The Rebuild Is Over

Three days ago, the Brewers rebuilding effort seemed to be making its last stop: veteran left fielder Ryan Braun cleared trade waivers, opening the opportunity for GM David Stearns to trade Braun to one of the contenders clear of his no-trade clause. In the offseason, Braun appeared to be a potential salary dump trade for Milwaukee, where the front office could clear salary space in light of the veteran’s uncertain response to back surgery and other nagging injuries. Yet, the narrative has flipped, as Braun’s 3.56 WARP places him among the game’s best position players. When one isolates the bat, it is clear that Braun remains a truly elite option, as his .320 TAv easily places him among the top 10% of MLB regulars. Braun is hardly a necessary salary dump, and his response to nagging injuries and back surgery leads one to reassess the risk of his aging curve.

Alas, the Brewers did not trade Braun. The rebuilding effort closes as the club no longer categorically needs to trade its veteran and face of the franchise. Now, the front office can work in other directions.

The Brewers’ rebuild included 10 “true rebuilding trades,” in the sense of shedding veteran contracts for minor league talent. Trades like the Jason Rogers deal, or the Jean Segura / Tyler Wagner deal, are better named “counterbuilding” deals, since either (a) roster reserve players or prospects were traded, or (b) prominent MLB talent was returned (such as Chase Anderson and Aaron Hill in the Segura / Wagner deal). It is certainly arguable that landing a prospect like Isan Diaz helps rebuild the farm system (it does!), but even returning Diaz does not counteract the fact that Milwaukee returned significant MLB talent in the deal.

Brewers True Rebuilding Trades Prospects Received
RHP Yovani Gallardo RHP Marcos Diplan / RHP Corey Knebel / IF Luis Sardinas
3B Aramis Ramirez RHP Yhonathan Barrios
CF Carlos Gomez / RHP Mike Fiers LHP Josh Hader / RHP Adrian Houser / OF Brett Phillips / OF Domingo Santana
OF Gerardo Parra RHP Zach Davies
RHP Francisco Rodriguez 2B Javier Betancourt / PTBNL (C Manny Pina)
1B Adam Lind RHP Carlos Herrera / RHP Daniel Missaki / RHP Freddy Peralta
LF Khris Davis RHP Bubba Derby / C Jacob Nottingham
2B Aaron Hill 2B Wendell Rijo / RHP Aaron Wilkerson
C Jonathan Lucroy / RHP Jeremy Jeffress OF Lewis Brinson / RHP Luis Ortiz / PTBNL
LHP Will Smith RHP Phil Bickford / C Andrew Susac

All together, former President and GM Doug Melvin made four arguable rebuilding moves, and Stearns made six arguable rebuilding moves. Melvin returned nine minor leaguers, Stearns twelve (with another to be named). These two GMs certainly overhauled the system, as approximately six or seven Top 10 organizational prospects appeared in those deals, and another set of players have already worked at the MLB level or even secured MLB roles (see Zach Davies [quality rotational RHP], Corey Knebel [quality bullpen depth], and Domingo Santana [potential starting RF]).

Should Stearns trade either Braun or Garza for minor leaguers during the offseason, that would respectively comprise the club’s eleventh and twelfth rebuilding deals, and close the rebuilding era.

The rebuild is over: pushing against fans that expect a long and protracted rebuild, it is crucial to emphasize that the Milwaukee front office no longer has contracts to shed. Or rather, the remaining contracts have reasserted their value (Braun) or become potential DFA/outright release options (Matt Garza). I especially hate to say this in the case of Garza, who always seems to have the stuff to compose a comeback that never materializes (save for his brilliant start against St. Louis, while makes the comeback more tantalizing). It’s easy to say that since pitching is so weak in contemporary MLB, Garza could find a new home via trade for 2017, but the 5.9 K9 and 4.79 DRA make that point more difficult.

From Cot’s Contracts, the remaining Brewers guaranteed contracts:

Brewers Contracts ($M) 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Note
Ryan Braun 19.0 19.0 18.0 16.0 [Option] $22M to $37M in deferred salary and buyouts
Matt Garza 10.5 [Option] $9M to $22M in deferred salary and options

So, the rebuild is over: the Milwaukee front office no longer needs to make any traditional rebuilding deals in the sense of sending away veteran contracts in favor of cheap, minor league prospects. This is excellent news, for now the club can focus on acquiring talent for different purposes:

  • The Brewers front office can trade players under reserve control to improve the club in the short or long term.
  • Milwaukee can generally act in “counterbuilding” mode, where the front office uses minor league depth, second-chance opportunities, and other moves to add MLB-ready roster value.
  • The Brewers can trade from their stockpile of top prospects to acquire immediate MLB help (yes, it will be time for the Brewers to trade top prospects. Brace yourself!).
  • Milwaukee can graduate prospects and allow them to gain their sealegs at the MLB level (and perhaps solidify MLB roles, too).

It is interesting to consider this path as the club finishes a season in which they are hovering around 70 wins. PECOTA had the Brewers winning 70 exactly entering the twilight getaway against St. Louis; this morning, Pythagoras says 71 wins, and the .429 winning percentage says 69 wins; and, a tough September schedule logically suggests fewer wins (the Brewers’ record against remaining opponents roughly hints at a 10-19 closing run). Certainly the end of the rebuilding campaign in its traditional sense does not mean that the Brewers will immediately play competitive or contending baseball in 2017, or even that September call-ups will immediately make their mark (they could, or they might take a while to adjust to MLB life).

However, it is important to keep pushing the assumptions of roster building: if 2016 was all about opening a skeleton roster by clearing out the last remaining veteran contracts, making the most logical traditional rebuilding trades, and simultaneously trying out “second chance” players and other depth talent for MLB roles, September 2016 opens another era entirely. Now, the Brewers can test their own stockpile of prospects, or trade them; they can continue to use the MLB stage as a trying ground for future values, but now the construction of those future values will be different.

The front office logic now necessarily moves from the “shedding contracts / stockpiling prospects” phase and into the more exciting abyss of developing the best possible team on the field. This is an abyss in the sense that it is a complete unknown; here, the “rebuilding” term expands from the narrow sense of “trading veterans” to a broader definition of “taking the time to design a young roster core.” This is an abyss in the bleakest sense of lacking future knowledge or competitive probabilities.

From here, the Brewers will have quite an interesting club insofar as the front office has complete freedom to develop the best possible roster for the present and future. And so, with September opening, and more prospects emerging from the minors onto the 40-man roster, and no more rebuilding trades to be made, the future of the contending Brewers and the present of the rebuilding Brewers merge. How long this gray area will last will depend on the creativity of the front office and the performance of the players: will the best possible team emerge in one year, two years, or more?

So too, for fans, will this time be much more exciting than the rebuilding trading period: now it is time to move from the drawing board to prove that the plans were well-designed. A rebuild will eventually have to prove itself, and that time is coming much sooner than many Brewers fans anticipate.

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