With the 4th of July weekend over and the All-Star Break quickly approaching, we’re now past the midway point of the Major League Baseball season. “Trade season” is quickly approaching in advance of this year’s August 1st non-waiver trade deadline.
This year, our beloved local nine appear to be in the “obvious seller” category as they sit at 36-46 and are in the midst of rebuilding. Slingin’ David Stearns has taken a page from Doug Melvin’s book and played it pretty coy about potential moves that the Brewers might make, though he did admit that calls have picked up significantly within the last two weeks or so.
Milwaukee has several obvious trade assets all over diamond, including Aaron Hill, Chris Carter, Jeremy Jeffress, Jonathan Lucroy, and perhaps even Ryan Braun. Of course, the Brewers can’t trade everyone, nor should they unless they are overwhelmed by a given offer. With the organization’s rejuvenated minor league system and slate of advanced prospects, fielding a competitive club shouldn’t be quite as far off as some want to believe. So who are the Brewers “rebuilding blocks,” the current major league players that could be assets for the next winning team in Milwaukee?
SS Jonathan Villar
Formerly a top prospect in Houston’s system, Villar made his big league debut in 2013 at age 22 and took a few years and trips back to the minor leagues to get comfortable offensively. Just as he was getting it together last year while posting a .752 OPS in 53 games, Carlos Correa came up to the big leagues and pushed Villar out of a spot.
Stearns took a chance on the post-hype, out of options Villar, acquiring him in a minor trade and clearing out the starting shortstop role for him. The move has paid off in spades. Many thought Villar would simply be a place-holder until Orlando Arcia’s impending arrival, but the 25 year old switch-hitter has had an All-Star worthy campaign hitting .292/.378/.416 with six home runs and a league leading 26 steals in 79 games (112 wRC+). Defense has never been his strongest suit and the metrics vary on his numbers, but he has played at the very least a passable shortstop as well.
Villar’s unlikely to keep up his current .401 BABIP, but he’s a speedy player who hits the ball on the ground an awful lot so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think he can stay around his career .348 BABIP mark. He’s obviously made some real changes in his approach at the plate that have lead to a dramatic increase in his walk rate up to 12.1%. His adventurous base-running has been reigned in a bit, as well, and he seems to be getting a little smarter on the basepaths. Villar’s speed and on-base ability are the embodiment of a “prototypical leadoff hitter.”
Villar’s future with the Brewers isn’t likely to be at shortstop, but he’s played second, third, and even in the outfield during his professional career. His current production would play as a starter at any of those positions, or perhaps he can become a Swiss-army knife type utility player and roam around the diamond for Milwaukee. He’s under club control for another four seasons after this one through 2020. It’s unlikely he’ll reach the Super 2 threshold either, so he’ll earn roughly the league minimum once again next season. As Stearns has said, Villar is the type of player that the Brewers want to acquire, so there should be little motivation to move him at this point.
RHP Jimmy Nelson
It’s been an uneven season for the pitcher that many figured would be the club’s best coming into the season. His run prevention looks solid from the standpoint of his 3.56 ERA, however the way that he’s getting there leads to some skepticism. Nelson’s strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, and ground ball rate have all trended in the wrong direction this year. Both his 4.82 FIP and 5.03 DRA believe Nelson should be allowing roughly another 1.5 runs per nine innings.
I remain a supporter of Jimmy Nelson, however. He’s shown the ability to adapt and evolve throughout his major league career, and he looks a lot different from the predominantly fastball-slider hurler that debuted back in 2013. He’s battling through some mechanical issues this season he’s still a hard-thrower with an excellent makeup who gives it his all to be his best.
Jimmy Nelson may not be a franchise cornerstone, but if he can iron out the problems with his mechanics he’s still a strong candidate to settle in as a dependable mid-rotation starter. At 27, perhaps there is still a chance that he can take that next step, as well. Nelson has another four years of club control after this season and won’t be a Super 2 player next year, so there’s no real rush to deal him now and it would feel like selling low on his untapped potential, anyway. At the very least, Nelson has established that he can be a competent and cost-controlled innings eater for the time being, and there’s plenty of value in that.
RHP Zach Davies
Davies entered this season as the club’s most advanced pitching prospect and their de facto “6th starter.” That role didn’t last long, however, as Matt Garza went on the DL before the season even began, prompting Davies’ mid-April promotion.
Since then, the 23 year old has been everything we hoped he’d be when the Brewers picked him up from Baltimore for Gerardo Parra - a steady, if unspectacular presence in the starting rotation. Zach’s stuff - an upper-80s fastball along with a bevy of offspeed pitches - doesn’t jump off the page, nor does his 4.22 ERA. He appears to have honed in his command, however, with just a 7.0% walk rate this season, and that will always be the biggest key to his success. His nine start stretch from May 4th through June 17th - where he posted a 2.40 ERA, 3.90 FIP, and 46:13 K/BB ratio in 56.1 innings - shows just how productive a “junkball” pitcher can be when he can command his pitches and change speeds effectively.
Zach entered this season with just 34 days of big league service time, meaning he’ll have another five seasons of club control after this season, through 2021, with the next two still around league minimum salary. He won’t ever be a frontline starter, but Zach Davies looks like he should be a productive member of the rotation for the next several years and is someone that the Brewers should hold on to.
RHP Junior Guerra
Who would’ve thought that a 31 year old rookie that was claimed on waivers before the season would become the Brewers’ best starting pitcher this year?
Juni G has been nothing short of a revelation for Milwaukee in 2016. After dominating the Nationals yesterday, his ERA now stands at 2.93 through 76.2 innings pitched. That figure is substantiated rather well by a 3.55 FIP and 3.32 DRA. Guerra is sporting a nifty 67:23 K/BB ratio along with a well above-average 10.5% infield fly ball rate and roughly league average 44.4% ground ball rate. No matter whose WAR calculation you prefer - Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, or Baseball Prospectus - Guerra has far and away been Milwaukee’s most valuable pitcher.
Detractors will point to his .236 BABIP and call it unsustainable. That’s probably true, and it’s quite likely he’s due for a little correction in that department. If the regression monster does bite, however, we shouldn’t expect his ERA to balloon all of a sudden. Guerra misses plenty enough bats (11% swinging strike rate) and has been able to limit the free passes (7.6% walk rate) and keep the ball in the ballpark (0.82 HR/9), so he should continue preventing runs at an above-average rate. He may not be able to keep up his “ace” pace, but Guerra’s 91 cFIP currently projects him to be 9% better than league average going forward.
I’ve discussed before how Guerra is a “young arm” in the grand scheme of things, so he doesn’t have the typical mileage one would expect with a 31 year old and could experience a different aging curve than another pitcher might expect. I’ve heard it said that the Brewers should move Guerra now for whatever they can get, which I don’t believe is logical at all. As much as I like Guerra, it’s tough to envision another organization giving up much more than a lower-level lottery ticket type player for a 31 year old with all of 12 major league starts, even without much in the way of a trade market for start pitchers this year.
If the Brewers REALLY want to move Guerra, it would be more beneficial to hold him through the rest of this season and give him the opportunity to prove that his work to this point is for real. That way he can establish a bit of a track record and they could ask for a legitimate prospect in return. With club control through 2021, however, including the next two seasons at the league minimum, I wouldn’t be in any rush to move the #2016BrewersAce at this time.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus