A rebuild is a tricky proposition for a baseball team, particularly for a small market club without the locked-in revenue of a large TV deal to get them through the lean times. The club needs to properly balance the need to build for the future, while still putting a product on the field to entertain their paying customers. In 2016, the David Sterns-led fighting beer makers of Milwaukee found a way to strike that balance, building a team that hit dingers and stole bases (yes, that isn’t that useful to winning, but hey it’s entertaining as hell), and even outperformed most of the projection systems (though not everyone’s expectations) and finished 73-89. Gone from the roster are all-star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, his former backup Martin Maldonado, closer Jeremy Jeffress, replacement closer Tyler Thornburg, top setup man Will Smith, temporary third baseman Aaron Hill, and slightly less temporary first baseman Chris Carter, so this will be a completely new-look team in 2017.
Looking around the horn, the Brewers infield is headlined by the double play combo of Orlando Arcia and Jonathan Villar. Arcia, the younger brother of former Twins top prospect and current Arizona Diamondback Oswaldo, is a slick fielding shortstop who was formerly the Brewers top prospect thanks to an offensive breakout with the Biloxi Shuckers while they wandered through the Southern League in 2015 waiting for their new home to be built. The year 2016 turned out to be rough for him, as his numbers dipped across the board despite a move to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and an even hitter-friendlier Colorado Springs home park. He did eventually make his debut in Milwaukee after the trade deadline and looked overmatched to start, but towards the end of the year enough of the pop that made him a top prospect started to shine through. With his projected defensive abilities, any sort of offensive breakout will make him a first-division starter for the Crew.
At the keystone, Villar will likely see most of the playing time after manning shortstop until Arcia came up. Villar was one of three prospects the Astros received from the Phillies for Roy Oswalt. He rose as high as fifth in the Baseball Prospectus Astros organizational ranking before making his debut in 2013. A rough start to his career, paired with the former first overall pick Carlos Correa showing an ability to stay at shortstop, made Villar superfluous to Houston. This allowed the Brewers to swoop in and acquire him for little in prospect costs. When given a full time role in Milwaukee, he flourished, slashing .285/.369/.457 good for a 118 from both wRC+ and OPS+. He also showed off his excellent speed by leading the majors in stolen bases (though also leading in caught stealing). In total, he ended up second by both fWAR and bWAR on the team. He was the perfect example of something rebuilding teams can and should do, take chances on talented players who didn’t have a spot on another team for whatever reason.
Which leads right into the next position group, the corner infielders. The big splash this offseason, if a three-year, $16 million signing can count as a big splash, was signing Eric Thames. Thames showed big time power in the minor leagues, albeit always at or above the age you expect for his league, but he was never able to translate that into the bigs due to contact issues. After spending all of 2013 in AAA split between the Seattle and Baltimore systems, Thames left the United States for South Korea and the Korean Baseball Organization. A revelation in Korea, he never finished lower than third in OPS in his three years there.
After seeing some MLB success stories from Korea such as Jung Ho Kang (legal issues notwithstanding) and Hyun Soo Kim, the Brewers are entrusting the most demanding offensive position in baseball (the average OPS+ for first basemen last year was 114, the highest of any position) to a player whose MLB career OPS+ of 96 would have ranked near the bottom among qualified first baseman last year. If he actually did learn something new in his time in the KBO, the deal will be a steal at platoon player prices. If not, it was a worthy risk during a rebuild.
As for the hot corner, expect Travis Shaw to get the first crack at a starting nod. Shaw, acquired in the aforementioned Tyler Thornburg trade, has experience at both corners, though his production waned as the season wore on in his first shot at a full time role in 2016 after putting up stellar numbers in his first taste of the big leagues in 2015. Should he recapture some of his 2015 form, don’t be shocked if the Brewers end up flipping him, not unlike they did with Aaron Hill in 2015. Should Shaw fail to hold down the starting slot, one of two scenarios will likely occur.
First, expect utility man Hernan Perez to get a crack at the job. Perez showed some improvement in 2016, though that was from bad to merely below average. Good base running and a decent glove that can play all over the diamond make him a good backup, but his bat is lacking at a traditionally offensive spot. Should Perez also fail, next up would be shifting Villar back to third, which is where he actually played after Arcia claimed short, and reinserting Scooter Gennett in the lineup. Gennett has bat to ball skills, but poor defense, little ability to hit lefthanded pitching, and a disinterest in walking leave him lacking in a second base environment that is suddenly an offensive position. As a platoon bat he may have value, with a career 108 wRC+ against righthanded pitching, but being limited to second base defensively puts pressure on roster spots.
Moving off the dirt onto the grass, the Brewers outfield is led by longtime star Ryan Braun. Braun, despite all the baggage both real and otherwise, remains a deadly offensive force with power to all fields. A move back to his more natural left field also showed improved defense numbers, which helped pull his overall value up to near all-star level. As a personal aside, I know it would probably be best long-term to trade him, but damn am I glad he’s back.
Right field is patrolled by a mountain of a man in Domingo Santana. A bat-before-glove, as well as power-before-hit, profile leaves him little room for error, which was evidenced when a shoulder injury sapped most of his power last year. However, once healthy in September he showed the tape measure power expected of a human that large. If he can maintain that level, he will always have a spot.
