What a difference a year makes.  Going into 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers returned qualifying players at six of the eight field spots (with a seventh within a handful of plate appearances) and solidified the last with an off season trade that brought Adam Lind over from Toronto.  Of those eight (plus top reserve Gerrado Parra), the team traded away six, optioned one to AAA during the season for poor performance, actively shopped and intend to trade an eighth, and will move the last to a new position for 2016.  2015 also saw the Brewers fire their field manager and had their long-time general manager retire to a senior advisor role.  This all added up to a disappointing 68-94 season that started the organization down the rabbit hole of a rebuild.

MilRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013 457 (20) 91 (20) 109 (21) 83 (5) 58 (4)0 (16) -7 (21)81 (22)
2014506 (15) 93 (22) 97 (11)95 (14) – 5(16)3 (14) -11 (28)113 (14)
2015420 (25)86 (27) 118 (29)84 (7)-15 (25) -24 (24)2.3 (13)94 (24)

 

The fearless leaders of the rebuild, fittingly, are two of the newest, and freshest, faces.  The Brewers tabbed 30-year-old David Stearns to replace Doug Melvin, and Stearns brought aboard 37-year-old Matt Arnold as his top lieutenant.  The youthful duo (combined they are just 4 years older than Melvin) aggressively continued the rebuild Melvin started at the 2015 trade deadline. They made 9 trades since taking over in October, which included closer Fransico Rodriguez, starting first baseman Adam Lind, his likely replacement Jason Rodgers, starting shortstop Jean Segura, and starting left fielder Khris Davis.  All told, 24 of the 59 players invited to Maryvale will have been acquired in the 5 months Stearns has been captain of the ship.  These moves also, when combined with a strong 2015 draft and the aforementioned deadline deals, contributed to the resurgence of the Brewers farm system. A consensus bottom third group going to 2015, it has so far been ranked inside the top 10 by both Baseball America and ESPN.com, headlined by a top 5 ranking by Keith Law.

Moving to the field of play, Jonathan Lucroy remains at catcher, but only until the Brewers inevitably find a dance partner and complete the long rumored trade of the former all star. Also returning are a pair of Ryans: Braun and an adult man that inexplicably still goes by the nickname “Scooter”. Braun will be moving back to left field after a two year foray into right.  While no longer an MVP level player due to a battery of injuries, Braun held up better in 2015 than 2014, likely due to a pair of cryotherapy procedures done on his right thumb to manage pain from nerve damage that will plague him for the rest of his career.  Another year of experience managing the cryotherapy procedures and the move back to left, which Braun is significantly better at than right, should allow him to continue his rebound from the lost years of 2013/2014.

Gennett, meanwhile, will hope to continue his improved hitting from after his trip back to AAA during June of 2015. He simply must, because as a platoon player who can only play second base, he has little margin for error if he wishes to remain a big league player.  The other noteworthy returner is Martin Maldonado, who will almost certainly take over if/when the Brewers trade Lucroy.  I mostly bring him up as an excuse to show you this video because damn.  Go ahead and take a moment to peruse Maldonado throws.  I won’t be offended.

Thus brings us to the section of the post where we discuss the imports during and since the 2015 season.  The first came over as part of the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade with the Houston Astros, who just happen to be David Stearns’ former employer.  Domingo Santana, a mountain of a man with the power to match, will take over for Braun in right field.  A prolific power hitter, as evidenced by already having 8 home runs in 177 career plate appearances, but also the strikeout rate to match.  The Brewers are using a rebuilding year to gamble he can improve his contact abilities enough to become a quality major league corner outfield.

The next verse, same as the first.  Stearns signed the non-tendered former Astro Chris Carter to man first base.  I don’t have much hope he can do much more than hit some dingers, but hey, if you are gonna be bad, at least be entertaining.  And Carter might hit one to Bernie Brewer’s slide.  To play shortstop, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Stearns traded for former Astro Jonathan Villar.  Villar is likely only going to have the job for a few months as the aforementioned improved farm system is headlined by Orlando Arcia, one of the best shortstop prospects in all the minor leagues.

The hot corner is the first position that we won’t see a former Astro take over for the Brewers.  According to the first reports out of camp, Aaron Hill begins as the starter.  However, I’m guessing that is only posturing as his batting has fallen off the cliff the past few years.  I would expect Garin Cecchini to eventually get a majority of the at bats at third base.  A former top prospect in the Red Sox system, his luster faded the past two years while struggling in AAA.  Much like with Santana, 2016 is the perfect year for the Brewers to use to see if Cecchini can recapture some of the form that made him a top prospect just a few years ago.

As for center field, it is shaping up to be a four way battle amoung Keon Broxton, Ramon Flores, Rymer Liriano, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.  Much like Villar at shortstop, I don’t expect the winner to hold the spot for long, as Micheal Reed should not need much more seasoning in AAA, if any at all.  It isn’t a slam dunk he is a center fielder long term, which explains the wide variety of opinions on him by the major prospect rankers (high of 5th in the system and just outside the top 100 overall by Keith Law, to 19th in the system per Baseball Prospectus).  To continue the theme of experimentation, 2016 is the year to figure out which opinion is correct on Reed.  And even if it turns out he isn’t a center fielder, the Brewers have Brett Philips waiting in the wings to take over in the next few years.

