On Thursday, December 17, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they traded first baseman Jason Rogers to Pittsburgh for minor-league outfielder Keon Broxton and minor-league righty Trey Supak.
The mark of a successful general manager is often executing the necessary moves with aplomb. Trade near free agents for prospects. Sign bounce-back candidates on minor-league deals. Throw money at the occasional top-end free agent when amidst one’s competitive window. Cobble together a package of prospects to acquire an impact rental at the July trade deadline. If a Major League GM hits paydirt on enough of these types of moves, he or she will almost assuredly boast a respectable career. If he or she can string a few together in succession, the big-league club may claim a pennant or two.
I wrote in October that David Stearns needs to be special to build a consistent winner in Milwaukee. More loosely, he needs to be the Next Big Thing in baseball. I wrote:
The challenge for Stearns and Arnold, though, isn’t going to be whether the club can emulate successful rebuilds like the one in Houston or the one in Chicago. The real difference maker in Milwaukee will be discovering the next competitive advantage that no one has exploited, the next market inefficiency, if you will. Simply using mountains data on framing, spin rates, defensive efficiency, and the like to drive coaching methods and roster decisions won’t be enough. Houston is doing that. Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago are doing that. The Brewers must catch up in this area, sure, but the organization must employ something new. Because all things being equal, if the Brewers simply catch up and start doing what the successful organizations are doing, the organization’s small-market status will always keep them from reaching the levels they hope to achieve. All things being equal, the four clubs mentioned above (among others) will always be able to outspend Milwaukee. That will always be the competitive advantage that trumps all when everything else is equal.
With that said, I do not mean to insinuate that Stearns has unlocked some new market inefficiency by trading 27-year-old Jason Rogers to Pittsburgh for a pair of intriguing prospects. Rogers hit .296/.367/.441 in a brief Major League cameo in 2015 and has six control years remaining, but lacks the traditional power profile of a first baseman and may be functionally limited to a platoon role. That’s valuable to the Pirates in their current context. And given their extreme organizational depth in the outfield, their competitive window, and their pitcher-friendly home park, parting ways with Keon Broxton and Trey Supak won’t hurt the Pirates too much.
It’s not a groundbreaking trade by any means. However, this move remains notable — and perhaps encouraging — for two different reasons:
(1) David Stearns is showing a willingness to be creative with his roster construction. He’s not holding tight to cost-effective options with control years remaining while dealing away only aging veterans and upcoming free agents. Jason Rogers could’ve been perfectly productive for the Milwaukee Brewers over the next couple seasons and it would’ve been at the league minimum. There’s no chance that Doug Melvin makes this move for those two reasons and those two reasons alone. Stearns is willing to eschew financial prudence (likely moreso by signing a free agent to a multi-million-dollar deal rather than play Rogers at the league minimum) to acquire more young talent for the farm system. That kind of creativity and non-purse-clutching is crucial.
(2) David Stearns is prioritizing the rookie levels of the minors. Just over a week after trading Adam Lind for a trio of teenage pitchers, the new Brewers’ GM went back to the well and acquired Trey Supak, a 19-year-old hurler who hasn’t reached full-season ball. The Pirates drafted him in the second round of the 2014 Draft — meaning he’s coming to Milwaukee with some pedigree — and he has only thrown 52.1 innings in his professional career. The Brewers are clearly trying to bring the Houston Playbook to the Midwest, in which the club targets rookie-ball guys before they have a chance to breakout and see their value skyrocket. Houston accomplished this with Francis Martes and David Paulino in recent years and did so once again with Jonathan Arauz in the Ken Giles trade. Stearns is employing a similar strategy with his new club, too.
It’s encouraging to see the Brewers think outside the box. The first point above is undoubtedly good for the Brewers’ organization. Roster optimization breathes life into a small-market franchise. The second point, however, is a bit more controversial. The Astros seem brilliant because they unearthed a few gems that were mere afterthoughts in various trades. It’s a strategy that massively fails an organization if that club’s scouting department regularly misses on that young, volatile talent. So, in this way, if Stearns and the Brewers are going to cash in their big-league chips for teenage prospects, they’d better hit the nail on the head. Otherwise, it winds up being overly cute and a complete waste.
Numerous pundits have opined that Trey Supak is the key to this trade for the Brewers. He’s a 19-year-old hurler with a great frame and a fastball that can flash in the mid-90s. The curveball has promise, too. Supak posted a 6.67 ERA in eight starts for Bristol in the Appy League, but that’s grossly misleading due to the small sample size. The Texan never threw more than five innings in a game and had solid peripherals, including only five walks in those eight starts (and three of those game in a single outing). Stearns commented that the trio of teenage arms in the Lind trade were attractive because they already displayed an ability to work within the strike zone. I’m sure Supak’s four percent walk rate in 2015 impressed the Brewers’ scouting staff in a similar vein.
Center fielder Keon Broxton offers the speed/OBP combination that statheads adore. He compiled a .273/.357/.438 with 39 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A a season ago, and if one really wants to dream, Broxton could be a Jarrod Dyson type player with more power and swing-and-miss in his game. The latter piece has always kept scouts from believing in him at the Major League level. Kiley McDaniel, now with the Atlanta Braves organization, called him a “toolshed projection guy” (a great line) prior to 2015. His luster has dulled because he’s 25 years old; however, some in the industry were reportedly impressed with the Lakeland, Florida, native this past year. As the roster is currently constructed, he’ll step into spring training with arguably the best shot to be the Brewers’ everyday center fielder.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to overstate the amount of talent that’s flooding the Brewers’ farm system at the moment. And that’s with other possible trade targets — like Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis — still on the big-league roster. If David Stearns remains willing to wheel-and-deal this winter, I could easily see the Brewers comfortably having a top-five farm system in all of baseball, if not better. The Brewers’ new general manager has built a roster with flexibility and redundancy, and it’s clear that he’s willing to trade away controllable assets when getting adequate value in return.
They say that first impressions can be established in less than 30 seconds. I’m not sure how that converts to “baseball time,” but the initial impression given by David Stearns has been nothing but positive. He’s showing creativity and boldness. He’s putting his stamp on the organization, establishing a recognizable framework of doing business. I don’t think he’s separated himself from his previous employer, as he’s following the Astros’ playbook, but that’s not all together bad. It simply means Stearns will have to discover what makes him different, what makes him special, a bit farther down the road.