As the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers season started, we knew that expectations would be low. The team was in full rebuild mode and that didn’t look to be changing any time soon. The hope for a random playoff run was minimal at best. If anyone wanted to find success this season, it couldn’t be looking for a postseason berth. As a result, the expectations changed to a more intangible one: Building the foundation of a team that could compete in the future. It’s a goal that the team could reach, but there was no concrete way to determine whether it was hit or not. Despite that, with the goal in mind, the process to build for the 2016 season began.
The 2015-2016 Offseason
The preparation for the 2016 season began before the season even began, with the end of the 2015 season. With new manager Craig Counsell and GM David Stearns in place, the team began with some major changes to the coaching staff. They decided not to renew the contracts of five coaches:
- Pitching coach Rick Kranitz
- Bench coach Jerry Narron
- Outfield coach John Shelby
- Bullpen coach Lee Tunnell (would be brought back later)
- First base coach Mike Guerrero
It wasn’t a complete clearing of the former coaching staff, as hitting coach Darnell Coles, third base coach Ed Sedar, assistant coach Joe Crawford, and bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel remained on staff. However, Craig Counsell wanted to name his own coaches to the other roles on the team. He chose Derek Johnson as his new pitching coach and Pat Murphy as his bench coach, as well as to re-hire bullpen coach Lee Tunnell. He would later name Carlos Subero as the first base/infield coach and Jason Lane as an additional coach to fill out the coaching staff.
The Brewers then went to work on building the roster for the 2016 season. To go through every transaction would take a long time, so let’s just go through the list of who left and who came:
- Traded Away: Khris Davis, Adam Lind, Francisco Rodriguez, Jason Rogers, Luis Sardinas, Trevor Seidenberger, Jean Segura, Cy Sneed, Tyler Wagner
- Acquired Via Trade: Chase Anderson, Javier Betancourt, Keon Broxton, Garin Cecchini, Bubba Derby, Isan Diaz, Ramon Flores, Carlos Herrera, Aaron Hill, Rymer Liriano, Daniel Missaki, Jacob Nottingham, Freddy Peralta, Manny Pina, Trey Supak, Jonathan Villar
- Acquired Via Waivers: Daniel Fields, Junior Guerra, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Sean Nolin, Josmil Pinto, Andy Wilkins
- Acquired Via Rule 5 Draft: Zack Jones, Colin Walsh
- Signed to Major League Contracts: Chris Carter, Carlos Torres
- Signed to Minor League Contracts: Blaine Boyer, Jake Elmore, Franklin Morales, Will Middlebrooks, Jim Miller, Hernan Perez, Alex Presley, Eric Young Jr.
I’m sure there was more to add here, but from that you can see how drastically the roster changed between the end of the 2015 season and start of the 2016 season. The team wasn’t nearly the same as it was when the 2015 season ended. What’s most notable there is that not many major-league free agents were added. It was an intentional focus on the minors to get the team as loaded as possible.
With so much minor-league talent coming in the offseason, there was a lot to compete for in camp. Spots in the bullpen, on the bench, and even a few starting spots were up for grabs. Unfortunately some of those competitions were made cleared due to injuries. Rymer Liriano took a pitch to the face and would end up missing the whole season. Will Smith had a torn LCL in his right knee and missed several weeks. Different arm injuries claimed Zack Jones, Corey Knebel, Sean Nolin, and Yhonathan Barrios. After all of that, here was the Brewers 25-man roster to begin the season:
- Catchers: Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado
- Infielders: Chris Carter, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Villar, Aaron Hill, Colin Walsh, Yadiel Rivera
- Outfielers: Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Ramon Flores*, Keon Broxton, Kirk Nieuwenhuis
- Starting Pitchers: Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann, Chase Anderson
- Relief Pitchers: Jeremy Jeffress, Ariel Pena, Michael Blazek, Tyler Thornburg, Blaine Boyer, Chris Capuano, Carlos Torres
While the roster filled out well, the final roster of the season would see many drastic changes as the season went on.
