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The Brewers 2014 season: Disappointing, but not a total loss

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A lot of things happened in 2014 and we can't ignore the good things, even if the major league team failed to reach their goal.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not going to tell you you're wrong for feeling angry or depressed about the way this season ended. That would be very hypocritical of me because quite frankly I'm more than a little heart-broken myself. I came into this season believing the Brewers were strong wild card contenders. Then after that hot start, I had higher hopes. Ultimately, the Brewers finished 82-80, six games back of the two NL Wild Card teams.

There's been a lot of questions recently about what went wrong from inside and outside the organization. Some people simply want to point to Ron Roenicke and the coaching staff. Others say the team just wasn't any good. I'm not sure either answer is correct and in fact I think the true answer is pretty simple.

The rotation was pretty solid. It wasn't spectacular, but all around it was slightly above average. The bullpen had moments of utter dominance and, while they did stumble mid-season, was pretty good all year. With the offense I thought we'd get, that probably would have been enough.

I think we can look at 3 things that caused the failure to meet expectations: The performance by Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, and the combined efforts of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay at first base were all far less than what was expected or hoped for.

Ryan Braun's thumb greatly impacted his season more than I think anyone could have reasonably expected. Jean Segura's season was also a bit of a shock. I think we all expected something close to his 2013 whole season numbers. Instead we got one of the third worst offensive performance by a major league regular. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay combined for a stellar defensive and putrid offense at first base.

The funny thing is, the 3 reasons the Brewers missed the playoffs are 3 of the main reasons I'm more optimistic for next year. Ryan Braun is getting surgery this week which will hopefully allow him to return to being a productive star. Jean Segura worked on a new batting stance/approach and saw great success towards the end of the year. The Brewers will almost certainly look to someone else for their first baseman next year.

That's part of why I think the Brewers can put essentially the same team back out there and be successful. There will be some changes, but I don't think they need to blow it up or drastically change the make-up of the team.

There are other things that happened this season which have me encouraged and excited for the future. For some it will be of little comfort, others none, but the future is important. A major league franchise isn't simply just the major league team. It's kind of an amorphous blob with many moving parts. The major league team fell short, but the creature on whole got stronger.

It all started before 2013 even ended. First, in November Doug Melvin claimed Elian Herrera off waivers. I know. That doesn't seem like a big deal. In and of itself it isn't a big deal. But just remember this for when I talk about it later. The more significant event that occurred in 2013 was the acquisition of Wei-Chung Wang via the Rule 5 draft.

Wei-Chung Wang sucked as a reliever for the Brewers in the brief time he was allowed to pitch. I was utterly shocked and dismayed to see people judging him on that performance. Of course he was going to suck. I mean, sure even I had some hope he could operate as a LOOGY in sparse playing time after a successful spring training, but his success in the bullpen was never the reason the Brewers grabbed him.

They grabbed him because they thought he could be a successful major league starter in 3 or 4 years. And despite his performance and the unjustified judgments of some based on that lack of success, he still can be. So many thought there wasn't a chance Wang would make it the whole season, but he did. And now the Brewers have 3 options which they can use over the next 3 years. That gives him those years to work though the minors, starting this fall in the AFL.

It's still possible Wei-Chung Wang will emerge in 2017-18 as a 3/4 starting pitcher. The Brewers added that for $550,000 ($500k league minimum salary + $50k to the Pirates for the Rule 5 draft cost). In a typical first year player draft we're talking about a 2nd or 3rd round pick which could cost twice as much as the Brewers spent. That's good value.

Next, the Brewers signed Matt Garza TO THE BIGGEST FREE AGENT CONTRACT FOR A PITCHER IN FRANCHISE HISTORY!!! OoOoOoOo!  Another way to phrase that is: The Brewers signed Matt Garza to a pretty modest contract, with deferred money involved, and designed to protect against major injury. They're paying him $10.5M (it's $12.5M if you count the deferred money) a year for 3 more years after this. There's also a vesting/team option but no need to get too wrapped up in this.

The point is, the Brewers added a quality starter for a reasonable contract. That seldom happens in free agency. I see three scenarios; 1. Matt Garza remains a vital part of competitive Brewers teams for most or all of his contract, 2. The Brewers end up trading Matt Garza at some point, 3. Matt Garza gets hurt, 4. Matt Garza becomes ineffective.

If point 1 becomes true, then it was a good deal. If point 2 becomes true then it was a good deal. If point 3 becomes true, it might still be okay because that vesting option becomes very cheap for the Brewers. If point 4 becomes true, that's unfortunate, but at least we know that in the first year of the contract he was still pretty good.

Then in April, Doug Melvin acquired yet another reliever off the scrap heap, which is becoming his patented move. He signed Jeremy Jeffress to a minor league deal. At the time it seemed nothing more than a favor to a former prospect. The Brewers drafted him way back in 2006 and he had yet to establish himself as any kind of major league caliber pitcher. That has since changed.

Jeffress impressed in AAA before getting a call-up in July. Again, it seemed more a symptom of a major league bullpen in crisis than anything else, but that turned out to be wrong. The knock on him in the past was always his control. You can't pitch in the majors without it. He posted his best walk rate ever. The sample size is small and so we can't say definitively that he has overcome his past issues. He is only going to be pitching in his age 27 season next year, so it's not out of bounds to think something has finally clicked for him.

If he has found his command then the Brewers acquired the services of a major league reliever capable of pitching in high leverage situations for the next 4 years for nothing. If he is that, either they keep him around as a part of competitive teams or they have another trade piece sometime down the line.

Now we're into June and the first year player draft. For years people have (often prematurely) judged the Brewers drafts as too conservative and ultimately as failures. Well, it's still too soon to say if this year's draft was successful, but it certainly was not conservative. In point of fact, it was arguably the boldest draft in Milwaukee Brewers history and certainly among the 30 teams in this year's draft.

With their first three picks the Brewers took high risk high reward players. There are a contingent of talent evaluators(obviously the ones employed by the team agree) that believe Kodi Medeiros has top of the rotation potential. He's kind of short and has an unorthodox delivery but, if the Brewers are right, other teams timidity and rigidity is their gain. Jacob Gatewood is a short stop now, but he might end up at third base or right field. What isn't in question is his power. He's said to have the biggest power in the whole draft. Monte Harrison is the third member of the draft to have an all-star ceiling. He's purportedly a five tool player capable of playing center or right. If even 1 of these guys reaches his potential he'll probably be the best prospect to come up through the system since Ryan Braun. That's exciting.

The first year player draft wasn't the only way the Brewers brought in amateur talent. They shattered records when they signed international prospect Gilbert Lara to a deal worth $3.8 million. He was considered one of the top international prospects this year and the first such that the Brewers acquired. This wasn't just about getting a top talent. It was about sending a message. That message is that the Brewers are now player in the international market. Getting Lara is great, but that's what's exciting.

Signing international prospects is a great way of infusing talent into a farm system. All it takes is money. That was something, for whatever reason, the Brewers had been unwilling to do in years past. Now that they've spent on Lara, they've shown a commitment they hadn't before. More doors will be open to more top prospects in the future. That's a very good thing.

In early July, Doug Melvin signed Matt Clark to a minor league deal. At the time it was probably viewed as not much more than a quick fix. Their AAA first baseman had broken his arm. They needed a warm body. In a couple of years it's possible we'll look back at this signing as much more. But I'll get to that in a little bit.

Now we're at July 31st. The Brewers were in a good spot. They were first place, 2 games up on the second place Cardinals and 2.5 up on the Cardinals. I just wanted to remind anyone that is going to suggest they should have traded players away. To those people I say: No. First place teams that late in the season do not nor should they realistically consider trading players away.

The Brewers did the right thing, in more than one way. They acquired talent. But more than that, they didn't panic and sell the farm to improve. Instead, they traded very little to acquire Gerardo Parra. I know everyone had dreams about getting David Price or Jon Lester, but that was never realistic. And even if it was, it's not like either of those guys would have propelled the Brewers into the postseason. Lester would have been gone after this year and Price would have severely tied the Brewers hands financially next year.

Gerardo Parra is exactly what the Brewers needed: A left handed bat that can play all 3 outfield positions. This move benefited the Brewers in 2014 and assuming they bring him back next year, it'll help solidify the bench. Here's where Elian Herrera and Matt Clark potentially come into to play.

