The Brewers are entering uncharted territory as a franchise, and also as an Expanded Wild Card Era playoff team: Milwaukee will attempt to be the third 96+ win team to improve during their season following 96 wins and deep playoff run. Thus far, most analysis of the Brewers, and therefore most discussion of fan expectations, focuses on “the Brewers were within one game of the World Series,” and therefore ignore how the club could regress during 2019. All focus is on the Brewers repeating as a top Senior Circuit club. Yet regression is not a death sentence to the five-year window with Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich that began in 2018: if the Brewers make the proper development decisions entering 2019, the club could conceivably take a step backwards in the smartest way possible to ensure a stronger core for the 2020-2022 seasons.
Simply in terms of statistics and historical records, though, the Brewers are also likely to fail to match their 2018 performance next year. Here’s how playoff teams in the Expanded Wild Card Era have fared with 96+ wins in their follow-up year, sorted by Follow-up Wins:
|96+ Wins 2012-2017||First Year Average W-L||First Year Actual W-L||First Year RS/RA||First Year RS/RA Avg||Next Year Actual W-L||Next Year RS/RA||TruePace (RS/RA)||Win Pace|
- In 12 of 17 cases, the “follow-up” to the 96+ win playoff season featured a better Run Differential progression than Win-Loss progression. This could be an easy fate for the 2019 Brewers, given that the 2018 Brewers outplayed their Runs Scored / Runs Allowed in resounding fashion: the Brewers in 2019 could easily become a 92 or 93 win run differential team that neverthless only cracks 88 to 90 wins on the field.
- The Brewers are comparable to the 2015 Cubs, which is interesting because those Cubs were the outcome of a “tanking” / scorched-earth rebuild that required multiple years of building, while the 2018 Brewers required no such rebuild. Those Cubs featured a young emerging core of Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and others, while these Brewers featured a decidedly ragtag gang of free agents, trade acquisitions, and advanced minors chumps who rode their strengths to excellent team success (overcoming a veritable book of scouting weaknesses). There is no Bryant / Russell / Baez core for the Brewers; there might not even be a prospect as good as Javier Baez from the 2018 Brewers. Yet here we are: those 2015 Cubs were not a juggernaut, instead averaging an 84-win run differential and surging after the All-Star Break, which is rather similar to the 2018 Brewers’ mediocre underlying performance and white hot September.
- Perhaps the most compelling comparison is the 2014 Orioles, who (like the Brewers) posted mediocre run differential totals early in the season but contended thanks to an extended late season surge. The 2014 Orioles were in the midst of an excellent five year contending run that included three playoff appearances (including a League Championship Series exit in 2014). These Orioles were also quite similar to the Brewers insofar as they strung together elite pitching performances out of their bullpen and an unsung rotation, while also keeping a relative hodge-podge of different player development cycles in their batting order (ranging from young Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop to aging Nick Markakis, Steve Pearce, and Nelson Cruz.
- Trends exhibited by the Nationals, Reds, Red Sox, and Cardinals should underscore the up-and-down, uneven quality of the current era of baseball. Stated simply, being a near-100 win season in one season is nothing close to a guarantee that a roster core will even be a playoff contender the next season, especially as teams lean on young roster cores to define their success “out of nowhere” (such as 2018 Athletics, or 2017 Rockies and Twins). The median win total among these 96+ win behemoths is 86, in the following season.
How will the Brewers overcome these trends? Or, if the Brewers do take a step backwards, how will that be defined as a success for 2020 and onward? Given the state of the Brewers roster and organizational depth, the answer to both questions is the same: the Brewers’ success will largely be defined either by establishing MLB roles for Keston Hiura, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Jacob Nottingham, and other prospects, or else netting elite talent in a trade return (especially involving Hiura, who should not be traded but for returning surefire MLB production). Prospect development at the MLB level should be a significant portion of the story for the 2019 Brewers, regardless of whether those newcomers help bolster a playoff club or whether the club fails to defend their NL Central crown but establishes future roles for the players.
Additionally, the Brewers can continue to define themselves as a club “on the margins” by providing the proper salary arbitration deals; for example, the club already accomplished this cutthroat mission by designating injured veteran catcher Stephen Vogt, rather than allocating a couple million of payroll dollars on a gamble that he returns to his bat-first profile behind the dish. As demonstrated below, Vogt’s contract and production history would yield nothing more than a 45 Overall Future Potential (OFP) asset via trade (i.e., basically an organizational depth player with an MLB floor), and at an estimated cost of nearly $4 million (via Cot’s Contracts), it is clear that the Brewers could readily fill that organizational depth function with that amount of money while also potentially pursuing additional upside. This is a crucial source of value because (unfortunately for players) salary arbitration offers the Brewers a chance to “freely” cut a player if they do not wish to enter salary arbitration process; depending on how tight the club’s revenue and payroll scenarios are, rampant non-tenders could be a great opportunity to expand resources for improving the club.
