Last year, I criticized Brewers GM David Stearns for his lack of midseason moves to address a starting pitching rotation that became greatly diminished down the stretch. The criticism was a part of a general frustration that the club had not done enough to reach the playoffs. After executing a very swift rebuilding effort (that really was hardly rebuilding at all), Milwaukee was ready to contend in 2017, which may have taken the organization by surprise from top to bottom. Yet Stearns acquitted himself during an offseason in which he bolstered outfield weaknesses by trading for Christian Yelich and spending $80 million on Lorenzo Cain, adding the much-needed depth to the pitching rotation, and adding more depth to an impact bullpen. The next step for the organization would be made with a roster that is arguably more complete from spots 1-through-25 (really, spots 1-through-38, to be honest, with Mauricio Dubon (injury) and Marcos Diplan (development) the only members of the 40-man roster not likely to participate at the MLB level). Certainly there have been Brewers teams with more outward stars (from 2008 to 2011, even 2014), but it’s difficult to argue that there’s been another Brewers club with this level of complete construction from rotation depth to bench strengths to fielding excellence and bullpen performance.
Yet, there are many shortcomings with the 2018 Brewers, for all their strengths. The difficulty with quantifying the shortcomings for this team, however, is that they are not strategic shortcomings. In 2018, the shortcomings of the roster are shortcomings borne of development cycles and the long paths necessary to build extended MLB success from young players, or players seeking to establish their respective careers. The former category suits both Domingo Santana and Orlando Arcia, and to a lesser extent Jorge Lopez, Brandon Woodruff, and Zach Davies; the latter category suits players like Manny Pina, and to a lesser extent Brent Suter. These players challenge the long-term development goals of the Brewer given the extremely successful start to the 2018 season, but it is not an overstatement to write that each of these reserve-controlled contracts are significant assets to the Brewers organization and crucial for future success to the degree that they can build consistent MLB roles. This difficult development scenario is compounded when one realizes that pitching prospects Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes could also factor into second half plans for the Brewers, as well as depth position players like Jacob Nottingham and Brett Phillips.
Looking back on 2017, it’s easy to see that the Brewers could have solved their midseason shortcomings in a transactional manner. The club did not even need to make an impact starting pitching move, but could have used waiver claims or depth trades to bolster a rotation that was hit with midseason injuries and wearing thin (much more thin than the 2018 rotation, by the way). With the success of youngsters in 2017, their roster concerns were not development-oriented. Looking forward to the finish line in 2018, it is much more difficult to simply fix a transactional ideology to the Milwaukee roster issues. Simply stated, the Brewers need to prove their ability to help young players through adjustments at the MLB level, which is applicable to both Santana and Arcia. Both Arcia and Santana are crucial members of our beloved Milwaukee Nine despite their diverse scouting roles and tools. But this development decree also extends to the refinement of roles for Lopez and Woodruff in the pitching staff, as well as questions about clearing space for Peralta and Nottingham, let alone Burnes and Phillips. The Brewers can bolster their midseason 2018 club by doubling down on their player development approach at the MLB level, and giving players the space to make adjustments at the MLB level.
Related to this question about the Brewers’ ability to develop young players at the MLB level, it is worth asking whether a “rebuilding effort” was necessary to create this Brewers team. Or rather, are the Brewers succeeding “but for” their rebuilding efforts by previous President Doug Melvin and GM Stearns? Here’s a look at top Milwaukee players by WARP and acquisition:
|2018 Brewers||WARP||Acquisition (GM)|
|Lorenzo Cain||2.6||Free Agency (Stearns)|
|Travis Shaw||1.9||Trade (Stearns)|
|Christian Yelich||1.5||Trade (Stearns)|
|Josh Hader||1.5||Trade (Melvin)|
|Jesus Aguilar||1.0||Waivers (Stearns)|
|Eric Kratz||0.8||Purchased (Stearns)|
|Eric Thames||0.7||Free Agency (Stearns)|
|Jacob Barnes||0.7||Amateur Draft (Melvin)|
|Jeremy Jeffress||0.6||Trade (Stearns)|
|Tyler Saladino||0.5||Purchased (Stearns)|
What is fascinating about the 2018 Brewers is that despite the “branding” of the so-called rebuilding effort, a “rebuild” is hardly stamped on this team. 5.6 WARP of the team leaders could have been acquired by nearly any MLB team, through a purchase (i.e., a trade for cash) or MLB free agency. 0.7 WARP belongs to the MLB amateur draft, meaning that there is no high draft pick from a rebuilding season boosting this club (a la the “classic” scorched earth Cubs and Astros efforts); it’s even debatable whether one could call Corey Ray (picked Fifth overall) and Keston Hiura (picked Ninth overall) true “rebuilding” draft picks (in other words, a team does not “tank” to draft fifth overall). At best, one might argue that the Brewers’ 2016 record helped them gain favorable position to land Jesus Aguilar, allowing Milwaukee’s front office to build their #TeamDepth strengths.
The trades on this list are most interesting, though; the trades by both Melvin and Stearns form a spectrum ranging from “rebuilding” to “organizational depth” to “extended win-now,” and everything in-between.
- The move to acquire Josh Hader was most certainly a “rebuilding” move, by which I mean that Melvin traded away MLB contracts for minor league prospects.
