Yesterday’s piece examined the Milwaukee Brewers’ current lack star players in comparison with all of the other playoff teams. Much of the talk this winter among Brewers fans and analysts is likely to center on ways that the Brewers can inject some star power into their roster without too drastically mortgaging the future. For most, that’s going to mean discussing the merits of trading some of the top prospects currently in the system for a star or perhaps an emerging star. There is another path, though, even if it’s not one that the Crew has much experience with: the top end of the free agent market.
What is at the top of the free agent market this coming winter? MLB.com’s Jim Duquette ranked his top 10 free agents in late August:
- Yu Darvish (SP)
- Jake Arrieta (SP)
- Mike Moustakas (3B)
- Wade Davis (RP)
- Eric Hosmer (1B)
- JD Martinez (OF)
- Jay Bruce (OF)
- Lorenzo Cain (OF)
- Lance Lynn (SP)
- Zack Cozart (SS)
One could certainly quibble with the order, but he does do justice to what the top of the market will look like. Though the position players could all be worked in and could represent upgrades, none of them play the Brewers’ biggest positional need of second base and probably aren’t worth the additional upgrade cost. Davis certainly would help deepen the bullpen, something Stearns is likely to prioritize in the off season as well, but paying top dollar for the 9th inning is something they can pass on with Corey Knebel already on the club. That leaves the three starting pitchers as the most appetizing targets should the Crew decide to attack the top of the market.
Which pitcher represents the best fit? Darvish and Lynn both head into their age 31 seasons and Arrieta into his age 32 season. Darvish and Arrieta have both been legitimate aces in the recent past, with multiple 4+ win seasons to their credit, but both have suffered some ups and downs over the last few years. Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery in spring training of 2015 and didn’t return until midway through 2016. He recovered his previous form in 100 innings that year but had a very up and down 2017. He found himself traded to LA seconds before the trade deadline, where he was once again somewhat inconsistent in terms of preventing runs but did enjoy a notable improvement in his peripherals.
Arrieta emerged somewhat late in his career as a legitimate ace in 2014 for the Chicago Cubs and was perhaps the best pitcher in the game during his Cy Young season in 2015. After opening 2016 in much the same manner, Arrieta struggled with his command and with some hard contact for the next calendar year before righting himself in the second half of 2017 and showing more of that previous ace form. He missed some time late this year but will pitch in the playoffs.
Lynn has been a steady workhorse, throwing at least 175 innings in every season he pitched since 2012, though he did miss 2016 completely after undergoing Tommy John in November of 2015. He’s definitely more of a mid-rotation starter than the other two and doesn’t really fit the “potential star” descriptor, but would represent an upgrade in the middle of the rotation and shouldn’t be ruled out as an option.
Dollar wise, both Arrieta and Darvish figure to land yearly paychecks well over 20 million. It wouldn’t be shocking to see either cross the 25 million a year mark, and perhaps get five to seven seasons. Lynn is probably a few steps down from that, both in terms of average annual value and total years, but it would not be surprising to see him land something close to 20 million a year for the next half decade. Signing any of these players would be uncharted waters for the Brewers, both in terms of free agent contracts previously handed out, and in that these are pitchers are not a homegrown position player like Ryan Braun.
Alright, what then makes it perhaps more palatable right now for the team to take this kind of risk than it would have been in the past?
The Payroll Has A Lot of Room To Grow
The 2017 Brewers opened the year with the lowest payroll in major league baseball, in the neighborhood of $63,000,000 according to Cots Baseball Contracts. That sum included over 15 million dollars for pitchers Matt Garza and Neftali Feliz. Much of that will end up being spent on considerable arbitration raises for Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, Corey Knebel as well as a few more players. The money they’re currently obligated to spend on the players under their control that they’d like to be part of the 2018 roster is probably somewhere in the $50 to $60 million range.
The Brewers opened both 2014 and 2015 with payrolls in excess of 100 million dollars. Between the massive increases in revenue coming into the game, the Brewers continuing to draw well at the gate even in a year they were expecting to rebuild and principal owner Mark Attanasio’s history of spending money to win, there is no reason to think that they can’t go well past those previous highs down the road if the team justifies the expense by winning.
