For the 2018-2019 offseason, the Brewers could send the roster in several different directions to defend their National League Central title and attempt to return to the League Championship Series. The direct challenge to any potential “win-now” move is that the Brewers could justifiably spend much of 2019 developing many of their high-floor (and some potentially high-impact) prospects at the MLB level. In fact, this could be the clearest path to “decline” for the Brewers, placing them in an odd scenario in which 2017-2018 were a contending window with one version of a roster core, while the next window is most likely to produce the strongest possible roster in 2020 or 2021. This hinges on how they use Keston Hiura, Mauricio Dubon, Jacob Nottingham, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Corey Ray, Freddy Peralta, and others.
Yet, if anything the 2017-2018 Brewers have also proven that developmental time is not linear at the MLB level, and furthermore, GM David Stearns has not been afraid to deal from stockpiles of future high floor roles to improve the club. Most prominently, Stearns traded center field prospect Lewis Brinson, many fans’ and analysts’ projected 2018 MLB starter, as a part of the package to acquire Christian Yelich, despite center field being a position of need. Now the Brewers have a need to improve second base, and another clear-cut top prospect at the position (Keston Hiura, and Mauricio Dubon behind him); simply judging Stearns’s past, one should not rule out a trade involving Hiura should the price be right and the return bolster a position of strength.
|Brewers Rotation||Games||GS||IP||Average Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
On the opposite spectrum for the Brewers is left-handed starting pitching, which is arguably the sole position on the roster decimated by both injury (Brent Suter) and free agency (Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley). Worse yet, unlike a position such as second base (which is a clear position of need), left handed starting pitching was a relative strength for the Brewers in 2018. Unlike second base, there’s no notable southpaw prospect ready for the rotation.
- Suter scouts as a prototypical depth player, but his full-time fastball approach, wicked tempo, and strange angles arguably helps his stuff “play up” at the big league level; by no means was Suter great, but he certainly did not sink the club, and was one of the reasons that the “replacement by design” rotational shuffle of interchangeable pitchers could work.
- On the other hand, Gonzalez served as a crucial replacement for the Brewers, indeed producing exceptional value on any rotational assessment despite having only been acquired after August 31.
- Similarly, Wade Miley could arguably be listed as the “Ace” of the club, and certainly stands as one of the team’s developmental successes. Even if Miley had discovered his cutter by the middle of 2017 with Baltimore, the Brewers recognized his pitch development and helped the southpaw double down on his approach and command the strike zone.
Milwaukee boasts significant pitching depth entering the 2019 season, arguably forming the strength of the organization through their run prevention system. Yet left-handed starting pitching is a weakness even given the context of this particular organization. There are no notable left-handed starting pitching prospects that are near reaching an MLB-ready floor for 2019, and there is little in the way of organizational depth behind Brent Suter (who, given the nature of Tommy John surgery, may not be ready to pitch until very late in 2019). Thus Brewers fans looking for the club to make a splash in free agency could reasonably look at southpaw starters.
There are arguably three particular classes of pitchers among the “true” left-handed starting pitching free agents in 2019. (Here I’ve excluded elite arms like Clayton Kershaw and David Price, who could choose to opt out of contracts, but only would do so on the sense that they could best $35 million Average Annual Value (AAV), which would be the required level to beat their current deals). Cot’s Contracts and Sportrac Data were used to construct a free agency list.
- Elite 2018 or Notably Better than Average Pitchers (by WARP and Runs Prevented): Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, J.A. Happ, and Hyun-jin Ryu
- Very Good Pitchers (by either WARP or Runs Prevented): Gio Gonzalez, CC Sabathia, Brett Anderson, and Wade Miley
- Depth Pitchers: Drew Pomeranz, Francisco Liriano, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Ross Detwiler.
The following table is one method of conveying player value for this lefty free agency class into monetary terms. I’ve used a three-year depreciation model, reflecting the fact that over time players typically lose value from their current performances (this is also a means of presenting relatively conservative contract projections). I’ve updated previous surplus assessments by presenting a rolling assessment of three-year models (2014-2016, 2015-2017, and 2016-2018), plus a “maximum” projection based on full 2018 performance. This number can be compared against the general “Three Year Trend” to determine whether a pitcher is on an upward or downward trajectory (equally tough cases here are Keuchel and Corbin, for completely different directions of performance).
- Depreciated1, Depreciated2, Depreciated3: three-year surplus value salary estimates, based on WARP from 2014-2016, 2015-2017, and 2016-2018 (in order).
- ThreeYear: this demonstrates the relative change in contractual value from 2016-2018 to 2014-2016. This is a rough estimate of a pitcher’s contractual “trend.”
- Immediate: this is a three-year surplus value salary estimate based solely on 2018 performance without any depreciation. It should be read as some type of ultimate “short term bias” value (i.e., the most biased observer from 2018 would offer Patrick Corbin a 3-year contract worth more than $120 million).
It is tempting, giving the success of pitching coach Derek Johnson in Milwaukee, as well as the success of the fielding efficiency, front office analysis, and general pitching player development, to assess the offseason free agents by looking for “The Next Wade Miley.” But this is suspicious thinking for at least two key reasons: first, many players in the MLB change their pitching approaches and development without the success of Miley; second, the Brewers simply have the opportunity to re-sign Miley from the free agency pool if the club believes that his development pattern is sustainable and he can continue to provide rotational depth. There is nothing wrong with doubling down on a successful system when the same reasoning and critical measures are used to assess that system the second time around.
To demonstrate the extreme nature of what Miley accomplished in Milwaukee, witness his progression from bread-and-butter southpaw in 2016 to his current format of pitching:
|Miley (Velocity)||Rising Fastball||Secondary Fastball||Change||Slider||Curve||Cutter|
|2016||31% (91)||20% (90-91)||18% (83)||16% (84)||11% (77-78)||3% (87-88)|
|2017||22% (91-92)||32% (90-91)||11% (83)||14% (84)||10% (77)||12% (88-89)|
|2018||12% (91-92)||8% (90-91)||16% (82-83)||4% (80-81)||18% (75-76)||43% (88)|
According to Brooks Baseball, Miley was already morphing his pitching approach in 2017, and that does not simply involve his insistence on incorporating the cutter after July 2017. Miley switched from his “primary” rising fastball to his “secondary” running-and-sinking variation, which took selections away from his change, slider, and curve in 2017. The veteran lefty was basically becoming an all-forms fastballer, blending three fastballs at the expense of off-speed and breaking offerings. 2018 reversed that to a stunning extent, as Miley reduced the total percentage of primary, secondary, and cut fastballs he threw, and completely reorganized his secondary stuff around the cutter. What is interesting about Miley is that he traded groundballs for whiffs with the cutter, while whiffs “played up” with other pitches once he focused on the cutter. This is the fantastic accomplishment of Miley’s 2018: not simply the development of a new prominent pitch, but the systemic development of that pitch in a manner that improved his other offerings. It would be foolish to suggest that most pitchers could be expected to thrive with such a reinvention.
Among these pitchers, there is no “next Miley,” unless you want to lean heavily into suggesting the Brewers acquire Jo-Jo Reyes and Ross Detwiler as potential depth contracts (Detwiler has the “Brewers pitches” necessary to pique interest here). But that does not mean that the Brewers should not seek any of these southpaw free agents:
- Patrick Corbin is on the frontier of baseball as a slider-first pitcher, which is crucial in a game where the slider determines leverage in many cases (including diminishing a key divisional rival for the Brewers). Signing Corbin could be a huge deal for the Brewers, both for keeping the lefty away from divisional rivals looking to improve pitching (the Reds could certainly gamble here, given their excellent batting group and lack of arms, as well as the contending Cubs). If there’s anywhere that Corbin’s margins-of-the-strike-zone approach could succeed, it’s Milwaukee, although that doesn’t necessarily mean his profile is less risky overall. The Brewers could take the next step of working with Corbin to balance his new curveball with his slider. Ideal Contract: 3-years, $100 million. Maximum deal: 4-years, $150 million. (If the rumored contract ranges around 4-years and $120 million are true, I would call Corbin a potential bargin, even).
- Dallas Keuchel is an interesting pitcher insofar as he remains relatively consistent as he ages, even though his surplus grade demonstrates a harsh decline due to falling off from previously elite seasons. Even without being an elite pitcher, Keuchel remains quite good, and he’s tinkering with his approach to move away from his “true” sinking fastball and toward a cutter-offspeed approach. Keuchel’s potential knock working in Milwaukee would be using a relatively extreme groundball approach in front of an aggressively unorthodox defense, which would mean the Brewers would need to truly sell the veteran on their fielding approach. A Keuchel deal could be the most likely to end up “sideways” due to this profile. Ideal Contract: 3-years, $75 million. Maximum deal: 4-years, $100 million.
- Wade Miley is entering his age-32 season having completely revitalized his pitching approach; by all appearances seems to be a likable and supportive teammate in Milwaukee; and against the Dodgers even flashed a hard fastball that demonstrates that his approach could continue to morph in 2019. It would not surprise me if the Brewers have an arsenal plan with Miley to take additional steps beyond the cutter, and I’d sign Miley before any of these guys due to that likely fact. Additionally, as the Brewers mature into perennial contenders (hopefully), they would do well to prove to players that they will turn some rehabilitation projects / value-depth plays into hard cash deals. There will be a time when value signings refuse to come to Milwaukee if their value produced never materializes into bigger cash. Start here. Ideal Contract: 2-years, $20 million, with a third-year option. Maximum: 3-years, $36 million.
- Gio Gonzalez is slowly morphing into a potential change-up first pitcher, making him a true veteran “junkball” option. Ideal Contract: 3-years, $36 million. Maximum deal: 3-year, $45 million.
- Given J.A. Happ’s age, the southpaw could potentially be a short-term deal with beneficial playoff experience and a fastball-first approach that could fit some aspects of Brewers pitching strategy (notable fastballers Freddy Peralta and Suter come to mind, for example). One-year contract between $12 million and $17 million.
- If you’re obsessed with the idea of making “the next Wade Miley” work in Milwaukee, Drew Pomeranz could be the biggest name among southpaws to make that work. Pomeranz struggled through 2018 as a bigtime fastball-curveball approach. In fact, the cutter even featured more prominently during Pomeranz’s successfuly 2016 season. Unfortunately, the groundballs and whiffs simultaneously dissipated, leaving this lefty a potentially expensive gamble with an arsenal, approach, and batted ball in flux. Pomeranz is a potential project. One-year, $10 million.
- It is not clear that Hyun-jin Ryu or CC Sabathia would be likely to come to Milwaukee given their recent roles in big markets (for quite some time) and playoff team roles. Francisco Liriano had a tough year in Detroit, and I unfortunately think there are better contracts offered to the other pitchers on this list.
- No lie, I’d hand out a minor league deal to Ross Detwiler, too, if he would be willing to work within the Brewers pitching development system. This southpaw is another potential “true junkball” lefty, but along with heavy change up usage Detwiler has also added a cutter, and could move away from his sinking fastball to his rising-riding primary variation.