To say that the Brewers got off to a rough start would be an understatement. It was a particularly rough beginning for the Brewers. The month started reasonably well at 5-5, before they went 3-10 to end the month. Overall, the offense was abysmal, recording a batting line of .223/.307/.371 with a 78 wRC+. The pitching was worse, with a 5.68 ERA (last in the majors), 5.73 FIP (second to last in the majors), and were giving up home runs at a rate of 1.73 HR/9 (second to last in the majors).
There were some good starts to talk about. Ryan Braun (158 wRC+), Chris Carter (133 wRC+), and Scooter Gennett (128 wRC+) all had hot starts. Jimmy Nelson also pitched reasonably well to start the season (3.16 ERA), as well as Jeremy Jeffress (3.12 ERA) and Tyler Thornburg (2.89 ERA). However, there were some complete disasters. Keon Broxton (-69 wRC+), Yadiel Rivera (18 wRC+), Aaron Hill (13 wRC+), and Ramon Flores (2 wRC+) all had horrible starts to the year. It led to Broxton’s demotion to Colorado Springs, though the others got more time for now.
It was even worse for the pitching staff. Matt Garza was lost for two months with a lat strain before he even made a start. Meanwhile, Wily Peralta (7.40 ERA), Taylor Jungmann (9.15 ERA), and Chase Anderson (5.55 ERA) all struggled in the rotation. Zach Davies got an early-season call-up to fill Garza’s spot, and he also saw some rough results (8.78 ERA). Ariel Pena was sent to the minors pretty quick, and his replacement (Sam Freeman) didn’t last long either. The biggest story of the month was the demotion of Taylor Jungmann, who went from Brewers stud in the last half of 2015 to the minor leagues after just one month of 2016. He would remain in the minors until September, where he pitched his way back onto the team.
Some stability finally came to the team in May. The Brewers started off the month with a three-game winning streak, and ended the month winning five of six. Two losing streaks of three games also occurred, but it was nowhere near as drastic as April. We also started to see some players come out as the Brewers played closer to the lead average.
On offense, Jonathan Lucroy (151 wRC+), Aaron Hill (177 wRC+), and Jonathan Villar (150 wRC+) all broke out of their slumps and started putting up great numbers. Ryan Bran (163 wRC+) continued his hot hitting ways as well. The nice surprise of the month of Hernan Perez (122 wRC+), who joined the team towards the end of April and made his presence known early on. Of course, there were also some rough patches as well. The Colin Walsh experiment came to an end as he was offered back to his former team after being designated for assignment. Yadiel Rivera went down to the minors as well. Meanwhile, struggles started to show up for Chris Carter (71 wRC+), Alex Presley (49 wRC+), and Scooter Gennett (20 wRC+).
The pitching staff also say an improvement, mostly thanks to some new life blown into it from new additions. Junior Guerra’s reign in the rotation began on May 3, and he posted a solid first month (3.47 ERA, 2.87 FIP). Jhan Marinez also joined the bullpen through a trade with the Rays. and had a good first month as well (3.68 ERA, 3.01 FIP) Jimmy Nelson also remained strong (2.66 ERA, 3.91 FIP), as well as Jeremy Jeffress (1.80 ERA, 3.01 FIP) and Tyler Thornburg (3.46 ERA, 3.38 FIP). We also saw a rebound from Zach Davies (3.81 ERA, 4.95 FIP), who settled in to the majors and started pitching much better.
June saw the offense hit another rough spot. Overall the offense was near the bottom of the league for the month (91 wRC+, 27th in MLB). There were some good performances from the starting lineup, as Jonathan Lucroy (113 wRC+) and Ryan Braun (114 wRC+) stayed hot, while Scooter Gennett (132 wRC+) and Chris Carter (123 wRC+) rebounded. Overall the offense struggled though, and it led to some more changes. Domingo Santana spent most of the month on the DL as injuries mounted for him. Alex Presley ended up being designated for assignment as well.
What carried the Brewers through the month was their pitching staff. The return of Matt Garza and Will Smith bolstered the team as they put together a strong month. Zach Davies (2.89 ERA, 3.60 FIP), Matt Garza (2.81 ERA, 3.08 FIP), and Junior Guerra (3.00 ERA, 4.57 FIP) led the pitching staff for the month. However, Jimmy Nelson’s season turned the other way as his stats dropped (5.87 ERA, 6.10 FIP). In addition, Wily Peralta’s struggles finally hit the breaking point, as the team chose to option him to Colorado Springs as he just never improved while in the rotation.
