Last offseason, the first under General Manager Slingin’ David Stearns, the Milwaukee Brewers were one of the most active of the 30 major league teams in terms of transactions. Stearns was brought in to continue the rebuilding effort that began under Doug Melvin, and together the two have traded 17 major leaguers since July 2015 and cut the payroll from over $100 mil to down around $60 mil this past season.
Despite the incredible amount of turnover, most of which involved shedding veteran players for prospects, the Brewers improved from 68 wins in 2015 to 73 last season. After the high volume of roster movement over the last 18 months, the ‘tear down’ phase of this rebuilding process is essentially over and the Brewers have arguably the number one farm system in the game and a crop of controllable players at the big league level to show for it. The next step is for the club to build upon the successes that they had this season and allow the core that’s developing at the major league level to take shape.
The Brewers have only two departing free agents: veteran relievers Chris Capuano and Blaine Boyer. Neither seem like very strong candidates to return next season. Beyond those two, the Brewers maintain control of the rest the players on their active roster, with only two under guaranteed contracts: Matt Garza ($12.5 mil) and Ryan Braun ($19 mil). Therefore it’s rather likely next year’s squad closely resembles the 2016 iteration.
On the fringes, Jake Elmore, Andy Wilkins, Josmil Pinto, and perhaps Garin Cecchini seem like possibilities to lose their spot on the 40 man roster and would be candidates to seek other opportunities at that point. Kirk Nieuwenhuis had a rather solid season and could be a decent fourth outfield option, but he is arbitration eligible for the first time and could be non-tendered in a potential 40 man roster crunch. Same goes with Martin Maldonado, who will have to battle with Manny Pina and Andrew Susac for time at catcher and will likely be seeking a raise on his $1.125 mil salary from this season. Arms like Taylor Jungmann, Ben Rowen, David Goforth, Michael Blazek, or Sean Nolin could all be possibilities to lose their roster spots after their work (or in Nolin’s case, lack thereof) in 2016.
As I alluded to above, there’s not many major trade pieces left on the active roster. David Stearns himself acknowledged that it would be “unreasonable” to expect a similar amount of activity this winter as last. That’s not to say the team doesn’t have any trade candidates, however. The bulk of the rumors figure to center around Ryan Braun, who may or may not have been close to being dealt to his hometown Dodgers back in August, depending on who you choose to believe. The prevailing belief is that the club will revisit those talks (which reportedly centered around a package surrounding the embattled Yasiel Puig) and would likely be open to discussing Braun with other suitors, as well. Personally, I think we’ll still see Braun wearing a Brewers’ uniform next spring.
After Braun, the next most logical trade candidate is probably second baseman Scooter Gennett. The left-handed hitting 26 year old bounced back from a down 2015 season to post a steady, if unspectacular 92 OPS+ this season and cracked double-digit home runs (14) for the first time in his career. He was also improved defensively at the keystone, but is limited to that position thanks to a fringey arm. Unfortunately for Scooter, there are a myriad of more versatile options currently in the system, including breakout performer Jonathan Villar, who profiles best defensively at second base. Pitchers Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza could also find their services being marketed this winter.
Otherwise, the Brewers have a significant group of players who have earned roles for next year based on their strong play in 2016. Junior Guerra and Zach Davies each secured a spot in next year’s starting rotation and thanks to his brilliant 10 start run to finish the season, Wily Peralta has probably put himself on that list as well. Tyler Thornburg is likely to reprise his role as closer, along with Carlos Torres, Tyler Cravy, Brent Suter, Jhan Marinez, Corey Knebel, and Jacob Barnes to cover most of the innings in the bullpen.
Around the infield, the club has intimated that Chris Carter will probably be brought back to play first base, though he is in line for a rather large raise in arbitration after clubbing 41 home runs (t-1st in the National League) this season. If Gennett is dealt, Jonathan Villar would presumably become the starter at second base and form a double play combo with defensive wizard Orlando Arcia at shortstop. Hernan Perez saw a lot of action at third base this season but Craig Counsell prefers him in a super utility role off the bench, and if Garin Cecchini is retained he could perhaps factor into the situation at the hot corner as well.
My gut says Ryan Braun returns to man left field for Milwaukee next year, and thanks to his strong finish in September Domingo Santana should have the leg up for the starting gig in the other corner spot in right. Speaking of strong finishes, Keon Broxton’s scorching second half (before breaking his wrist at Wrigley) should be enough to place him atop the center field depth chart heading into 2017. Kirk Nieuwenhuis (if he’s retained), Michael Reed, and, if he can successfully return from the facial fractures that cost him all of 2016, Rymer Liriano could each vie for reserve roles.
That doesn’t leave a lot of holes for the Brewers to try and fill this winter, but they’ve still got some room to make a couple of additions. Third base should be a priority for the club. A short-term addition like Luis Valbuena could fit the bill for now, though I’d like the club to look into some longer term possibilities. 22 year old switch hitter Jeimar Candelario of the Cubs system is blocked by Kris Bryant at the hot corner and is one player who could make it worthwhile to dip into the prospect pool and bring to Milwaukee. A veteran left-handed hitting outfield bat for a backup role would also be a useful addition if the club parts with Captain Kirk, and just about every organization signs a couple of arms to try out in spring training so I would expect the Brewers to be no different.
The Brewers figure to get some internal reinforcements next season from their impressive collection of prospects, as well. Outfielder Lewis Brinson and left-handers Josh Hader and Wei-Chung Wang are knocking at the door already, with players like Brett Phillips, Luis Ortiz, Jorge Lopez, Brandon Woodruff, and Ryan Cordell just a step behind them.
We also should have learned by now to expect the unexpected with Stearns. He’s shown a willingness to part with any player on the roster if the value is there in return, which can help lead to thievery like the Jason Rogers for Trey Supak and Keon Broxton heist. While players like Junior Guerra, Jonathan Villar, Zach Davies, etc may not exactly seem like logical trade candidates, if Stearns receives an overwhelming offer for them or anyone else in the organization don’t be surprised to see him pull the trigger.
The Brewers spent last winter shedding veteran players in an effort to further their rebuild. This winter, look for the club to begin supplementing some of the talent has bubbled up to the big league roster. While there may still be a trade or two to be made, the club has essentially moved beyond the ‘tearing down’ phase and is looking to begin the next step of defining player roles and improving the major league product. It’s not hard to squint and see a pretty decent team already forming in Milwaukee, and with a couple shrewd additions and a little luck, next year’s squad could very well find themselves on the fringes of the Wild Card race in the National League.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference