In a span of about twenty-four hours last week Brewers fans went from excessive anxiety to elation to disappointment to rage to elation again. It was about two days before the trade deadline and the Brewers had just moved Aramis Ramriez. Villagers were prepping their torches and sharping their pitchforks. And then it happened.
Carlos Gomez was traded to the Mets for Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores. Everyone let out a cheer. But as the reality set it they asked, "That's it?" But before someone could answer the trade was dead. The Mets' team doctor apparently didn't like the medicals (wink wink) and the Wilpons' checkbook concurred.
Depression set in. No more rebuild. No more trades. "They probably aren't even going to trade Gerardo Parra," was a common refrain. Pitchfork outlet stores sold out. "How to make a torch" classes at continuing education centers were book solid. And then it happened...again. Carlos Gomez was traded and this time Mike Fiers went along. This time it was for real. This time it was for prospects instead of damaged and ordinary major league ready players.
The villagers put down their torches and tossed aside their pitchforks. "Praise be to Doug Melvin the wily wizard" now was the refrain. But like they were hasty to cast judgment on the Brewers front office after the failed Mets trade, the villagers are wrong to assume the Brewers' plan has somehow changed.
This is still a Compete-Rebuild
Back in January I presented my take on the Brewers long term plan. I wrote it because I saw so many people accusing the Brewers of blowing in the wind with no real plan at all. I thought it couldn't be further from the truth. I called this plan a Compete Rebuild as opposed to a complete or full rebuild.
The Compete Rebuild is distinct from a full rebuild in that the team doesn't trade all of it's major league assets and it doesn't attempt to tank every year for prospects. Instead, in most years the front office attempts to field a major league team competent enough to take a wild card spot at least while still taking steps to improve the farm system. The key word being "attempt."
The Compete Rebuild is essentially an attempt to both rebuild and compete at the same time. It characterized by these key factors
1. The front office will trade major league assets, but only when they feel it's appropriate and that might mean they don't trade one when his value is highest.
2. The FO will not trade it's top prospects.
3. The FO will not "tank for draft picks." Instead, at least in most seasons, they will try to compete for a playoff berth whether that be through winning the division or a wild card spot.
There are upsides and downsides as there are with any franchise building plan.
The downsides are as follow:
1. You often find yourself fielding a marginally competitive team that could as easily, if not more likely, fall short of even the second wild card spot.
2. You will regularly find yourself drafting in the middle of a round instead of near the top of a round as is common with full rebuilds. It's harder to find impact talent outside the first ten overall picks in a draft. Sometimes it hard to find impact talent after the first three to five picks.
3. You sometimes miss the opportunity to maximize the trade return for players by holding onto them "too long."
4. Rebuilding the farm system will take longer because you're not infusing it with talent via larger trades and you have less of a chance to add impact talent via the draft.
The upsides are as follow:
1. You give yourself a chance to make the postseason most years whereas in a full rebuild you'd have no chance until your farm system is ready to spit out your top prospects (assuming they don't fall on their face).
2. You don't put your eggs in one basket. There is a lot of risk with prospects. Even the best ones can fail. If you invest several years focusing mainly on the farm system and it fails to produce that top level talent you're dreaming on then you've just spent years losing for nothing and now you're going to continue losing for years.
3. You still are improving the farm system by the draft, international market, waiver claims, and some trades.
4. You aren't depleting your farms system because you're keeping your best prospect.
A lot of people still say the Compete Rebuild is not a real plan. I think that's inaccurate. It's just more nuanced that a full rebuild or, conversely, going all in on your major league roster. In a full rebuild you're sacrificing your major league team for your farm system. In all-in mode you're sacrificing your farm system for your major league team. The Compete Rebuild takes elements from both but doesn't commit to an extreme.
The end goal of the Compete Rebuild is to have a highly competitive major league team and a stocked farm system. I think the main reason people dismissed this approach is because at the time I wrote my article neither the major league near nor the farm system looked particularly strong.
Now the farm system looks like it's in the top 11-15. The major league team obviously looks bad, but it might not in another year or two. This isn't because they've finally realized they need a full rebuild. It's because their Compete Rebuild plan has been working all along.
The plan in action
I don't think anyone would question the Brewers have been trying to compete. It's been a huge source of consternation among a lot Brewers fans for the last few years. It's the part about rebuilding the farm system and the future of the team at which most people seemed to scoff.
At the time of writing the original piece I offered examples of the Brewers adding to the farm or making trades to strengthen the future in general:
1. The Zack Greinke trade for Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg, and Ariel Pena
2. The Nori Aoki for Will Smith trade
3. Drafting (Rule 5) and subsequently working to keep Wei-Chung Wang
4. The Marco Estrada for Adam Lind trade
The WCW acquisition was of particular interest because they made the move in a year they had a real chance to compete. Too much was made of the negative impact WCW had on the bullpen that season but it was not at all a move you see a contending team make.
Then something fortuitous to my argument occurred. About three weeks after I published my article the Brewers traded Yovani Gallardo. It was not the signal some fans thought it was. This was not the start of a full rebuild. The Brewers traded no one else of consequence leading up to the start of the season and their intention was clearly still to compete.
The trade was, however, a microcosm of my Compete Rebuild model. The Brewers got two near major league ready pieces (Corey Knebel and Luis Sardinas) that could potentially help them compete now. They also got one minor league pitcher (Marcos Diplan) who strengthens the farm system and could help them compete in the future. It wasn't completely designed to compete now and it wasn't completely designed to compete later. It was designed to do both.
Fast-forward to 3 pm on July 31. The trade deadline has passed and the Brewers moved Aramis Ramiez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Carlos Gomez, and Mike Fiers. It's understandable to see that and think "full rebuild." However moving Mike Fiers is the only thing that was truly surprising.
Ramiez, Broxton, and Parra were on expiring contracts so they were getting traded no matter what. Carlos Gomez was different though. He had one more year left on his contract. However I think there is precedent for moving an asset with approximately that amount of remaining control in recent moves by the Brewers.
Nori Aoki and Yovani Gallardo were moved when they had one season left on their contracts. This shows the Brewers have been open to moving players with that amount of team control remaining. The fact that Carlos Gomez technically had 1 year and 2 months left on his contract didn't make him any different than Aoki and Gallardo when they were moved. That's because those 2 extra months don't matter if you can't make the playoffs.
I think of the two Yovani Gallardo is the better comparison. The Brewers either felt they couldn't afford to extend Gallardo or they simply didn't want. Either way, they wanted to get something for him before he left via free agency. The Brewers were never going to be able to afford Carlos Gomez after he hit free agency.
But Mike Fiers has 4 years of team control left after this season. His is a more interesting case. Again, I think there is precedent.
The Brewers moved Nori Aoki because they had Khris Davis ready to replace him. In part the Brewers moved Yovani Gallardo because they had Jimmy Nelson ready to replace him. When you factor the trades they've made and the players that will be near-MLB by next year there are a number of possibility to replace Mike Fiers: Zach Davies, Tyler Cravy, Jorge Lopez, Ty Wagner, Josh Hader. Maybe even Tyler Thornburg or Michael Blazek. I don't include Taylor Jungmann because someone will have to take Kyle Lohse's place on the roster.
That I think explains how Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers being available fits the Compete Rebuild model. But the trade return also must be considered. Despite all the trades made being for minor league players I think it helps to solidify my argument.
Every single one of the prospects (with the exception of the lottery ticket from the Broxton trade) is at AA or AAA. Each one of them could contribute to a major league roster in some capacity as soon as next year. Brett Phillips could very well be the heir apparent to Gomez even if he is 1 year away. Zach Davies might be ready to slot into Mike Fiers spot right now.
We're also in the unique position of being able to analyze the trade that almost happened for Carlos Gomez. That would have given the Brewers an immediate answer to third base (yes I'm talking about Wilmer Flores) and a front line starter (Zack Wheeler), albeit and injured one not ready to contribute until June or July of next year. That trade also kept Mike Fiers in the fold. So it strengthened the near and long term which is exactly what you would expect from a team operating under the Compete Rebuild model.
