Why Free Agent Relievers Make So Much Sense for Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s hot stove season has been popping already, but most of that action has come on the trade market. The Brewers have signed just one free agent thus far, Eric Thames, at a bargain-bin tab of $16.5 million. That may not be the case for long, as the club is rumored to be on the hunt for free agent relief pitching, according to reports from last week.

The Brewers have money to spend. They still have just $39.9 million committed before arbitration contracts, projected to cost roughly $21 million, for a total of $61 million. Considering the club drew over two million fans once again in 2016, there should be room in the budget for at least one or two more acquisitions, even if they are smaller deals on a similar scale as the Thames contract. Relief pitchers are usually considered the last piece necessary for a rebuilding franchise like Milwaukee. However, due to their typically short-term contracts, relievers are the perfect fit for the Brewers budget at this point.

One of the clearest goals of David Stearns’s rebuilding efforts has been to create financial flexibility in the future. Ryan Braun and Thames are the only players under contract past 2017, and given the rumor mill since back in the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if Braun’s contract isn’t long for the books. Without any lingering major contracts stuffing the payroll, the Brewers will be able to strike in the free agent market when they have a strong enough core to make a playoff run.

It’s understandable for fans of teams in this situation to dislike the idea of long, committal offers for free agents, a vast majority of whom are in the decline phases of their careers. But teams have very few resources with which to get better. Recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement like bonus pools for draft picks and restrictive amateur bonus caps are leaving teams with only one talent market to throw their cash at: major league free agents.

If the Brewers don’t push their payroll to its limit, they’re leaving cards on the table. Since they understandably don’t want to make a long-term commitment, relievers are an ideal investment. There is always a robust midseason trade market for them, and contenders will be willing to overpay for short-term improvements. And veteran relief presence does have value on a rebuilding team like Milwaukee’s, as they can soak up innings and help the club avoid overworking their developing younger pitchers.

The names connected to the Brewers include many former closers. Most interesting are the post-injury reclamation projects like Greg Holland and Neftali Feliz. There are also some older players like Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, or Koji Uehara who may be looking for their last contract and could be signed for a less committal one or two year deal. All of these players could develop huge trade value should they win the Brewers closing role and succeed to begin the 2017 season.

Whatever the Brewers decide, there are good options out there. This club makes too much money for them to sit on their hands with a minimal payroll. If they want to acquire enough talent to contend with the big guns in this division, a Cubs team that virtually prints money and a Cardinals team often hailed as the best-run in baseball, they can’t afford to waste any resources. That free agent money, if well spent, will turn into talent down the road.

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