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?
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.
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?
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?
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.