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Boring Paths

The 2017-2018 offseason winter meetings begin, and the Brewers stand in a bizarre position within a league rocked by the most awaited transactions:

  • The Marlins ownership group’s refusal to capitalize payroll indeed resulted in a bargain bottom deal for Giancarlo Stanton, who will now call the Yankees his team.
  • The….Angels won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, prompting a range of reactions calling non-existent (see NEIFI Analytics) to positive impacts.

A non-contender won Ohtani’s services, and the Marlins are indeed officially in…well, they’re not rebuilding, so let’s call it “firesale mode,” and these two clubs fittingly define a mediocre MLB. The Marlins join the announcements from the Royals front office that they expect to rebuild, along with the Tigers who are rebuilding alongside the already-rebuilding (and maybe on the upswing) Chicago White Sox, who join San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati as rebuilds-in-progress. Other clubs in bizarre territory include the Athletics (what are they doing?) and the Blue Jays (some fans now clamoring for their share of #ThatProcess). The Mariners and Giants (losers of Ohtani sweepstakes) at least seem like they’re trying to win, as do the Pirates and Mets.

That’s half the MLB, right there. Wouldn’t it be nice to be playing 2018 in the American League Central, where the upstart Twins will battle Cleveland for the title, alongside three stated rebuilding efforts?

Anyway, with roughly half the MLB hilariously trying to rebuild, or maybe not in an earnest position to win, the Brewers have their own principles to consider: Milwaukee is on the upswing after completing their quick-and-easy rebuild, but now it’s time to watch some young (or, if not young, inexperienced) players cut their teeth at the MLB level. This is not the best scenario to be in entering the Winter Meeting, as there’s a very good argument to be made in favor of the Brewers simply sitting tight; no, they don’t need to trade Domingo Santana for prospects, and similarly, no, they don’t need to trade Lewis Brinson to win now. In fact, the Brewers are one of the few clubs in the MLB that can justifiably stand pat for the offseason and simply rerun the algorithms that powered 2017 (after all, the spreadsheets looked so good the first time around that it’d be great to give it another shot).


 

Of course, with so many clubs purposefully trying to shed MLB contracts and competitiveness in order to play for the future, the Brewers do have two key assets in their favor of the offseason:

  • Tons of free cash, both in the form of revenue savings from 2016-2017 (probably close to $120 million), and payroll space for 2018 (and onward).
  • Tons of interesting prospects behind the top tier of the system.

Thankfully, many of the aforementioned rebuilding or limbo clubs also have something that the Brewers need for 2018: starting pitching under arbitration or guaranteed contractual reserve. Where this group of arms gets interesting is their sheer boredom as a group. To demonstrate this, imagine a winter meetings in which the Brewers emerge with…Dan Straily, Kendall Graveman, and BPMilwaukee chat fan-favorite Danny Duffy; or even Jeff Samardzija and Marco Estrada; or Jake Odorizzi and Mike Foltynewicz; or any combination of these arms!

The question one could ask is, how much would these arms cost? What is difficult to assess about this group is their general trajectory, as most of these arms feature one genuinely good season over the year few years while offering stable depth in the majority of other seasons. Yet, there are clear improvements by someone like Danny Duffy, or Jeff Samardzija’s phenomenal peripheral development in 2017, that raise questions about whether spending on the heftier side of these arms’ prospect prices would be beneficial. An additional issue is that these arms feature well-priced contracts or arbitration control, which leads to a difficult market position in assessing a prospect package. What types of prospects within the current Brewers system are worth surrendering for cost-controlled starting pitching?

Pitcher (WARP) Depreciated Surplus (OFP) Maximum OFP Career K / BB / GB% Career DRA (Trend)
RHP Dan Straily (2.2) $13.7M (Low 50) 55-60 20.5% / 8.9% / 36% 4.78 (Growth)
RHP Kendall Graveman (1.7) $20.6M (50) 55-60 14.8% / 6.7% / 52% 4.42 (Growth)
LHP Danny Duffy (2.8) $10.6M (45-50) Elite 20.7% / 8.4% / 39% 4.49 (Growth)
RHP Jeff Samardzija (4.5) $23.0M (Strong 50) Elite 21.7% / 7.0% / 46% 3.82 (Growth)
RHP Michael Fulmer (3.7) $85.8M (Elite) Elite 18.6% / 6.2% / 51% 3.55 (Stable)
RHP Jason Hammel (1.6) $2.0M (“High” 45) 50 18.4% / 7.3% / 44% 4.80 (Stable)
RHP Jake Odorizzi (1.4) $27.4M (Strong 50) 60 21.8% / 7.9% / 36% 4.00 (Decline)
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (-1.3) -$73.0M (40-45) 40-45 19.0% / 5.1% / 43% 4.03 (Decline)
RHP Mike Foltynewicz (-0.4) $2.0M (“High” 45) 55-60 20.3% / 7.6% / 40% 5.33 (Decline)
RHP Marco Estrada (0.2) -$2.8M (40-45) 50 21.8% / 7.5% / 35% 4.79 (Decline)

I did not consider popular Brewers Twitter trade discussions like Chris Archer or Jacob deGrom, simply because both of those arms are indisputably elite pitchers who will not be in any type of “bargain” position for the Brewers. Even someone like Michael Fulmer is more of a potential bargain for a club like the Brewers, given his relative lack of track record compared to deGrom and Archer (and, no, even five years of contract reserve do not erase the risk of unknown MLB performance trajactories compared to Fulmer’s previous scouting pedigree). Coupling Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann could also be a unique strategy for the Brewers to lower the Fulmer prospect package out of “elite” territory.


 

What Brewers fans will undoubtedly complain about is that many of these pitchers seemingly offer nothing more than middle-, and often low-, rotation, innings-eater profiles. In some cases, recent injury questions (as in Graveman’s case) may not even lead to solidly dependable innings eating in Milwaukee. But, there are two easy responses to this:

 

  • Outside of someone like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish, the current pitching free agency class is full of these types of gambles anyway.
  • Some combination of Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff, and even current fan rotation favorite Josh Hader do not profile as anything better than the immediate value provided by the arms noted above. Yes, if Hader continues his 2017 profile, he’s not a #3 starter (or better).

Of course, the Brewers also entered 2017 with a mostly innings-eating or uninspiring middle rotation set of pitchers, and their pitching staff was one of the club strengths. One also needs to assess each potential trade target’s arsenal, approach, and persona for compatibility with the new Derek Johnson coaching regime (if Johnson can help to turn around arms like Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson, what can he do with other middle rotation arms? What is the Brewers’ systematic pitching?). Additionally, acquiring more proven rotational options via prospect packages for arbitration controlled or guaranteed contract starters could prove to be a cheaper strategy than pursuing the current free agency market. The benefit here is that each of these arms would push options like Woodruff, Suter, and Guerra into more palatable depth roles within the rotation. It should not be detrimental to suggest that Suter is a fantastic swingman option; penciling Suter into the rotation to start the season raises some alarms about the potential of the southpaw delivering a full season rotational role.

One way or the other, the Brewers will need to win in 2018 with a motley and unsuspecting rotation. But that’s okay, because the team has the front office and coaching staff to make this type of profile work. The alternative path is parting with significant prospects (such as Brinson) to acquire an ace like Archer, or chasing the huge contract top-tier free agents. It should be noted that the beauty of this middle path will be the Brewers’ ability to trade from a position of strength (their depth) while developing key elite prospects at the MLB level (like Brinson) and giving the new pitching system another group of unassuming talent to churn into MLB winners.


 

Photo Credit: Lance Iverson, USAToday Sports Images

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