With many fans clamoring for the Brewers to make a splash at the trade deadline, the Brewers acquired Jeremy Jeffress in a glorified waiver claim. And… that’s it. No Sonny Gray. No Justin Wilson. No Dan Straily. Not even Curtis Granderson. Basically, they didn’t do anything.
And that’s precisely what they should have done.
It’s never a good thing to blow a 5.5 game division lead in one week. If you’re looking for a bright side, though, it’s that the Brewers faded before the trade deadline rather than after. As frustrating as it’s been to watch a 5.5 game lead turn to a 2.5 game deficit over a fortnight, it could have been catastrophic if this occurred after the Brewers had traded a bunch of their best prospects in a win-now move.
Had the Brewers still had a 5.5 game lead at the trade deadline (or even 2 or 3 games), David Stearns and the front office would have had a much more difficult time deciding whether to trade some top prospects in win-now moves. However, the team’s struggles after the All-Star break, combined with the surging Cubs, made standing (relatively) pat the easy move. It makes all the sense in the world for someone like the Dodgers to acquire Yu Darvish. The Dodgers are going to the playoffs, and they were going whether they acquired Darvish or not. That move was solely made with winning a World Series in mind. If the Brewers gave up Lewis Brinson and more to land Gray (Oakland’s widely reported asking price), they would be doing so because it increased their chances of making the playoffs. There’s a significant difference.
Baseball Prospectus sees the Brewers as having a 14.9% chance of making the playoffs, while Fangraphs gives them just a 6.6% chance. Of course, these odds don’t prove anything and shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but that’s still pretty eye-opening. Both sites actually give the Cardinals, now just 2 games behind the Brewers, a much better postseason chance than the Crew. It’s not disputable that the Brewers are now a long shot to make the playoffs. Therefore, it simply wasn’t the time to be a big buyer.
I fully realize Jose Quintana, Gray, or even Straily have multiple years of team control and would therefore be used for more than just a 2017 playoff run. But the Brewers are more than one starting pitcher away. Paying the steep price for one of these pitchers when the Brewers would still be a heavy playoff underdog is simply not a sound strategy. I have seen fans argue that Gray could be flipped sometime next season if the Brewers aren’t contending to recuperate some of the prospect capital they used to acquire him. The problem with that is the Brewers would be assuming a significant risk. What if Gray reverted to his form of just one year ago, in which he wasn’t even a top 100 starting pitcher? What if he got injured, something that’s happened to him multiple times over his career? Either one would kill his trade value. Those are risks that you could live with if you had a 4 or 5 game divisional lead and a strong shot at the playoffs this year, but not as a playoff long shot.
I have also seen the argument that Stearns “let the Brewers down” or that he “let them blow their lead” by not acquiring help before they blew their lead. The problem with that is that most sellers are inclined to wait until the deadline to move their big pieces. Quintana was the exception, rather than the rule. Expecting the Brewers to acquire a big time piece in, say, early July, simply isn’t realistic.
The Brewers probably aren’t making the playoffs in 2017. But you know what? That’s okay! Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe a single publication or analyst anywhere picked the Brewers to make the playoffs. When Stearns took over as GM not even two years ago, it was never the plan to be in the playoffs by 2017. That simply wasn’t a realistic goal given how little the team had in the farm system before the Carlos Gomez trade. This 2017 team has certainly been better than expected and has, at least for me, been really enjoyable to watch all season. I’ll happily take a season in which they gave fans an exciting summer of meaningful baseball games over what they were projected to do.
And in a few years, when Brinson hits a big postseason home run, or when Josh Hader gets a big strikeout in a high-leverage situation, we’ll probably be thankful that the Brewers petered out in 2017. If they hadn’t, those players might be doing those things for a team other than the Brewers.