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Improving on “Good” is Hard.

I like Yuniesky Betancourt, and it’s not just because one time he had a shockingly productive playoff performance for the Brewers. I like Yuni because it’s really easy to improve on Yuni. If you have Yuni as your shortstop or, god forbid, your first baseman, you can sign a guy like Adam Lind to a very reasonable contract and see a three win upgrade. The Brewers, by the way, ended up replacing Yuni with Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, which wasn’t a huge upgrade, but still pretty good. If you can get an average guy like Lind, it’s simply fantastic.

But if you don’t have Yuni on your team, and instead have good players, things get trickier. Good players are AWFUL for improvement, and while going from a Yuni to a Lind may cost you a few million dollars, going from Keon Broxton (.9 WARP. Let’s call it 1 WARP) to someone who is three wins better than Keon Broxton (Andrew McCutchen or Byron Buxton) is much more expensive. Going from, say, Domingo Santana to Giancarlo Stanton is even more expensive. Adding wins isn’t really linear, and the Brewers are about to run smackdab into a big curve.

The Astros won 106 games and had an awesome offense led by homegrown stars Jose Altuve (6.4 WARP), Carlos Correa (4.59), George Springer (4.19), and Alex Bregman (4.08). That’s an incredibly solid group of young great players. Altuve and Springer are a bit older, but certainly not old, and should remain stars for the foreseeable future.

The Milwaukee Brewers won 86 games, which is good! The Brewers’ best position player, and the only one to post a WARP over four, was Travis Shaw. The rest of the offense was bolstered by lucky streaks, old guys with big platoon splits (which even Shaw can be accused of) and the defensively inept (Domingo Santana). It was a balanced offense. While it was good last season, improving it in the short term will be very difficult. It will be even more difficult because the Brewers were pretty lucky last season.

Not everything went right for the Brewers, of course. The bullpen struggled early while Neftali Feliz was installed as closer, Jimmy Nelson suffered a terrible injury and may never return to form, and Chase Anderson missed a good chunk of time, but generally speaking the Brewers, GM David Stearns, and Manager Craig Counsell were both masterful and extremely lucky in managing injuries, streaks and slumps. Thames got them off to a gangbusters start, but when he stopped being able to hit same-side pitching, Jesus Aguilar was there to at least keep the position average. Jonathan Villar was fixed by a ridiculous steak from Eric Sogard, who was later fixed by the acquisition of Neil Walker. Jett Bandy started strong, Stephen Vogt finished strong, Manny Pina was at least fine and often quite good most of the rest of the time. Even Hernan Perez, overused down the stretch, was strategically good earlier in small doses. Timing is everything, and on offense, the Brewers enjoyed some excellent timing.

All of this luck resulted in a very good, but not quite playoff record, and that’s great, but it leaves the team with a tricky mix of high expectations and likely regression. To see any real improvement, they need to add not just good players, but star players. Star players are expensive, and while the Brewer system is well-regarded, it’s most often praised for its depth of talent, not its ceiling. It’s possible that Brett Phillips, who was great down the stretch, turns into a bona fide star, and it’s possible that Lewis Brinson does the same, but it’s unlikely, especially for 2018.

The Brewers would obviously like to compete next season, as all teams would, however doing so will essentially require:

1. A replacement for Nelson (3.89 WARP) in the rotation (expensive)

2. A multi-win upgrade among already good positional players (expensive)

3. Good luck (unlikely)

I think they’ll sign or trade for a few guys, but until the pipeline (or Mark Attanasio’s wallet) produces a few 4+ WARP players, they are relying on luck just to tread water. The Brewers are close to being something special, but as much as some want them to make a big splash, take on more payroll, or give up prospects in trade, 2018 is likely to see them take a step back no matter what they do, and spending the amount necessary to mitigate that likelihood would narrow their window of contention down the line. Think about how much a player like Giancarlo Stanton costs on the open market. The Brewers need a few of those, but they probably need to come from inside the system.


 

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images

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2 comments on “Improving on “Good” is Hard.”

Matt

Of course this analysis requires some concern with Attanasio’s finances. The fact that improvement may be expensive should be addressed by ownership funding a payroll commensurate with the fan support and enormous increase in franchise value.

I”m saying we have a stingy owner. If he again cheaps out perhaps someone will mention a win costs about 8 milliom, so a proper payroll should add about 5 wins.

Mark

A thoughtful article describing what most Brewer fans must feel intuitively. Either you’re getting better or you’re getting worse. Is it unreasonable to expect our GM to unearth even more diamonds in the rough? Can anyone imagine on a Villar comeback? I suspect Stearns will invest in several possibilities and look for something good to come out of a few. Unlike last year, expectations are beginning to mount, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.

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