The 2016 Brewers will be able to count their successes in a myriad of ways, without having to look at the NL Central standings.
As we bask in the glow of an undefeated club chasing the Cactus Cup, I started to become very excited about the possibilities this season would hold. With virtually zero national expectations to be anything resembling a competitive baseball club, it became a lot easier to look beyond win-loss expectations of the team to define what a successful season might look like. There are a number of different outcomes for various subsets of the team that would make 2016 a success. I view the Brewers as being at least two years away from fielding a team that could contend for a wild card spot. If the 2018 Brewers are going to contend, the 2016 version will lay the groundwork for that success in many ways.
Preferred trade assets meeting or exceeding their projections
Seeing as the Brewers are still early on in their rebuild project, one of the best ways to build a strong foundation for the next contender is getting the most out of their assets that are most likely to be traded. Assets that the club feels will not be a part of their next contender. The players most likely to be moved at some point during this season would be Aaron Hill, Jonathan Lucroy and Will Smith.
Aaron Hill was most likely added to the Jean Segura trade as a salary dump from the Diamondbacks perspective and a way for the Brewers to get Isan Diaz added to their side of the ledger. As he's only signed through this season, the bar for his trade away from the Brewers has been set very low. He will presumably be the Brewers Opening Day starter at third base in hopes of squeezing out whatever remaining talent resides in the soon-to-be 34 year old. The Brewers are operating at a much lower payroll than prior years, so they can afford to eat any of Hill's remaining salary if it nets them a better prospect. To be clear, any prospect they can get in a trade for Hill will be a nominal talent at best. Look for a package similar to what we received for Aramis Ramirez, on the high end. If Hill has a line of .250/.310/.400 at the break, they should be able to unload him to a contender looking for a spot starter/bench bat.
Jonathan Lucroy is conceivably the most divisive trade asset the Brewers have when it comes to when they should trade him. Some would like him traded before Opening Day. Others would like to wait until the trade deadline or even after the 2016 season. Both options have their merits and risks. Trading him prior to the season leaves him with the most remaining time on his contract, but his disappointing and injury laden 2015 campaign would be the most recent impression of him. If he remains on the Opening Day roster, it allows him to repair his trade value in hopes of proving the 2014 version is closer to the 'true' Lucroy than the 2015 version. Or he could start out flat; it's a definite risk the Brewers would be taking. However, every day he remains on the Brewers roster is one less day he'll be playing for a contender, so it's a delicate balance in order to find the optimal trade package. My vote would be to trade him at the deadline provided he has bounced back in the first half.
Will Smith is an interesting case. He does not become a free agent until 2020 and could net a return of multiple, significant prospects. Durable left handed relievers that can throw in the mid-90s are not readily available on the open market. Relievers in general have seen increased valuation over the past few years. However, he turns 27 in July and is still comfortably within his prime. He'll enter arbitration for the first time in 2017 and will see a steadily rising salary over his paltry $1.48M this year. If the Brewers are in a position to contend in 2018, they could use an ace reliever or even potential closer of Smith's stature. The question becomes this: Are the prospects you would net in a Will Smith trade more valuable than the next 4 years of Smith in the Brewers 'pen?
Others: Many fans would love to see Ryan Braun added to this list. Ditto for Matt Garza. However, Braun's contract is still too large and too long to be able offload for anything of real value. If Braun's back and thumb injuires can be kept in check, he may still have some place on the next Brewers contender, be it remaining in left field or shifting over to first base in a few years. Who knows, maybe they'll slot him it at DH when both leagues adopt the same set of rules in a few years. Stranger things have happened.
Matt Garza's trade value could not be much lower if he tried. The way that he abruptly left the team last year certainly didn't help matters. For this season, you might as well let him eat innings and hope that he bounces back from his disastrous 2015. Best case scenario for Garza would probably be unloading him next offseason while eating some of his remaining 2017 salary. At this point, there isn't really a logjam of overachieving starters in Colorado Springs that would necessitate dumping Garza for nothing.
Determination of the next core
There are a number of candidates presumed to be a part of the next Brewers contender. Based on potential, Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips immediately come to mind. To a lesser extent, you have Domingo Santana, Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann. This season will be the first dress rehearsal in determining who could potentially be added to that core. Three potential additions to that core could be Wily Peralta, Jonathan Villar and Chris Carter.
Wily Peralta should be looking forward to turn the calendar to 2016. Similar to Jonathan Lucroy's trajectory, Peralta experienced a solid full season in 2014 when he won 17 games, followed by a disappointing 2015 battling injuries. Counting pitcher victories as a measure of success is obviously extremely flawed, and Peralta's advanced stats suggested he might have gotten a bit lucky in 2014 (3.53 ERA but 4.11 FIP). Previous expectations of Peralta reaching a high #2 starter status should be tempered. However, if he can regain some of his velocity he lost last season, he does present value as a mid rotation starter. He's only 26 and until last year proved to be reliable and a durable innings eater. He's not a free agent until 2019 so the Brewers have a few years to determine whether or not he'll be a long-term fixture in the rotation.
Jonathan Villar is one of the Brewers I'm most excited to watch this year. He's the poster boy for how David Stearns wants to rebuild this Brewers squad. Over 3 years with the Astros, he has little more than a season's worth of plate appearances for a regular starter. In only 53 games last year, he posted a solid if unspectacular triple slash of .284/.339/.414. Posting those kinds of offensive numbers like that over 150 games would be valuable from a middle infield position. Villar also possesses the speed profile to steal 35-40 bases as well which would be an added bonus. He's only 24 and with the Brewers controlling his rights through 2020 if they choose, they have time to determine whether or not he can be the potential long-term solution at second base once Arcia breaks through and assumes the shortstop position. Sliding Villar over to second base may be in his best interests long term, as question marks remain regarding his defense.
Chris Carter appears out of place on the list of potential 'core' players at first glance. His career batting average is only .217. If he gets a full season's worth of at-bats, he'll probably strike out 200 times or more. However, he walks consistently, having an OBP that typically exceeds his putrid average by 100 points. He also should be the most consistent power source for the Brewers this year, with the potential to hit 35-40 home runs. You can squint and see a scenario where Santana hits that many home runs, but otherwise Carter should be your home run leader this season. The Brewers can control him through 2018 if they choose. If he walks and hits dingers like he's capable, he could see himself playing with the Brewers longer than that if they can sign his next contract at a fair price.
There are no expectations for the 2016 Brewers to contend and that's a good thing. The front office has been very up front with the fan base in expressing this season is the first step in the rebuilding process. There is an interesting mix of players in camp this year: veterans with bloated salaries, rising talent that's controllable for the foreseeable future, and question marks in the form of former highly rated prospects, a pair of interesting Rule 5 picks, and veterans on minor league deals.
2016 will be considered a success in my mind if the Brewers can accurately determine who should be a part of their next contending club and who should not. Their farm system has come a long way in only a year under both Doug Melvin and David Stearns. Being able to cash in on their few remaining major league trade pieces should only strengthen the minor league ranks. The same minor league ranks that can deliver the next Brewers' contender, which could show up as early as 2018.
All contract figures and statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference