It's going to be a rough year to be a Brewers fan in 2016. The Brewers don't look like a factor in the playoff races, and the team on the field is going to have some rough days. As I looked ahead to 2016, I found my attention wasn't on the current team on the field as much right now. Instead, my focus was more on the future players of the Brewers currently in the minor league system. As a result, the storylines that I was most interested in shifted there as well. With that said, here are five storylines that I'll be following in 2016.
1. The development of the young starting pitchers
Yesterday, in Travis' article on his storylines, he mentioned that we will be watching the development of Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta this year. While I'm also interested in their development, I'm looking a little lower with the pitchers I'll be watching. Specifically, I'll be looking at the top four starting pitchers in the minors for the Brewers: Zach Davies, Jorge Lopez, Adrian Houser, and Josh Hader.
The order listed above isn't coincidental. That's the order that I expect they will be called up in 2016 (assuming there's no special or emergency needs and some aren't available). Zach Davies should be the first pitcher called up, and with good reason. He's pitched the most major league innings (34.0 IP) and Triple-A innings (127.1 IP) of the four candidates. In addition, he posted a 3.77 ERA in his September call-up last year. It's not much, but it's enough to put him at the head of the list.
Jorge Lopez comes in second on that list, but he only has 10 IP above Double-A, all of those coming last year during his September call-up. He will need some time in Triple-A before being ready for a longer role in the majors. The same can be said with Adrian Houser and Josh Hader. Both haven't pitched in Triple-A yet and will need time there. Lopez and Houser have a chance to make it to the majors this year when injury replacements are needed. Hader would be a little trickier since he's not on the 40-man yet and will be starting at Double-A this season.
We are going to get some new glimpses of the future of the rotation this year. Get ready to feel that excitement every time a new face shows up.
2. Orlando Arcia's debut date
As 2016 opens, everyone is aware of Orlando Arcia. He may be starting the season in Triple-A, but that doesn't mean he will receive less attention. Arcia will be one of the hottest names this year, and everything he does in Colorado Springs will be monitored. Since he hasn't played in Triple-A yet, there's still a natural buffer built in for him to get time in Colorado Springs. How long he stays there will be dependent on a few things.
First of all, Orlando Arcia can dictate how long he stays there by his own performance. Results in Colorado Springs will have to be viewed with a grain of salt since it is known as a hitters' park, but great results still be encouraging. It's also not a given that Arcia will immediately succeed in Triple-A. He may need some time to adjust to the higher level of pitching. If the results are there, though, the anticipation for a call-up will grow higher and higher.
The other major factor will be needs on the Brewers team itself. If the team has a sudden need for a shortstop, Arcia could find himself on the Brewers roster sooner rather than later. Injuries will happen this season, that is a basic fact of baseball. The right injury at the right time could mean Arcia gets promoted. Opportunities could also open up if the current starter isn't performing well. While poor performance in 2016 won't necessarily mean that anyone should be demoted, it would open a hole that Arcia could end up stepping into.
It's likely that Arcia won't be called up until June at the earliest, even if he starts out red hot at Colorado Springs. However, the hype train will be behind him all season, and it's only a matter of when the call-up happens.
3. Matt Garza's redemption
This one may be a little odd, but it's something I'll be watching for this season. Matt Garza will be back in the rotation this year, with two years left on his contract. The Brewers are facing a crunch of starting pitchers in the near future, and Matt Garza's job will be on the line this season. If he has a bad season, he could find himself in the bullpen until his contract runs out. However, a good season could get him some security, whether on the Brewers or on another team.
The ideal scenario regarding Garza in 2016 is to pitch well enough for the Brewers to trade him. It would allow the Brewers to shed more payroll and clear up rotation space for the young guys. On the other side, the worst possible scenario is that Garza can't recover from 2015 and continues his struggles, ends up getting demoted to the bullpen or potentially even released. That would force the Brewers to absorb the rest of his salary. However, even that would have a silver lining since it would clear a space for a Brewers starter.
It's hard to see Matt Garza in the future plans for the Brewers. Whether he improves enough to be traded or continues to struggle and gets removed from the rotation, his future in Milwaukee is limited. At the same time, his salary may dictate that he stays with the team through the end of his contract. Considering all of that, it's in everyone's best interests to see a rebound season from Garza that could help the Brewers, whether it's on the field or through a trade.
4. Fan Support
Most of the educated fans understand that the Brewers have to go through some rough times in an effort to build a better team. However, there are also fans out there would expect the team to compete regardless of the situation. They may not like watching the Brewers pile up losses in 2016. Even the hardcore fans would struggle to stay active in a season like this one.
We're already starting to see some signs that fans may not be very patient with this year's team. For example, if you go on Brewers.com, you can still get tickets for Opening Day. In previous years, getting Opening Day tickets was impossible from the team site, but there's still a few seats left, and 1000 standing room tickets were made available earlier today. At the same time, ticket sales appear to be down across the board. As a test, I looked at the first two bobblehead days on the Brewers website. Bobblehead days are typically near sellouts, especially for the best bobbleheads. For the first one (the "Vintage Brewer" bobblehead), there were still plenty of tickets available. The same held true for the Braun bobblehead in May. I also checked StubHub for ticket prices. After Opening Day, the most expensive game to get into for the next two months was a Cubs game on a Tuesday in May. The price to get into that one: $13. For those of us who are looking for cheap tickets, this season will be great. However, there's going to be many games where the park looks like it is nearly empty.
We will also have to wait and see how much support fans give manager Craig Counsell. Will there be a point when fans turn on him? Will he get plenty of support through these tough times? Team management should back him completely, but that doesn't mean the fans will. There will be some expectation for Counsell to do everything he can to win games, and if fans can pick out moves that they don't like, support may diminish. This shouldn't mean that Counsell's job will be in danger. There's no reason it should be. All it means is that Counsell could take the brunt of fan anger in a season like this one.
5. The Minor League Affiliate Shuffle
This will be a question that probably will not be answered completely until after the season is done, but with the two-year cycle of PDCs (player development contracts) coming to a close, it is a topic to watch as the season goes on.
Of the five affiliates that the Brewers have contracts with, three of them are already extended beyond 2016:
Double-A: Biloxi Shuckers (signed through 2018)
Class-A: Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (signed through 2020)
Rookie: Helena Brewers (signed through 2018)
That leaves just two affiliates with expiring PDCs: Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, and High-A Brevard County Manatees. Both will expire at the end of 2016. The Brewers could work out an agreement with either of them at any point in 2016, or they could let both expire and pursue the new affiliates this fall. As of right now, it looks like 12 Triple-A teams and 16 High-A teams have expiring PDCs at the end of 2016 (source). Some of those will get extended before the deadline. Others will let their agreements run out and begin the search for a new affiliate, and it seems like there's a strong chance the Brewers could do the same.
It's no secret that the Brewers aren't in a great situation in Colorado Springs. During the last affiliate shuffle, the Brewers basically ended up in Colorado Springs by default after Nashville ran to grab the Athletics, and every other Triple-A affiliate was claimed. Now that the 2-year deal is about to end, will the Brewers jump ship? Colorado Springs doesn't have a lot to offer right now. They play in an older stadium, and the problems with playing at higher altitudes are well-documented. However, there's also the rumor that the Sky Sox franchise might move. Would that entice the Brewers to stay?
Meanwhile, the Brevard County situation is very messy and could end up being one where the Brewers end up having to go to a "worse" affiliate. Over on BrewerFan.net, Jim Goulart wrote about why the Brewers will not be in Brevard County after 2016. Considering the current situation, there's a strong chance that the Brewers could end up in the California League if they can't stay in Brevard County. That league has been known as a hitters' league, and many sites are not desirable for the development of young prospects.
One big factor that will play into all of this is the Brewers improved farm system. In 2014, part of the reason the Brewers got dumped by Nashville is that they felt the Brewers weren't keeping a strong enough farm system. Now since that has changed, will other teams look harder at a PDC with the Brewers? We won't hear anything official until September, but the next round of the affiliate shuffle should be monitored as this year goes on.
While this season could be a rough one, there's still plenty to watch in the 2016 season for the Milwaukee Brewers. It may be hard to think about the future instead of the present when watching these games, but that's the mindset that will be beneficial to have this season. Even if these are storylines that don't interest you, find something this season to follow that will encourage you. It's the best way to get through some of the darkest days.