The club will need to budget for some sizable raises and perhaps long-term contracts for their own internal players in the coming years, but they do have something of an ace in the hole on the annual budget horizon: Ryan Braun’s contract is three years from expiration. That will free up close to 20 million annually right around the time when players such as Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw and Jimmy Nelson will be reaching their most expensive arbitration years and potential free agency.
This doesn’t mean that adding one of these high dollar players won’t necessitate cost cutting measures in some areas. A team in a market like Milwaukee simply isn’t going to be able to sign a player to a 20 to 25 million dollar a year deal and not have to cut in other areas. They’re also likely to be looking at players producing well below their contracted levels as they near the end of five or six season deals in their mid to late 30’s. Dealing with that will hopefully be made somewhat easier because…
They Already Have a Deep Team
When the last group of Baby Brewers burst onto the scene in 2005-2007, it looked quite a bit different than this group in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, the strength of that group was the large number of players with all-star upside who actually lived up to that billing. Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, JJ Hardy and Yovani Gallardo all made all-star games over the coming decade and gave the team a very nice core to build around.
What the farm didn’t produce under former scouting director Jack Zduriencik was much depth, which left the Brewers often scrambling to fill out a few everyday positions, and significant roles in the pitching staff either through free agent signings or trade. This made locking into a any one massive dollar deal all but impossible for the franchise even as Attanasio steadily grew the payroll.
This current group, though not a playoff team, was already built more around depth. In 2008, the Brewers had 15 players with 1 bWAR or more and in 2011 that figure was only 13. This year, they had 17, and only two of those players are not under team control for the next 3+ seasons (Eric Sogard and Jared Hughes). On top of that, the Brewers continue to boast one of the deeper farm systems in the game which should provide value in both the long and short term because…
They Get to Hold on to Their Best Prospects
The other way for the Brewers to acquire a star player, one that was discussed on the latest edition of Milwaukee’s Tailgate Podcast, would be to package up a group of their best prospects and trade for someone on perhaps the cusp of stardom, like Chris Archer. There is definitely some merit to a plan like this in that it would give them a good player on a relatively cheap contract for a number of years into the future.
The downside is that a team must give up a number of their best prospects, likely including multiple players with realistic star upside, in order to land them. That isn’t true when it comes to free agents, though both Arrieta and Lynn figure to cost a first round pick for any team that might sign them. Of course, there is quite a bit of a difference between the 21st pick in the draft and multiple current top prospects. Also, giving up a pick that far down when legitimately contending for either of those two players is an easily justifiable decision.
Those prospects “saved” from being traded are then available to plug in holes, either themselves or in a trade at a later date. They also could emerge as stars in their own right, giving the team a continuing pipeline of young, cost-controlled talent to build future contending teams around instead of serving that purpose for some other franchise.
So Is This Happening Then?
OK, so here’s the comedown. Signing any of these players, especially Darvish or Arrieta, is very unlikely. Not only would it be an unprecedented expense as previously noted, but the Brewers would have to out recruit and outbid a number of the top teams in baseball who will be jockeying for these players’ services. It’s really not fair to demand or expect a team to go out and do something like this, even if it is more plausible right now than it has been in the past.
There is something worth paying attention to on the free agent market this winter when it comes to Arrieta, though: he is represented by agent Scott Boras. This often means the player will end up with a surprisingly large contract. It also sometimes ends up meaning that the player stays on the market abnormally long into the winter and ends up signing with a surprising team. Think Prince Fielder in Detroit or Kyle Lohse right here in Milwaukee. The longer Arrieta stays on the market, the more fringe contenders for his services might come into play and then it could be time for Boras to start working on owners he’s previously engaged directly with in contract negotiation…like Mark Attanasio.
The 2017 Brewers were a fun surprise and a step backwards is certainly possible, though fans should expect the team to add significantly to an MLB low payroll this off season and give manager Craig Counsell some new weapons to deploy. Even if they don’t end up with one of the big fish this winter, it should be fascinating to watch how they plan to move forward in a time of such unexpected success.