At the start of this year the Brewers had Logan Schafer, Jeff Bianchi, and Lyle Overbay on their bench. Together they combined for a -1.1 fWAR. Gerardo Parra has a 0 WAR on the season, but as a Brewer he was worth 0.4 WAR. Parra will only be helped by playing in a part time role. He won't have to face left-handers. So it's probably fair to expect something similar to what he was able to give the Brewers. That's a pretty huge upgrade from Logan Schafer. That's significant because with Ryan Braun's nerve issue the 4th outfielder could see significant playing time. That's not even mentioning the possible loose platoon Parra might play in LF and any time he might get due to injury by one of the other three outfielder's.

Elian Herrera has been worth 0.2 fWAR this year. That's a good deal better than the -0.8 fWAR the Brewers got from Jeff Bianchi. Assuming Herrera returns it's not out of line to think Herrera can provide the Brewers with at least a slight upgrade from Bianchi. It's possible Hector Gomez could enter into the discussion, but we'll save that for another time.

Matt Clark is the wild card. First base is really the only position that the Brewers have no real answer for. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay are almost certainly not going to return. One would hope that's the case anyhow. Matt Clark has never played in the majors before this year and it wasn't for no reason. I think it's unlikely the Brewers give him sole possession of first base, but it's possible he could win a part time job similar to the role Overbay had this year. Overbay was worth exactly -0.2 fWAR so the bar was not set high.

These three players weren't a part of the organization this time last year. They could end up being an important, if not overlooked, part of a contending team next year. That's not nothing.

Now it's August 31st. The waiver trade deadline was just hours away when the Brewers announced they had acquired the services of Jonathan Broxton (and his entire salary). It wasn't until a week or so later that we learned the Brewers had given up even less than they did in the Parra deal. That's a win in and of itself, even when we do consider the $9 million salary he's owed next year and at least the $2M he's owed if the Brewers buyout his 2016 option.

Broxton isn't a top tier reliever, but there are signs that his best years are not yet behind him and I don't think it's fair to entirely dismiss the year he's had. I'll discuss that in another article, but I think he has the potential to be a fine addition to the bullpen next year. A personal bonus is that his inclusion in the 2015 bullpen (and more important his salary) all but guarantees Francisco Rodriguez will not be returning.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention some prospects. Obviously Jimmy Nelson took a giant step forward this year, but perhaps the biggest step forward was made by Clint Coulter. He returned to A ball after a disappointing go around at 19 years old. He crushed the baseball and reestablished himself as a top prospect in the Brewers farm. A position change is in the works which is a good thing because it probably means his path to the majors will speed up.

Orlando Arcia and Tyrone Taylor also impressed. I know some of you will look at their numbers and furl your brows, but understand that they're young for their levels. The league they were in suppresses offense too. I look at their seasons and their age and I see two players on the verge of breakouts. I see the shortstop of the future and I see the center fielder of the future.

Taylor Jungmann seemed to rediscover his strikeout ability. He also finally made the jump to AAA, where he did struggle at first. Still, he's put himself back on the radar and could even make a start or two for the Brewers at some point next year. It's not the swift path to the majors we had all hoped for, but if he can establish himself as a solid number 4 in the next year or two, that's a good thing. If at some point the Brewers can put a good infield defense behind him, he could potentially have a few seasons where he's better than that. That's more or less what his projected ceiling was (mid-rotation starter), it's just taking longer to get there than expected.

Michael Reed emerged as a legitimate outfielder. Jorge Lopez continued performing well, Jed Bradley took a modest step forward. Ty Wagner and Taylor Williams established themselves as a starting pitching prospects. Tyler Cravy perplexingly gained some adamant fans after 73 innings in AA. Jason Rogers made the move to third base and continued his hitting ways.

The Brewers didn't make the playoffs. That sucks. They don't have a Kris Bryant in the minors. That's an unfair expectation and ignoring that, they do have some intriguing talent. Essentially what I'm saying is, the MLB team is not devoid of talent and neither is the farm system. And, I submit to you that both of them left 2014 better than they entered it. Marginally or moderately, that's meaningful.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs