The 2016 Brewers can be a better team than the 2015 Brewers. In this sense, the Brewers decidedly are not tanking, given that the club acquired a group of players that can improve various positions. A “Brewers tank” in 2016 means that some combination of Jonathan Villar, Garin Cecchini, Keon Broxton, Junior Guerra, and Michael Reed, Yadiel Rivera, or Zach Davies, etc., did not immediately take the “next big step” in their respective careers or roles. This is not the same thing as tanking, for each of these players has a specific skillset and role on the roster that could absolutely result in a valuable MLB contribution. A bad 2016 is simply the inverse of that possibility.
Throughout the Brewers’ rough 2015 campaign (which brought visions of an inevitable rebuild), from time to time I visited the implications of “winning in 2016.” Instead of making explicit, traditional “win-now” moves (which arguably defined the Brewers’ last decade), it became clear that Milwaukee’s chances of improving were tied to making smart trades to shed payroll / expensive contracts, finding ways to add starpower to controllable young cores, and generally strategizing ways to answer the roster’s expensive dead weight. Remarkably, Doug Melvin‘s opening shots for rebuilding, and David Stearns‘s housekeeping and “counterbuilding trades” (such as the Cy Sneed and Jason Rogers moves) have completely repurposed Milwaukee’s roster. If you squint, there are enough “what ifs” and new tools around the roster’s margins to win ballgames:
- Focus on extreme tools in potential starters (like Domingo Santana‘s power & discipline, or even Guerra’s fastball velocity & splitter).
- Emphasize plate discipline in potential depth bats (from Cecchini to Ramon Flores to Colin Walsh).
- Add players that can serve at many different positions (from Rivera to Villar to Walsh, or even Cecchini).
- Keep the bullpen hard throwing (from Zack Jones to each internal 40-man roster add).
It’s difficult to quantify these aspects of the roster into specific “wins,” since fans and analysts do not yet know how Stearns will fashion his top 25 active players (and, of course, the offseason is not finished yet, and there is room for many other moves). However, stealing an argument from Bill James‘s New Historical Abstract, the Brewers’ roster additions may not necessarily be great on their own, but they could serve as “factorial” improvements: by multiplying each element together, Milwaukee may amplify each chance to win a close game, or capitalize on an opportunity to win.
|2015 IF & OF||Positional PA||RRBI (NL/Park Position)||Note|
|Ryan Braun (RF)||543||79 (65)||Best position on entire team|
|Khris Davis (LF)||427||56 (47)||20 home runs in August & September!|
|Carlos Gomez (CF)||||42 (34)||Traded before deadline for Hader / Houser / Phillips / Santana|
|Gerardo Parra (LF)||||14 (20)||~39 total runs produced for Brewers / Traded for Zach Davies|
|Domingo Santana (CF)||||6 (9)||Significant discipline improvement in Milwaukee (w/ strong power)|
|Shane Peterson (LF)||78||7 (8)||Played all 3 OF & 1B|
|Logan Schafer (CF)||122||8 (13)||Relatively consistent discipline with slight AVG improvement|
|Outfield Total||1744||212 (196)||New Players: Keon Broxton, Michael Reed, Ramon Flores|
|Adam Lind (1B)||553||72 (69)||Most improved position in 2015 / Best personal season since 2009|
|Elian Herrera (2B & 3B)||||30 (29)||Better OPS as 3B / Better R & RBI production as 2B|
|Aramis Ramirez (3B)||||31 (35)||Traded prior to deadline for RHP Yhonathan Barrios|
|Scooter Gennett (2B)||375||32 (39)||.287 / .314 / .419 after demotion|
|Jean Segura (SS)||581||53 (60)||Continued prolific groundball performance|
|Jason Rogers (1B)||97||9 (12)||Stronger R than RBI at 1B / Exceptional pinch hitter (161 OPS+!)|
|Hector Gomez (2B)||70||4 (7)||1.072 OPS & better R&RBI production as SS|
|Luis Sardinas (SS)||53||2 (5)||Played around infield|
|Hernan Perez (3B)|||| (21)||Extremely flexible infielder (played multiple positions in 9 G)|
|Infield Total||2469||245 (277)||New Players: Garin Cecchini, Yadiel Rivera, Jonathan Villar, Colin Walsh [Orlando Arcia]|
One major obstacle to this hypothesis is the outfield: since Ryan Braun and Khris Davis were by far the most productive bats on the 2015 Brewers, a trade of either of these players ensures that Santana (the next likely corner OF starter) will have large shoes to fill. Of course, Santana’s mix of discipline and power is just the toolsy cocktail to dream on for such a feat; adding Broxton or Reed in centerfield could also help mitigate that issue. Anyway, a Santana-Reed/Broxton-Braun outfield could be superior on defense, passing more runs saved onto the pitching staff.
By contrast, the infield is wide open: even Adam Lind was not great at first base in 2015 (which isn’t to say that he was bad); third base, shortstop, and second base each took big hits, too. Here, any mix of Cecchini / Villar / Walsh on top of the currently controlled players gives the Brewers a flexible mix of options to improve the team. It is not difficult to dream on either Villar or (and!) Cecchini capitalizing on their change of scenery to improve the infield offensive production alongside a 2B platoon. Basically, the infield will have fewer leaks, and more productive depth (such as Villar’s chance at a solid extra-base hit percentage at shortstop (or 3B), Walsh’s discipline at 2B, and Cecchini’s new contact/speed potential at 3B or 1B).
If one works from the basic basement of the 2015 Brewers’ 72-win Run Differential (655 RS / 737 RA), more wins could easily result:
- A hard-throwing bullpen can keep the Brewers from losing close contests.
- More disciplined approaches from the bench and depth positions can “extend” the batting order’s production.
- More speed and even some additional extra-base potential around the infield can easily produce more runs.
Here, even a 76 win club might look something like 675 Runs Scored / 717 Runs Allowed. This, all before considering the final pitching rotation to begin the season, or solidifying 1B or 3B. Milwaukee is indeed rebuilding, but I scoff each time I hear Mark Attanasio and Craig Counsell talk about an “extended timeframe” for rebuilding: while the front office and management may be rightfully setting Milwaukee’s fan expectations low, they are sneaking in an improved club through the shadows of the offseason.