It's impossible to say what else might have been available to the Brewers in other trade offers. But both instances the Brewers did or would have acquired talent ready or near ready to contribute at the major league level. I think that's informative.
The final thing to consider is the major league team. Doesn't trading Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers signal they're finally willing to tank for prospects? It might. But take a look at his roster:
|C- Jonathan Lucroy||BN- Martin Maldonado||SP- Matt Garza||RP- Francisco Rodriguez|
|1B- Adam Lind||BN- Jason Rogers||SP- Wily Peralta||RP- Will Smith|
|2B- Scooter Gennett||BN- Luis Sardinas||SP- Jimmy Nelson||RP- Jeremy Jeffress|
|3B- Hernan Perez||BN- Elian Herrera||SP- Taylor Jungmann||RP- Michael Blazek|
|SS- Jean Segura||BN- Domingo Santana||SP- Zach Davies||RP- David Goforth|
|LF- Khris Davis||RP- Tyler Thornburg|
|CF-Shane Peterson||RP- Tyler Cravy|
|RF- Ryan Braun|
I am not asking you to entertain the idea this is a roster that can compete for the division or even the second wild card spot. But look at that roster and ask yourself if it really looks guaranteed to be one of the ten worst teams in baseball. Because that's what it needs to be in order for it to fit the "tank for prospects" model.
Now consider this: Orlando Arcia, Michael Reed, Tyrone Taylor, Ty Wagner, Jorge Lopez, Josh Hader, and perhaps others could be ready to bolster the major league club at some point next year. Arcia and Reed could have a significant impact as far as mid-season call-ups go.
Now consider this: That 25-man roster above only accounts for players currently available to the Brewers and leaves close to $30,000,000 on the table. The above roster costs approximately $74 million. This year and last the Brewers spent around $104 million on their payroll. It's certainly not guaranteed they will spent that much again, but it appears they can if they want to.
With a team of in-house options I'm not entirely convinced the Brewers would be one of the 10 worst teams in baseball. What I am entirely convinced of is the Brewers will spend money in free agency this winter. They always do. How much and to what end is still very much up for debate though. But given their history I don't believe they will completely punt 2016.
It's not the rebuild you want, but...
The Brewers stand to get a very high draft pick this year. Top 10 feels assured and they still have an outside chance at getting the Number 1 pick in next year's draft. That's more of an accident than part of the plan though. I suspect next year it's still not going to be part of the plan.
I know a lot of people are desperate for multiple drafts in a row with the No. 1 pick being in play but a team really has to try to be that bad. Of course I don't mean they lose individual games on purpose. But the front office has to build a really bad team. It's not that easy. And then silly things can happen like the Phillies winning 10 of their last 13 games. So you have to try to be that bad and (bad) luck has to be on your side.
The Brewers team does not look that bad next year and it can be improved moderately or even significantly via free agency. So no, the Brewers probably won't be trying for a top draft pick next year. Or in other words they'll try to compete next year to some extent. Sort of that I think they'll at least attempt to add assets that can help move up the major league team's window of contention.
That's not what some of you want to hear. I understand. I want the Brewers to have the best farm system in baseball too. I want them to get super awesome draft talent every year too. But look at where the farm system already is. It's gone from easily the worst farm system in baseball to arguably at Top 10 (though more likely Top Half) in just a few years.
The Brewers recently got a lot of talent in the higher minors to help turn the major league team around more quickly. But it's not because they're transitioned to a full rebuild. They just had better assets than Gallardo and Aoki to trade this time around.
In my opinion nothing they have done has suggested a full rebuild is on the horizon. And nothing regarding the state of the farm system nor the major league team suggests a full rebuild is needed to bring the Brewers back into contention. The Brewers farm system is not as bad as the Cubs and Astros when they started their full rebuilds. The major league team isn't as bad either. It isn't devoid of talent and it's not all that old.
Do you know why that is? It's because the Compete Rebuild is working as intended. That's why the Brewers are probably going to stick with the plan. And that's why you should still be hopeful. Because if it continues working as planned sometime in the future, perhaps the near future, the Brewers could have a highly competitive major league roster and a strong farm system.