July (12-13) & the Trade Deadline
July was another month closer to the averages for the Brewers. The offense was close to average, seeing some good performances, with eight Brewers recording a wRC+ at or above 100. Meanwhile, the pitching staff continued to carry the team, led by Zack Davies (1.71 ERA, 2.31 FIP), Junior Guerra (1.59 ERA, 3.68 FIP), and Tyler Thornburg (2.83 ERA, 4.37 FIP).
However, this month was not about the performance of the team. It was all about the trade deadline this month. The deals began on July 7, when the Brewers sent Aaron Hill to the Red Sox for Aaron Wilkerson and Wendell Rijo. It was the first of three trades before the deadline for the Brewers. After that, it quieted down quite a bit, and there was some fear the Brewers wouldn’t make another deal. However, the last few days of the deadline hit and the deals started flying. On the 30th, reports came out that the Brewers were trading Jonathan Lucroy to the Indians for four prospects headlined by catcher Francisco Mejia. However, the next day Lucroy exercised his no-trade clause and vetoed the trade.
It went down to the wire before the Brewers made their other two trades. On August 1st, they traded Will Smith to the Giants for Phil Bickford and Andrew Susac, a major haul for the reliever. Not even two hours later, they followed that up by sending Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to Texas for Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and a player to be named later (which would be Ryan Cordell). These deals put the Brewers system up at the top of the majors, while depleting most of the big tradeable assets remaining on the team.
With some of the team’s big names gone, it’s no surprise that the team struggled in the month of August. Orlando Arcia got his major-league callup to start the month, and Damien Magnifico also made his MLB debut in a short roster stint. Ramon Flores was finally designated for assignment after months of struggles for the Brewers. It also saw the return of Wily Peralta, who was recalled after Junior Guerra was placed on the DL.
With new opportunities opened, some players flourished. Keon Broxton finally broke out after going up and down for months, posting a 136 wRC+ in August. Ryan Braun remained hot (145 wRC+) as well. On the pitching side, Tyler Thornburg stepped into the closer’s role and took over where Jeremy Jeffress left off, not allowing an earned run in the month. Peralta came back to the rotation and he showed an improvement, posting a 3.00 ERA in the month. Meanwhile, Jimmy Nelson’s descent (9.00 ERA, 5.65 FIP) continued as well.
The month ended with a little more excitement at the waiver trade deadline. A rumor came out after the deadline that the Brewers had been discussing a trade with the Dodgers that involved outfielders Yasiel Puig and Ryan Braun. While nothing happened at the deadline, it was a sign that the Brewers may have one more big move in them this offseason.
Despite the rebuilding team, the Brewers didn’t make many additions in the month of September. Injured pitchers Junior Guerra and Jacob Barnes returned, and there were some additions with Ben Rowen, Yadiel Rivera, Taylor Jungmann, Damien Magnifico, Andrew Susac, Josmil Pinto, and Michael Reed. Keon Broxton’s resurgence continued (146 wRC+) before he was lost for the season with a fractured wrist. Wily Peralta finished the season strong in the rotation (2.84 ERA, 3.43 FIP) and is back in the conversation for 2017. Taylor Jungmann also made his return and a few good innings has his outlook on the upswing.
This month also saw some records shattered. Chris Carter broke the club strikeout record, but also tied for the league lead in home runs for the season. Jonathan Villar easily won the league stolen base title this season as well. In addition, as a team, the Brewers broke the record for most strikeouts in a season.
The 2016 season may not have been a winning season or a playoff season, but the Brewers made some steps forward in their rebuild. Many of the remaining assets on the team were traded away to further bolster the team, and we saw some of the future players make their debuts as well. The team now has most of the players it will need to build it’s next competitive team with. From that perspective, they found plenty of success this season.
The question now is if they will successfully translate that talent into on-field success. That’s what the 2017 team and on will need to focus on. It may involve some free agents, or possibly more trades. The Brewers have done a great job so far obtaining talent and stocking the system, so this season was definitely a success. The future will now be dependent on turning that talent into results on the field.
Roster move data courtesy of Yahoo Sports, ESPN, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.