Since the Brewers rebuilding debate is scalding hot at the moment, now is as good a time as any to put some teeth on the idea that the Brewers can compete rather quickly, and contend too (if they like. Remember this is a choice, it’s up to the Front Office). I’m going to follow BPMilwaukee’s own Julien Assouline on the basic outline for “competitive,” as I’m in the precise state of mind to consider a team hovering around 75-to-80 wins as competitive. More specifically, I outlined the basic win range with Vineet Barot on his first BPMilwaukee podcast, since I think Pythagoras would agree: as soon as a team has “around-.500″ talent, or basically even runs scored / runs allowed talent, they arguably have a roster base that might readily land between 78-to-84 wins. It might not be pretty, and it might not send Brewers fans dreaming of a rebuild, but such a club is competitive. As Julien notes, when such a team is young, as the 2017 and 2018 Brewers almost certainly will be, that type of competitive club may be viewed as trending upward (rather than a 2014-2015 Brewers squad, which was generally a group of veterans trending the other direction).
One way to test Brewers roster potential is to jump some years out and observe their reserved talent, set contracts or arbitration rights, top prospects, and other interesting advanced prospects. For this purpose, I arbitrarily picked 2018, since it removes the club from the “will they / won’t they” debate about retaining Jonathan Lucroy’s services (which Jack Moore puts into strong perspective). It also removes the club from the “will they / won’t they” questions about starting some of the top prospects by the middle of 2016. Better yet, it sinks the question marks about the club’s future into a zone where $20 million in guaranteed money is on the books, aside from a gang of potential arbitration players (who may or may not remain with the club). The 2018 Brewers will have so much room to add payroll that failing to compete will be criminal, in terms of allocating MLB revenue.
The basic point of this exercise is not to suggest that it is inevitable that the Brewers can quickly contend, or that the Brewers will quickly contend because everything will go right. Instead, this analysis will give visual aid to Thee Brewers Depth, which is so readily dismissed by many fans as, “well the Brewers have depth, but…” The scouting profile of the Brewers’ depth, the question marks about several key players (including 2016 roster members like Jonathan Villar), the strength of their very best prospects, and their sheer payroll freedom makes it imperative that the Milwaukee front office consider their most immediate contending outlooks. The question is, what would that look that?
The Big Contracts
|17 2018 Brewers Under Contract / Arbitration||Salary||2016 Performance||Outlook|
|LF/RF Ryan Braun||$20 M||.330 TAv / 1.9 BWARP||Veteran superstar w/ some injury concerns|
|RHP Matt Garza||[options]||[60-day DL]||Veteran rotational depth w/ injury concerns|
|C Martin Maldonado||Arbitration 4||.215 / -0.1 BWARP||Reliable defense-first catcher|
|1B Chris Carter||Arbitration 4||.274 / 0.2 BWARP||Big true outcome depth|
|RHP Carlos Torres||Arbitration 3||4.24 DRA / 0.2 PWARP||Bullpen depth|
|LHP Will Smith||Arbitration 3||4.29 DRA / 0.0 PWARP||Excellent high-leverage bullpen stuff|
|OF Alex Presley||Arbitration 3||.242 / 0.2 BWARP||Outfield depth|
|RHP Wily Peralta||Arbitration 3||8.04 DRA / -2.1 PWARP||Stuff? / Command? / Rotational depth|
|RHP Tyler Thornburg||Arbitration 2||2.59 DRA / 0.7 PWARP||Emerging as potential high-leverage bullpen stuff|
|OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis||Arbitration 2||.247 / 0.2 BWARP||Outfield depth|
|RHP Jeremy Jeffress||Arbitration 2||4.31 DRA / 0.2 PWARP||Excellent high-leverage bullpen stuff|
|2B Scooter Gennett||Arbitration 2||.249 TAv / 0.2 BWARP||Starting 2B? / Infield depth question marks (2B only)|
|RHP Chase Anderson||Arbitration 2||4.69 DRA / 0.4 PWARP||Potential mid-rotation breakout|
|UTIL Jonathan Villar||Arbitration 1||.309 TAv / 2.1 BWARP||Second-chance breakout prospect w/ positional flexibility|
|IF Hernan Perez||Arbitration 1||.310 / 0.5||Second-chance prospect w/ starting potential?|
|RHP Jimmy Nelson||Arbitration 1||4.72 DRA / 0.4 PWARP||Flashes of brilliance / stuff to develop into #2?|
|RHP Michael Blazek||Arbitration 1||5.09 DRA / -0.1 PWARP||Bullpen depth|
In one sense, this list of players clearly reflects the Brewers’ rebuilding efforts, as there are not as many true impact players under contract control as one might like to see. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to think about on this list, too; my favorite highlights:
- Ryan Braun can withstand another change in his ever-morphing career, this time as battle-tested veteran on an upstart club. The left fielder’s TAv climbed from .278 in 2014 to .298 in 2015, and his current .330 mark gives Braun a chance at his best season in five years.
- Jimmy Nelson is working with his updated arsenal in 2016, trading hiccups for signs of brilliance as he pitches every fifth day. Nelson is by far the best starting pitcher among the controlled group. I’d rank Chase Anderson second on this list, as the righty’s stuff and approach beats other rotation depth options. Scoff at Garza all you like, but he could cost as little as $1 million to $5 million in 2018, which makes him a viable depth option (Even if his option vests at its full cost, it’s not terrible; filling 162 games is hard, anyway).
- The bullpen has really, really good potential. Jeffress is pitching through his peripherals to prevent runs at a strong rate, and is showing a knack for working in late, close ballgames. Will Smith will have a chance to step in as Jeffress’s counterpart in 2016, which means the club can essentially design a one-two punch and hone it for 2017-2018. Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek are the wild cards here, as both of these right-handers have the stuff that allows one to dream on a potentially deep back-end pen. If the Brewers can go four-deep in high leverage situations, and deliver, they have a chance at consistently winning beyond their expectations.
- There are some positional question marks here, but Jonathan Villar spices up that potential with his flexibility and sparkplug play. The current shortstop is seizing his second chance, and he can readily move to two other infield positions to lead the Brewers batting order. I can’t be the only one looking forward to an Arcia / Villar 1-2 table setting.
If you’re skeptical, you’re probably noting that this is really seven potentially impactful players, and four of them are relievers (albeit impact ones). Yet, that list of 17 players still has other useful depth options (such as Hernan Perez and Chris Carter). Most importantly, these 17 big contract and arbitration guys only comprise one third of the players worth considering for 2018: the options don’t end here, so onward.
The Reserved Players
|20 2018 Brewers [Club Reserve]||2016||Outlook|
|IF Andy Wilkins||AAA -0.2 BWARP||True corner player depth|
|OF Domingo Santana||.285 TAv / 0.5 BWARP||Power potential everyday RF|
|IF Yadiel Rivera||.166 TAv / -0.3 BWARP||Infield depth / utility glove|
|RHP Neil Ramirez||4.07 DRA / 0.0 PWARP||Bullpen depth|
|LHP Sean Nolin||60-day DL||Bullpen depth|
|RHP Jhan Marinez||3.35 DRA / 0.2 PWARP||Bullpen depth|
|OF Rymer Liriano||60-day DL||Second-chance prospect w/ moderate power-speed potential|
|RHP Corey Knebel||15-day DL||Bullpen depth / high-leverage stuff potential?|
|RHP Taylor Jungmann||5.98 DRA / -0.2 PWARP||Rotation depth / command?|
|RHP Zack Jones||60-day DL||Bullpen depth|
|RHP Junior Guerra||3.51 DRA / 0.8 PWARP||Historical rookie breakout|
|RHP David Goforth||4.47 DRA / 0.0 PWARP||Bullpen depth|
|OF Ramon Flores||.225 TAv / -0.2 BWARP||Outfield depth|
|RHP Zach Davies||4.65 DRA / 0.3 PWARP||Developing low-rotation depth|
|RHP Tyler Cravy||4.25 DRA / 0.1 PWARP||True swingman depth|
|IF Garin Cecchini||AAA 0.9 BWARP||Second-chance prospect w/ defensive position ?|
|OF Keon Broxton||.145 TAv / -0.3 BWARP||Outfield depth|
|RHP Yhonathan Barrios||60-day DL||Bullpen depth / high-leverage stuff potential?|
|RHP Jacob Barnes||4.08 DRA / 0.0 PWARP||Out-of-nowhere bullpen depth prospect|
Now this is an interesting list, and probably a good source of judging whether one is optimistic about the near-future Brewers. At-a-glance, Milwaukee potentially has at least one more starting player (Domingo Santana), a couple more second-chance prospects worth a glance, at least two more starting pitchers, and still more bullpen depth. This list could also become a source of small-scale, roster depth trades as players run out of options.
When considering arguments about the Brewers competing, this is the type of list that emphasizes why one need not take an “everything goes right” vantage point. One might not see star players on this list, or even (in most cases) much more than depth players, but this group should not be dismissed: at the edges of the roster, the right moves will help to make a competitive club. Questions about Jacob Barnes, Yhonathan Barrios, or Corey Knebel might not necessarily deliver answers about elite relievers, for example, but if Milwaukee develops and employs these types of arms toward their strengths, they can be very useful members of an MLB pitching staff. Value for a competitor runs deeper than star players. Remember that pre-breakout Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan orchestrated the NLDS winning run for the exceptional 2011 Brewers, which is to say that there will be some marginal players that help Milwaukee contend.
|9 Advanced Brewers Prospects||BP Rank / BP or BPMke take|
|SS Orlando Arcia||#1 / High-ceiling high-floor stellar glove|
|OF Brett Phillips||#2 / Potential All-Star if power comes around|
|RHP Jorge Lopez||#3 / Number 2 starter ceiling|
|OF Tyrone Taylor||#10 / Defense & speed value fourth outfielder|
|LHP Josh Hader||#14 / Strong fastball lefty w/ role?|
|RHP Adrian Houser||#15 / Between SP and relief profile w/ stuff & command|
|OF Michael Reed||#19 / Discipline / speed / glove fourth outfielder|
|2B Javier Betancourt||#20 / Glove-first infield depth|
|C/1B Jacob Nottingham||Athletics #3 / Big power potential bat with glove/position?|
Of course, one of the reasons that Milwaukee fans and analysts can coast past some of the reserved MLB talent is the list of the system’s best and most advanced prospects. Just a step or so away from the big leagues, Milwaukee can claim at least one more starting pitcher, a couple more positional starters, and some rather intriguing ceilings should certain tools pan out. There are other prospects still, which makes for even more interesting trade debates for Milwaukee.
Yet, assuming things don’t go perfectly, Arcia remains an excellent defensive shortstop, which alone should provide MLB value even if some questions about his bat are never answered. Jonathan Villar, for all his strengths, is a -1.1 FRAA fielder thus far in 2016; Arcia’s glove improves the club in legitimate and quantifiable ways that can translate into more wins (16.0 FRAA in 2015 AA Biloxi, 3.6 FRAA thus far in AAA Colorado Springs). Throw away the bat and Arcia still wins the Brewers as many as two games a year with his glove. The same goes for Brett Phillips, who should stick as an athletic centerfielder with a strong bat even if the power does not fully develop. Jorge Lopez can develop into a #2-type starter if everything falls according to plan, but if that doesn’t work, he has ample stuff to work as a mid rotation starter. If you don’t believe that’s valuable, look at the below average rotations of the 2011 Cardinals, 2012 Giants, 2014 Giants, and 2015 Royals, to name only four very recent champions: rotational depth alone can go a long way when other aspects of the team go right.
More interesting and pressing questions exist with Josh Hader and Adrian Houser (starter vs. reliever), and Michael Reed or Jacob Nottingham (CF & C? 4th OF & 1B? Somewhere in-between?). But, even if these players work out as ever-more depth options, they expand the roster into an almost absurd territory of depth such that one might wonder whether Thee Brewers Depth becomes the calling card of the next contending Milwaukee Nine. If the Kansas City Royals can beat PECOTA on a regular basis with their extreme roster construction, I’m going to bet that a group of analysts at Miller Park can employ strong depth in strategically effective ways. There are enough tools here for the Brewers to excel throughout the game, if those skills are strategically employed.
|5 Advanced Interesting Guys||Why interesting?|
|RHP Damien Magnifico||Super hard-throwing 25 K / 10 BB / 0 HR / 62% GB (!!!) / 98 BF at AAA Colorado Springs|
|OF Omar Garcia||4 K / 5 BB / 4-for-4 SB since call-up to AA Biloxi|
|OF Victor Roache||2015 step forward / 14 XBH / 19 BB / 156 PA at AA Biloxi|
|RHP Brandon Woodruff||19 K / 9 BB / 0 HR / 90 BF at AA Biloxi|
|RHP Tristan Archer||31 K / 4 BB / 2 HR / 151 BF at AA Biloxi|
If you needed yet another reminder, the system does not end with Milwaukee’s top prospects, or their advanced ones either. Cody Ponce is a total wild card, in terms of what his Advanced A assignment suggests for further aggressive assignments (I was going to place him on this list, but his injury-delayed 2016 dampens that straight-to-MLB spirit). Victor Roache and Damien Magnifico have taken systematic steps forward, and add more useful traits to the club (a big fastball and big power, for example). Someone other than myself has called Brandon Woodruff an interesting prospect. I included Omar Garcia and Tristan Archer as more interesting guys who have some things going right in their advanced minors peripheral profiles thus far.
Timing will be everything for the competitive-and-then-contending Brewers. One way to dull the slicing jabs of timing is to accumulate a multi-layered roster full of strong, serviceable, and even interesting traits and talents. It won’t all go right, and the Brewers will miss on some of these guys; some will be traded away too soon, others will be kept too long. Others still will leap out of nowhere and succeed. Hopefully, though, this exercise has given you 51 reasons to squint and see why the Brewers can be better before you know it. Once one considers trades and free agency, it is clear that Milwaukee has an ample base to design their next contending club.