I will begin this by saying that I am a fan of what new Brewers GM David Stearns has done this offseason. He inherited a team with a promising farm system but little major-league talent, and he has spent this winter accumulating useful options. None of them are likely to break out, but many of them are young, cost-controlled assets that are, at worst, throw-ins to bigger trades and, at best, valuable major leaguers down the road.
Chris Carter, Garin Cecchini, and Rymer Liriano all typify of this type of move. And if that were the whole list, we could comfortably call this a positive offseason. However, it is not, and that is mostly a good thing; accumulating assets and options increases on-field flexibility and front-office possibilities. However, when so many of the players at similar positions are at similar levels, problems can arise.
We have seen forms of this story play out over and over again. Fans often worry about their team’s top prospect in High-A being blocked by someone in Double-A, and that is almost always ultimately a moot point. By the time those two players reach the same level (usually the major leagues), one—or both—has flamed out or been forced to switch positions and move down the defensive spectrum. Every so often, though, specific circumstances means that the story has some viability.
Such an example was a possibility this summer, when Houston had the second and fifth picks in the draft, and college shortstops Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman were both possibilities. There was some discussion of what the Astros would do with both of them because, as top five picks who projected as shortstops, each would likely be destined for the same development track. In this situation, one could reasonably argue that consciously deciding to only take one of those two would make sense.
And there are some similarities between that choice that Houston had to be prepared to make and the ones that David Stearns will be facing come the end of spring training. It is obviously not the same—for one, choosing between Garin Cecchini and Will Middlebrooks is not quite the same as Swanson and Bregman—but the game theory is similar, and it is why more moves coming soon would make sense.
A non-exhaustive list of the players the Brewers have acquired that are currently fringe big-leaguers or Triple-A players is as follows: Rymer Liriano, Chris Carter, Eric Young Jr, Kirk Nieuwenheis, Alex Presley, Will Middlebrooks, Garin Cecchini, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana (although he was brought in by the previous regime).
Some players of this caliber, such as Young and Nieuwenheis from the above list, are stopgaps. They will be swapped between organizations depending on which bottom-feeder needs a body to man an outfield spot during an irrelevant game. But Liriano and Santana will be in direct competition with each other, as will Cecchini and Middlebrooks, and the simple fact is that there are not enough proper at-bats to go around for all these players.
Liriano and Santana both require major-league playing time at this stage of their development. Santana was mildly impressive in a short stint in the big leagues in 2015 (.766 OPS), but Liriano was a top-50 prospect (39 in 2013) not too long ago. Both still obviously require development and improvement, but neither has that much left to prove in the minor leagues. Both finished in the top 20 in OPS in the PCL last year, and more time in the minors does not appear as if it would provide the necessary challenges for legitimate improvement and development.
The problem, though, is that both cannot play. Both are corner outfielders, and Ryan Braun will get one of the corners as long as he is healthy, which means only one (at most, as Khris Davis remains on the roster) can get the consistent playing time he will crave. This means that, realistically and unfortunately, the Brewers can only develop one at a time.
A similar dilemma will emerge between Middlebrooks and Cecchini. Both are minor league performers with pedigrees (Middlebrooks was 55 in 2012 and Cecchini was 51 in 2014, but only one can play at a time. Platooning them would be a good way to get the most immediate value out of them, but it would come at the long-term cost of their abilities to hit same-side pitching. There simply are not enough at bats to go around if the plan is to allow the two to develop.
The obvious follow-up question is to ask for a solution, and I don’t really have one. The easy answer is simply to stash one of each group in the minors and hope for a breakout to make the decision easier, but such a breakout is unlikely to happen. They are all flawed players, so simply hoping for the best seems like a poor development plan. Additionally, as was mentioned above, each has already proven he can hit minor-league pitching, so big-league playing time is what is required.
Additionally, the Brewers won’t really have sufficient time to make a judgment on these players. Spring training is a strange environment to judge performances, and Stearns has been too forward-thinking and too smart to truly evaluate players based on a month’s worth of skewed games in Arizona.
There isn’t really a great solution here, except to say that without more moves to free up roster space, the Brewers are unlikely to get full value out of all of their new additions. The “loser” of the position battles in spring training will either be sent to the minors and lose valuable development time or simply be cut loose at the end of March and the Brewers will have nothing to show for their shrewd gamble. None of this is to say that these moves were a mistake; in a vacuum, each was smart and calculated. However, the current state of the Brewers’ major-league roster simply does not allow for the organization to give each of those players a shot at the most challenging level.