Remembering Tomorrow: Beyond Buying and Selling

On March 16, 2017, Baseball Prospectus published my remembrance for the 2017 Brewers. The goal of the exercise was to discern the aspects of the team that would define their 2017 future, and then analyze those elements. My criticism of the Brewers offseason was buttressed by scenario planning involving league wide trends, as well as a sense of frustration (as I’ve written here previously) that “the rebuild is over” and yet fans refused to exit the losing mindset, and that “the Brewers are an interesting team” statements never went as far as getting the guts to call the club good (a few Brewers analysts went that far, and they are undoubtedly basking in this glorious gang of audacious nobodies that’s storming the National League). Strangely enough, it remains possible to state that the Brewers had a bad offseason in terms of adding surplus value to the organization while still recognizing the current success of the club. Putting that avenue aside, in terms of scenario planning, I got one major trend wrong, and two remain salient for the 2017 Brewers:

“In terms of scenario planning, there are several league-wide forces that shape the outlook of the Brewers:

  1. Baseball Prospectus has emphasized that there is less stratification among current prospects, which probably explains why teams have been so quick to unload so many “highly ranked prospects” within the last year. Should Milwaukee improve upon their solidly middle-of-the-road PECOTA projection, they will have ample prospects to make good on this trend and quickly reacquire solid MLB players and produce immediate wins while losing minimal surplus down the road.
  1. The MLB run environment spiked in 2016, largely due to inexplicable circumstances … such as a juiced ball. Between the league-wide goals to hasten the pace of play and increase offensive action, hastening the game may win, which leads one to expect a slightly less live ball in 2017. Should the run environment deflate to 2014-2015 levels once again, Milwaukee has the perfect tools to force the game, and then some: walks, aggressive baserunning and stolen bases, and homers on the batting side, and excellent command on the pitching side (especially in the form of Davies and the surprising CSAA percentage mastermind Wily Peralta).
  1. Of course, there is also the continuing trend of declining shares of MLB revenues spent on MLB payroll, to the benefit of ownership ranks.”

As a writer, there is nothing better than to be wrong about something and live to have the opportunity to investigate that mistake. I was dead wrong about the league environment in 2017, but ironically the Brewers are still perfectly assembled to win within this environment thanks to their mashing and aggressive situational approaches. It was not Zach Davies or Wily Peralta leading the way for the pitching staff, but Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson (although Davies remains one of the very best in the MLB in terms of Called Strikes Above Average, one Baseball prospectus indicator of command). The two institutional circumstances, namely owners’ increasingly stingy investments of revenue in labor and the relatively flat prospect landscape, will help to define Milwaukee’s deadline performance.

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If the prospect landscape is indeed flat, and perhaps the Brewers prove this better than anyone else with their ragtag gang of players that were readily available to the entire league not terribly long ago (Hernan Perez and Junior Guerra come to mind here, as does Eric Thames or even Eric Sogard), prospects should seem less certain and therefore more expendable. In an environment where development cycles can be extended to capitalize on playing time for castaways, hanging on to “surefire” high-Overall Future Potential role prospects like Luis Ortiz, Corey Ray, Lucas Erceg, Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, or even Isan Diaz (Please Don’t Trade Isan!) seems slightly less important (and I mean this without insinuating that any of these players are not impact prospects). Baseball Prospectus captured this with their Prospect Team’s Midseason Top 50, which included Lewis Brinson and Isan Diaz:

OF Lewis Brinson: Why He’ll Succeed: Elite athleticism means potential gold glove defense in center and a dynamic power/speed combo at the plate. He’s made a habit of tinkering with his swing, eliminating some holes and giving hope that he can continue to do so going forward. Why He Might Fail: There’s a balance of risk to reward with a profile like Brinson’s. His holes were exploited in a brief cameo and that could continue against MLB pitchers going forward. Despite his aptitude, the learning curve could be steep, with several years of struggles before it all clicks, if it ever does.

SS Isan Diaz: Why He’ll Succeed: There’s the potential for an above-average hit/power combo with a mature approach from an up-the-middle position with Diaz. He can already shorten his stroke versus same-side arms for contact and muscle up against right-handers for power. Why He Might Fail: He might be up the middle but it’s unlikely to be at short. That puts pressure on a bat that can be short to the ball, but still entails a lot of swing and miss. If he can’t make enough contact, the power isn’t going to play to the point to support a three true outcomes player.

There’s a lot of “what if…” remaining in these profiles.

I’m legitimately torn about calling out the Brewers for failing to spend money, or, alternately, spending resources via trade to bolster their 2017 club. The team has maintained a Daily Run Differential (RS / RA) Win-Loss record averaging 85-77 throughout the season, which puts to rest offseason fan complaints about “what good could spending $40 million do for this club in 2017?” It looks a little ridiculous now to both (a) question what good, say, 4 wins might be to the 2017 club (that could be the difference between winning the division to collect MLB playoff revenue or not) and (b) question the lack of spending given the wild roster assemblage that has emerged in 2017 (because the club is simply so good). The lack of spending is rather an institutional issue for all MLB owners, and especially in Milwaukee as Chairman Mark Attanasio looks like he’s turning the club into a private equity deal (strip the organization of as many labor-expensive assets as possible, prioritize capital over labor, and deplete the organization to a bargain basement skeleton to increase cashflow and an equity stake while also ensuring that the sum of all these parts will be worth more through sale). Perhaps business and pleasure have truly converged for Attanasio in the Brewers.

This strategy for Attanasio will look quite good once the Miami Marlins’ dysfunctional sale is finalized, and Attanasio can cash out these resource-poor rebuilding Brewers for a price that will be well over $1 billion; if you can’t collect major TV revenue, slice payroll and increase your equity in the club. That’s why rebuilding is a generally terrible practice for MLB, as it not simply brings out the least competitive aspects of clubs but also ensures that the players’ share in revenue declines for the foreseeable future. It reorients the league to fully accept and internalize losing and anti-labor practices. This environment, the actual unwillingness of ownership to spend, makes debates about the Brewers buying and selling midseason appear to be irrelevant.

From a developmental standpoint, I’m legitimately torn about calling out the Brewers for failing to make moves for 2017. The fact remains, GM David Stearns could do nothing this midseason and be perfectly justified, for he is sitting on a true 85 win club (on average) that has a standard deviation of approximately 6 wins. Doing nothing stands a fine probability of returning a club between 79 and 91 wins simply via the current organizational arrangement. Moreover, when Brandon Woodruff (potential mid rotation depth, potential impact relief), Josh Hader (potential impact relief, potential upper rotation ceiling), Lewis Brinson (elite glove first center fielder at worst, potential All Star at best), and Brett Phillips (useful platoon or fourth outfielder at worst) are within arm’s reach of the MLB, it is worth asking who on the trade market is either (a) worth blocking those developmental paths and (b) actually guaranteed to be better than these roles in the short term. Employing system guys could be a great way for Milwaukee to boost the club midseason, even if it continues the ugly trend of failing to spend revenue at the MLB level. Considering that the club would benefit long term from jumpstarting players like Jonathan Villar as well, even spending resources on short term upgrades is not categorically more beneficial for the club given the opportunity cost of failing to right Villar. Let ‘em play!

So, it’s worth looking back on tomorrow halfway through the season, in order to understand the difficulties in developing a ballclub, as well as the manner in which one gang of players can dissect a host of institutional factors that define the game. Perhaps this is why it is impossible for Brewers fans to stop debating the club’s “win now” or “rebuilding” strategies, as Milwaukee shreds that dichotomy: they are, on the one hand, a truly competitive team with established veterans (Ryan Braun, Matt Garza [!!!]) and young veterans making great strides (Anderson, Nelson, Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw, Corey Knebel) alongside a team of immaculate role players (see Hernan Perez and Jacob Barnes), and on the other hand an incomplete development project that could arguably simply stand to give players reps (Brinson, Woodruff, Hader, Phillips, Orlando Arcia, and even Manny Pina and Junior Guerra fit this mold). Thus I am revisiting earlier criticisms, in favor of the club doing nothing midseason; granted, I still believe the club has the cash, MLB assets, and prospects available to run the table at the deadline (the club could both buy and sell or entertain numerous contrarian strategies).

Given Stearns’s recent forays into alchemy, however, simply standing at the brink of these competing roster forces might be worthwhile in order to watch the tensions of unforeseen futures pull this club along. Forget everything else, the Brewers are going to be good for a long time, and the fabric of the universe tore open for this moment to let us sneak a glimpse.


Photo Credit: David Banks, USAToday Sports Images.

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