If this off season goes as I predict, it's going to be yet another rather uneventful one for Brewers fans. That's because, if I'm right, they're not going to blow the team up or dabble heavily in free agency or with trades. Instead the only big move will be acquiring a free agent to play first base. I happen to believe they'll pay Adam LaRoche what he wants, which will ultimately be an overpay. But it's less about him specifically and more about the idea of overpaying. And for several reasons I think overpaying is perfectly acceptable.
Matt Clark is Not The Answer
After the last two years I don't think the Brewers are going to be content with cobbling together the position with a hodgepodge of questionable in-house candidates and platoon players. Chief among those options is the newest addition, Matt Clark.
Unfortunately I don't have any detailed, or even vague, scouting reports on Matt Clark from any point in his minor league career. I don't care that he was never a highly regarded prospect. I care because without them, it's essentially impossible for us to know how he's changed over the years.
I do know that he went to Japan for a year and that supposedly helped him face offspeed pitches.
@BrewCrewBall Matt Clark credits seeing offspeed stuff regularly in Japan last season as to why he performed well against lefties this year.— Joe Block (@joe_block) September 12, 2014
Or at least I know Matt Clark thinks facing offspeed stuff in Japan has helped him. I'm not saying he's wrong, but we just don't have proof yet. So at the very least, we have to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt.
It's taken Matt Clark 6 seasons in the minors (including 2014) and 1 year in Japan to get his first ever major league plate appearance. There's a reason for that. Maybe it was an inability to hit offspeed pitches that held him back. Maybe it was something else or even a bunch of something elses. It's possible he's finally figured out whatever it was that was holding him back. I want that to be the case. But realistically, the Brewers can't bet their season on that.
It's not all or nothing with Clark though. The Brewers will have 3 minor league options with him, meaning they can start the season with him in Triple-A Colorado Springs if they really want to. That gives them a lot of time to see what they have with him and make more informed decisions. Of course they could start with him on the bench too.
The First Base Options Over Next 2 Years Don't Get Much Better Than LaRoche
Adam LaRoche is arguably the best first baseman in the 2015 free agent class. I know some people like Mike Morse and/or Michael Cuddyer. I don't think either one of them is a clear upgrade though. Cuddyer is a year older and his numbers might be inflated by Coors Field. Morse is actually 2 years younger but he's more of a left-fielder than a first baseman, his power numbers are lower than LaRoche's, and his strikeouts have spiked in recent years.
In 2016 Chris Davis and Mike Napoli emerge as options. Chris Davis would likely require a sizable contract despite the very poor season he just had which brings his future production into question. Mike Napoli, while entering free agency a year younger, would not be a clear upgrade. Even if Davis or Napoli are better options, that still leaves 2015 up in the air. But perhaps more importantly, signing one of them past 2016 might screw up the Brewers plans for the future.
Ryan Braun Might be the Long Term Solution, but Not the Immediate One
Ryan Braun is dealing with enough uncertainty with his thumb right now. I'm not sure forcing him into a whole new position this offseason is the best idea. Besides, Braun isn't at the point where he physically can't play the outfield anymore like Corey Hart when they transitioned him. But taking the long view, at some point first base very likely might become his forever home.
It makes sense to ease him into first base duties over a year or two. This would be similar to the way the Brewers are giving sporadic playing time there to Jonathan Lucroy. The flexibility would only help the major league team and might even allow them to go without a back-up first baseman entirely.
All They Need Is Love (And By Love I Mean a First Baseman)
The starting rotation is set with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson, Marco Estrada, and Taylor Jungmann all being options of varying quality. The bullpen, while more open, is still mostly set up nicely. The starting 9 is set with Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett, Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez (I know he's technically not a sure thing, but I think he's coming back), Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez, and Ryan Braun. The only real question mark is at first base.
Another way to put it is: The only area where the Brewers need to spend any real money is at first base. Why not spend the money if it's there? And yes, it's there. Everyone is too obsessed with getting value for their dollar when it comes to signing free agents. I blame "Moneyball" and a misapplication of sabermetrics.
Hold on. Hear me out. I'm not bashing either of those things. If you read my work you'll know I rely heavily on advanced metrics. I just think a lot of people believe you have to get a good deal every time and if you're not getting equal value or getting more than what you've paid for, you're making a mistake. I don't agree.
Yes, absolutely I want to get that value. I mean really what I want is that extra value. But that's not going to happen with every deal. And I think sometimes it's okay to go into a deal where you know you're going to get less value than what you paid for.
I've established, admittedly with some caveats, that the Brewers only really need to spend on first base. If the money is there to be spent, and it's not stopping the Brewers from spending elsewhere, and it's not costing a draft pick, and it's making the team better, then it's okay to overpay. Does it matter if their first baseman, whomever he may be, ends up getting paid $12 million but is only technically worth $8 million? No.
Because if the Brewers don't spend that money at first base, where are they going to spend it? The bench? The bullpen? They can't afford top free agents like Pablo Sandoval and Jon Lester. If they did drop $20 million on a guy like Hanley Ramirez, then you'd have to account for the value lost at other positions caused by the inability to spend money elsewhere.
Basically what I'm saying is, they need a first baseman and everything else is secondary. They don't need a long term solution right away, because it could be Ryan Braun. If that's the case, it makes even more sense to get a stop gap player for a couple of years. They have money to spend, so if they don't spend it where they need it, then what's the point of having it? It doesn't matter if they get dollar for dollar value as long as it's making the team better than the alternative.
If you think they can get better production out of Morse or Cuddyer for example, or you think they can sign one of them for less money or fewer years, I get that (I don't extend this to Matt Clark because he's too much of an unknown). I just don't get this notion that the Brewers shouldn't sign any of them because they won't get full value for the money they spend.