Like most rebuilding teams, the Brewers have to figure out how to invest in free agency heading into a season in which they are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot. There are two parts to this decision: They must first choose which (if any) positions to address this offseason, and they must then decide how much money to offer these veteran players to come join a team that is at least one year away from even having a chance to win.
I will begin by offering a caveat — this is the approach that I would take, not what I necessarily expect the new front office to do. GM David Stearns recently said that they are looking at options for third base and center field, which makes sense as nearly every other spot has at least some semblance of a holdover from 2015.
Third base is a good place to begin because it is the position at which the Brewers have the worst options. Elian Herrera is currently atop the depth chart on Brewers.com, but the veteran utilityman will be 31 on Opening Day 2016 and has a career 83 OPS+ in just 639 plate appearances. He is not a long-term solution at third base. He’s arguably not even a short-term solution.
And Milwaukee does not appear to have an in-house solution for third base arriving in the next couple years, either. Orlando Arcia will arrive to play shortstop soon, but that will likely move Jean Segura to second base rather than third, and the other young infielders in the Brewers’ system (Gilbert Lara and Jacob Gatewood) are at least a few years away from even debuting in the big leagues. Thus, signing a veteran free agent who will undoubtedly expect to play will not be stealing playing time from anyone who may be a part of the Brewers’ future.
The problem, though, comes with the free agency market. This is one of the best free agent classes in years, but that talent does not extend to third base, where the best players are David Freese and Juan Uribe. Therefore, if the Brewers do decide to sign someone, they won’t be getting a high-quality player who can contribute with any sort of consistency. That decision, though, would not harm their long-term growth.
Center field is essentially a polar opposite. The free agent market is quite strong — Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, and Denard Span are all available — and the Brewers do have a short-term need at the position. Although I appreciated the team’s willingness to allot last September to helping Domingo Santana get experience, he is not a center fielder (and Stearns acknowledged that himself), so they are still looking for an answer in the middle of the outfield.
Pursuing one of the higher-priced players would be a mistake, though. On the surface, acquiring a player like Dexter Fowler (assuming he stays within Milwaukee’s price range) would make sense — at 29 years of age, Fowler should still be a productive player in 2017 and 2018 when the Brewers next hope to be good. This would be a move similar in philosophy (if not in outcome) to the one the Cubs made in acquiring Jon Lester, a veteran who was leaving his prime just as the rest of their team was entering it.
However, two of the Brewers’ top-five prospects are center fielders who are close to the big leagues. Both Brett Phillips and Tyrone Taylor are viable big league prospects who should have the opportunity to earn Major League at-bats in 2016, and signing a long-term free agent would alter that development opportunity. A small-market team like the Brewers — regardless of their ability to spend above their market size — cannot afford to give big money to players at positions where they have high-quality, cheap talent in the minor leaguers.
The solution is probably to simply play Santana or Elian Herrera in center field at the beginning of the season. The Carlos Gomez trade indicated that the Brewers recognized they were unlikely to compete in 2016 anyway, so giving playing time to one of those two admittedly sub-par options is not a disaster, even if neither Phillips nor Taylor prove themselves worthy of big league at-bats. And, if one of those minor leaguers does deserve to get called up, Santana can simply be shifted back to a corner where he likely rightfully belongs.
Essentially, then, I believe the Brewers should be cautious on the free-agent market. They are a young team with a surprising amount of major league talent for a club that will have the fifth pick in the upcoming draft, and one of their two big holes may be filled shortly from the minor leagues. Signing a mediocre veteran to take real at-bats away from valuable players would be a mistake.
I would, however, advise signing replacement-level, veteran starting pitchers. Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann are promising, and Josh Hader and Jorge Lopez spent the second half of the season impressing for Double-A Biloxi. They are all, however, very young. Matt Garza is the only real, experienced veteran in the starting rotation, and he has had durability issues. If he misses significant time, the Brewers would be heavily reliant on young pitchers to get them through the season. If Nelson, Jungmann, Wily Peralta, and others are good enough and durable enough to handle such a load, the Brewers will be better off. But if they are not capable of doing so, they will take on significant physical and mental risk.
Signing a pitcher like Brandon Beachy or Jerome Williams (or, if possible, simply invite them to spring training) would give the Brewers options to stash as long men in the bullpen or in Triple-A. That way, if any of the young pitchers struggle or get injured, the Brewers will have an experienced, veteran pitcher — who the Brewers do not consider a part of their future and thus do not have to take extreme care with — to turn to in their stead.
I do not know enough about the new Milwaukee front office to predict what direction they will go, although it is likely they recognize this team is not likely to be good. I would hope that they give the young players the opportunity to succeed, but that they attempt to invest in veteran backups in case reinforcements are needed simply to get through the season.