When I opened Twitter this morning, the first thing I saw was a Tweet that blew up #BrewersTwitter and garnered an impressive amount of votes:
You wake up, the Brewers have traded Brinson, Burnes, Diaz, Nottingham and Supak for Chris Archer. You are:
— Brad Ford (@BrewCrewBlue) November 28, 2017
It spurred a fun discussion about the state of the Brewers, but also, general philosophy of team-building overall. I had been meaning to write about this topic for a couple weeks now, and this discussion inspired me to do so.
It came to a crescendo today, but over the last couple weeks, there has been a lot of talk among Brewer fans over the merits of making a play for Rays ace Chris Archer. It’s understandable, too, as Archer is an excellent starting pitcher. By any number of metrics, Archer has ranked in the top 30 starting pitchers in baseball each of the last four seasons, and is probably more like top 10-12. Over the last four seasons, he is 12th in pitcher WAR according to Fangraphs.
It isn’t hard to see why many want to make a huge play for Archer. I am against it, but it also isn’t a slam dunk, no doubt, obvious decision. My opinion really doesn’t have anything to do with Archer himself. It’s due to a number of other factors.
The state of the franchise
Every Brewer fan remembers the exhilaration of the 2008 playoff push, watching CC Sabathia turn superhuman and will the Brewers to the playoffs. The Brewers paid a hefty price to acquire a rental (regardless of how Matt LaPorta turned out, he was a highly rated prospect and the centerpiece of the trade at the time), but nobody regretted that decision. It was the first time many of us had ever seen the Brewers in the playoffs, and Game 162 was an unforgettable moment.
A few years later, in 2011, the Brewers were entering their final season with Prince Fielder under contract. There was a sense of urgency to make another push before the core of the Brewers began breaking up. Therefore, the Brewers paid a prospect premium to acquire Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, two pitchers with two years remaining. This led to the best Brewers team since 1982 and one that finished two games from the World Series.
I find it difficult to argue that either of these trades were the wrong decision, although I have at least heard people speak against the 2011 moves. However, there is a big difference in the state of the franchise now compared to 2011, and especially compared to 2008.
The Brewers are no longer a team that should be satisfied with one playoff appearance like they were in 2008. They don’t have key players leaving after this season like in 2011; in fact, every key contributor other than their two midseason acquisitions last year (Anthony Swarzak and Neil Walker) is under contract for multiple seasons yet. There should be no extreme sense of urgency to sacrifice the future to make a big push to win now.
There was a time I’d trade another five seasons of losing if it meant one Brewers playoff appearance. That is no longer the case. David Stearns has continually described a vision of prolonged success, and trading a boatload of prospects for one pitcher shrinks the Brewers’ window for contention when there is no need to do so.
I’d be negligent if I didn’t point out that Archer’s four remaining years of control make him anything but a rental acquisition, and that is what would make the move palatable for me. Brad’s options in his tweet were “Ecstatic, Livid, or Unaffected,” but I wouldn’t say I’d be livid if this happened. Still, the price he came up with takes a significant chunk out of the Brewers’ farm system: three top ten prospects, including their number 1, plus more. And we really don’t even know if this would come close to getting the Rays to accept.
The state of the 2018 team
The Brewers were undoubtedly a surprise team in 2017, and perhaps there was no bigger surprise than the emergence of Jimmy Nelson as an ace. Nelson, a former highly regarded prospect, was downright bad in 2016, so he was as responsible for the Brewers strong 2017 season as anyone else. His injury represents a massive loss–he likely won’t be back until mid-season, and even then, there is no guarantee that he’ll be able to return to form. Pitchers have come back from labrum tears to very mixed results.
Nelson’s injury is the main reason an Archer acquisition doesn’t make sense for the 2018 Brewers. The reality is adding Archer doesn’t improve upon the pitching of 2017. By most measures, including Fangraphs WAR, Nelson was actually better than Archer in 2017. Replacing Nelson with Archer is basically treading water.
The Brewers are not the 2017 Astros, a strong contender who acquired Justin Verlander to push them over the top. The Brewers are more than an Archer or a Verlander away. Even if they acquired Archer, they wouldn’t be favored to make the playoffs. They’d also be counting on:
- Travis Shaw, Corey Knebel, Manny Piña, Chase Anderson, and Domingo Santana to repeat or improve upon career seasons
- Brett Phillips, Brandon Woodruff, and Josh Hader to provide value in greater roles than last season
- The starting pitching to stay relatively healthy, as it did last season until Nelson went down
Again, to be fair, some things are bound to improve from last year: it would be near impossible for the Brewers to not get better production from second base, for example. Still, the list of things that went right in 2017 is a lot longer than the list of things that went wrong.
The Cubs, by all accounts, had a down year in 2017, and still won the division pretty easily. The Cardinals were right with the Brewers (and if they manage to somehow acquire Giancarlo Stanton, they’d also be projected ahead of the Brewers).
If the Brewers were already looking like a playoff favorite, I would be much more open to an Archer deal. But they aren’t, so I just can’t see gutting a minor league system if that isn’t the case.
The Stearns Model
When David Stearns took over as GM, he stated that the goal was prolonged success, not just one or two good seasons and then falling back into mediocrity. The Brewers have done that twice in the last decade by shrinking their window of contention in order to “win now.” For once, I’d like to see them operate with a long view in mind, and that certainly seems to be Stearns’ model for building the organization as well. That doesn’t mean giving huge contracts to Jake Arietta or Yu Darvish, two players whose talent will diminish as the quality of the rest of the team increases (sorry, Ryan), and that doesn’t include trading a horde of prospects for a veteran player, even one as good as Archer.
I have definitely been called a prospect hugger, and I promise I’m not opposed to trading top prospects in the right situation, but I truly don’t think the time is right for a massive all-in move for a player like Archer. I’d argue it’s more likely that the package of players discussed for Archer will do more to help the Brewers over the next four seasons than Archer would by himself.
The Brewers may be mostly done rebuilding, but we have not yet seen the final product. To trade a package of high quantity and quality for one pitcher would be to put a cap on what this next wave could do.