In center field, Keon Broxton uses gazelle-like strides to cover ground. Unfortunately his long strides are matched by a long swing that can generate hard contact, as chronicled by new podcast godfather Jeff Sullivan, but also leave him susceptible to the strikeout. If he can cut down on the swing-and-miss, he is a potential superstar. If not, his defense and speed will make him at least a second division starter.
Behind the dish, new faces will be abound. The departed Lucroy held down the starting spot since midway through 2010 with Maldonado being the primary backup for five years. The presumed starter is former Giant prospect Andrew Susac, who reached as high as 3rd in the organization and 94th overall per BP’s rankings. He came over along with Phil Bickford in the Will Smith trade at the deadline in 2016. The primary backup to all-everything Buster Posey for two seasons, Susac lost his spot during 2016 to a wrist injury that caused him to only play sporadically in April and May. A good defender, he ranked in the top 30 of FRAA in 2015 despite being around 55th in playing time among catchers, Susac has a golden chance to claim a starting spot he would have had prior to the trade
After Susac, Jett “I have possibly the greatest name ever” Bandy will likely see backup time after being swapped for the Brewers former reserve backstop Maldonado. Bandy is your prototypical backup catcher, a good defender and has little offensive value save for being able to run into one from time to time. This makes him not unlike his predecessor, just with an almost full service time reset for the Brewers.
Turning to the pitching staff, the Brewers rotation can be described as depth over quality. At the top sits an extreme version of what the Brewers hope Thames can do as a hitter. Junior Guerra, bestowed the name #2016BrewersAce by BrewCrewBall, the team’s SBNation site, spent parts of 2006 and 2008 in affiliated ball topping, out at High A before being released by the Mets after a PED suspension. Then he went back home to Venezuela with his only pitching stats in Baseball Reference’s database being recorded in the Venezuelan Winter League in 2009 and 2010. He sandwiched a 2012 stint in the Mexican League with two stops in the independent American Association before spending 2014 pitching in Italy. The Chicago White Sox gave him a chance as a minor league free agent at the end of 2014 and he even saw a few relief appearances in the summer of 2015, only to be again placed on waivers. In swooped the Brewers with a claim and a spot in AAA. The struggles of Taylor Jungmann in 2016 opened a door that Guerra burst through using a low 90’s fastball and a devastating splitter to the tune of a 2.81 ERA over 120 innings. His 4.50 DRA shows he likely overachieved a good bit, but was still good enough to be a league-average mark.
The other top starter from 2016, Zach Davies, took a more traditional route to the bigs. A 26th round pick in the 2011 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, it took a late second round level bonus to get him to sign and forego college baseball. From there, he spent four years slowing rising up Baltimore’s farm system until a 2015 trade brought him to the Brewers and a taste of big league action. After a quick stop in AAA when the Brewers didn’t need a fifth starter, Davies had a rough first few start before entrenching himself in the rotation. He uses a high 80s/low 90s fastball mostly to set up his excellent change up.
After the top two, things become significantly more muddled. Matt Garza battled a lat injury that kept him on the shelf the first two months of the season. Even once healthy, his diminished stuff as he ages relegated him to backend starter status at best and being bounced from the rotation had the Brewers a better option. His contract and veteran status will almost assuredly sets him up for another chance as a starter.
Next up are a pair of former top prospects from when the Brewers system was barren after playoff pushes in 2008 and 2011. Both Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson are large, righthanded throwing men who rely primarily on hard sinkers and biting sliders with little in the way of a third pitch to combat lefties or the third time through the order, and struggle with command to live up to their former billing. Both just happen to be the type of pitcher to whom one would advocate the Brewers give a chance while rebuilding if they were from outside the organization, so it’s fitting they share the same profile down to being born only a month apart.
The sixth starter is likely Chase Anderson, who profiles similarly to Zach Davies save for being several years older. He was a decent back end starter for Arizona before coming to Milwaukee along with Aaron Hill and prospect Isan Diaz for Jean Segura. However, in 2016 his changeup was no longer effective enough to make up for his lack of front line velocity, which is why he likely loses out on a rotation spot to start the year.
Moving to the bullpen, the Brewers signed former Ranger closer Neftali Feliz to pitch the ninth inning. After several years battling injuries and lower velocity, 2016 finally saw Feliz return to pre-2012 Tommy John surgery velocity readings, which in turn lead to his highest strikeout rate in the big leagues in a season with the Pirates. The Brewers, it seems, are betting that this reversal continues and that they can showcase Feliz for another mid-year trade. Following Feliz will likely be Corey Knebel. A flame-throwing righty with a sharp slider, he has all the markings of a potential closer and just needs to be given the opportunity.
In sum, this Brewer team has a wide margin of potential outcomes. PECOTA pegs them at 76 wins, which is right in the middle of the jumble of below-average teams in the NL, tied with the Cardinals for third in the NL Central. New Effectively Wild home FanGraphs, on the other hand, has them as the second-worst team in baseball at 68 wins. Despite being low on star power, the team does have significant depth of above-replacement level, but below-average options in the big leagues. That doesn’t even factor in any potential replacements from a strong minor league system headlined by outfielders Lewis Brinson and Corey Ray and pitcher Josh Hader. This squad is still a few years away from true contention, but will likely show the potential that is there. I will split the difference and go with 74-88.Next post: What’s the Value of Laser Eye Surgery?
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