The first two months of the David Stearns Administration has been anything but stagnant. In just the past week, the club has traded Adam Lind for a trio of teenage pitchers, acquired former top-200 prospect Garin Cecchini for cash, and grabbed a pair of interesting prospects in the Rule 5 Draft. Stearns hasn’t made a statement move that could define the early part of his tenure — such as trading Jonathan Lucroy for a package of high-end prospects — but it’s not difficult to recognize what the Brewers’ new general manager is doing.
David Stearns has consciously established a framework of depth from which to work this winter. Aside from two main positions — center field and first base — the current projected roster has sufficient redundancy to give Stearns the freedom to pursue the best-possible trade scenario, regardless of position. In other words, he’s given himself the ever-important flexibility needed to optimize his organizational roster. While this praise isn’t meant to suggest that Stearns has transformed the Brewers into legitimate contenders in 2016, it is meant to celebrate the intentional manner in which Stearns and his staff have amassed enough organizational depth to keep their hands untied in the trade market.
The following discussion will highlight particular pockets of roster depth and what that might mean on the trade market over the next couple months.
INFIELD OPTIONS: (C) Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Manny Pina; (1B) Jason Rogers, Ramon Flores; (2B) Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Villar, Colin Walsh; (SS) Jean Segura, Jonathan Villar, Yadiel Rivera; (3B) Garin Cecchini, Jonathan Villar
The two most talked about trade chips on the Brewers’ roster, Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura, played in a combined 245 games last year. The addition of Jonathan Villar in November signaled to many that Segura could be moved this winter; however, it was truly the Cecchini and Walsh acquisitions that gave Villar’s arrival potency. The organization valued his versatility, his ability to play multiple premium defensive positions in the infield, but it first appeared that he better fit the roster at third or second base. As such, the waiver claim of Cecchini hypothetically freed him from being the only viable option at third base, and the Rule 5 selection of Colin Walsh (who hit .308/.512/.450 against lefties in Double-A last year) no longer makes Villar a necessary platoon partner for Gennett.
In short, the Brewers now have coverage across the infield so Villar could be an everyday shortstop. That makes any trade of Jean Segura much more palatable because the club would not be scrambling in free agency, nor relying on Yadiel Rivera to punch above his weight, nor rushing Orlando Arcia too quickly to the majors. A Segura trade is certainly not a foregone conclusion. The club’s moves over the past six weeks have simply made it more possible.
The club announced after the Rule 5 Draft that catcher Manny Pina was the Player To Be Named Later (PTBNL) in the Francisco Rodriguez trade with the Detroit Tigers, something that barely got any attention outside a few mentions on Twitter. Not without reason, to be sure. He’s a 28-year-old minor-league journeyman and now joined his fourth organization in as many seasons. Still, if Lucroy were traded this offseason, the Brewers lacked any natural backup catcher in the system. But given the fact that Pina had two brief Major League appearances in his career and hit .305/.379/.461 in Triple-A last year, he’s a seasoned veteran who could handle 40-some starts behind Maldonado.
Again, this isn’t about fielding the next NL Central Champion in 2016 or 2017. It’s about competent coverage at the Major League level to ensure the Brewers have the flexibility to make necessary trades, while remaining respectable on the field. After all, the fans still deserve the latter part, and it’s one of the main ways the club will continue to coax fans through the turnstiles at Miller Park.
OUTFIELD OPTIONS: (LF) Khris Davis, Domingo Santana, Ramon Flores; (CF) Domingo Santana; (RF) Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Ramon Flores
The positional depth at the corner outfield spots is not due to any move Stearns authored this offseason; however, the trio of Braun, Davis and Santana should legitimately be starting on the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers. This roster crunch should present the front office with the ability to explore potential trades for any of the three. Davis is the most likely to go, given his torrid end to the regular season, but I do know that some teams have been sniffing around to see if Braun is available and to determine the potential cost.
It’s conceivable that Domingo Santana could be the starting center fielder for the club, but manager Craig Counsell and general manager David Stearns have both mentioned center field as a key target this winter. That leads one to believe that the Brewers do not want Santana starting 100-plus games in center. Since it does no developmental good for Santana to demolish the Pacific Coast League with Triple-A Colorado Springs or to languish on the Major League bench, it only makes sense that the Brewers plan to alleviate the playing-time issues with some kind of trade. It’s the content of that likely trade that remains a mystery.
STARTING ROTATION: (1) Matt Garza; (2) Wily Peralta; (3) Jimmy Nelson; (4) Taylor Jungmann; (5) Zach Davies; (6) Jorge Lopez; (7) Tyler Wagner; (8) Tyler Cravy
The starting rotation is perhaps an underappreciated source of depth on the Brewers’ current roster. Not in that it contains much top-end talent — if it did, the club wouldn’t be entering a full rebuilding project — but one could easily argue that eight players are capable of throwing Major League innings in 2016. Jorge Lopez, Ty Wagner and Tyler Cravy could easily begin the season in Triple-A Colorado. The problem with that plan, though, is twofold: (1) Colorado Springs is a dangerous place to develop pitching, due to the thin air and video-game-like run environment; and (2) Cravy and Wagner are the types of pitchers (the potential Quad-A guys) who don’t get a lot out of more minor-league work.
Moreover, the important point is that Milwaukee’s starting pitching depth affords them the opportunity to be creative on the trade market. The club would undoubtedly love to rid themselves of Matt Garza’s contract, which is akin to me suggesting that I’d really like to move to Ireland and do nothing but play golf everyday. Hypothetically possible but not happening anytime soon. Instead, David Stearns and the Brewers could explore what Wily Peralta could bring back in a trade. The Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly targeted Peralta as a potential rotation upgrade before breaking the bank to acquire Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. And given the fact that Stearns has firmly indicated that he’ll entertain trade offers from all angles, Peralta is a legitimate trade chip that could bring back an interesting piece or two.
Of course, injuries and ineffectiveness have routinely plagued the Brewers’ starting rotation over the past two decades. The smart money is on Stearns staying the course in relation to the rotation and hugging his depth tightly. Another option is for the organization to scour the free-agent market for a low-cost starting pitcher to replace any potential departure — something 100 percent possible with the club’s low payroll obligations — but perhaps that’s getting a bit too cute. What is clear, though, is that Milwaukee actually has depth in the starting rotation and could absolutely cover any hole made by a trade. That roster flexibility makes someone like Peralta expendable this winter.
And none of this mentions the possibility of Josh Hader and Adrian Houser pushing the big-league club for playing time in the rotation by the All-Star Break. Hader, in particular, is getting a lot of love from rival scouts after his showing in the Arizona Fall League. The Brewers could move someone like Peralta with the expectation that Houser or Hader is ready for action by midseason — making Peralta even more expendable.
RELIEF OPTIONS: (RHP) Jeremy Jeffress, Michael Blazek, Corey Knebel, Tyler Thornburg, Yhonathan Barrios, David Goforth, Junior Guerra, Adrian Houser, Jacob Barnes, Ariel Pena, Zack Jones; (LHP) Will Smith
Every single team feels like they have depth in the bullpen. Hell, I’ve written numerous articles over the past half-dozen years celebrating the Brewers’ bullpen depth. Every single team also feels like they have upside in the bullpen. It’s the nature of the beast in bullpen construction. You’re dealing with small sample sizes and volatile arms. You’re always going to be able to play the “if everything goes right” game that inevitably leads to disappointment. It’s one of the reasons why contending teams have eschewed this line of thinking and have begun to supposedly overpay for elite bullpen arms — lessen the volatility as much as humanly possible and hoard as many elite options as one’s payroll can handle.
Both of those things come into play with the Brewers’ bullpen. The organization has amassed a smorgasbord of arms who have the ability to pitch in a Major League bullpen on Opening Day 2016. This means that the Brewers don’t have to resist trading a reliever because they don’t have the requisite depth to replace those innings, as they legitimately do. And because Major League Baseball has begun coveting top-tier relievers to an extreme amount, someone like Will Smith could net a pretty return. He’s a lot like Carson Smith — someone who hadn’t established himself as a “proven closer” but still managed to bring Wade Miley to Seattle in a trade. Translating that sort of value to the minors, and even though predicting trade returns is intensely abstract, it seems only natural to assume that Smith would be worth a legitimate prospect or two from a contending club.
Some have suggested that trading Jeremy Jeffress or Michael Blazek would bring the Brewers a sizable return, given their impressive 2015 performances, but I don’t believe that their projected performance going forward is not elite enough to tip the market in the Brewers’ favor. Someone like Smith, who posted a 2.70 ERA with extreme strikeout numbers (34.5 percent strikeout rate), can help transform a contender’s bullpen. He has the high-end potential and the pedigree to back it up. Neither Jeffress nor Blazek have that.
Still, the Brewers once again have ample flexibility and depth in their bullpen to explore useful trades. I suspect the organization would prefer to wait on Smith, allowing him to close games for three months and correspondingly inflate his value, than to move him this winter. If a team comes calling with a compelling deal, though, David Stearns and his team have done a masterful job building a roster with redundancies and versatility. It’s something that extends to the entire roster — save two positions. Stearns should be commended for his additions to the club thus far this winter. That quality work, though, almost ensures that he’s far from finished. In fact, the past two months can probably best be understood as laying the groundwork for later trades and free-agent signings, and that’s probably the best possible position for the Milwaukee Brewers at this moment.