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Grading the System 2

Where are the Brewers? As a franchise, the 2017 trade deadline marks contradictory crossroads leading in several directions. First and foremost, the club has contended for the NL Central all season long, and even the recent tailspin does not have the club terribly far from the division favorite Chicago Cubs. Thirteen of sixteen post-All Star Break games have been within two runs into the sixth inning, which simply exacerbates the sense that Milwaukee cannot right ship; close losses are always the most difficult to process and have the longest sticking point in fan memory.

2016: Grading the System

Second, the organization maintained a strange stance at the deadline: the club certainly showed a willingness to deal prospects, with GM David Stearns allegedly offering a package involving Corey Ray and Luis Ortiz for White Sox ace Jose Quintana (a fantastically priced maximal offer), and only failing to trade Lewis Brinson for Oakland hurler Sonny Gray (probably a good decision). Make no mistake about it, the Brewers were ready to execute huge MLB deadline deals for controllable assets at their price, which is the first step to testing the contending waters. Regular BPMilwaukee readers know that the rebuild is and has been over for quite some time, and now the contending window is open.

Third, the organization is experiencing setbacks across the farm system. Dominican teenage signing splash Gilbert Lara has struggled mightily through Class-A Wisconsin, a demotion to Class-R Helena, and an undisclosed disabled list stint; 2016 First Rounder Corey Ray has raised some questions about his ability to handle velocity, and 2015 First Rounder Trent Clark is also exhibiting some traits that test a hit tool that needed to have a lot of carrying power. These center field ceiling / ‘tweener (or left field) floor profiles are leaning more toward the latter at this point, taking some serious shine away from the top of the system. It goes on and on; some have stated that Cody Ponce’s stuff is backing up, others have noted that Lucas Erceg is having trouble wielding his long swing, and now there are some more questions about the seemingly-can’t-miss Isan Diaz’s hit profile. This is life on the farm, where development cycles are much longer than prospect list cycles and fan hype attention spans.

None of these guys are doomed, and indeed they could continue to develop in the advanced minors, or at repeated Class-Advanced A stints, or even after they reach the MLB as bench or bullpen depth (in some cases). With a draft that leaned heavily on the boom and bust, and graduations of Lewis Brinson, Josh Hader, and perhaps even Brandon Woodruff, there is a real chance that Milwaukee closes 2017 without winning the NL Central and with a farm system that falls in the rankings. All in a rebuild’s work, though: this is the development cycle, and if assembling the talent can be a quick and severe process, turning that talent into MLB ceilings is quite a different tale.

Fourth, the contending club itself is full of interesting profiles that may not necessarily be building blocks in the typical sense that fans and analysts imagine franchise cornerstones. Here the Brewers remain quite transitional, as one can question whether a competitive core in 2018 or even 2019 will be anything but a bridge to “the real thing” in 2020 or 2021, or whether this core will be something else entirely. With a “Team Depth” identity, this is perhaps Milwaukee’s greatest strength, one that makes the lack of impact trades or spending to seriously bolster the MLB roster at the deadline extremely disappointing (for the depth is already there, a couple of impact roles for the stretch run would have greatly helped this team).

This is quite a contradiction of forces, the most negative of which produces the image of a club reeling backwards in every regard: the MLB club is stalling, the prospects aren’t who we thought they were, the roster core is fleeting, and the front office is tepid. Of course, one could spin these threads into an entirely different pattern: the front office nearly acquired a controllable SP at the deadline, is acquiring vast prospect depth in order to offset slow development cycles, the organization just graduated the best prospects in the system (Brinson and Hader), and they crafted an extreme MLB club that is quite well-adjusted for this scoring environment that rewards power and speed. The optimistic take is that Stearns’s second consecutive underwhelming transaction window (after a highly questionable offseason) is gutsy this time around, as the GM is simply waiting out these contradictory forces to see which way the players pull the organization.

The traditional rebuild windows:

  • 2015 (July, Offseason)
  • 2016 (July, Offseason)
  • 2017 (July, Offseason)
  • 2018 (July, Offseason)

Anyway, with those contradictory points, the “officially christened rebuild” is already two years old (encompassing four trading and signing stints), and the windows on the early part of the process are indeed closed. The contending windows are open, and what the front office does with these contradictory forces within the organization, and these tough decisions regarding prospects and club cornerstones will obviously determine how quickly that contending window materializes a playoff run. What should be underscored is that these processes can overlap one another; the MLB club can (one might argue must) capitalize on at least $80 millionĀ of unspent revenue through 2017 and at least another $80 million free for 2018 (thanks to a $25 million guaranteed payroll entering the arbitration reserve portion of the offseason); the minor league system can s-l-o-w down development with some prospects, allowing them to receive the opportunities for mechanical repetition and adjustments necessary to improve and materialize “what could be” into “MLB ceilings;” and for both aims, Stearns can deal just about anyone he pleases in order to improve either aim.

System
Following last year’s post-trade deadline model, let’s take a look at how the system is advancing by acquisition type.

Top Ten Considerations
Top Thirty Considerations
[Just Interesting]
[MLB Graduate]

What’s stunning about the 2017 system is (a) how quickly the 2011-2013 drafts are fading, (b) how much the 2014 draft continues to morph into intriguing upside, and (c) how much the 2015-2016 drafts have largely been slow out of the gates (save for Corbin Burnes, obviously). Coupled with a 2017 draft that does not necessarily lend many clear Top 30 profiles to the system, these points produce a set of draft talent that does not appear as promising as last year’s outlook. Obviously the double-edged sword with this fact is that as much as this makes it easier to think about trading some of these prospects without hurting the system, it also makes it understandable that other MLB teams will be less willing to part with impact MLB rentals or controllable players for these prospects.

Prospects by Draft
2011 / 2012 / 2013 [RHP Jacob Barnes] [RHP Jorge Lopez] [OF Michael Reed] [LHP Brent Suter] RHP Taylor Williams
2014 [RHP Brandon Woodruff] OF Monte Harrison 1B Jake Gatewood [OF Troy Stokes] [RHP Jordan Yamamoto]
2015 RHP Cody Ponce OF Trent Clark OF Demi Orimoloye [C Max McDowell] Injured Nathan Kirby
2016 OF Corey Ray RHP Corbin Burnes C Mario Feliciano 3B Lucas Erceg [OF Zach Clark]
2017 DH Keston Hiura OF Tristen Lutz [RHP Caden Lemons] [RHP Justin Bullock] [OF Je’Von Ward]

The story with trades is different, but the outcome is the same: less impressive talent, less overall sense of impact roles emerging at the MLB level. There really is not much to say about this, however, as short of flipping Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw, or perhaps Jimmy Nelson, it is highly improbable that the Brewers will be returning impact prospects via trade for a while. There’s simply no one left to trade, and the MLB team is showing enough strengths to make it less worthwhile to dismantle these parts on the trade market.

2015 Trades 2016 Trades 2017 Trades
[OF Domingo Santana] [OF Lewis Brinson] IF Mauricio Dubon
[RHP Zach Davies] RHP Luis Ortiz RHP Josh Pennington
[RHP Corey Knebel] 2B Isan Diaz [IF Yeison Coca]
[LHP Josh Hader] C Jacob Nottingham
[OF Brett Phillips] RHP Freddy Peralta
RHP Marcos Diplan RHP Carlos Herrera
[Injured Adrian Houser] RHP Trey Supak
[Injured Yhonathan Barrios] RHP Bubba Derby
IF Wendell Rijo
IF Javier Betancourt
[Injured Phil Bickford]
[IF Jonathan Villar]
[OF Keon Broxton]
[C Andrew Susac]

Finally, the Brewers ramped up International signing once more, landing one of the highest ranked prospects in the 2017 July 2 signing class. OF Carlos Rodriguez adds a chance at International development redemption for the Brewers, although it is unfair to suggest that the 2014 splash of Gilbert Lara is a closed book.

Brewers International
2015 SS Luis Manon OF Aaron Familia C Jose Sibrian OF Jesus Lujano
2016 SS Jean-Carlos Carmona OF Pablo Abreu OF Francis Tolentino SS Victor Maria
2017 OF Carlos Rodriguez OF Larry Ernesto OF Jeicor Cristian

Reassembling this list, the MLB graduates from the Doug Melvin trades truly stand out. As I wrote last year, Melvin’s trades allowed the Brewers to withstand a rebuild by graduating advanced prospects with high floors. Now that set of prospects is being joined by David Stearns’s key addition in Lewis Brinson, further pushing the future identity of the Brewers into a Milwaukee blue uniform. As the prospect pipeline dries, these graduations become more important, as fewer impact prospects in the minors must still somehow coincide with more MLB wins. And that’s the trick for the next five years of Brewers roster building.

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