Back on Tuesday, we looked at some comments from the editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus Sam Miller that related to the Brewers’ current position in the playoff race and what they should be looking to do at the upcoming trade deadline. His basic premise was that the Brewers should be willing to give up significant talent in an effort to take advantage of the window they have opened for themselves this year, at least in part because their future doesn’t look particularly bright so they might as well try for it while they can.
It’s always a tempting to take the “flags fly forever” stance to justify making aggressive, win-now moves. The Brewers certainly haven’t been shy about initiating those types of transactions, using them to great advantage in their playoff years of 2008 and 2011. So it’s quite possible something like this could happen. Who knows, maybe it would be the thing that would push them over the edge and bring home a World Series to Milwaukee.
What we’re going to look at here, though, is just how accurate Miller’s assessment of the Brewers’ current and future competitive situation is. In other words, are the conditions for bold action as ripe as he seems to think, or should a more measured approach be taken?
Current Roster Age:
According to ESPN.com’s “roster analysis” tool, the Brewers currently sport the 10th oldest roster in MLB with an average age of 29.0. Not particularly good, but also somewhat misleading. Of the Brewers six most valuable hitters this year, only Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez are over 30 and Braun is just barely so. Moving over to the rotation, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are both over 30. Like Braun, though, Garza is just now 30 and figures to still have some good years left in him, health provided. Three of the team’s most important players, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and, Yovani Gallardo are currently playing their age 28 seasons, which is right in the sweet spot for peak ages for professional baseball players.
While the Brewers do lack for players putting up star caliber performances among their pre-arbitration players, they have no shortage of very useful role players and do possess more than a couple with some star upside. Jean Segura has already made an all-star game, though he has things he needs to fix to get back to that level again. Both Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson possess blazing fastballs, wicked sliders and mid-rotation upside or perhaps even better. Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett are not without their faults, but both are quickly establishing themselves as worthy of getting considerable big league at bats on an annual basis. Finally, out in the bullpen, youngsters Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg have shown themselves capable of being impact pitchers, and it would be premature to write either one off completely as a potential starting pitcher somewhere down the line.
According to the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Brewers currently have a total of 52.2 million owed to Braun, Lucroy, Gomez, Lohse and Garza for 2015. That figure also includes buyouts for two players, Gallardo and Ramirez, whose options are very likely and somewhat likely to be picked up, respectively. Assuming they make both of those commitments, it will add roughly 22.4 million to the 2015 payroll.
74.6 million for seven players may seem like quite a bit, but in reality it’s not so bad. Between the players locked up and those mentioned above that are still pre-arbitration (and thus subject to taking roughly league minimum salaries), the Brewers have players in place for seven of the eight everyday starting spots and the entire starting rotation. The only gaping need is first base and possibly a right-handed platoon partner for Gennett at second. The team will be free to spend quite a bit of money to fill those needs, as well as potentially adding some help for the bench and the bullpen, where there is no clear cut candidate to close after Francisco Rodriguez likely walks at the end of the season.
Things get a bit more murky after 2015, when Lohse, Gallardo and Ramirez are all free and clear to leave. On the positive side, the team isn’t saddled to any contracts that figure to be albatrosses in the near term. Sure, Braun’s annual salary in the middle teens will be pushing the $20 million mark, but he’s still relatively young and productive. If that contract hurts, it’s probably going to do so much further down the line. The only other real question mark on that front is Garza’s deal, which pays him eight figures annually through 2017. Both Lucroy and Gomez are currently playing for peanuts compared to their true value, and can’t leave until after 2016 at the earliest anyway.
Farm System Outlook:
With Jimmy Nelson graduating to the majors, the upper levels of the Brewers system look pretty empty for help in the near term. The only player above A-ball with any sort of pedigree that suggests he could have some impact as a starter is outfielder Mitch Haniger, though many scouts see him as more of a platoon or fourth-outfielder type. There are some potential role players in the likes of Hunter Morris, Caleb Gindl and Jason Rogers. There are also some guys who currently look like potential back-end rotation options, at best, such as Mike Fiers and Taylor Jungmann. There are also a reasonable number of hard throwers who could maybe one day fill a useful role in the bullpen…but then again, most teams have those.
Further down in the system is where things start to get more interesting. Players like shortstop Orlando Arcia, outfielder Tyrone Taylor, and catcher Clint Coulter all profile as potential everyday starters, but none have advanced out of class A ball yet and each one has significant work to be done before doing so. Pitchers Jorge Lopez, Damian Magnifico, Tyler Wagner, and Taylor Williams (among others) who offer the potential to start somewhere down the line, but also have lots of developing to do. Even further down, things get even more intriguing with players like Devin Williams, Kodi Medeiros, Jake Gatewood, Monte Harrison and the newly signed Gilbert Lara all offering potential star-level upside but with timetables so far into the future that they’re just dreams at this point really.
One of Miller’s key points in pushing for the Brewers to “go for it” this year was that he simply didn’t see them likely being in contention at this time next year, let alone in the more distant (and harder to predict) future. Frankly, I think he’s probably off by a year.
The Brewers get to bring back nearly every important piece for this year’s team in 2015, and on manageable contracts. Yes, they’ll probably lose players like Mark Reynolds and Francisco Rodriguez, though those players are neither critical to this year’s team nor irreplaceable on the market. They also figure to have a pretty decent amount of money to play with, especially if the team really does plan on running a payroll north of $100 million for the near-term future. If some younger players like Peralta, Nelson and Segura can step their games up to make up for some declines from the older players, there really is no reason to assume they’ll just fade away in 2015.
Things figure to get more dicey in 2016, with the team probably having to go through a somewhat painful roster transition around that time regardless of what happens over the next 16 months. An argument could therefore be made for picking up an impact talent like David Price, who is still under control in 2015, to augment their chances of winning in this current window. Besides the fact that he would cost a bundle they may not have in terms of prospects to land, though, he’s also going to cost something like 20 million in 2015. That kind of price tag would force the team to make a number of tough decisions and almost surely leave them with some rather gaping roster holes.
Another thing to consider here is that implicit in Miller’s call for the Brewers to go for it now is that he assumes that the best course of action would be to undertake a rebuilding effort after the window shuts. That would mean trading off players like Lucroy, Gomez and perhaps even Perlata or Segura for prospects while they still have value and then focusing on developing a new window for a few years down the line. Close watchers of the Brewers under owner Mark Attanasio and General Manager Doug Melvin know how opposed they have always been to tearing down the roster and rebuilding.
Melvin is saying all the right things at the moment about liking the team as it’s currently constructed and not wanting to make major changes. I think we should assuming everyone is doing their due diligence and exploring possibilities that could bear fruit, and maybe something does pop up and really set the baseball world on it’s ear. Ultimately, though, I think they’re already in a pretty good position for 2014 and 2015 and I think smaller, sensible upgrades make much more sense than giving up piles of value in an effort to win now.