It’s been a long winter in Wisconsin, and one that our other professional sports teams have only filled with heartbreak (Packers endure drubbing by Falcons in NFC Championship; Bucks’ former #2 overall pick Jabari Parker tears left ACL for the second time in 3 years). But we have finally made it to February, and even though the temperature in Milwaukee this morning is a balmy 22 degrees, spring will unofficially be arriving next week. Pitchers and catchers report on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, and they bring with them not only their mitts and protective gear, but a renewed optimism for the possibilities of what the coming spring and summer may bring the Milwaukee Brewers. Everyone is in first place on Opening Day, after all.
PECOTA is projecting a third place tie this year in the NL Central for our local nine, pegging them to win 76 games along with the St. Louis Cardinals. That would be an improvement over last year’s total of 73 wins and hopefully portend to the fact that this is truly a team on the rise, one that could be legitimately competing for at least a Wild Card in the not-too-distant future. But for as bright as the future of the Brew Crew may look, getting to the playoffs will ultimately depend on how well their team stacks up against the rest of the organizations in the division. So, let’s take this opportunity to run around the NL Central and see how each team’s future stacks up by comparing top ten prospects and 2017 PECOTA projections.
2017 PECOTA: 91-71
|RHP||Oscar de la Cruz||50||40||2019|
It’s hard to argue against the fact that the defending World Series Champion Cubs are the juggernaut of the division. They were the best team in baseball last year and have the second-highest projected win total in the National League for 2017 according to PECOTA. The Cubs have a core of young stars in place at the MLB level, lead by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell, that should anchor their lineup for through at least the end of the decade. Since they’ve graduated a myriad of first-division players in recent years and spent prospect capital to supplement last year’s championship team, the farm system is now more ‘good’ than it is ‘great’. With the current group in place in The Show, however, the Cubs farm system needn’t necessarily produce stars in the next few years to be helpful to the franchise, as long as they can utilize those pieces in trade scenarios and be able to produce decent depth in an injury scenario. Having the ability to put together $180+ million payrolls won’t hurt, either. The Cubs are going to be around for a long time, and serve as the most daunting impediment to the future dynasty that Slingin’ David Stearns is trying to build.
2017 PECOTA: 81-81
The Pirates regressed big time last year after consecutive seasons of 94, 88, and 98 victories, riding a slightly above-average offense and slightly below-average pitching staff to a mere 78 wins and a third place finish in the division. Injuries didn’t help, and neither did the sudden implosion of former MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates neglected to bring in any real help this winter and will instead hope for a bounceback from Cutch as he heads to right field and for positive contributions from top prospects on the cusp Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows. The farm system isn’t all that exciting beyond those three (with the exception of maybe Mitch Keller), but Glasnow and Meadows are considered truly elite prospects and the collective “likely” grades of their top 10 should at least give the system a solid floor. While an 81 win projection may put them within spitting distance of the Wild Card race, Pittsburgh has already seen how heartbreaking that road can be. The Pirates may have missed their best window to truly compete for a championship.
St. Louis Cardinals
2017 PECOTA: 76-86
The Cardinals had another winning season last year, though they narrowly missed qualifying for the playoffs as a Wild Card by one game. That’s not to say the year was without some tumult, however. Kolten Wong (who signed a five-year extension prior to the season) and Randal Grichuk, once thought of as long-term anchors in the lineup, both struggled so mightily that they were banished to the minors for a time and now face questions about their long-term viability. The pitching staff was a mess, with large regressions in run prevention from Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Trevor Rosenthal. Guys like Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Carpenter aren’t getting any younger. Alex Reyes is perhaps the best pitching prospect in the game and looks like he’ll be a real contributor as soon as next season, but beyond that there doesn’t appear to be much impact depth coming in the near future to replace the aging All-Stars currently on the roster. Unless the Cardinals can conjure up some Devil Magic and have a few of their prospects outperform projections, St. Louis might be heading toward some lean years (relatively speaking, of course).
2017 PECOTA: 74-88
The Reds, in my mind, are an example of how NOT to run a rebuild for your ballclub. The team’s trades of their two most valuable assets – Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier – were both widely panned. The Jay Bruce trade yielded an MLB ready, potentially league-average middle infielder in Dilson Herrera, who has nowhere to play because Zack Cosart, Brandon Phillips, and Eugenio Suarez are all still in the fold. There doesn’t appear to be any future stars down in the farm system, and even though the Reds have a decent collection of prospects it is still arguably the worst minor league system in the division (though January’s trade of Dan Straily to the Marlins did return a high-octane, 60 OFP/50 likely arm in Luis Castillo who helps things a smidge). Joey Votto is still here and still awesome (even though a large contingent of Reds’ fans refuse to admit it) but this team is projected for last place in the division and with a farm system that is the poorest among their NL Central foes. Can you rebuild a rebuild?
2017 PECOTA: 76-86
The Brewers improved from 68 wins in 2015 to 73 wins in 2016, all while continuing to ship out veteran players in exchange for impact prospects. PECOTA sees continued improvement to 76 wins next season, and with only modest contributions from the top prospects down in the minor leagues (156 PA for Lewis Brinson, 26.0 IP for Josh Hader). Milwaukee looks like they’ve found keepers where they may not have necessarily been looking in Jonathan Villar and Zach Davies, and Junior Guerra, Domingo Santana, and Keon Broxton could add themselves to that list this season if they can prove their smaller sample sizes last year were no fluke. Milwaukee has a truly elite prospect in Brinson and another one near that level in Hader, and their system boasts the most 60+ OFP prospects in the division. Eight of Milwaukee’s top 10 prospects are expected to arrive within the next two years, so if one of the current MLB players flames out, there should be a hungry minor leaguer right there to take their place. The Brewers rebuild has been almost universally praised, and it should be. While the system may not have the top end pieces like Pittsburgh, there is almost an extreme amount of depth and when you have THAT many legitimate prospects, the chances are a much better that a few of them will hit their 90th percentile outcomes. The Brewers may not be ready for a playoff run in 2017, but they’ve probably got the best chance of the divisional teams to unseat the Cubs from their throne come 2018-19.