Heading into the winter meetings, it is strange to consider that baseball’s frenzied offseason has not eliminated some of the very best trading chips and free agents in the game. As Brewers GM Doug Melvin heads to Orlando, he has a couple of relatively low-key deals under his belt (low-key compared to, say, a 10-year, $240 million deal signed by Robinson Cano). Melvin has already improved the ballclub by subtraction, age, and flexibility. As much as Norichika Aoki was a fan favorite, getting a handful of control years for a LHP as well as line-up spots for Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, makes the team better. Realistically, Melvin’s club might already be two or three wins better entering the meetings. For this reason, Melvin’s performance at the winter meeting could foretell if he believes this club can be pushed to compete, or if he’s going to try and keep the club younger and even more flexible.
(1) I know that I’ve recently argued in favor of extending franchise pitcher Yovani Gallardo. I like Gallardo, he’s a dependable starter, and he’s good, too. Yet, in the climate of the current MLB, Gallardo is inching toward the top of tradeable right-handed starters, too. It’s strange to think of Gallardo as a mini-James Shields because he doesn’t have the gutsy playoff appearances and big-game nickname, but Gallardo’s last three years have been more even-handed and nearly as valuable as Shields’s three years prior to the Wil Myers trade. In fact, for playing with a club that is worse than the Tampa Bay Rays, Gallardo even has a better winning percentage than Shields (leading up to the KC deal):
Source: Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Now, I’m not saying that Gallardo (plus another arm) should return something like Myers+Jake Odorizzi; judging Gallardo against Shields’s IP workload, one might argue that Gallardo is worth something like 85%-90% of the return on the Shields/Myers deal. I’m not sure what that value is, and I’m not sure that a trade would be categorically better than extending Gallardo. But, given the team’s competitive standpoint, Gallardo’s control years, age, and his performance, he might be the club’s best trading chip.
(2) Following the RHP deals for pitchers such as Tim Hudson, it should be clear that the market is not necessarily cool for “aging” righties. Granted, it’s tough to think of both Gallardo and Kyle Lohse as trading chips. Lohse has been one of the NL’s best righties in the last two seasons, and Gallardo has been the Brewers’ best starter over the last few years. Yet, once again, given the Brewers’ position, Lohse’s control and performance, and the general explosion of RHP value, if Lohse can be moved for a substantial return, it might be difficult for the Brewers to turn that down.
(3) Melvin has a great poker face, and he’s apparently told clubs “no” on Ryan Braun. This might be a good thing, as superstar trades rarely return talent that equals the starpower surrendered. Given the Brewers’ commitment to moving Braun to RF, as well as their trade of Aoki, a Braun trade might make little sense. Yet, one has to wonder what Melvin’s trigger price would be on the face of the franchise; there has not ever been as acceptable a time to deal Braun as now.
(4) Rickie Weeks is one of my favorite Brewers players, and he is one of the club’s last remaining core players from the competitive years and exceptional 2011 season (not to mention, he’s probably the organization’s best 2B). It pains me to think about Weeks not having another chance to realize his value in Milwaukee, but a change of scenery might also help Weeks recover from his injury and performance woes. One might not expect much for Weeks in return, but a true salary dump could help the Brewers get younger, gain more roster flexibility, and put together a cheaper platoon with Scooter Gennett.
I suspect that Melvin might have a quiet winter meetings. Despite those expectations, the club is at a turning point that could give Melvin a chance to make more aggressive moves than one would normally expect. The club cannot necessarily concern themselves with “fan favorites” or “competitive pieces” at this point. In this case, I suggest judging moves at the winter meetings according to a few criteria:
-Did the team shed payroll? Or gain payroll flexibility?
-Did the team gain control years? (I.e., trading away fewer contract control/reserve years than those received in return).
-Did the club get younger?
-Did the organization improve? (Here we might weigh roster flexibility and players’ roles, the likelihood of the big league club competing, and the likelihood of the minor league system improving as “improvement” criteria).
Aside from these goals, the club could also fly under the radar and work on some organizational depth trades, or look at some of the non-tendered players. If the club could trade some of their relievers on the 40-man roster — perhaps for no other reason than to gain roster space — and pursue non-tendered free agents, they could find productive, cost-effective moves to improve the roster. Given the wealth of starting pitchers that could also serve in the bullpen for the Brewers, now might be a great time to shed a pure reliever if the result is signing a first baseman like Garrett Jones (who recently signed a 2-year, $7-8 million deal. That type of bargain, coupled with a free 40-man spot, could place the club in a more flexible situation than signing a bigger name).
Again, if we’re following the general reasoning that the Brewers cannot really win-now or rebuild, but must simply find creative ways to consistently improve their roster, we can keep hammering on this mantra: improve payroll flexibility, get younger, gain control years. This need not be a sign of defeat, for if a younger, leaner Brewers club comes out of the gates strong, payroll flexibility could also mean more midseason moves to shore up weaknesses or improve the chances of a competitive year. With so many youngsters around the club, payroll flexibility could also mean more contracts such as the Jonathan Lucroy deal that resulted in cost certainty. There are any number of things the Brewers could do with payroll flexibility that would not equal a surrender flag.