Building Off the Trash Heap

After a remarkable end to the first that saw the Brewers win six of seven games heading into the break, the shocking Milwaukee nine owns a 5.5 game lead over the vaunted Cubs and Cardinals in the National League Central. That the Brewers will only be sending one man to the All-Star game in closer Corey Knebel, who more than earned his spot with a 1.70 ERA, 14 saves and a ludicrous 75 strikeouts over 42.1 innings, is a testament to how well-rounded their roster has been, and to how many different people have contributed to their first-place first half.

I want to focus, though, on just how many of those contributors were brought to the Brewers off of baseball’s scrap heap. There are two waiver claims in Milwaukee’s top seven players by WARP: Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar, who have combined to produce 2.8 wins and mash 19 home runs and 27 doubles. Perez gives the Brewers’ roster much-needed versatility by playing both the infield and the outfield and making consistently solid contact. Stephen Vogt has only been a Brewer for a short time, but he’s looking like a stellar left-handed power option to spell Manny Pina and give the Brewers a bench option to pair with Aguilar’s right-handed bat. Junior Guerra has yet to find his stride in 2017, but there’s still time for him to rediscover his #2016BrewersAce form and contribute as well.

And then there are players who weren’t waiver claims but I believe similarly belong in the category of “freely available talent”: players who could have been snapped up by any interested club. Reliever Jared Hughes was cut by the Pirates at the end of the spring training and was signed by the Brewers for under a million dollars the literal day before the season started. He has proven to be a rock in Milwaukee’s bullpen, a right-handed arm with a 3.03 ERA, 3.36 DRA, and 0.7 WARP, sixth highest among all Brewers pitchers. Eric Sogard signed with the Brewers as a minor league free agent to serve as organizational depth; he will carry a .331/.438/.485 batting line into the break, gives the Brewers a solid defender at multiple positions, and he currently ranks sixth among the club’s position players at 1.4 WARP.

Then there are the players who were considered secondary or tertiary pieces of the trades in which they were acquired. That includes Manny Pina, the shockingly consistent Brewers catcher with a .287/.328/.457 line and 1.1 WARP, who was the player to be named later in the Francisco Rodriguez trade. It includes Keon Broxton, who was acquired for Jason Rogers, a man who was likely headed to a DFA before the Pirates jumped in and offered Broxton along with righty Trey Supak. Oliver Drake, just fractions of a win behind Hughes, was acquired from the Orioles for a player to be named later or cash in the season’s second week. Chase Anderson, the surprise ace of Milwaukee’s rotation before an oblique injury forced him to the DL, was considered to be a throw-in to the Jean Segura trade, well below centerpiece prospect Isan Diaz and veteran infielder Aaron Hill in terms of expected value.

Perhaps my definition of freely available talent is a touch liberal, but these 10 players were far under the radar for the typical baseball fan, and yet all 10 of them are key pieces to the Brewers’ surprising contention here in 2017. These 10 players have combined for 7.9 WARP even including Guerra’s disastrous start to the season; without him, they’re at a solid 9.6 WARP. While it would be incomplete to say these players are the reason the Brewers are in first place, as that would unfairly detract from the contributions of Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia, Eric Thames, Jimmy Nelson, and others, it is fair to say this level of success wouldn’t be possible without such strong performances from the supporting cast.

When the Brewers brought in David Stearns and made the move to the new-school front office, I was less worried about the club’s overarching plan and more worried that the club might lose the magic touch Doug Melvin had over the years in identifying talent off the league’s trash heap. Milwaukee’s playoff teams in 2008 and 2011 were defined by supporting casts filled with cast-offs like Casey McGehee, Gabe Kapler, Chris Narveson, Nyjer Morgan, Marco Estrada and John Axford, to name a few. Develop all the stars you want — baseball is a 25-man game, and it won’t count if they’re surrounded by scrubs.

In 2017, the Brewers are proving they still have that magic even with a new front office making the moves. This roster has proven shockingly deep, deep enough to handle major injuries to the pitching staff and extended absences from the assumed centerpiece of the team, Ryan Braun. It looks Milwaukee can still find those diamonds in the rough, an ability that has been critical in keeping them atop the standings as we head into the All-Star break.


Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray, USAToday Sports Images.

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