The Milwaukee Brewers have a star problem. Being more precise and a little nicer about it, one could say the Brewers currently lack players who are producing at the top end of the league on an individual basis. Either way, this is an issue that general manager David Stearns will have to confront this off season and in the near-term future.
According to Baseball Reference’s calculation, the 2017 Brewers were led by Travis Shaw and Chase Anderson. They each accumulated 4.0 bWAR over the course of the season. Every team that qualified for the playoffs this year had at least two players who bested 4.0, even the Minnesota Twins who only qualified for second AL Wildcard with 85 wins because the league was so top heavy. Below is a table with all the players on playoff teams with 4.0 bWAR or more:
Moving over to Fangraphs, Shaw slips down to 3.4 and Anderson to 3.3, while Jimmy Nelson emerges as the team leader with 4.9 fWAR thanks to his outstanding peripheral numbers. So the difference between the Brewers and the playoff clubs becomes less stark here in terms of top-end talent, but every team does have at least one player with the same or more 2017 value than the Brewers’ top man, and some of the best clubs (like Cleveland) have considerably more:
It’s fairly clear that one of the driving forces in the Brewrers 2017 ascent into contention was their depth across the board, because it certainly wasn’t based around anything like a “stars and scrubs” approach. They weren’t stellar at any position, but thanks to that depth, even their weaker positions (2B, CF) were given at least short-term boosts from contributions by fill-ins like Eric Sogard and Brett Phillips.
While there are definitely places to upgrade below average production on the roster (second base, middle relief, the back of the rotation), the Brewers were at least getting by in all those spots in 2017 and free talent and minor leaguers can only be expected to have so much impact. It seems fairly clear that to take that eagerly hoped for next step, the team needs to get more star-level contributions. They need players capable of putting up six or seven wins, who can anchor the lineup and rotation and impact seasons in a way that the Brewers haven’t seen since Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy took their respective star turns a few years back.
Of course, the demand for star-level players greatly exceeds the supply in MLB, and the Brewers will have to scratch and claw to get every last one they can. Throughout the second half of the franchise history, after cable TV money split the sport into haves and have nots based largely on market size, there have been two main ways that Milwaukee has acquired stars: signing them as amateurs or trading for them. Those trades have sometimes taken the form of investments in young talent who went onto blossom (Richie Sexson, Carlos Gomez) or market value deals meant to bring in existing stars nearing the end of their current contracts (CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke).
These strategies include their own risks and tradeoffs. While the price to acquire a player who is not yet a star is less than the price for a current star, teams tend not to like trading away their top prospects and young major leaguers, so the supply of this type of player on the market tends to be very small. On the other hand, trading for a current star generally requires that the buying team give up a number of young players with star potential themselves, who often end up superseding, and sometimes vastly exceeding, the value of the player bought in the first place. This often ends up being a case of robbing future Peter to pay current Paul.
The third way that teams acquire stars, unrestricted free agency, has been used to delve into the middle of the market for steady role players (Jeff Suppan, Kyle Lohse) or past-their-prime former stars (Aramis Ramirez) but never for a true bonafide “star.” This has been the source of some consternation, especially for fans who may not follow the overall business side of the sport, but it has mostly made sense. Allocating large portions of the payroll to one or two players can be a recipe for disaster in baseball, both in terms of winning on the field and in turning a profit on an annual basis.
So what would it take for the Brewers to go out and sign a top-of-the-market free agent to help them get that extra top-end performance that they’ll quite possibly need in the short term as they wait for some of their young potential stars to blossom? For a number of reasons the time may never be better than it is right now for Mark Attanasio and David Stearns to go out and try to land one of the big fish of the off season. Check back tomorrow for part two of this series where we’ll outline why now could finally be the time for a big name free agent signing.