What If The Brewers Don’t Rebuild?

With the non-waiver trade deadline (July 31) nearing and the Brewers being 20-games back in the standings, it’s only natural the topic of trades has permeated most recent conversations regarding the team. Many people seem to be clamoring for a rebuild and are worried that owner Mark Attanasio and the front office will collectively turn a deaf ear. I, too, would prefer to see positive moves made to increase the talent pool that could be potentially available for future competitive teams. However, it appears as though the Brewers might not be in a great position come the deadline.

Our own J.P. Breen discussed in-depth the problems that the Brewers face. Some of those obstacles include the poor performances of players like Kyle Lohse and Aramis Ramirez, an unclear market for studs like Carlos Gomez, and overall trepidation from clubs to acquire Francisco Rodriguez due to his off-field issues. There could still be trades made, but it’s looking more likely that they will be minor ones.

That has me wondering what the future might hold for the major-league team and how a non-rebuild would affect their ability to compete. It’s not an easy thing to tackle. No one can be sure what this Brewers team will look like on August 1, let alone who will populate the roster on Opening Day in 2016. Therefore, it’s troublesome to have a good barometer of their competitiveness next year.

We can, however, make educated guesses. By determining who is under contract, we can see potential holes and potential strengths in the club’s roster. We can also point out prospects who may be ready at some point in 2016, though that also naturally takes a fair amount of guesswork.

First, it’s helpful to lay the groundwork and show who is under contract for next year. The follow table illustrates how the 25-man roster would look if the Brewers simply filled from within. The actual roster will most certainly look different on Opening Day in 2016, but it provides a useful starting point.

Starting Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
C: Jonathan Lucroy Martin Maldonado Matt Garza Francisco Rodriguez
1B: Adam Lind Jason Rogers Wily Peralta Jeremy Jeffress
2B: Scooter Gennett Hector Gomez Jimmy Nelson Will Smith
3B: Matt Dominguez Hernan Perez Mike Fiers Corey Knebel
SS: Jean Segura Shane Peterson Taylor Jungmann Michael Blazek
LF: Khris Davis Tyler Thornburg
CF: Carlos Gomez David Goforth
RF: Ryan Braun

I made a few assumptions when compiling this table. Jonathan Broxton could be retained next year, but it’s more likely that the Brewers decline his option and pay the buyout. He’s struggled mightily this year and would be owed $9 million in 2016. By declining his option, the organization would pay $2 million instead.

I’m also assuming that Milwaukee non-tenders both Logan Schafer and Brandon Kintzler. Schafer hasn’t performed well in the chances he has been given, and the center fielder is poised to enter his first year of arbitration. The Brewers won’t want to pay him more than league minimum and will part ways. Kintzler will be entering his second year of arbitration eligibility. He wasn’t effective in 2014, struggled this year, and has been injured for much of both seasons. The Brewers probably believe in his ability, as do I, but will take the chance of possibly non-tendering him with hopes of re-signing him to a minor-league deal.

One final thing to clarify. I do not wish to suggest that Matt Dominguez will be the starting third baseman next year. I’d be more than a little shocked if next year’s starting third baseman is anywhere in the Brewers organization right now, majors or minors. The table is just meant to represent the type of talent currently available to the Brewers and how the roster would look without any trades or free-agent signings.

I have trouble deciding what I think of that roster. I like a lot of the individual players, though it should be noted that the rotation projects to be particularly weak. However, that starting lineup looks fine-ish (more on that soon). Of course, it’s mostly an identical starting lineup that has been terrible for 81 games this year, so it’s challenging to make a compelling argument that they will somehow transform into a competitive offense a year later. At the same time, I have to believe Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are much better players than they have been so far.

The Brewers wouldn’t have to settle for this roster, though. Trades to improve the major-league roster seem unlikely and, quite frankly, counterproductive to the long-term health of the franchise. But they could dip into free agency as they have in recent years. If ownership so desires, it could spend a sizable amount because the club is ridding itself of many expiring contracts.

The roster above would cost approximately $71,105,000 before arbitration salaries are included. Matt Dominguez, Jean Segura, Wily Peralta, Will Smith, and Tyler Thornburg will all enter their first year of arbitration. As such, their salaries won’t be decided until late in the offseason. However, their total salaries won’t likely exceed $10 million. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume the total cost of the above 25-man roster is approximately $81 million.

If we also assume the last two seasons’ payrolls (approximately $103-104 million) are the upper ceiling the Brewers can approach that would leave around $20 million to spend in free agency. One look at that roster and two spots obviously need upgrading — third base and the starting rotation.

It would be hard to fill both in free agency. Mid-rotation starters now go for more than half that. Matt Garza is receiving $12.5 million in the first four years of his contract for example, and he was cheaper than the average mid-rotation starter because of injury concerns. It’s more likely that it would cost closer to $15 million AAV (annual average value). A good starting position player would likely cost as much. Aramis Ramirez was signed for an AAV of $12 million (before factoring in his $14M option-year). That deal was inked four years ago (with deferred money) and prices have increased.

So if the Brewers wanted to improve the roster, they’d likely only be able to get a major improvement from one position. All of that may be not matter, as the upcoming free-agent class looks rather dismal. You can view it for yourself here.

There doesn’t appear to be a single third baseman that projects to be even an average major-league regular. That is, unless you think Ben Zobrist could make the transition. However, of all the positions he’s played, that’s the one played the least (20.1 innings) and he hasn’t played there since 2010. He’ll also be 35 years old in a year. Brewers fans have seen firsthand how poorly a contract for an aged corner infielder can look at the end of it.

The market for a starting pitcher is more robust. But even if the Brewers spend all of the $20M that’s hypothetically available, they wouldn’t be in play for top-tier guys. Instead of an ace, they would only be able to afford another mid-rotation type in the mold of a Kyle Lohse or Matt Garza. That’s hardly inspiring, nor would it be enough to fundamentally augment the staff.

There is one area where the Brewers should be better off next year: prospect call-ups. This year, with the exception of Taylor Jungmann, Brewers fans have seen mostly bullpen and bench call-ups. Next year, the team could see several solid regulars get their first taste of the majors. Orlando Arcia (SS), Michael Reed (RF), Tyler Wagner (SP), Jorge Lopez (SP), and Tyler Cravy (SP/RP) could see marginal-to-moderate playing time. Unfortunately, none of these players will help fill that hole at third base, and the pitchers are more back-end to potentially mid-rotation types. Thus, while the rotation depth should be much deeper, it will still lack impact arms.

It’s hard to tell if that team would have a chance to be competitive next year. It’s not a stretch to imagine Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, and even Matt Garza performing significantly better. A ton can still happen, too. For example, the Brewers could trade Adam Lind and install Jason Rogers as the first baseman.

Would you feel better next year if instead of Aramis Ramirez, Kyle Lohse, and Adam Lind, the Brewers had Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, and Jason Rogers? Add in a rebound for Lucroy and Gomez, better performance from Garza and Peralta, improvement from Jimmy Nelson, and mid-season call-ups and I could see an argument for competitiveness. But goodness, that’s a lot of ifs.

It’s also the same reasoning that led to the Brewers doing next-to-nothing in the most recent offseason. That result has obviously been poor. Striving for the contention would also see the club add more potentially poor contracts. But, more importantly, it would see them likely squander their best opportunity to trade current assets for sorely-needed future assets.

Secondary concerns exist, as well. Next year’s international signing period presents a great opportunity for a team to blow past their spending limits and accrue a large amount of young, international prospect talent. The Brewers can’t spend money at the big-league level in the way teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox do. The farm system is vital source of talent and cost-savings. If Milwaukee were to tie up the majority of their money on the major-league roster, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the international market.

It’s not impossible for the Brewers could build a competitive team next year. The real question is if they should. The answer is probably no. Gomez will explore free agency after next year. Lucroy’s contract will expire after 2017. More than a few players will be entering their second and third arbitration years by that point. If the Brewers do not take the opportunity to rebuild while it’s currently presenting itself, they may find that they won’t have the chance to do that again for years. In the meantime, they’ll likely continue to have bloated payrolls for poor-to-middling teams that don’t make the playoffs.

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