Moving to the other half of the game, the Brewers starting rotation is headline by three massive sinker ballers: Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann, and Wily Peralta.  Nelson, my pick for the Brewers’ de facto ace, sits 93-94 with his two seamer and complements it with a hard slider (average velocity of 87 mph in 2015 ) and spike curveball that he first started throwing in 2015,  You might notice the lack of a change up, which contributed to a large platoon split (.376 wOBA vs LH compared to .255 against RH in 2015).  He learned the curve from minor league teammate Hiram Burges to help combat this, as it has a nearly true 12-6 break.  I believe another year of it under his belt will likely bring that split much closer together.

Next up is 2011 first round pick Taylor Jungmann.  When the Brewers drafted Jungmann, he was expected to be a quick mover and get to Milwaukee after minimal time in the minors.  Instead, it was a slow burn that made him drop largely off the prospect map capped off by an ERA over 6 at AAA Colorado Springs.  He fell to the point of being the 3rd different pitcher recalled after Peralta hit the DL in May.  He responded to the call up with a 2.15 ERA in 46 pre-all star break innings.  However, he seemed to hit a wall after August, with an ugly 7.85 ERA in September/October with the peripherals to back it up.  Walks have always been an issue for him, so it remains to be seen if the poor finish was simply fatigue, or if he the league figured him out in his second go around.

Finally, we come to Wily Peralta.  The thick bodied RHP has the kind of fastball velocity scouts drool over, sitting at 95 well into starts with a power slider to match.  However, he has never had the strikeout numbers to match the stuff, and much like Nelson lacks a third offering to keep left handed hitters off balance.  2015 was a lost year for Peralta due to a oblique injury that cut into his fastball velocity, which greatly diminished his effectiveness.  He also has a troubling long ball problem, with his HR/9 increasing every year of his career.  2016 is probably his last shot to become something greater than a back end innings eater.

After the literal big 3, things get murkier.  Matt Garza is a lock for starting the season in the 4th slot, but a perfect storm of ineffectiveness, near his career worst in K%, BB%, HR/FB, and BABIP in 2015 caused him to post his worst season since his rookie year and lose his spot in the rotation after rosters expanded in September.  Rather than pitch out of the bullpen, Garza elected to go home to be with his wife who was pregnant with twins at the time.  If he can’t bounce back, expect the Brewers to again pull him from the rotation, especially since he has a $13 million option for 2018 that vests if he makes 110 appears in the first 4 years of the deal.  He is just under halfway there through 2015, so it is something to monitor.  Should he bounce back, expect the Brewers to ship him aggressively at the trade deadline.

The fifth spot will likely be a battle between Chase Anderson, acquired with Aaron Hill in the Jean Segura trade, and Zachary Davies, who was brought aboard from Baltimore for Gerrardo Parra in 2015.  Both are similar in that they are right handed pitchers listed at 6′ and throw primarily fastball/change up with a curveball mixed in as the third offering.  I would expect Anderson, who has a much longer MLB track record, to break camp in the slot.  He will also be in his age 29 season, which combined with the fact that he won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2017 season, would not shock me if he is moved by the Brewers in the next year or two, similar to how they handled Mike Fiers in 2015.  Davies, despite the stuff to start, is a very slight person (listed at just 150 pounds and he looks it) so there are concerns he will not be able to hold up on a starters workload.  He will almost certainly be the Brewers swingman in 2015 and with Jorge Lopez having a breakout year in 2015, it wouldn’t shock me if he stays in that role for the next few years.

The bullpen, despite the subtraction of closer Francisco Rodriguez, will likely be a strong point for the Brewers to start the year.  Expect LHP Will Smith to get the first crack at the closing role.  Smith’s main calling card is his slider, which is so nasty it has been nicknamed the “slider of death” by Brewers Twitter.  He has increased its usage each year of his big league career, and each year he has posted a better K% and HR/9. These things are very much related.  He also can follow it up with a fastball that touches 95 and a curve good enough to keep hitters honest.

Next up, would-be former first round pick Jeremy Jeffress.  A winding minor league career that featured multiple trades and suspensions for marijuana use (though he was using to self treat for an undiagnosed case of epilepsy, which he received a diagnosis of while with Toronto and is managing under supervision of doctors), he finally stuck in the majors when he found his way back to Milwaukee in 2014.  2015 was a breakout year posting just under 9 K/9 while serving as one of the Brewers’ main right handed set up men.  He features a hard sinker (you should be sensing a theme here vis-a-vis the Brewers amateur pitching preference in the late 00’s/early 10’s) that leads at a nearly 60% ground ball rate in addition to the strikeouts.  A trio of righties, Michael Blazek, Corey Knebel, and Tyler Thornburg, round out what will likely be a busy bullpen for the 2016 Brew Crew.

Prediction: As of the last updated of PECOTA (2/15) the Brewers are projected at 76-86.  That feels high to me, but with how poor the Braves and Phillies will be in the NL East and the Reds tearing down even faster than the Brewers in the Central, it is possible.  I would still bet the under simply because the Brewers will likely move some pieces during the year, namely Lucroy.  My guess: 73-89.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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