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Assessing David Stearns’ Mismanagement of the Brewers 40 Man Roster

Milwaukee’s young GM may have made a few missteps on the day of the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline.

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been mostly supportive of the personnel decisions made by the Milwaukee Brewers’ front office in the year-plus since David Stearns took over as General Manager. My only real complaint to this point is the idea that he probably sold too early on Khris Davis, but the breakout of Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana’s above-average bat (when healthy) has made that potential misstep a bit more palatable.

Yesterday, however, was a bad day at the office for Slingin’ Stearns and his staff.

Of course I’m referring to the deadline for teams to add eligible players to their 40 man rosters in order protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, which came and went last night. The Milwaukee Nine had six spots available on their 40 man roster, and four were spoken for with the no-brainer additions of Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Ryan Cordell, and Josh Hader. How Stearns used his final two spots was questionable at best, and at worst potentially detrimental to the franchise’s future.

Feeling compelled to protect Taylor Williams from the Rule 5 Draft I can at least sort of understand. It was not too long ago that he was considered perhaps the most electric arm in the Brewers’ system, with a fastball that could reach the upper 90s and an above-average slider to go along with high praise for his command. But that was after the 2014 season, and Williams didn’t pitch in a regular season game during 2015 or 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He finally got back on the mound during fall instructional ball in September and apparently showed the club enough to convince them he was worth protecting. Still, it’s tough to envision that a player who has only made five appearances in high-A ball, hasn’t pitched competitively in two seasons, and who will turn 26 next year, could go straight to the major leagues and stick on someone’s roster all season long.

The addition of Adam Walker off waivers to fill the final open slot is where Stearns totally loses me, however. Yes, Walker does have as high a raw power grade as just about anyone in the minor leagues. Yes, being a Milwaukee native makes for a cool story. But honestly, Walker just doesn’t seem to be a very good major league prospect. Besides his raw power, he has no other tools that project to be better than below average. His poor arm will likely limit him to left field as a big leaguer, where he’s considered below-average defensively. Sure, Stearns mentioned trying him at first base but Walker has never played that position as a professional so there’s no guarantee that he will be able to pick up the position or play it passably.

Then there’s the bat. The power is very real; the 25 year old has slugged 124 home runs in 584 minor league games and at least 25 in each of his full seasons. But he is only a career .251/.310/.486 hitter in that time and has struck out in 30.4% of his career plate appearances. He piled up 202 strikeouts in 531 plate appearances last year with AAA Rochester and has lead all of the minors in punchouts in each of the last two seasons. His uninspiring career 7.7% walk rate doesn’t do much to help mitigate the high volume of whiffs, either. Walker’s not likely to be much of an on-base threat without a significant adjustment in his approach at the plate.

There have been a lot of comparisons made of Walker to players like Khris Davis or Chris Carter, but those are honestly a bit misguided. Walker’s best case scenario could be a low-average, high strikeout power-hitter in that vein, but Davis and Carter were both much more accomplished minor league hitters before becoming relatively successful big leaguers. In 421 minor league games, Khrush hit .285/.389/.501 with 69 home runs, striking out in 20.4% of his plate appearances while drawing a free pass 12.7% of the time. Chris Carter hit .283/.378/.535 with 182 home runs in his 826 minor league games, punching out 23.5% of the time while walking in 12.2% of his plate appearances. Both Davis and Carter were markedly better and more selective hitters in the minors than Walker has been and we’ve seen how their offensive games have translated to the big leagues.

So what can we realistically hope for out of Adam Walker going forward? Maybe a one-win first baseman at the major league level, if he doesn’t strike out in 50% of his plate appearances? For comparison’s sake, Joey Gallo has a career 34.7% strikeout rate in the minors, which has translated to a 49.7% K rate in 153 MLB plate appearances. Any wonder why the Rangers are hesitant to give him an everyday spot in the big league lineup?

You can’t tell me that a player with that kind of profile has more realistic future value than an arm like Wei-Chung Wang. After posting an overall 3.78 ERA and 3.34 FIP with 7.7 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in 133.1 innings between AA and AAA in 2016, the 24 year old (25 in 2017) lefty looks like he’s ready for another crack at the big league level. Wang profiles as at least a useful left-handed bullpen arm right now if not someone ready for a trial as a #5 starter in the big leagues, and teams like the Angels or Twins are desperate for live arms capable of soaking up regular season innings.

And what about Miguel Diaz? The organization’s #20 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, Diaz is coming off a successful season in Appleton where he worked to a 3.71 ERA and 3.59 FIP in 94.2 innings with marks of 8.65 K/9 and 2.76 BB/9. The 21 year old righty’s current fastball/slider combination could make him at least usable in a low-leverage bullpen role for the time being, and he comes with the ceiling of a potential closer or #4 starter after further refinement. Before you say it’s a reach that a team would use a Rule 5 pick on such a young player, consider that the Padres drafted Luis Perdomo last winter. He was 22 at the time, had made only seven appearances in high-A, and had a similar profile and ceiling to Diaz as a fastball/slider pitcher. Perdomo stuck in the big leagues all year, beginning the year in the bullpen before earning a spot in the starting rotation. If the possible 26th roster spot that is being discussed during ongoing CBA talks comes to fruition, it would make it that much easier to carry an arm like Diaz for a full season.

The addition of Walker would have been fine in a vacuum, but not when it comes with the risk of losing both Wang and Diaz, among the others left unprotected. Hell, Stearns could have made a different accompanying roster move after claiming Walker to make room and I would have been fine. If the Brewers are going to have another player capable of playing the outfield on the 40 man roster, is it still necessary to carry 29 year old Kirk Nieuwenhuis? Do 29 year old Rob Scahill or 28 year old David Goforth still require 40 man roster spots at this point?

David Stearns has been praised for most of the work he’s done thus far during his tenure in Milwaukee, and perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding the roster gambles that he took yesterday. In my opinion, however, the combination of transactions made by the Brewers yesterday were illogical and could end up proving to harmful for the organization down the road. We can only keep our fingers crossed that the Brewers don’t get mined for too much talent during the Winter Meetings and that this series of potential missteps won’t set the tone for an unproductive offseason.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference