Fresh off a surprise 86-win season, David Stearns and company are licking their chops to make some moves and build off the team’s promising 2017 season. According to Kyle Lesniewski of Brew Crew Ball, the organization has money to spend. The Brewers payroll has been under 65 million dollars two years in a row. The team’s payroll was around 110 million in 2014. This isn’t to suggest it would be wise to spend their way to a championship roster this offseason, but it is proof the team can afford to spend a little more, especially after an exciting season in which they had their highest attendance since 2014.
The question is where the Brewers’ front office will decide to spend that money. There is speculation the team will go big and throw a large chunk of their resources toward a Jake Arrieta/Yu Darvish type to bolster their starting rotation. Adam McCalvy, MLB.coms Brewers beat writer, quoted Stearns saying “it makes sense to cast a wide net,” when referring to whether the team would spend big on a starting pitcher or not.
It would be a huge mistake to go all in on an expensive, aging starting pitcher. The Brewers’ entire rebuild model through savvy trades and bargain-bin free agent pick-ups would be disrupted. Not only would a high-profile free agent signing severely hold the Brewers back as far as financials go, it would create fewer opportunities for their excellent collections of prospects to find time in the big leagues.
A look at the two high-profile free agents with the most chatter linking them to the Brewers, Arrieta and Darvish, shows that although the two’s well-known names suggest ace-level production, they both have their flaws.
In Arrieta’s case, he wasn’t a great pitcher last year. He was worth just 2.5 wins above replacement player (WARP), along with a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Deserved Runs Average (DRA) above 4.00. Arrieta was plagued by the long-ball and had a walks-per-9-innings rate near 3.0. 2017 was easily his worst full season since joining the Chicago Cubs, and the righty is also an older free agent due to his late start in the big leagues. He will turn 32 in Spring Training. Arrieta is expected to garner somewhere in the range of 100 million dollars over four or five years. The Brewers cannot afford to pay for the age 34, 35, or 36 seasons of a pitcher who was not even worth three WARP in his age 31 season.
Darvish had much more success in 2017, but he presumably comes with a higher price tag and more injury risk. He just threw over 150 innings for the first time since 2013. He has thrown over 200 innings only once in his career. Darvish is expected to garner at least 120-130 million dollars over five, six, or possibly seven seasons. All the Brewers’ eggs would likely be in the Darvish basket due to the large price tag.
Not only are both of these big-name starting pitchers almost as risky as they come, they don’t fit into the Brewers rebuild timeline. As of now, the team’s five-year outlook is rosy. Some prospects, Lewis Brinson in particular, have been slow in their promotion to the big leagues, but their farm system remains one of the best and deepest in baseball. Most of the major league club’s core is in their twenties. Draining all of their resources on a 30+ year-old starting pitcher moves their window up. Instead of building a long-term winner, they are gambling on the next few years.
The Brewers rotation wasn’t exactly a weak spot in 2017. Jimmy Nelson emerged as a Cy Young candidate until a shoulder injury ended his season. He is expected to miss significant time in 2018, but the Brewers have the starters to pick up most of the slack. Zach Davies, who has yet to turn 25, enjoyed the best season of his career at 3.4 WARP. Chase Anderson had his big breakthrough, posting 2.4 WARP in less than 150 innings. Brent Suter, who could be expected to open the season in the Brewers rotation, posted a 3.45 earned run average in 70 1/3 innings as a starter. As soon as Nelson returns from injury, one can squint and see the makings of a playoff caliber rotation.
David Stearns needs to spread the team’s resources. The team lacks any glaring holes; instead they need mild improvements across the board. Their rotation could use another middle-of-the-rotation piece such as C.C. Sabathia, Jhoulys Chacin, or Tyler Chatwood. They need more depth in the bullpen. There is no Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, or Mark Melancon in this free agent class, but there is an abundance of set-up reliever type assets. Addison Reed, Mike Minor, or Brandon Morrow could bolster the Brewers bullpen and ease the burden on the starting rotation at the same time. Two or three smaller moves such as these will lower risk while strengthening several areas of the roster rather than just one.
As much as Brewers fans want to see that big splash, it would be wise to stay away from the big-money signing and go the conservative route. This is not the offseason to be spending big. It seems as though the Brewers front office has no choice but to spend in order to build off the 2017 season, but the hunk of change gamble is not the way to go.
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