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Do the Brewers Need to Trade?

The Brewers front office has assembled an almost methodically slow offseason thus far, with the biggest move of acquiring righty Jhoulys Chacin a sign that the club is seemingly ready to test this audacious gang of chumps for yet another season of improbable winning baseball. Naturally, the lack of “impact” signature moves has heightened debate among Brewers fans and analysts about the direction of the franchise. As Paul Noonan effectively stated at BPMilwaukee, the club is reaching a point where it can be difficult to take the next step to improve, since the next step for this roster means improving beyond the good baseline established by 2017. Additionally, the end of the rebuild is naturally problematic, as there is no easily-cited “identity” for developing players to their full potential at the MLB level; there is no easy “Trust the Process” tagline for developing players at the MLB level, as there is no easy path between potential and actual production in the vast majority of prospect cases. This is compounded with such a high risk talent group as the one procured by the Brewers: several of these prospects could indeed be stars one day, but they might overstay their welcome in Milwaukee before reaching that status. So, the “what’s next?” for Milwaukee is confusing to label, as it’s not as easy or as comforting as the “Rebuilding” moniker (“just trade the MLB contracts for prospects!”).

Working with the current roster, the Brewers will once again compete in 2018 with stunning depth, complete with a rotation that looks better suited to planting dreams of dingers in batters’ heads, rather than striking fear. This very systematic approach worked in 2017 by using a series of pitching adjustments and strategies, and now the club has doubled down on potential low rotation depth in a manner that should push some fringe arms into more effective bullpen roles. If the Gallardo signing was poised to potentially improve the fifth rotation spot by approximately 10 runs (in a best case scenario), adding veteran Jhoulys Chacin features some runs prevented upside (Chacin prevented six runs in 2017, and was a fantastic starter in earlier days with the Colorado Rockies) that makes him even more attractive as innings-eating depth for the club. Here’s one potential pitching staff alignment (based on 2017 roles):

Player Position
RHP Chase Anderson SP
RHP Zach Davies SP
RHP Brandon Woodruff SP
RHP Jhoulys Chacin SP/RP
RHP Yovani Gallardo SP/RP
RHP Junior Guerra SP/RP
LHP Josh Hader RP/SP
LHP Brent Suter RP/SP
RHP Jacob Barnes RP
RHP Oliver Drake RP
RHP Jeremy Jeffress RP
RHP Corey Knebel RP
RHP Taylor Williams RP
LHP Boone Logan ???
RHP Marcos Diplan minors
RHP Adrian Houser minors
RHP Taylor Jungmann minors
RHP Jorge Lopez minors
RHP Freddy Peralta minors
LHP Wei-Chung Wang minors
LHP Tyler Webb minors
RHP Aaron Wilkerson minors
RHP Jimmy Nelson injured

The club’s batting moves thus far are nearly head-scratching in their assemblage of talent that essentially blocks Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips from starting CF or impact OF depth roles at the MLB level. As constructed, the current roster sends Brinson and Phillips to Triple-A as “next man up” depth. For this reason, it would not be surprising to see some combination Stephen Vogt, Hernan Perez, Jonathan Villar, or Keon Broxton fail to make the club from Spring Training.

Player Position
RHB Manny Pina C
LHB Stephen Vogt C
LHB Eric Thames 1B/OF
RHB Jesus Aguilar 1B/PH
LHB Eric Sogard IF
SWT Jonathan Villar IF
LHB Travis Shaw 3B
RHB Orlando Arcia SS
RHB Ryan Braun LF
RHB Keon Broxton CF
RHB Domingo Santana RF
RHB Hernan Perez UTIL
RHB Jett Bandy minors
RHB Jacob Nottingham minors
RHB Andrew Susac minors
RHB Mauricio Dubon minors
RHB Lewis Brinson minors
LHB Brett Phillips minors

There’s something underwhelming about this roster outside of cheering for the upside plays. Getting Jonathan Villar another chance to hit on the tools and disciplined approach that created his breakout 2016 campaign could be extremely worthwhile to the Brewers longterm contending chances, as could getting Junior Guerra to continue his winter ball success at the MLB level to rebound in 2018 (Guerra has allowed 19 runs on 40 hits and 17 walks, with 30 strike outs, in 48.3 winter innings). Watching Brinson, Phillips, Josh Hader, and Brandon Woodruff further develop MLB roles will also be worthwhile. Yet, what’s interesting is the number of singular players on the roster; according to Baseball Reference Play Index, there is no position player in the MLB Expansion Era that has combined Keon Broxton’s extreme plate approach through 700 career plate appearances; the only other Expansion Era catcher to play his rookie season at age-30 while amassing 300 PA is Kenji Johjima; Hernan Perez is the youngest effective superutility player in Expansion Era history. GM David Stearns may be validated by giving these players another chance to prove themselves in 2018, despite all common sense and MLB history saying “these are not typical MLB contributors.” In fact, drawing on these unorthodox talents may be one way to help bolster the roster around the top prospects.

One of the raging debates is when, or how, the Brewers should trade prospects in order to acquire MLB-ready producers to enhance their roster. An interesting take on this debate is that even if the Brewers do not trade their very best prospect (Lewis Brinson), they could use their future 2018 Rule 5 draft depth to form trades and beat a roster crunch. BrewersFarm assembled one such list of this Rule 5 roster crunch on Twitter, and at first glance it looks quite daunting.

Alongside top prospects such as Monte Harrison and Isan Diaz, obvious Rule 5 protections, stand a group of potential pop-up pitchers for 2018 (Josh Pennington, Carlos Herrera, and Trey Supak), alongside additional useful depth that can use 2018 to take their next steps to the MLB (here Troy Stokes, Luis Ortiz, and Cody Ponce might come to mind). How many of these players should be protected? Here’s one potential short list of “interesting” 2018 Rule 5 guys:

Player Position 2017 2018 Outlook?
Carlos Herrera RHP A (38.0 IP) Needs to take next step to full season ball.
Jon Olczak RHP A+ (20.0 IP) Potential late round relief depth.
Luis Ortiz RHP AA (94.3 IP) Needs to reach a starter’s workload.
Josh Pennington RHP A (30.3 IP) Pop-up pitcher potential?
Jon Perrin RHP AA (105.3 IP) Advanced pitching depth.
Cody Ponce RHP AA (17.7 IP) Advanced pitching depth.
Trey Supak RHP A+ (72.3 IP) Pop-up pitcher potential?
Jordan Yamamoto RHP A+ (111.0 IP) Sneaky rotation depth.
Nate Kirby LHP DNP Will he pitch?
Quintin Torres-Costa LHP AA (20.7 IP) Potential late round relief depth.
Isan Diaz IF A+ (455 PA) Next step needed in advanced minors
Jake Gatewood IF AA (100 PA) Next step needed in advanced minors
Monte Harrison OF A+ (252 PA) Next step needed in advanced minors
Troy Stokes OF AA (153 PA) Outfield depth

The argument goes something like this: since the Brewers will have a roster crunch pending after 2018 with these players, they can use some of these players to headline trades to compete in 2018. This is obviously most attractive in the case of players like Monte Harrison and Luis Ortiz, who have solid potential roles that outweigh much of their risk.  Harrison and Ortiz would be the types of prospects that could probably help to construct an impact MLB trade. But otherwise, the trouble with this group of players is that they have largely failed to come into focus yet; it’s difficult to look at Carlos Herrera, Josh Pennington, or even Trey Supak as anything more than throw-ins right now. 2018 will be as crucial for them in terms of developing in the minor leagues as the year will be for establishing MLB roles for Brinson, Phillips, and Woodruff.

For all the strengths of the roster’s depth, a waltz through the current Brewers 40-man roster (and the rumored signing of Boone Logan) shows a sizable group of players that either have contracts expiring, easy contracts to drop, non-tender options, etc. If the Brewers need to find room for even eight or ten Rule 5 protections (in the most extreme case, perhaps), the front office should easily be able to find room for them on the roster:

Player Position
RHP Jhoulys Chacin SP/RP
RHP Yovani Gallardo SP/RP
RHP Junior Guerra SP/RP
RHP Oliver Drake RP
RHP Jeremy Jeffress RP
LHP Boone Logan ???
RHP Adrian Houser minors
RHP Taylor Jungmann minors
RHP Jorge Lopez minors
LHP Wei-Chung Wang minors
LHP Tyler Webb minors
RHP Aaron Wilkerson minors
RHP Jimmy Nelson injured
LHB Stephen Vogt C
LHB Eric Thames 1B/OF
RHB Jesus Aguilar 1B/PH
LHB Eric Sogard IF
SWT Jonathan Villar IF
RHB Keon Broxton CF
RHB Hernan Perez UTIL
RHB Jett Bandy minors
RHB Jacob Nottingham minors
RHB Andrew Susac minors
RHB Mauricio Dubon minors

One potential issue with shifting such depth from MLB-tested players to such a large number of prospects is that the 2019 club will simply encounter the same types of issues that the 2018 club faces: namely, finding playing time for prospects while they develop at the MLB level, and facing the uncertainty of developing MLB players in the midst of designing an otherwise competitive club. Yet, this type of strategy solidifies the sense that this Brewers team may actually win through depth, or because of their depth, rather than relying on one star to emerge from this pack of prospects. The only questions that remain concern the types of MLB deals that can be had with this next group of prospects, and how the players at the fringes of the 2018 MLB roster perform during the season. Unlike the relative strategic ease of rebuilding, there are no right answers in 2018 and 2019. How many paths to winning may the club follow?


 

Photo Credit: Dale Zanine, USAToday Sports Images

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