The Milwaukee Brewers finished 73-89 this season, fourth place in the NL Central. In a vacuum, that’s bad. This year’s club was 14 games out of a playoff spot, finished tied for 25th among all MLB teams with 671 runs scored, and slogged through an 8-15 month of April as well as a 10-20 month of August.
Once we get past a minor thing such as a losing record, however, there are plenty of positive developments that can be taken out of this year. This iteration of the Brewers improved over last year’s by five victories and appears to be, in general, trending upward. When this tear down and rebuild effort began, most assumed that it would be something like a five year process or longer to become competitive again. Thanks to these three encouraging circumstances, however, perhaps that timeline has been hastened:
Low-key Additions Become Major Contributors
The Brewers had several holes to fill entering last winter: a starting first baseman, third baseman, shortstop, center fielder, bench roles, bullpen roles, and starting rotation depth. David Stearns largely eschewed free agency during his first winter as General Manager, instead filling these open spots through other means with some under-the-radar types of additions. Stearns was determined to give players a chance to succeed where they may have never gotten one, or may have already gotten one or two and failed to stick in the majors.
Stearns signed two major league free agents in 1B Chris Carter and RHP Carlos Torres for less than $5 mil combined. Carter posted a 114 OPS+ while leading the league with 41 home runs while Torres lead the bullpen with 72 appearances and 15 runs prevented. He acquired Aaron Hill as a salary dump from the Diamondbacks in the Segura trade, who bounced back to a 107 OPS+ and wound up being dealt for two prospects. Keon Broxton (trade with Pittsburgh) and Kirk Nieuwenhuis (waivers from New York Mets) held down center field during most of the season and were useful producers. Jonathan Villar wore out his welcome in Houston, so Stearns got him for a fringe pitching prospect and watched him post an .826 OPS with a league-leading 62 steals in 156 games. Swiss army knife Hernan Perez was released and re-signed as a minor league free agent last winter before breaking out in a utility role this year. Jhan Marinez provided quality innings from the bullpen after being purchased from Tampa Bay. Oh, and of course there’s #2016BrewersAce Junior Guerra, who went from waiver claim to leading the Brewers with 22 runs prevented while posting a 2.81 ERA and 152 ERA+ in 121.2 innings out of the starting rotation.
Beyond Hill (who was on an expiring contract when he was traded), all of these players are controllable for multiple seasons and figure to be back as contributors in 2017.
Some of the players from the previous category were still rookie eligible for 2016, so there is some crossover here. We’ll start with Keon Broxton, who overcame a brutal start to his Brewers’ career and being stuck on the shuttle between Colorado Springs and Milwaukee once he lowered his hand positioning at the plate. During the second half of the season, Broxton posted a .294/.399/.538 slash with 8 home runs and 16 steals in 169 PA before his season was ended prematurely by a broken wrist. Overall he posted a 107 OPS+ and was valued somewhere around 2 wins above replacement in just 75 games and should have a hold on the center field job to start next season.
Next is the aforementioned Guerra, as unheralded of a player as you’ll ever find in major league baseball. The 31 year old rookie posted the lowest ERA among Brewers’ starters (min 100 IP) since 2008, and he was just the fourth organizational pitcher this century to throw 100+ innings with an ERA below 3.00. He showed poise and adaptability on the mound, including adding a sinker to his repertoire mid-season once batters began to offer at his splitter with less regularity. Guerra’s peripherals say he’s likely more of a mid-rotation starter than an “ace,” but either way he’s an immensely valuable piece for Milwaukee going forward who is earning the league minimum for two more season.
Finally, we have Zach Davies, who began the season in the minors but was called up in April to take the injured Matt Garza’s spot in the rotation. Only Jimmy Nelson tossed more innings than Zach’s 163.1, and only Guerra had a lower ERA than Davies’ 3.97 mark. The diminutive righty did everything we hoped he’d be capable of when the Brewers acquired him from Baltimore: mix his pitches well, limit walks (2.1 BB/9), eat up innings and provide a better-than-average run prevention (107 ERA+). Between Davies and Guerra, Craig Counsell may have a tough decision about who to start on Opening Day 2017.
The Brewers pitching staff struggled greatly in 2015, so when Craig Counsell was able to bring in his own coaching staff last winter one of his first hires was a new pitching coach in Derek Johnson. Things got off to a rough start in April, but overall the pitching staff was greatly improved this season. On the whole Milwaukee’s arms prevented -5 runs (7th in the National League) and worked to a 4.10 ERA this season, which ranked right smack dab in the middle of the National League in 8th place. In just the second half of the season, however, the Brewers posted a collective 3.62 ERA, bested in the NL by only the Cubs.
13 of the 21 pitchers that tossed more than 10.0 innings for the Brewers this year posted a better-than-league-average ERA this year, including breakouts full seasons from Guerra, Davies, Torres, and Tyler Thornburg. Wily Peralta came back from his demotion and pitched to a 2.92 ERA in his final 10 starts, essentially solidifying himself a spot in the starting rotation to start next season. Chase Anderson and even Matt Garza turned in useful campaigns on the mound.
Pitching can be volatile from year-to-year, but it appears as though Milwaukee should be heading into next season with a solid core of arms already in place that will be supplemented by the talent coming up in the minor leagues. Highly touted arms like Josh Hader, Jorge Lopez, Brandon Woodruff, and Luis Ortiz (among others) should be jockeying for MLB time in 2017.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference