Having the top farm system in all of baseball means it’s too early to celebrate–but that doesn’t mean the Brewers shouldn’t splurge this winter.
If the Milwaukee Brewers 2016 season–and the offseason that preceded it–had a unifying theme, that was without a doubt asset collection. Before you feast you must gather, and the David Stearns regime worked tirelessly to gather an embarassing array of riches throughout the ranks of the minor-league system, and creeping up to the big club. The flagship team won more games than 2015, but that was not the reason the season was a resounding success. What the team has done in just a lone year and some change is nothing short of astounding.
In August, MLB.com’s Jim Callis updated his rankings of the top farm systems in all of baseball, and he decreed that Milwaukee had officially taken the number one spot. Before the season, Callis had ranked the franchise in the top ten–ninth overall–and he wasn’t alone. Bleacher Report slotted them ninth. Minor League Ball put them a lofty fifth. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Brewers the lowest out of any major publication–and even they slotted the Crew into the top ten. With the additions of Phil Bickford, Lewis Brinson, and others, it wasn’t a stretch to say that, by August, Milwaukee had the best farm system in baseball.
In short, the “stockpiling” phase of the rebuilding effort was–for all intents and purposes– finished. This off-season will definitely be less frantic than the last. But will it be completely silent, or will the front office sacrifice quantity for quality?
Now, David Stearns and company are tasked with the next phase of building a champion–turning that lavish farm system into real success at the Major League level. The simplest way to do this would be to sit back quietly and allow the talented, young blue-chippers to develop and grow. But that is a slow, uncertain process. The team could not only shift their window of competitiveness forward, but also increase their odds of cashing in during that window, if they are “quiet” like a sniper this off-season.
One of the most ideal players to target is already on the Brewers’ short list, actually. The Los Angeles Dodgers waived controversial outfielder Yasiel Puig this August, but were unable to reach a deal with the team who claimed him before the Sept. 1st postseason roster deadline. Of course, we now know that the Brewers were the ones to lay claim to Puig. And the deal didn’t happen. Does this mean discussions are done? Hardly.
Since there are precious few details out surrounding the talks, I’ll indulge myself to speculate as to how things went down: The Brewers claimed Puig, and used their leverage as exclusive buyers to demand a straight swap of Ryan Braun for Puig. The Dodgers wanted a prospect or two in addition to Braun, but Stearns drew his line in the sand. Ultimately, Andrew Friedman decided that the short-term upgrade for the stretch run wasn’t worth the long-term cost of getting less than he wanted for Puig. But Milwaukee is still interested–and without the leverage that comes with the waiver-trade season, they’ll have to compromise and supplement Braun with additional players.
For Stearns, it was a calculated gamble to try and play down his purchase price on Puig. Sometimes you gamble and you lose–but Stearns didn’t exactly bet high this time around. Meanwhile, it was the Dodgers’ Friedman whose position required tons of leverage and massive amounts of fortitude–if Puig had come back and stunk up the joint in September, costing the team down the stretch, he would’ve been lambasted by the Los Angeles and national media. Will Milwaukee have to pay a higher price this off-season than they would’ve in August? Probably. But the difference should be pretty negligible when it’s all said and done–unless Puig rattles off a highlight reel of postseason heroics and renders himself untradeable once again. Sometimes, you gamble and lose everything. But you never know unless you roll the dice.
Barring that, the Brewers should be prepared to meet Los Angeles’ asking price come December. Braun has put worries about his durability in the rearview mirror with three consecutive 500-PA seasons, and his .308/.371/.550 slash line in 2016 is reminiscent of his MVP-caliber peak. He’s rebounded nicely, considering that his age, price, and PED history were considered non-starters in trade talks less than a year ago. Now, it’s not a stretch to imagine him as the centerpiece of a deal for Puig, a player who was worth more than six wins in his age 23 season.
And in Puig, the Brewers have the textbook specimen for a “discount superstar.” Puig will be 26 years old on Opening Day, 2017. He has accumulated over 13 career wins, including just north of six of them in 2014, his best season. I’m quite fond of the sabermetric maxim “once you display a skill, you own it,” because it’s so often forgotten by decision-makers in the heat of the moment. Over the past year and a half, the Brewers have done a fantastic job capitalizing on these moments–it seems they were poised to do it once again with Puig, possibly capturing the best prize to date, when the clock struck midnight. And they still might get the chance to do it.
Puig’s drop-off from his 2014 statistical peak has been caused by two issues–first, the repeated hamstring injuries that have limited him to less than 700 combined plate appearances over the past two seasons, and second, a precipitous drop in hitting power that has even affected his ability to reach base.
Last year, Puig hit the disabled list at two different junctures, for two different hamstrings. This year the left hamstring caused a third, and nearly a fourth, disabled list stint. That’s problematic, but remember–in 2013, Braun missed over 100 games due to injury, and he’s bounced back since then. Puig is younger, bigger, and carries the kind of passion for the game that drives players to bounce back from injuries.
Far more problematic are Puig’s shrinking slugging stats. Over his pro career, the big Cuban has seen his slugging percentage taper from .534, to .480, down to .436, and finally all the way down to .408 this season. Simply put, Puig’s physically imposing frame shouldn’t allow this to happen. How many human beings are capable of filling out a “lean” 6’2-240lb frame like Puig–who has comfortably manned centerfield at that size? In an alternate world, Puig is a world-rocking linebacker–in this one, there’s no reason he should be peppering the ball so lightly.
Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus tackled Puig’s vanishing power for a piece back in July–. In it, he evaluates how Major League pitchers have evolved over time to conquer the young Cuban. Early on in his career, the common logic was to get him out on fastballs away–then, when he adjusted to close that weakness, he became susceptible to the inside fastball. Now, as a result of that, he’s struggling to hit all fastballs. With each adjustment made by either side so far, pitching has moved further and further ahead in the game.
You could always just assume that Puig’s struggles are indicative of a general inability to adjust–but I’d disagree, and I think that’s selling the man criminally short. Let’s look at the bigger picture of the past several seasons. Puig has been struggling to adjust to the gamesmanship of the big-league level–concurrently, he’s been battling injuries in both hamstrings that have further sapped his productivity. All while his first two years set a standard that the Los Angeles fans, media, and front office expect him to hold to. Greater men than Yasiel Puig have floundered under lesser pressure–that he’s struggling right now does not, in any way, indicate that his best days are behind him. Remember, Braun himself went through a similar mid-career valley and bounced back just fine.
A change of scenery–particularly, to Milwaukee–might be just what he needs. Puig loves the game of baseball, does things on the diamond that make your eyes bug out of your head, and loves to party. You couldn’t invent a superstar more tailor-made for Wisconsin’s fans, who save their extreme scrutiny for Packers front office personnel and love their baseball players to play and party harder than they do. If Puig continues with his “bad boy” antics–namely, standing up for himself to veteran pitchers and having a rousing good time with teammates and fans–he just might go down as the most beloved athlete in the history of the state. He’s Nyjer Morgan with MVP potential.
Here–watch him save Rich Hill’s would-be perfect game, and tell me this is a guy who doesn’t care, who plays the game half-assedly. I’ll call you a damn liar right back. Regardless of his off-field antics, when Yasiel Puig hits the field, he plays the game to the absolute limit, and he’s a joy to watch:
But Puig isn’t the only superstar the front office should have in their crosshairs as they shift gears this offseason. And while a Braun-Puig deal would still fit with the “get younger while selling” theme, making a move for Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox would signal a successful shift out of “stockpiling” mode, and prelude to major improvements at the Major League level.
Per Jon Heyman, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is loathe to move Sale. Reinsdorf joined the Octogenarian Club last February and has no interest in building for the future–he wants one last championship and he’s not sure how much time he’s got left to get it. But prior to the August 1st trade deadline, the White Sox and Red Sox allegedly discussed a Sale trade, with Boston balking at Chicago’s refusal to take outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. off the table.
This off-season, that asking price will not have fallen. But if the Brewers are going to push their minor-league chips all-in, they can cover any of the other 29 suitors and then some. And Chris Sale is the type of player, I would argue, that you simply cannot overpay for.
Sale was drafted as a reliever, and pitched out of the bullpen during his rookie season of 2011, but in 2012 he moved to the rotation–and since then, he has been consistently among the best pitchers in baseball.
For a half-decade now, Sale has struck out a batter an inning or more at the Major League level. He’s been worth at least 5 and a half wins, often more, per season. In the annual American League Cy Young Award balloting, Sale’s finishes are as follows: sixth, fifth, third, fourth, to be determined.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ suite of advanced stats, the award should belong to Sale this season. He was the most valuable pitcher in all of baseball by pWARP and seventh-ranked starting pitcher by DRA. But among starters who made a full slate of 32 starts this season, only Michael Pineda’s DRA was lower than Sale. We can joke around about Junior Guerra and/or Zach Davies, but Sale is a true, bona fide ace in every sense of the word. When the Brewers make it back to the postseason, and inevitably stare down the barrel of an elimination game, Sale is the guy you want toeing the rubber.
According to just about every theory on human physiology, Sale should have broken down by now. Of all the young pitchers from the past decade to succumb to the dreaded Tommy John Monster, Sale had to have been the easiest to see coming. All of the phrases that are used to single out a future problem arm–elbow drag, inverted W, off-balance, mechanically unstable–fit Sale’s pitching motion to a T:
But since assuming his role in the starting rotation, Sale has missed an average of less than two starts per season. He’s missed time with shoulder tendinitis, and hit the DL in 2014 with a scary left elbow strain, but Sale now has just over a thousand innings on his odometer and those are the most serious health problems he has dealt with.
All of our current “theories” on pitcher health are based on a one-size-fits-all approach to the human body, as necessitated by current-day medical science. We know that some people have heartier bones and tendons than other people, but we’re still pretty much in the Dark Ages when it comes to sorting them out. As such, it was easy–and prudent–to look at Sale’s wacky delivery early in his career and forecast at least one reconstructive surgery. But now, we can say that he’s made of hardier stuff than the average pitcher–and we’ve got an extensive track record to point to, backing that up. Is there still risk present, as always? Yes, but I’ll take my chances on the guy who has thrown a thousand big-league innings without major issue over the young guy who hasn’t thrown a thousand professional innings, period, in this day and age.
Sale’s contract, too, is a perfect fit for Milwaukee. He’s under team control through 2019, with an annual salary between $12 and $13.5 million each of the remaining years. It is doubtful that Milwaukee would re-sign him after that–he’ll be cresting the hill of 30 and commanding Clayton Kershaw money–but the current timeline has the team ready to compete before then. And when they do, there is nobody better that the franchise could have anchoring their pitching staff.
The Brewers could go after Sale instead of Puig, and in doing so use Ryan Braun as the big-league-ready piece to center the deal around. But even if the franchise targets both players, a deal can still get done with the White Sox. Milwaukee is in the unique position of having a mini-Sale of their own in the minor leagues. I profiled Josh Hader for this website over a year ago, and even at that point his delivery inspired a (stretchy, admittedly) Sale comparison. Since that point Hader’s stock has grown tremendously–he’s considered one of the top minor-league pitchers that could make an impact next season. He struggled at Colorado Springs but, well, which pitcher doesn’t?
The White Sox–and Reinsdorf, in particular, would still need to be absolutely stunned by the generosity of any offer that nets Sale in return. But the number one farm system in all of baseball can make a pretty generous offer. Pieces like Hader, Braun, Domingo Santana, Orlando Arcia, Brett Phillips, etc. are all attention-grabbing names, all ready to compete at the top level next season–and thanks to the excellent job of squirreling away young talent, not a single one of them is inexpendable. At least, not if a franchise-shifting talent like Chris Sale could come back in their stead.
The coming off-season will mark a turning point for the Milwaukee Brewers franchise. Having rebuilt the organization’s farm system completely and successfully, the team will turn their attention to the more immediate future–possibly even leveraging some of the talent they’ve recently acquired to move the window of competition up a bit.
Time will tell which other major pieces become available as the off-season opens up, but with chatter on Puig already and the chip stack necessary to make a bid at Sale, it’s not too hard to see the Brewers adding some juice to the 2017 roster in an effort to crash the NL Central.