This winter should be a very telling one for the Milwaukee Brewers. The franchise has been in rebuild mode for the better part of the last two seasons and with all the trades made by David Stearns and his predecessor Doug Melvin, almost the entire roster has been turned over. The Brewers have already assembled a top-3 farm system league-wide and controllable talent all over the MLB roster.
So, is the tear-down phase of the rebuild over? Or will Slingin’ Stearns follow the scorched-earth rebuild model of the Cubs and Astros for at least another season and continue to trade anyone who has been useful at the big league level for more prospects? The answer of what direction the franchise will continue along from here could be revealed in whether or not the club is willing to part with one of its more polarizing assets: #2016BrewersAce Junior Guerra.
If you’re not familiar with Guerra’s story by now, here’s the short(ish) version: signed by the Braves in 2001 as an outfielder/catcher, Junior converted to pitching in 2006. He was cut by the Braves and caught on with the Mets before failing a PED test and getting released in 2008. From 2009-2014 he pitched in foreign and independent leagues all over the world. The White Sox signed him to a minor league contract prior to the 2015 season and he wound up making his major league debut at age 30, pitching 4.0 MLB innings in relief. The Brewers claimed him on waivers in October of 2015, and after beginning the 2016 season in AAA Colorado Springs, he was called up on May 3rd to replace Taylor Jungmann in the starting rotation.
From then through the end of the season, Guerra wound up making 20 starts for the Brewers. He threw a spectacular 121.2 innings, allowing just a 2.81 ERA with marks of 7.40 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, and a 45.3% ground ball rate. Junior’s 22 runs prevented ranked him t-12th among all National League pitchers and his 65 ERA- was tied for the 4th-best total among MLB pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched. He was voted as the Brewers’ Most Valuable Pitcher after the season for his incredible work in 2016.
ERA estimators like FIP (3.71) and DRA (4.43) saw Guerra’s true talent as probably more like a #3 starter in 2016 than at the ace-level run prevention he did provide, and he did enjoy a bit of batted-ball luck (.250 BABIP despite a 33.8% hard contact rate). His control can get a bit shaky on occasion, especially with his signature split-finger. But Guerra has shown the ability to adapt and adjust at the big league level, including adding a sinker to his repertoire after his 13th big league start and using it to help induce grounders at an overall 48.3% clip through the end of his season.
Even if Guerra were to regress to the level of a mid-rotation starter, he’s still an incredibly valuable asset. Junior only just barely crossed the one year mark for service time in the major leagues and he’ll earn roughly the league minimum for another two full seasons before qualifying for arbitration. Fangraphs calculated Guerra’s worth at $19.3 mil last season, meaning he generated some $18.9 mil in excess value for the Brewers last year after subtracting his minimum salary.
Everyone can agree on the fact that Guerra was a stellar performer for the Milwaukee Nine last year. Where the divisiveness comes in is relative to Guerra’s advanced age. Were Junior five years younger, it would be a no-brainer to hang on to a player with five years of control who profiles as a #3 starter or better. However, he didn’t make his big league debut until age 30 and will pitch all of 2017 as a 32 year old. If you’re in the “Brewers can’t compete for another five years” camp, then it would make sense to be motivated to bring in some younger talent in exchange for an over-30 pitcher with no real track record of success until recently.
I don’t think competitive baseball in Milwaukee is that far off, however. The Brewers as currently assembled look like a team that could push for a .500 record next season, and that’s before factoring in any potential reinforcements that they may bring in over the offseason. So while I’m open to moving any player for the right price, I’d have a rather high threshold of what I’m willing to accept for my best starting pitcher.
This year’s free agent class has been called one of the worst in MLB history and the market for starting pitchers is barren. Left-hander Rich Hill might be the only arm that could be considered an upgrade from Junior, and he’s even older (37) and his recent success similarly came seemingly out of nowhere. So if a team is looking for starting pitching this winter, the trade market will be the most likely route taken. The White Sox are reportedly listening to offers for Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, and other arms like Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi may all become available. But a team not interested in paying those potentially exorbitant prospect prices could check in on the Brewers’ ace.
In order to part with Guerra this winter, I would hope Stearns asks for at least two near-MLB prospects graded at 55 overall or better along with a third player, perhaps a promising teenage rookie-level prospect with breakout potential. That would mean at least two prospects on the level of top-100 overall. A steep price to be sure, but quality starters making league minimum for two years are an extremely valuable commodity, even if you throw out Guerra’s arbitration years from age 34-36.
I think that the Brewers are nearer to competing than most people would like to believe, and I think David Stearns may agree with me given his intimations that there won’t be a ton of player movement this winter. During the “Inside the Brewers” town hall, he assured fans that he expects Junior Guerra to be a valuable member of the team going forward. As with any player, if the requisite package is offered and the Brewers are able to bring in a couple high-caliber prospects then he’ll probably pull the trigger. But there should be little motivation for Milwaukee to shop their best starter around this winter or settle for anything less than top dollar in return.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus