Lately, lots of talk surrounding the Milwaukee Brewers has surrounded the future of the team. And understandably so. The future appears to hold so many more positive, exciting things in store! But with the 2015 season so freshly minted, let’s take a look back and crown some winners for the First-Annual BP Milwaukee End-of-Season Awards.
The Best Sausage Race Highlight of the Year
I’ll bet you can pinpoint the exact moment where Polish’s dreams of a comeback win are dashed against the rocks:
(original source vine from Andy MacDonald)
Athletic shorts come with a drawstring for a reason, kids. Most of us are fortunate enough to never learn that reason first-hand. Some of us learn it the hard way, in front of an entire stadium of people. Kudos to Polish for staying on his feet through the ordeal, at least. I know it doesn’t feel like much consolation, now, but trust me — you’re very, very grateful that you didn’t topple over and become a viral sensation.
Most Unpleasant Bump in the Road
As the first pitch flew for Opening Day 2015, the Brewers were given playoff odds of approximately 14 percent. Anyone saying that the team “would” make the playoffs was clearly huffing glue, but “could” was a far more common refrain — and with Adam Lind bolstering the offense of a team that missed the postseason by a hair in 2014, playoff baseball in Milwaukee was not a totally unreasonable hope.
Then, April came, and the cold boot of failure kicked those optimistic fans — and the team itself — squarely in the teeth.
The team started the season 2-13, dropping those playoff odds down to one percent just three short weeks into things. That’s a one percent chance of success with over 90 percent of games left to be played, for those keeping track. Milwaukee finished out the month of April with a .217 winning percentage to show for their efforts, and an estimated .5 percent chance of playing postseason baseball. It was clear to anyone who was watching that the team was getting tremendously unlucky, and the law of averages dictated that things would level out by October — but within one month, Milwaukee was already chasing a seven-game deficit for the second Wild Card spot.
The rest of the season, the team played like a .500 ballclub — or very close to it — but that putrid April set the tone for things and extinguished any short-term hope that the franchise held. Not to mention, it served as the final nail in the coffin of Ron Roenicke’s tenure with the franchise. While the entire season was quite unpleasant, April was the worst month, and it wasn’t even particularly close.
Underwhelming Prospect of the Year
First off, it needs to be said that it is not Monte Harrison’s fault that he slipped on a patch of wet grass and gruesomely mangled his ankle. Freak injuries are a part of the game that cannot be avoided.
(Note: video is SFW. They didn’t catch the actual injury, just Harrison’s reaction.)
The problem is, Harrison’s injury marked a premature end to an already disappointing season for the 2014 second-round pick. Praised as a potential superstar from the draft, Harrison impressed in rookie ball last season. Encouraged by his 32 steals in 50 games and .404 OBP, the front office gave the twenty-year-old an aggressive assignment to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers early on in the year.
Sometimes, a young player responds to precocious placement like that by elevating his game to a level neither the player nor organization thought possible. Other times, he’ll look like a pants-wetting high-school freshman thrown to the wolves in a varsity game. Harrison’s performance in Appleton was decidedly more of the latter. He slashed just .148/.246/.247, got erased on 40 percent of his stolen-base attempts and was more than a win below replacement level overall in just two short months. He was raw, he was badly overwhelmed, and the results were too ugly to watch.
BP’s Nick Faleris noted Harrison’s “underdeveloped pitch recognition” as a major weakness while talking about the team’s Top 10 prospects before the season, and A-ball pitchers feasted on this weakness. How else do you explain a .400 OBP-player suffering such a painfully precipitous drop in their ability to not make outs?
To their credit, Milwaukee recognized the folly in overpromoting Harrison and sent him back down to Helena. Then, as if a switch was flipped, Harrison started performing again. His slash line jumped up to .299/.410/.474, and he was successful on fourteen of sixteen stolen base attempts in just twenty-eight games. Then, Harrison’s ankle gave out.
This is not to suggest that Harrison will end up as a bust or that this year means anything in the grander scheme of things. But an ankle injury to a speedy outfielder is never good to see, especially from a player who already suffered one developmental setback. Before the 2015 season, Harrison was graded as Milwaukee’s fifth-best prospect. After it, BP highlighted him in “A look at 10 prospects who failed to meet expectations.” He’s going to need to do a good bit of redeeming himself during his second go-round in Appleton if he wants to ascend to that position once again.
Most Mutually Beneficial Trade
We’re big, big fans of Adam Lind here at BP Milwaukee. When the franchise decided to plug him in as the solution to the first base woes that have persisted since Prince Fielder was purchased away, it was a smart and well-reasoned decision. That the team only had to give up Marco Estrada — a pitcher who opposing hitters used as a launching pad in 2014 — was the icing on the cake.
Lind, of course, delivered on his end of the bargain. He finished out 2015 with 20 home runs on a rate right in line with his career averages, and his .360 OBP was even better than expected. His 1.9 WAR was right on par with the 2014 season that saw him run out of Toronto, but he also did that without his glove being hidden by the DH rule. Offensively, Lind produced the second-best VORP of his career.
But the Toronto Blue Jays were much, much better than expected — and Marco Estrada played no small part in this. Not only did he temper the bout of gopheritis that had plagued him during his final Milwaukee season, he cut his ERA, WHIP, and hit rate all significantly. While critics are quick to point to his depressed BABIP against as the reason for this change, our own J.P. Breen did a good job demonstrating how Estrada is actually the type of pitcher capable of exercising more control than most over BABIP.
The best deals see both teams walk away better off than they started, and this was certainly one of those occasions.
Worst Transaction of the Year
What transpired on July 29, 2015 might just transcend the “year” and go down in history as one of the worst transactions of all time, for multiple reasons. That was the night that the Brewers agreed to send Carlos Gomez to the New York Mets in exchange for Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores, pending medical reviews.
As we all know, it was those last three words — overlooked by most as Twitter melted down from the excitement of the deadline season’s first big deal — that came to define the move when it was all said and done. The Mets allegedly found something wrong with Gomez’s hip and backed out.
On this cue, all hell broke loose.
Flores, playing shortstop for the Mets at the time, was left in their current game as the deal was not yet finalized. This led to the iconically tragic experience of watching a player find out, in front of the entire world, that the organization he had been with for eight years was getting rid of him — by way of a Tweet broadcast on a video screen. As the New York fans gave him a standing ovation, Flores broke down into tears.
Meanwhile, Scott Boras — Gomez’s agent — was denying the hip issue and bad-mouthing the Mets to the press, which led to the Mets bad-mouthing Boras in turn. And in all of this commotion Gomez, Wheeler, and Flores were left to wonder just who in the f— they would be playing for the next morning.
But that logistical failing is not the only reason this deal was so historically bad. The next day, both the Mets and Brewers set out to finish what they started, and the original trade paled in comparison to the moves both teams eventually made.
The Brewers, of course, dealt Gomez for a platter of highly-touted prospects from Houston. Flores and Wheeler are both very good, very special players. But they are also two players who will not turn a sub-.500 team into a playoff contender, especially not in the NL Central. Meanwhile, the Mets went out and struck a deal for Yoenis Cespedes, who has been so good that there’s talk of him garnering NL MVP votes after spending only two months in the league, while Gomez has struggled since landing in Houston.
Like the Lind/Estrada deal, everyone emerged from this ordeal better off. Unlike that prior agreement, however, that’s because this one fell through, only to create even greater mutual opportunities. And in the meantime, we all learned a valuable lesson about the power of social media and the humanity of ballplayers. They’re assets to be traded, but they’re also humans with real feelings and loyalties. Maybe someday we can figure out how to balance the two viewpoints.
Least Valuable Pitcher
Once upon a time, the Milwaukee Brewers signed a veteran free-agent pitcher. This pitcher had been a journeyman back-end starter for years before Dave Duncan and the St. Louis Cardinals turned him into a thirtysomething resurgence. For two seasons, the Brewers got a decent return on their investment, and their new starter even buoyed one contending team. But during the third year of his tenure in Milwaukee, the turd hit the fan.
I’m speaking, of course, about Kyle Lohse. Or it could be Jeff Suppan, actually — they both fit. But hey, who’s counting? Suppan’s 2009 season produced exactly -1 WAR; Lohse’s 2015 campaign was worth -1.1. Fortunately, that is where the similarities end. While Suppan’s contract contained a fourth year, Lohse will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season.
Milwaukee was counting on Lohse to provide a stable, positive presence on the mound. Instead, he posted a DRA of 5.56. Among pitchers with as many innings thrown as him, only Drew Hutchinson was worse. Lohse seemed to revert back to the Quad-A pitcher he was in Minnesota once upon a time, and his 1.46 WHIP was the worst mark he’s posted since 2006.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Wily Peralta or Matt Garza could have both won this award with absolutely zero controversy. In fact, I very nearly chose Garza and justified it with his petulant refusal to pitch out of the bullpen in September. Contrast that with Lohse, who accepted his demotion and actually pitched reasonably well after being removed from the rotation. Regardless, any time sixty percent of the rotation is made from some of the statistical worst starting pitchers in the league, it’s going to be a long season. As the statistics paint a picture in which Lohse is the most ineffective of the trio, he gets the prize.
The Tiger Woods Memorial Award for “Most Un-Slick Act of Cheating”
On May 21, the Brewers and Braves were tied 1-1 in the 7th inning, which meant it was Will Smith Time. Smith was, after closer Francisco Rodriguez, the Brewers’ go-to bullpen ace — the situation was perfect to deploy him. High leverage and late–that’s what Smith does best. What’s more, Atlanta was his hometown, and he wanted to impress the friends and family in attendance.
This made things all the more embarassing when Smith was ejected from the game before he could even record a single out. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez noticed something weird on Smith’s arm and alerted the umpires. The officials and TV cameras then confronted Smith and the not-even-hidden, shimmery spot on his arm. “Caught red-handed” feels way too forcefully punny here. Let’s just say they had him dead to rights.
Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records. But he does need a little pine tar to make that curve snap. pic.twitter.com/7lgQFwBgyB
— Colin Anderle (@BaseballGuyCAA) May 22, 2015
The ejection paved the way for the Braves to jack up seven runs against the lesser parts of Milwaukee’s bullpen and win the once-close game easily. Smith was given a four-game suspension for his attempted chicanery. Perhaps most importantly, the legacy of Will Smith’s 2015 was tarnished. On paper, Smith was great this year — I’ll get more into detail here later on — and his past two seasons have earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of baseball’s elite setup men. But that all comes with a big ol’ footnote now. Getting caught cheating is bad enough. Getting caught cheating stupidly is a thousand times worse.
Least Valuable Player
Martin Maldonado was one of the beneath-the-surface success stories that almost propelled the 2014 Brewers to the playoffs. The former non-prospect turned in a competent, half-win season behind the dish and allowed the team to rest Jonathan Lucroy or play him at first base without suffering for it. Almost out of nowhere, Maldonado went from Quad-A player to legitimate backup.
With Maldonado behind Lucroy, catcher was considered a strong point for Milwaukee coming into the 2015 campaign. But in the midst of that horrendous 2-13 start, Lucroy went on the disabled list with a fractured toe. He would battle injuries all season, and Maldonado was pressed into more regular action than ever — 256 plate appearances in 79 games, to be precise.
Unfortunately, that capably productive player from 2014 was nowhere to be found. This year’s version of Maldonado regressed in every facet of the game. His entire slash line went down, he hit the same number of home runs in approximately twice as many chances, and his True Average flirted with the Mendoza line all season. Maldonado wasn’t quite as bad as having a second pitcher in the lineup, but he did accumulate north of 250 plate appearances and fail to post a .600 OPS. That’s really, really bad.
Behind the plate, the story was no brighter. By the advanced metrics, 2015 was Maldonado’s worst defensive year as a pro across the board. Whether measured by framing, blocking, or receiving, Maldonado was a significantly poorer backstop than his career numbers would indicate. Though he was behind the plate approximately twice as much as he was in any prior season, Maldonado added just 32 extra strikes through framing. Contrast that to his prior three seasons — 53, 56, 53. Again, these numbers were accumulated in half the time. Maldonado was a plus-WAR defensive player in each of the prior three seasons. In 2015, that streak was cut short.
Maldonado even managed to post his worst season as a baserunner, too. He stole one base in 2012, was thrown out during a second attempt that season, then decided that maybe base-stealing wasn’t very much his thing. Those were his only two stolen base attempts before he was thrown out by the Cubs’ Miguel Montero this past May. Maybe he saw another catcher with the initials MM, and needed to establish dominance? Whatever it was, it’s not something that anybody wants any more of.
When Lucroy got hurt it was assumed that the team was in trouble, but Maldonado’s transformation into a donkey made the loss sting even more than it should have.
Pleasant Surprise of the Year
Domingo Santana’s 2014 Major League season might go down as the worst in modern history. Santana made seventeen plate appearances, walked once, didn’t register a single hit, and struck out fourteen times.
Still, the 23-year-old Dominican brought prodigious power and tremendous raw athleticism to the table, helping to make the swing-and-miss tendency a little more palatable. The biggest problem for Santana was the fact that the Astros already had George Springer in place — but the Brewers saw the value Springer was bringing to Houston’s lineup, and decided that adding a similar player would be a good idea. Santana’s warts were evident to anyone watching, but he was also the most Major-League-ready player in the haul that the team got back for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.
Santana’s performance in Milwaukee comes with a massive small-sample-size caution, but if the young outfielder can continue to post an OPS in the .766 range, he will stick as a Major League starter. If he can become a better contact hitter and work to improve in the outfield, Santana has the ceiling of a multi-year All-Star and dark-horse MVP candidate. At the end of the day, it’ll come down to how badly he wants it. There’s plenty of good and a sizable amount of bad with Santana — Ryan Romano breaks it all down — but overall, the team has to be thrilled with how his first taste of Milwaukee baseball went.
Bittersweet Moment of the Year
Mike Fiers had been an Astro for approximately three weeks when, on August 21st, he threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers. Fiers spaced out three walks and struck out ten Los Angeles hitters, needing a total of 134 pitches to finish the no-hitter. It was the first no-hitter for an Astro since Darryl Kile in 1993. Meanwhile, the 0nly no-hitter for the Brewers was thrown in 1987.
The reaction from fans couldn’t have possibly been more mixed. Most were happy for the former player, and tried to optimistically paint it as a bright spot in a dark season. A sizable portion lamented that the Brewers had missed out on their second no-hitter by such a narrow margin — a spurious claim, but when your season starts 2-13 you can be forgiven for tossing logic out the window. There was even overlap, as people simultaneously expressed both of these sentiments.
Meanwhile, on that exact same day, Domingo Santana hit his third home run in a Milwaukee uniform as the Brewers beat the Nationals 10-3. Kyle Lohse didn’t throw a no-hitter — now that would have been something — but he did work three innings for his first career save. All in all, that made things a little less bitter and a little more sweet.
Minor League Player of the Year
In recent years, much has been written about Milwaukee’s organizational fondness for the jump to Double-A ball as a barometer of a player’s abilities. High-A to Double-A is considered the second-biggest gap in the system after Triple-A to the majors, so it’s a sensible policy to follow.
Orlando Arcia firmly established himself as the shortstop of the future for Milwaukee in 2014, hitting .289 and stealing 32 bases at High-A. This season marked the big test — and Arcia passed it easily. Dealing with the toughest pre-majors promotion a player has to conquer, Arcia hit .300 for the first time in his young career, doubled his home run output from four to eight, and still provided the kind of dynamic defense that has fueled his prospect reputation.
Both Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura have developed into capable middle infielders, but the presence of Arcia could force one or both of them out of Milwaukee sooner rather than later. Arcia continues to improve at every level he plays, and he’s one hot streak away from forcing his way onto the big league roster.
Best Transaction of the Year
If you’d rather this be the Jonathan Broxton trade, or the Aramis Ramirez trade, well, I wouldn’t fault you in the slightest. Those two moves are slam dunks where the Brewers traded something they would have been losing anyways — or didn’t really want in the first place — for something that might pan out in the long run. Those are great moves to make. But they are rarely great moves.
When New York scuttled the Carlos Gomez deal, that could have been a crushing blow for Milwaukee’s rebuilding effort. But the team regrouped, and inexplicably landed an even bigger haul than they had gotten just a day earlier. They had to include Fiers — and his eventual no-hitter — to do it, but the payoff has so far been more than worth what it cost.
Santana is the only player of the group to see Major League action so far, but he has looked nothing like the tire fire that he was in 2014. Brett Phillips and Josh Hader are both players that I’ve profiled extensively. They’ll be up in 2016 or ’17, and both stand to play key roles in the team that Milwaukee hopes will eventually bring home a championship.
Meanwhile, Gomez’s value has already taken a hit. Not only did the Mets allegedly find a hip problem, but he also missed extensive time in September with a torn muscle in his ribcage. Still, the Astros have to be thrilled. Their rental star delivered a key home run in the Wild Card play-in game. Like I said before, the best trades are the ones where everybody wins.
Silver Lining of the Year
It could be worse. It could always be worse. This season was tough to swallow for Brewer fans, but the pendulum is at least swinging back up if you look at the past couple of months. The same cannot be said about our division mates in Cincinatti.
The Reds as a whole were an unmitigated disaster zone in 2015. Manager Bryan Price started the season historically bad — with his humiliating, expletive-laced tirade against beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans — and then ended it in the same fashion, as he watched his team quit on him and finished 1-14 to slip below the Brewers in the standings.
Meanwhile, the Reds cleared out talented big-league players as well — Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake chief among them — but failed to net anything approaching the return that the Brewers saw for Gomez, Fiers, and company. While Milwaukee figures to now have one of the more talented minor league systems in all of baseball, the Reds are still pinning their hopes to a miracle one-year turnaround. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are both expensive, getting older, and can’t seem to agree on what approach works at the plate. And with Cueto and Leake both jettisoned, the de facto ace of the staff is Anthony DeSclafani. DeSclafani is a control pitcher who BP seems to think likely for a spontaneous combustion at some point in his career, as evidenced by his closest comparisons in the Similarity Index: Dillon Gee, Tommy Milone, Wade LeBlanc, and Jeff Locke among others. It’s hardly a confidence-inspiring list.
The National League Central is already going to be a difficult nut to crack for the Brewers’ eventual finished product. The premature demise of Votto, Phillips, and the rest of Cincinatti can only be seen as a good thing from this vantage point. They’re one less heavyweight to worry about. So here’s to you, Reds. May you retain Bryan Price in perpetuity.
Most Valuable Pitcher
When the Brewers traded Nori Aoki for Will Smith prior to the 2014 season, they did so with the intention of moving Smith back to the starting rotation. Kansas City had converted him into a reliever, and in doing so, they had turned him from a Quad-A pitcher into a valuable roster piece. For some inexplicable reason, Doug Melvin saw this as a fine reason to try Smith out as a starter again.
Fortunately, that experiment never saw the light of day — ironically enough, due to the ill-fated signing of Matt Garza. When Milwaukee inked Garza to a contract, it bumped Smith from the projected starting rotation. The team focused on finding a fit for him in the bullpen, instead, and the rest was history.
Pine tar aside, Smith’s 2015 season might have flown under the radar of almost every casual observer. But the advanced metrics reveal the truth. Deployed in relief, this guy is one of the most effective pitchers in the game, bar none. Among relievers who threw at least 40 innings for their teams, Smith’s 12.9 strikeouts per 9 innings is sixth-best in the Majors. His 1.4 WAR was tied with Jimmy Nelson for tops among players who finished the season with the team.
It might seem a bit unorthodox to give this award to a relief pitcher, but this is 2015, the Year of the Elite Bullpen. Plus, as we’ve established, 60 percent of the starting rotation pitched like animated garbage. Smith, on the other hand, wasn’t garbage. He was filthy.
Most Valuable Player
Even in the current climate of rebuilding, the only player thought to be immune from trade is Ryan Braun. Braun’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs — and his childish antics in playing the blame-game after the fact — were a black eye on the organization and have made him a pariah throughout much of baseball. That’s before you get to his advancing age, declining health, and mammoth contract. Nobody else wants to deal with him, much less give up valuable young players for the privilege of dealing with him.
However, the Brewers and fans are desperately hoping that Braun can put it back together. He will be 32 years old next year — old, but not ancient. Still young enough to have trade value, if his name wasn’t a four-letter word around the league. A few quietly productive seasons will start to dampen that effect, though.
Braun’s 2015 season was certainly encouraging in that regard. On the one hand, while he led the team in WAR, he posted a comparable number to 2014’s total. He was far from being the 5-6 win player of his prime.
But that’s due in large part to Braun’s defensive implosion. Since being moved off of third base in 2008, Braun has consistently been a defensive positive. In 2015, though, that stopped, and the Hebrew Hammer was approximately ten runs worse than average in the field.
Offensively, though, Braun posted superstar numbers again. His slugging percentage and home runs were down, suggesting at this point that his numbers from 2009-2012 might not have exactly been organic, but he’s also growing into a more patient hitter as he ages. He has yet to lose the ability to put bat to ball. Braun stole 24 bases in 2015, too, getting caught only four times.
In the offensive facet of the game, there might not be a player more well-rounded than Ryan Braun, and that holds true even at his advanced age and with his dimished power capability. Whichever team finally decides to put together a fair offer for him will be getting a great deal out of it. And if the Brewers hold onto him instead, he could absolutely still be contributing when the team puts a contender on the field.
Ryan Braun’s 2015 season wasn’t good enough to contend for the league MVP award. But the 2015 Brewers are far from the class of the league — and in this small pond, Braun is more than fish enough to take home the hardware.