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130 Games of New Wave

The use of restrictive linguistic categories complicates discussion about the 2017 Brewers: since these upstart Brewers will not stop winning, they are short-circuiting fan dialogue between “rebuilding” and “winning now.” According to Baseball Reference, Sunday’s thrilling 2-1 win against San Diego marked the 32nd day that the Brewers stood in first place in the National League Central (in terms of games, the Milwaukee Nine have been tied or held sole possession of first place for 23 consecutive games). Any dichotomy between rebuilding and winning now misses at least two key points: (1) the “rebuild” is over and has been over for quite some time; (2) the Brewers are beginning the era of their new roster core.

After the August 1, 2016 trade deadline, Brewers GM David Stearns made a couple of transactions that helped to form the 2017 roster. Top prospect Orlando Arcia took his place at shortstop, where he already has 1.7 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) on the strength of 11.3 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which is carrying a .230 Total Average (TAv) at the plate. Catcher Manny Pina joined the Brewers squad ahead of Andrew Susac, the post-prospect catcher acquired as a part of the Will Smith trade, and held his own before breaking out in 2017 (entering Sunday’s game, the catcher had a .286 TAv prior to hitting the game-winning home run, and he’s holding his own with 0.5 FRAA behind the dish). In the meantime, Wily Peralta returned from Class-AAA Colorado Springs to work a late season surge that helped him prolong his MLB career, and Domingo Santana returned from the disabled list to heat up for September and October.

This series of seemingly inconsequential transactions begins to define the “new roster core” that partly formed the 2017 Brewers, ushering in a new wave for the franchise. In 2017, these players have been bolstered by Lewis Brinson, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, and (soon) Brandon Woodruff, defining a diverse roster core that is attributed to former President Doug Melvin (Arcia, Peralta, Santana, Hader, Phillips, and Woodruff) and Stearns (Pina, Brinson). These Brewers have now played 130 games with the new wave, approaching .500 in the win column and approximating .500 with their park-adjusted runs scored and runs allowed.

New Wave Brewers W-L RS / RA 162 G Pace Notes
August – September 2016 26-33 252 / 259 -47 RS / +36 RA Manny Pina / Orlando Arcia / Wily Peralta recalled; Domingo Santana activated
April – June 2017 38-33 347 / 330 +27 RS / +25 RA Lewis Brinson / Josh Hader / Brett Phillips / Brandon Woodruff recalled
Total 64-66 599 / 589 -5 RS / +34 RA Roughly 82 W team based on scaled 2016 and 2017 production & Miller Park

One could argue that Peralta is not necessarily a part of this wave going forward (given his move to the pen), but his inclusion in the roster surge at the close of 2016 places him in the same transactional class as Arcia, Santana, and Pina to define this new post-rebuilding Brewers club. Between the late 2016 surge and early 2017 struggles, Peralta is basically average for the current NL/Miller Park environment. Arcia, Santana, and Pina are interesting because they bring a diverse blend of offensive and defensive strengths, offsetting weaknesses in other areas of the diamond. Brinson and Phillips will add to the group in terms of high defensive floors that will carry their profiles while the bats catch up to MLB pitching, and Hader and Woodruff are intriguing for their potential inclusion in the club’s starting rotation or bullpen moving forward.

In the “are the Brewers for real?” department, ask yourself what a series of 130 games, 59 in 2016 and 71 in 2017, demonstrates about this core group of players. Ask whether the gradual advance of prospects into the fold helps to improve a club that is already filled with a rather audacious group of apparent overachievers. If you’re concerned about sample size, throw it out; this is not a sample, this is a batch, this is 130 complete games that suggest the .500 talent base is real from several directions (W-L, RS / RA, and park-adjusted RS / RA). The Brewers are currently on pace to win 87 actual games (approximately 84 by run differential) because they are a .500 talent core that is leaning a bit toward their strongest performance tendencies. This team is not playing over their heads, they are not simply lucky; audacious, yes, stunning, yes, and yes, they are chumps. But this is real.

Brewers New Wave PA / IP Statistical Note (August 2016 – present) Future Role?
Arcia 457 11.3 FRAA / 7% XBH / 6.1 BB% / 12 of 15 SB Starting SS
Pina 226 .288 / .345 / .444 (-0.4 FRAA) Starting C
Peralta 114.3 61 R / 95 K / 43 BB / 15 HR Reliever
Santana 393 .273 / .359 / .480 (18 HR) Starting RF
Brinson 20 0.3 FRAA / 2 BB / 1 SB / 1 3B Starting CF
Phillips 11 0.4 FRAA Depth OF (across LF / CF / RF)
Hader 3.3 4.75 DRA Lefty Wild Card (SP or RP)
Woodruff DNP 10-Day DL SP / Rotational Depth
Stats entering Sunday

Of course, there are additional acquisitions that make this 2017 Brewers club interesting, both in terms of performance and depth. This group of players also further define the lack of a clear “rebuilding” or “win now” identity. The Jett Bandy / Martin Maldonado deal was not a rebuilding trade; the Eric Thames move was not necessarily a rebuilding move (save for its general purposes of payroll austerity compared to Chris Carter); the Tyler Thornburg / Travis Shaw trade was certainly a counterbuilding move (Shaw was the best player returned in the deal even on the day of the trade, the prospects included are extra). Even seeing Chase Anderson’s breakout in 2017 leads one to wonder whether the Jean Segura trade was intended more for its rebuilding aspect (Isan Diaz) or its counterbuilding aspect that returned controllable big league pitching depth (Anderson). Suffice to say Brewers fans may now be seeing in Anderson what Stearns hoped to see from the start.

Additional Core? Role
Jett Bandy Depth C
Andrew Susac Depth C
Eric Thames Starting 1B
Jonathan Villar Depth IF / OF
Hernan Perez Depth Utility
Travis Shaw Starting 3B
Ryan Braun Starting LF
Keon Broxton Depth CF
Junior Guerra SP
Jimmy Nelson SP
Chase Anderson SP
Zach Davies SP
Corey Knebel Closer
Jacob Barnes RP

This additional core should underscore the relatively strong position that Doug Melvin created with an aggressive 2015 summer (or, perhaps, full 2015 if one considers the Yovani Gallardo trade as the official start to rebuilding rather than July 2015); a diverse set of talent acquired by Stearns (from Keon Broxton to Bandy to Shaw, Thames, and Anderson) is being elevated by the talent base established by Melvin (from Hernan Perez, Corey Knebel, and Zach Davies to Santana, Arcia, and several of the new 2017 call-ups). The Brewers are beyond rebuilding precise thanks to the aggression of both GMs from January 2015 through March 2017.

Adding this new wave to the existing talent base provides an intriguing roster moving forward.

Roster Role
Manny Pina Starting C
Jett Bandy Depth C
Andrew Susac Depth C
Eric Thames Starting 1B
Jonathan Villar Depth IF / OF
Hernan Perez Depth Utility
Orlando Arcia Starting SS
Travis Shaw Starting 3B
Ryan Braun Starting LF
Lewis Brinson Starting CF
Keon Broxton Depth CF
Domingo Santana Starting RF
Brett Phillips Depth OF
Junior Guerra SP
Jimmy Nelson SP
Chase Anderson SP
Zach Davies SP
Brandon Woodruff SP
Josh Hader Wild Card
Corey Knebel Closer
Jacob Barnes RP
Wily Peralta RP
Taylor Williams RP
Jorge Lopez Swingman / Depth Arm
Brent Suter Swingman / Depth Arm

What is tricky about this roster is that it is neither a rebuilding nor a contending roster, at least from first glance. It becomes a contending roster as Orlando Arcia shows that his elite fielding ceiling was perhaps a floor; as Manny Pina shows a relatively balanced catching profile; as Jonathan Villar, Broxton, Perez, Bandy, and Barnes show flashes of brilliance in their roster depth roles; as Corey Knebel seizes a high leverage relief role; as Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson flash the upside of their sturdy middle rotation profiles; as Eric Thames and Travis Shaw answer the questions, “how will they hit in Milwaukee?;” and as Domingo Santana leads the way for the rebuilding trade prospects by showing that indeed a starting role can be forged with a couple of years of regular play. This club is not building; welcome to nobuilding or neverbuilding, where the roster may be set and the players will carry the team as far as they can. Banish the “rebuild” from your vocabulary. If this core continues to make strides on the field, you will hopefully need not speak that word for some time to come.

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