing to sign for a low base salary contract heavy with incentives.

      • Joe Lawrence says: August 21, 2013

        Ryan… I hope you’re really not serious about Francisco.. He has proven he is not any type option for a NL club. Maybe a DH if some team can put up with his Ks and horrendously streaky hitting.

        • Ryan Topp says: August 22, 2013

          Absolutely I’m serious about Francisco. He’s a guy who right now has about 1 full season’s worth of plate appearances in his pro career, and he’s getting regular action really for the first time. He’s just turned 26, so it’s not like he’s over the hill. He’s shown pretty rapid improvement in his walk rate and it seems to have helped unleash his power.

          I would really like to see if given a full offseason and spring to work on his defense and work with the coaching staff on his swing, if he can maybe be a guy we could platoon at first for a few years. Hunter Morris’ performance doesn’t cry out that he needs to get PA’s, and I’m not excited about spending money on guys on that list…so might as well go with Francisco.

  3. The Realist says: August 16, 2013

    Weeks, Melvin- For sure- Garbage- What are they going to do at third base? Corey Hart great guy but future? Trouble

  4. Joe Lawrence says: August 21, 2013

    Ryan… according to Cot’s the Brewers have 19 players under contract for 2014 at approx $77.5M. Among the 18 are Burgos and Figaro who may or may not make the club in 2014. Estrada (approx. $4M) is not included. Among those also not included are: Axford (gone), Gonzolez (gone), Badenhop (gone), Francosco (gone), Yuni B (gone). Kris Davis, Taylor Green, Caleb Gindl, and possibly Gamel could make the team at a total cost of $1.5M bringing the total to $79M. They need another lefty for the pen (approx. $3M) and Hart (approx. $5M incentivised contract) and they have room for another FA starting pitcher and still stay under $100M payroll. If they can rid themselves of Weeks’ contract (or at least half of it) they will be in the mid to low $90M. They could be very competitive and still be under the $100M payroll mark.

    • Ryan Topp says: August 22, 2013

      I’m not sure where you’re getting those numbers, but they aren’t the numbers I have from Cots spreadsheet:

      Lohse: 11 million
      Weeks: 12
      Ramirez: 16
      Braun: 11 million (plus a 2.5 million bonus due April 1st)
      Gallardo: 11.5
      Gomez: 7
      Gorzo: 2.95
      Lucroy 2.1
      Aoki .250 million (and I assume they’ll pick up his 1.5 option)

      That is your 77.5 number, but that is on only those 9 players. Anyone else on the roster has to make at least the $500,000 league minimum, and none of that is priced in yet. That’s 16 spots at 500K each, or 8 million. Now we’re at 85 million. If they pick up Axford, Estrada, Badenhop, Francisco or Gamel, that’s extra money beyond that.

      So yeah, they have a problem.


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