The table below demonstrates the Average Surplus of the Brewers’ salary arbitration deals. The ideal of Surplus is defined with value including both production (“pure” performance in the field) and scarcity (how readily available that production is, in other words how expensive that production is). Unlike previous models of Surplus Value I’ve published, this year I’m using multiple ranges of three-year performances (2014-2016, 2015-2017, and 2016-2018) to produce estimates, while also including contract estimates that are “depreciated” and “highest possible value.” A depreciated contract detracts from previous performance, expecting that a player’s performance will decline over time, while a highest possible value contract places a premium on the most recent performance (the best example here would be someone like Patrick Corbin, who would probably get his best contract based on who places the highest value on 2018 and assumes that performance can be replicated). [Last year’s rankings are here].
- Estimate: Cot’s Contracts arbitration estimate.
- Arbitration Year: Demonstrates a player’s specific point in the arbitration process (which is typically three years long, but can in some cases last four years with the most advanced service time players).
- HarmonicOne: This is a one-year contract estimate that takes the harmonic mean between a player’s harshest depreciated performance and their fullest current performance valuation.
- Maximum: This is a one-year contract estimate that uses a player’s fullest current performance valuation.
- Minimum: This is a one-year contract estimate that uses a player’s harshest past performance depreciation.
- Average Surplus: This figure weighs the average of the three contract estimates against the salary arbitration estimate, while also recognizing that a team will benefit from the player’s production both in controlling the production contractually and receiving the production on the field. [Average of HarmonicOne / Maximum / Minimum] – [Arbitration Estimate] + [Average of HarmonicOne / Maximum / Minimum], or, [Scarcity – Contract + Production].
- OFP: This is the historical equivalent Overall Future Potential grade that relates to the player’s Average Surplus (more here). Essentially, this estimates the type of prospect the Brewers might expect in return if another team values each player in a similar manner.
|Player||Position||Estimate ($M)||Arbitration Year||HarmonicOne||Maximum||Minimum||Average Surplus||OFP|
This table should demonstrate several important roster decisions:
- First, it is clear that there are several Brewers players that do not have Wins Above Replacement (WARP) histories that match their value. This is especially true in the case of Hernan Perez, whose scarce defensive flexibility is probably worth significantly more than WARP estimates, and Erik Kratz, whose glove-first profile at catcher could be crucial to helping Brewers pitchers without phenomenal stuff “play up” in terms of production. Corey Knebel is obviously valued much higher than WARP based on his stuff and high leverage relief profile. So, this surplus value model is not definitive, it should only be viewed as a starting point.
- Players like Domingo Santana and Zach Davies have unclear production roles and unclear trade value. This probably explains why Santana was not traded last offseason, despite fans’ perception of a “clear” need for starting pitching and Santana’s “odd man out” status in a packed outfield; but other clubs probably do not value Santana beyond surrendering a rotation depth / organizational depth arm, and it is understandable why the Brewers would not accept that. It’s likely players like Santana and Davies “play out” their roles in Milwaukee, rather than being subjects of trade.
- Stephen Vogt is obviously not under contract any longer, but I included Vogt for two reasons. First, including Vogt’s Surplus estimate should show the type of range of contract that may be released by the Brewers. Second, Vogt’s estimate is included above to gauge what a potential contract value might be in case he is retained in some other manner (such as a minor league deal with an MLB guaranteed rate). A $1.4 million investment in Vogt, for example, would provide ample surplus value for the Brewers retaining the veteran within the organization.
- Jonathan Schoop’s past production really drives any model of his contract value; Schoop is likely a non-tender candidate if his salary expands to $11 million, but it should be noted that if there is any expectations for the slugger to reclaim anything resembling his previous performance level, the Brewers could make a contract offer.
- Travis Shaw is an absurdly valuable player to the Brewers, and in fact is probably more important than any player on the club short of Cain and Yelich (below is a sampling of the surplus value for much of the remaining roster, for comparison).
|Brewers||2019 Contract ($M)||Contract||HarmonicOne||Maximum||Minimum||Surplus||OFP|
What is difficult about assessing the Brewers roster for 2019 is that the club is void of many obvious trade candidates. For example, in cases like Schoop, Chase Anderson, and Eric Thames, the club would almost certainly be selling low and thus limit themselves to seeking a “diamond in the rough” of an organizational depth trade return (such as a reliever or starting pitcher that could be rehabbed, or a utility-type profile like Hernan Perez that could “play up” in Milwaukee’s defensive system). Here the importance of making proper development decisions for the likes of Burnes, Peralta, Nottingham, and other prospects comes into focus, as it should be evident that the Brewers do not have many roster assets that could yield talent that would be obvious improvements above their depth prospects (or primary ones, at that). Milwaukee’s crossroads for the 2019 offseason will be combining those proper development decisions with payroll freed at the margins of the roster to seek at least one impact free agency contract.
Thus, it is true that GM David Stearns could non-tender much of the club to refine the roster, and non-tenders in bulk might be expected as a way to accumulate impact cash: this is one route to an attempt at beating the recent record of excellent playoff clubs, and ensuring that Milwaukee does not have a playoff hangover. Yet making proper prospect development decisions will ensure that even if the Brewers do not reach the playoffs in 2019, it won’t be anything more than a small blemish, a chance to reload, within the five-year window opened last offseason.