What the Success of the NL Central Means for Milwaukee

It’s no secret that the big story in baseball is the playoffs, and even though the Brewers aren’t involved, they are still impacted. Three of the five teams that made the National League playoffs are from the Central, which—because of simple math—should make the future road to October more difficult for both Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

Saying that there are other good teams so making the playoffs is hard is far too simplistic. It is mostly obvious, and it doesn’t really give any guidance about what direction the Brewers need to go. What is important, though, is how those three playoff teams are built.

In the middle of the last decade, the Yankees and Red Sox were so dominant and spent so much money that it appeared they brought the rest of the American League with them. They were consistently very good, and their competitors had to get creative because they knew they would not be able to outspend the two powerhouses. The popular theory was teams had shoot to be great rather than simply very good because they knew that eventually the path to the World Series would go through either Boston or New York.

I am a bit skeptical of this argument in terms of how it relates to other teams’ decision-making; after all, most teams are generally trying to be as good as possible, and they each had their own path to the playoffs through their own division. It may slightly affect choices made at the trade deadline, but general managers do not spend the winter shooting for “just good enough.”

However, it would certainly affect expectations and results. Teams that consistently made the playoffs in the mid-2000s like Oakland and Minnesota knew that while something in the range of 92 wins was an objectively good season, they would inevitably have to compete in October against at least one of the AL East duo.

This is certainly relevant to the situation the Brewers face in 2016 and beyond. The three best records in the National League this year were from the Central, and the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs each relied on young, team-controlled talent that is unlikely to leave in the next couple years. This presents a problem for Milwaukee: the core talent on each of those three teams (but Chicago in particular) is relatively cheap, which leaves their respective front offices even more budget space to spend on free agents to upgrade. We saw an example of this phenomenon this past winter when the Cubs signed Jon Lester.

As a small-market team capable of carrying a moderate—but not huge—payroll, this level of interdivision competition puts pressure on the Brewers to build much the same way. This is not a weak division that looks like it can be won by 88 wins at any point in the near future. So while fluke down years can and do happen, teams in the NL Central do probably need to be built differently than do teams in a weaker division.

Owner Mark Attanasio has historically been willing to carry a higher payroll than the market size would suggest; the Brewers ranked twelfth in payroll as recently as 2014. However, they do not have the budget of the Dodgers or Yankees, which is basically the only scenario that would enable a team to compete with the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals. Therefore, they will be relying on their farm system to produce the high-level talent required to win.

Players such as Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips will be counted on to become stars. The Brewers’ minor league system is in much better shape than it was a couple years ago, but it appears as if merely moderate success will no longer be good enough. Otherwise, the Brewers won’t be able to afford a way to acquire the talent necessary to compete in their division.

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