This article begins with a massive caveat: I cannot and will not know what trade offers David Stearns will get between now and July 31. Even though I will go on to explain why I think the Brewers would be justified in not making a big move, if they are presented with a chance to move for a starting pitcher for an absurdly low price, I would be wholeheartedly in favor of it. I just do not believe that the club should be seeking out moves that might reduce future flexibility.
The Brewers are in an interesting position. They are in first place at the All Star Break and are 5.5 games ahead of the Cubs, but they are competing a bit ahead of their expected window. That is of course a positive; this team is substantially different from the 2014 team that overachieved all season (see the BPMilwaukee twitter thread on this subject here), and so there should not be an expectation that the team will fall back to earth. Instead, a team that was expected to compete in 2018 has started the process early.
However, they did not have the offseason of a team trying to compete. They traded their best remaining relief pitcher, Tyler Thornburg, for Travis Shaw and prospects. (The fact that this trade has worked out extraordinarily well is a positive side note, but the fact remains that contending teams do not trade relievers). They did not add to their starting rotation despite it being one of baseball’s worst last season. And they took offseason gambles on position players that have paid off handsomely but were certainly not guaranteed to do so (see Thames, Eric).
As a result, they are entering the second half of the season without a legitimate front-end starting pitcher. I will note here that Jimmy Nelson has been outstanding this season, but I prefer longer track records before I anoint starters as having truly broken through. Nelson deserves all the plaudits he has gotten this season, but he also put up a 5.83 DRA and 109 cFIP just last season. Adding someone either in front of Nelson or alongside him in the rotation would certainly strengthen the team, especially if a potential playoff series is in the front office’s minds and only three or four starters are used.
However, I do not believe that the organization should mortgage the future to trade for one of the starting pitchers on the market. There does not appear to be a sure-fire ace available this year, the way Chris Sale and David Price have been available in previous years. Instead, the top of the market is young, solid, and cost-controlled pitchers like Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana. Both of those pitchers are good but have legitimate question marks: Gray threw just 117 innings last season (and posted a cFIP of 102) and began this season on the DL as well, while Quintana has posted unremarkable strikeout numbers prior to this season, when his walk rate has also leaped.
I would therefore counsel against trading some of the organization’s top players for pitchers of that caliber. There is an understandable backlash against prospect hoarding because prospects are not guaranteed to succeed at the major league level. This leads towards the conclusion that organizations should not hesitate to trade them at the peak of their value because there are no sure things. However, it can also caution the opposite approach: hoard as many as possible and hope that enough of them work out.
As with most things in life, moderation is the key to success. Trading all prospects for veterans turns you into the late-aughts Yankees, while hoarding them creates the risk that none of them ever turn into anything successful and your big league club has nothing to show for the all the years poured into development. There is a middle ground here that is heavily dependent on scouting; if teams can accurately figure out which of their players are more likely to bust before the rest of the industry does, then they can hold onto the ones they believe in more. If it were this simple, though, everyone would do it. What happens more often is teams trade some prospects and hold onto others, and the wrong one develops, as happened with the Blue Jays and the Noah Syndergaard/Aaron Sanchez decision prior to the R.A. Dickey trade.
Not all prospects are created equally, and so categorizing them all together is a mistake. We cannot say that some will fail and some will succeed and so it does not matter which are traded because that ignores overall player profiles and risk profiles in particular. Some players have higher upside but lower floors, while others are the inverse, and still others are in the middle. As a team still trying to build for the future, the Brewers are not yet in the position to just rely on specific profiles to fit in to specific holes on their major league team. They should still be collecting as much talent as possible.
BP Milwaukee’s Kyle Lesniewski has said on Twitter that the Brewers cannot mortgage their future because of the depth of the system, but I do not believe that is true. The wrong trades can absolutely kill the future of the organization, particularly because none of the reported targets are franchise changers (such as Chris Sale, for example), as well as the fact that Brewers aren’t loaded with top-10 type talents. With more high-end prospects, the odds that some of them actually hit increase. But the Brewers have accumulated depth, which while being laudable and certainly better than just having a couple top prospects and nothing behind it, does not provide the level of relative certainty of major league impact that truly great farm systems can lend an organization.
The Rangers are a good example of how this type of trade can go wrong. They had the fourth-ranked farm system in 2015, and then they traded for Cole Hamels and Jonathan Lucroy. Neither player has impressed all that much, and the farm system has been depleted such that BP’s prospect team ranked them 16th during this past offseason. They are now below .500 and settled comfortably in the middle of the league in BP’s Hit List.
Instead, I propose the Brewers follow a more middle ground, similar to what the Pirates pursued during their surprisingly competitive first half in 2011. They did not make any long-term trades or get rid of any of their highly-touted prospects, but rather they pursued short-term fixes and let their prospects come up the following seasons. They then went made the playoffs for three years in a row: 2013, 2014, and 2015. The best case scenario for the Brewers is a longer period of success, but the multiple consecutive playoff berths would be a good goal for this organization.
Anyone can point to case studies that support their preferred strategy, and I of course cherry-picked the above examples. However, I would be wary of trading any of the top prospects for a cost-controlled starter just because that is what this version of the Brewers needs. Making such a deal would not have been in the organization’s plan prior to this season, and a half-season of surprisingly good results should not accelerate the timetable. I recognize that such a deal may have been part of the longer-term plan, particularly for this coming offseason, but the trade market is more developed during the winter and teams make fewer panic trades.
I am not a scout, and so I do not feel qualified to decide which prospects should be trade bait and which should not. Fortunately, I am not the one who has to make that decision. However, I do know that treating them all as equally fungible assets would be a mistake, and I don’t believe that the front office should part with some just because the system is deep and a trade would be helpful in the short-term.
At this point, I will reiterate my caveat from above. No policy should be pursued in a vacuum, and the Brewers should make a deal if the right one emerges. David Stearns has earned the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to thinking of long-term strategies, and I do trust that he will not be too short-sighted. I do believe it proper to state my opinion, though, that making no moves can in fact be the correct decision.