We've known for a long time that this off season was going to be dull. The team was almost completely set after bringing back Yovani Gallardo and Aramis Ramirez in addition to trading for Adam Lind. That was way back in the first week of November! Still, the reality of that took a while to set in. At the very least I think most of us expected one free agent signing by now.
It is understandable though. As I mentioned, the team is mostly complete. As Doug Melvin has said on more than one occasion, if the season were to start tomorrow the Brewers could field a reasonably competitive 25-man roster. Still, they could benefit from another bench player and they definitely need another reliever.
For me, that's why this off season has been so frustrating. Relievers are comparatively cheap and easy-ish to get. Yet here we are, just a little over a month before players report to spring training, and that hasn't been accomplished. Instead, Doug Melvin has decided to wait on getting a reliever until later in the winter. That's incredibly risky.
A lot of the better relievers have already been signed. Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Sergio Romo, and others that seemed like fits (including Sergio Santos and Ryan Madson who both signed minor league deals) are now off the market. There aren't a whole lot of solid relievers left on the market and the longer they wait, the fewer options there will be.
What's more scary is that Doug Melvin has said he's more likely to give out minor league deals with invites to spring training, than to sign anyone to a major league deal. Part of this decision is certainly related to payroll. Once you account for Gerardo Parra and Martin Maldonado's projected arbitration salaries, as well as filling out the rest of the team with players making league minimum, the total payroll hits approximately $107 million.
I absolutely believe this puts them near their upward limit. However it is just $4 million more than last year's opening day payroll and there is tons of money coming off the books in 2016. I have to believe the Brewers possess enough room in the budget to spend at least another $5 million. By choosing not to do this* Melvin would be betting on repeating his past success in signing solid relievers late. (*There is still plenty of time before the season starts so they might sign or trade for someone).
Everyone will remember how Doug Melvin brought in K-Rod and Zach Duke late in the winter. Some might even point out the super late acquisitions of Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza in the middle of spring training. Those guys were great acquisitions and quality performers. But the real selling point in waiting, is that guys in these situations have fewer options and therefore end up signing for little money, or less than relievers signed early in the off season.
It's not like the longer you wait the better or more plentiful the options are. For as often as his late winter success is brought up, relatively few people will point out the guys like Michael Gonzalez that Melvin has completely whiffed on. And that's the danger in this course of action. In waiting to sign a reliever, the Brewers are taking on more risk than is typically associated with relievers.
Most relievers' performance is volatile and can vary, sometimes wildly, from season to season. But the probability of negative contribution is increased with players who aren't considered good enough to sign a guaranteed major league contract for one reason or another. That's part of why they don't get major league deals.
You can take that risk if your bullpen only needs depth. The problem is the Brewers bullpen is already in a shaky position with Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg's uncertain state of health. For right now the top 7 relievers in the bullpen are: Jonathan Broxton, Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler (who also had surgery in the off season), Jimmy Nelson, Rob Wooten, and Michael Blazek.
Don't get me wrong. I like the top 5 of that group. I even like Rob Wooten. But for as much upside as each one of these guys possess, each one also has serious question marks. Broxton has a concerning history of injury. Jeffress has to prove he has put his command issues behind him. Smith has to prove he's not a LOOGY. Kintzler has to prove he's healthy and that 2014, not 2013, was the anomaly. Nelson hasn't much experience out of the bullpen nor at the major league level.
This bullpen is high risk, high reward. If it tanks the Brewers season tanks along with it. I'll use 2012 as an example. That season the Brewers finished 83-79, just 5 games back of the second Wild Card spot.
That Brewers offense was the 5th best in baseball and 2nd best in the NL.
The Brewers rotation was the 7th best in baseball and 4th in the NL.
The Brewers bullpen ranked 24th in baseball and 11th in the NL. It was dead last in ERA.
Did you notice which one of those things wasn't like the other?
My point is not that you have to have a great bullpen. It's just that you can't have a terrible one. It's entirely possible the Brewers end up having a great bullpen as it is right now. I think there's close to an equal chance it could be terrible instead. There's just a ton of uncertainly. By waiting on relievers the Brewers are adding even more risk on top of that uncertainty. That's a very dangerous game to play.