With the trade deadline approaching, and one blockbuster already completed by the division rival Cubs, Brewers fans and analysts are vigorously debating prospective moves for the franchise. Milwaukee is in a great spot to make moves: the club sits atop the division with a 5.5 game lead, is in the midst of a ten game stretch in which they expanded their lead, they are playing “true” baseball according to their run differential (comparing Runs Scored and Runs Allowed to Wins and Losses), and there are many roster strengths around which to build (veteran superstar Ryan Braun has returned, upstart stars Domingo Santana, Jimmy Nelson, Travis Shaw and Corey Knebel are productive, top prospect Orlando Arcia is coming along, and bullpen depth arms are stabilizing). Nevertheless, despite the club’s strengths, there are numerous areas of concern: second base and lead-off production could use a boost, center field could use an upgrade or depth support, and the starting rotation looks thin after Chase Anderson’s injury and the struggles of Junior Guerra and Zach Davies. It is debatable whether the bullpen needs additional help, although moves such as the Tyler Webb trade are perfect for this stage in the Brewers development process.
Earlier this week at BPMilwaukee, Seth Victor published an argument in favor of standing pat at the trade deadline. I would like to take this argument seriously, and follow up by investigating the actual needs for the roster. Specifically, what is the likelihood of the Brewers making moves internally that can improve their roster? While fans typically are inclined to argue against placing “developing” players into a pennant race, I largely think this type of fact is immaterial simply because there are so many moving parts to an MLB roster; for instance, if someone like Brandon Woodruff or Lewis Brinson has done all they need to do to develop at Class-AAA Colorado Springs, there is little to no point in keeping them there simply because the Brewers are in a playoff race. Rather, here is where one must closely investigate the Brewers’ roster needs and some of their potential in-house players in order to (a) price out trades and (b) price out the opportunity of developing prospects at the big league level (ex., taking the next step in their development process).
Let me be as clear as possible with this: if the Brewers were working on a development plan prior to the season that included moving Lewis Brinson to center field after the trade deadline (not unlike Orlando Arcia in 2016), and Brinson has reached those developmental milestones, there is little reason to abandon that plan now. That’s not the type of decision that the Brewers should derail simply due to a contending season, for the opportunity cost of developing (or not developing) Brinson at the MLB level to close 2017 is solidifying the odds that the high floor prospect has an MLB role to open 2018 (which is crucial for instantiating the expected rebuild timeframe of contending in 2018).
As I see it, there are two key facts that could justify a trade to boost the MLB rotation:
- Chase Anderson is injured and likely should not be counted on to return to form down the stretch (for example, even if Anderson is healthy in time for a stretch run, likely rehab starts and perhaps some starts to reestablish himself at the MLB level will eat into any type of timeframe for delivering impact starts in the regular season). Making sure Anderson is as healthy as possible, perhaps ready for a playoff run, is important, but it is not worth pushing the righty given his lucrative arbitration reserve contract for the Brewers (and, obviously, for quality control reasons in terms of ensuring the best possible performance upon return).
- Zach Davies and Junior Guerra simply are not pitching well. I just don’t know what else to say; they’re not preventing runs, their Deserved Runs Average (DRA) and contextual Fielding Independent Pitching (cFIP) markers are down from 2016, and there are command and mechanical questions one could ask about both starters. Coupled with the insertion of Brent Suter into the rotation, who is a formidable swingman but may not be desirable as a full stretch run rotation option, the Milwaukee rotation is set for a steep second half regression.
By scaling expected innings pitched (based on full rotational turns over 70 games), and scaling runs prevented based on standard Runs, DRA Runs, and cFIP Runs, what appears to be a solid rotation on the surface may significantly step back:
|J. Guerra||-6.18||-28.74 (!!!)||-10.75||-9.47|
Should the bullpen continue their excellent performance, they would yield roughly 14 runs prevented over the course of the second half…which would be wiped out completely by the starting rotation if one considers cFIP and DRA to be indicative of their future (emergence of their underlying) performance. This would place pressure on an offense that is already quite volatile, but should the bats keep up their pace Milwaukee could still win approximately 85 to 86 games in this scenario. However, since the club is currently on pace to win 89 games with their balance of good pitching and offense through the first half, an 85-86 win performance would be quite a significant fall during a playoff chase. It should be noted that the Brewers’ Daily Pythagorean (RS / RA) Win-Loss for the season averages to 85 wins, so perhaps there is some sense that this just is an 85 win club (which is quite good for this stage in development, we could really just stop the debate here. Nice job, David Stearns and front office!)
On the offensive side of the equation, the picture is much more certain should Ryan Braun remain healthy. Braun anchors a batting order that is already full of above average position players (Santana, Arcia, Shaw, Eric Thames, and Manny Pina) and great depth (Hernan Perez, Jesus Aguilar, and Eric Sogard). Center field is the only position at which the Brewers feature a median everyday bat (in terms of Total Average) and below average defense (Fielding Runs Above Average). Even the bemoaned Jonathan Villar is pairing an elite glove with his below average bat in 2017, which is drawing some value from the second baseman. In this case, the Brewers’ troubles could perhaps be ironed out by redistributing plate appearances rather than making trades; by taking the harmonic mean between Runs and Runs Batted In, a quick estimate of the Brewers’ batting order and positional performances versus the National League/Miller Park show some inefficiencies in terms of runs production:
Given that the Brewers have solid run production and depth in terms of positional production, they can bolster their second half odds of competing by shifting the batting order. Taking seniority out of the picture (for example, Ryan Braun will likely bat third or fourth or nowhere else in the batting order), Milwaukee could optimize production with the following order:
|8||Villar / Sogard|
Taking into account seniority and other specific traits (such as Sogard’s On Base skills, when he returns), a more interesting batting order might be the following:
So you want to make a trade! The good news is, if you take DRA and cFIP seriously, a trade for a better than average starting pitcher, especially a controllable one, could make the largest impact for the 2017 Brewers. Taking fan favorite Sonny Gray as an example, the steep prospect package required for the righty (probably start with OF Corey Ray or 2B Isan Diaz and RHP Luis Ortiz at the very least) would be worthwhile even if one adjusts for the fact that Gray would move from a 4.49 RA/G environment to a 4.70 RA/G environment (Cot’s Contracts notes that Gray is under arbitration reserve for 2018 and 2019).
Gray has in fact been perfectly average in Oakland, so projecting future runs prevented is a bit difficult in that regard (average is as average does), but DRA and cFIP both love the righty (and Miller Park would love that 56 percent groundball rate). Even scaling DRA and cFIP to a more difficult run environment suggests that Gray over Guerra is a TWO WIN (20 run) move.
|S. Gray||0 (Perfectly Average)||15||9||11|
How might Brandon Woodruff perform in the MLB? Fans love the righty’s stats, although they rarely cite his relatively easy opponents in Class-AAA Colorado Springs. Nevermind that, DRA and cFIP still like the righty in the minors, but one might not be surprised to see a brief set of struggles as the righty adjusts to his first few turns through the National League. A slightly below average run over 53 innings (once he returns from injury rehab) would be worth at least three runs compared to Davies, and potentially as much as eight or nine runs (nearing the value of another win).
This is an example of how Milwaukee can play for the future in two regards: first, by trading for a solidly above average righty with club control (taking the extreme example of Gray in this case); and second, by advancing one of their strongest organizational arms to regular starts down the stretch. Given that Brewerfan.net reports both Davies and Guerra have minor league options, moving either of those players from the rotation would not necessarily be difficult in terms of transaction cost (it would be personally difficult in terms of player development, I imagine, and there is some opportunity cost in either or both pitchers failing to get a chance to right their stuff for evaluation in the 2018 rotation).
|C. Knebel||15 (!!!)|
|O. Drake||0 (Average)|
Finally, as for the “start Josh Hader” line, the southpaw is doing quite well in the bullpen. Since I last evaluated the underlying logic in keeping the bullpen relatively stable and allowing their underlying performances to (potentially) emerge, the bullpen has performed quite well. Hader is a part of a great thing in the bullpen, and fans should understand that the prospect is going nowhere in terms of long-term starting pitching plans. In terms of development, the team simply thinks it best to pitch him in the bullpen for now, a move that has played out for several other notable prospects of the last decade.
|Guerra / Davies / Suter SP||-21|
|+Gray / -Guerra||+20|
|+Woodruff / -Davies||+3|
|Healthy Chase Anderson||???|
|Hader in bullpen||???|
The lone problem with a trade involving an impact pitcher like Gray is that the Brewers theoretically would not “add wins;” it’s not as though the club would suddenly move the needle from 89 wins to, say, 91 wins. However, if one takes the underlying performance of the starting rotation seriously, adding an impact starting pitcher would help to keep the bottom from falling out of the rotation (which may occur according to both DRA and cFIP). At this very moment, projections such as Baseball Prospectus Team Audit standings suggest the very same for Milwaukee, who may lose the division 84 wins to the Cubs’ 86 wins. So, should the Brewers jump into a trade to improve the rotation, don’t be disappointed if somewhere around 89 wins remains the destination; staving off internal decomposition is just as important as fending off opponents during playoff races.
Photo Credit: Kelley L. Cox, USAToday SportsImages