Rebuilding teams should not ignore the free-agent market. In the same vein, rebuilding teams should not avoid spending money on players. Sure, the types of players purchased and the optimal structure of player contracts differ significantly when the club is not expected to contend; however, it’s highly misleading for fans to assume that “rebuilding” somehow equals “cheap” or “young.”
What the Milwaukee Brewers should be doing this offseason is identifying free agents who could eventually bring a long-term asset, either via a trade or via the qualifying offer system. The Chicago Cubs did this several years ago, signing Scott Feldman to a short-term deal. They famously shipped the right-hander to Baltimore in 2013 for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop — an innocuous deal at the time, but one that has profoundly shaped the current Cubs franchise.
This isn’t to suggest that the Milwaukee Brewers can pull off a trade as lopsided as the Arrieta deal turned out to be. They should, though, be targeting Scott-Feldman-like free agents, ones who can be signed to short-term deals and ones with modest upside. None of these players will be exciting, the vast majority of them are currently fringe everyday guys, but the key is to find fringe guys who have the opportunity to produce solid numbers in 2016. It’s not unlike what happened with Gerardo Parra. The Brewers moved a couple low-end prospects for a fourth outfielder. A year later, Parra re-established his value and brought the Brewers a potential back-end starter for the next half-decade. David Stearns and his staff should target a couple players of that ilk.
Below are three free-agent targets that I have in mind.
The 28-year-old center fielder has been a below-average hitter for the past two seasons, posting an 86 wRC+ and 94 wRC+ over the past two years, respectively. His glovework has kept him employable, but a full-time stint in the National League in one of the best hitter’s parks in Major League Baseball may be enough to inflate the numbers to league-average status. He was a two-win player in 2015. In the friendly confines of Miller Park, he could do what Dexter Fowler did this past year — move from fringe center fielder who bounced around annually to a legitimate starting option.
Jackson could be a 15/15 guy with a middling batting average in Miller Park. As a rebuilding club, they’ll have the luxury to deal with his penchant for striking out and his extended cold spells at the plate. The club would hope they catch Jackson on an upswing in the early part of the 2016 season, one where he performs as a top-half center fielder and could be flipped at the trade deadline to a contender. Outfielders who can play defense are always in demand at the trade deadline — especially center fielders — and the Brewers are in a position to take a shot in the dark. Given the number of outfielders reportedly on the trade market this winter, too, the club may have a real shot to sign Jackson on a one- or two-year deal.
Gee is one of my favorite under-the-radar pitchers of the offseason. He’s a viable back-end starter who got squeezed out in New York due to their ridiculous rotation. He’s also a guy who has the stigma of spending much of the 2015 season in Triple-A and a guy the Mets couldn’t trade no matter how hard they tried. Despite this, the right-hander owns a career 4.03 ERA and has shown a better ability to miss bats than his strikeout rate would otherwise suggest. That may not sound exciting, but prior to the year in which the Cubs signed Scott Feldman and he was shipped to Baltimore, Feldman compiled a 5.09 ERA in 123.2 innings with the Texas Rangers.
Throughout his career, Gee has a career 9.1 percent swinging-strike rate and it increased very slightly to 9.4 percent this past season. That’s right around the league-average swinging-strike rate for starting pitchers, which is 9.3 percent. Thus, it seems disingenuous to claim that the 29-year-old hurler has terrible stuff or a repertoire that cannot succeed at the highest level. He also limits walks, which is a huge benefit. The problem, of course, is that Gee gives up the long ball too often and hasn’t necessarily translated his swinging-strike rate into actual strikeouts. These limitations are what could make him available on a short-term deal for Milwaukee — they’re never going to sign the finished article during a rebuild — but he actually showed a surprising amount of ground balls in 2015 and one wonders what changed in his repertoire and if its repeatable.
Gee suffered from a .355 BABIP in a very small sample in New York a year ago. Prior to that, he posted ERAs of 4.00, 3.62, and 4.10. That’s good enough for a back-end starter on a rebuilding club. If he can put together a quality couple months, too, he could be someone who nets an interesting prospect at the trade deadline. But, yeah, I warned you that these names would be uninspiring.
The icing on the cake: A 34-year-old veteran reliever who cleared waivers and was sent to Triple-A in 2015.
Thayer is only a year removed from a 2.34 ERA for the San Diego Padres and will surely be cheap this offseason. His overall numbers suggest that he was ineffective across the board, but his .286/.316/.427 slash line against righties belies the quality strikeout-to-walk ratio. Thayer struck out 20 percent of the right-handed hitters he faced, while only walking three percent. The right-hander has a long history of success against righties, too, holding them to a career .213/.276/.343 slash line. The dramatic drop-off in effectiveness as a 30-something is concerning; however, it’s important to recognize that his velocity didn’t drop much — only 92.2 mph to 91.9 mph with the fastball. The main issue seemed to be that he fell behind too often in the count, something he didn’t do very often in 2014.
Doug Melvin regularly brought in relievers on minor-league deals who ended up being very serviceable. Zack Duke is the most obvious example of this, but guys like Kammeron Loe found success after inking a minor-league deal with the Brewers. Thayer may be an interesting non-roster guy to bring into camp. He’s only a year removed from extreme effectiveness and didn’t really see his velocity decline. If he can throw more strikes, his fastball-slider combination becomes much more effective and he can improve the middle portion of the bullpen — and relievers are always in demand at the trade deadline, even if it’s just for something like international slot money.