- The move to acquire Christian Yelich was most certainly the opposite of a rebuilding move, as Stearns traded away four minor league prospects for an MLB contract, but it’s not quite a “win now” move as Yelich’s age and contract keep that window open for years. Yet in another sense this trade could certainly not have happened without rebuilding efforts, as acquisitions involving Lewis Brinson and Isan Diaz were necessary to eventually land Yelich.
- Meanwhile, the Tyler Thornburg – Travis Shaw transaction is arguably a textbook “counterbuilding” move in which Milwaukee and Boston swapped positions of MLB surplus (or, lack of need); it was not a classic rebuilding move, as Shaw was acquired to become the starting MLB 3B. That Boston somehow also included prospects in the deal is icing on the cake.
- Finally, the latest Jeremy Jeffress acquisition was a classic organizational depth trade.
Were these 10 players the ones you expected to lead the Brewers to contend for the 2018 NL Central crown? (I gather it’s an interesting mix of “Yes” and “No,” but I personally find this list endlessly fascinating. #YouCantPredictBaseball).
But are these WARP leaders truly the fruits of a rebuilding effort? One could argue that rebuilding should not have a transactional form, as I’m using the term, but instead should denote a phase in a club’s development cycle (a “spatial” form). In this regard, acquisitions like Eric Thames or Travis Shaw may not have technically been rebuilding moves, but they would have been less likely to occur by a true win-now club on a contending cycle since they required a certain “space to play” and “room to fail,” or room to find an MLB role. (This is the spatial role of rebuilding that many have argued is a valuable aspect of the MLB development cycle.) The same could be said about the MLB development of Jacob Barnes, or even, inexplicably, the development of Jesus Aguilar. Yet, in this regard, these spaces of rebuilding were rather shallow, as key development players like Pina, Santana, and even Chase Anderson and Jonathan Villar have struggled since their major breakthroughs. This is not a criticism of the players, for development cycles are long and each of these players could find success in their next turn. For example, Villar is already coming around for the 2018 Brewers, for instance, completely silencing the need for a 2B trade, while Chase Anderson is ironing out mechanical issues and potentially rebounding.
Following the spatial definition of rebuilding, then, one can completely reverse course and argue that the Brewers have mess less incentive to make large trades in 2018 than they did in 2017.
- The 2017 club ironically may have featured players have simultaneous peak years, or at least peak role surges: Jimmy Nelson (now injured), Chase Anderson (now mechanically repaired?), Orlando Arcia (needs to adjust), and Domingo Santana (needs to adjust) were worth 15.1 WARP in 2017, a production level that will almost certainly not return in 2018 (they are currently valued at -0.7 WARP [!!!]). The Brewers are never guaranteed to have that combination of elite defense, strong offensive production, and top rotation pitching again from this quartet, not in the same year. Even if each of these players settles into regular MLB roles, they may have reached peak production last year.
- (A counterargument could be made that given the Brewers’ production of Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Travis Shaw, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress, the 2018 window features at least five performances that may not occur again. I believe these roles are different than those of Nelson and Anderson, or even Arcia and Santana. Yelich, Cain, and even Jeffress have more established MLB success, and their time horizons with the club arguable improve the chances that this type of success could occur again. In fact, someone like Yelich could even improve. One could also argue that the Brewers should not waste this opportunity to win with an elite bullpen; I am much more sympathetic to that position.)
- So, it’s worth questioning whether more urgency for a roster-improving transaction was necessary in 2017 than 2018, when the club is already succeeding and can take a chance at continuing the development cycle with each of these players, or other organizational depth roles.
- Following the spatial definition of rebuilding, in which a rebuilding club is one that allows players the room to develop at the MLB level regardless of consequence, 2018 could serve as a strange competitive window season in which the club is justified in turning their gaze to the long-term: how important is it for the 2019, 2020, 2021 Brewers, etc., for Arcia and Santana to get right at the MLB level? Can they both be “rehabbed” at Triple-A Colorado Springs? Is it worth Milwaukee disrupting potential MLB rotational introductions to their trio of Woodruff, Peralta, and Burnes? If those pitchers have true MLB rotation roles, they are going to have to be introduced to the staff at some point during this current five-year contending window.
What is exciting about these Brewers, more than the winning, is that they remain an unexpected work in progress where suddenly every strength gained from 2015-2017, every lesson learned from 2015-2017, can be repurposed for the future. Contending teams need not stick to rigid transactional regimes; they can make trades to gamble on Travis Shaw, or free agency signings to gamble on Eric Thames, and still compete for the playoffs. Rebuilding teams need not bottom out, for there can be as much value in simply using roster space to gamble on Jonathan Villar, Junior Guerra, or Manny Pina, even compared to a top draft pick (for it is questionable whether an MLB team can truly forge useful developmental spaces while attempting to field a roster worthy of the first two or three draft picks).
Boiling this lesson down, it may seem like a radical departure from my previous criticisms, but the logic of the 2018 roster remains the same: open those developmental spaces for the organizational players struggling to correct their careers and build roles for 2019 and onward while this well-designed #TeamDepth contends onward. If they execute it correctly, these Brewers have an opportunity to exist entirely outside of win-now and rebuilding cycles.
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher, USA Today Sports Images