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Seizing Roles and Near-Term Contention with the Milwaukee Brewers

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Playoff baseball may not be as far away for the Brewers as some would have you believe.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images

This isn’t how a rebuild is supposed to go. A rebuilding organization is supposed to slowly purge its big league assets, trim down payroll, slog through several seasons of losing and non-competitive baseball with a skeleton roster while accruing top-5 draft picks, and then after maybe five or six years, a contender starts to take shape. That’s how the Cubs and Astros, the two most oft-cited rebuilding examples, went about their business.

Slingin’ David Stearns had other ideas, however. Instead of slowly shedding his movable pieces, Milwaukee’s GM has jettisoned 11 big league players in trade since taking over in October of 2015. Instead of filling out the roster with scrap heap veterans left over in free agency, Stearns took fliers on several younger, post-hype, second and third chance players with upside. As a result, the Milwaukee Nine played surprisingly competitive baseball this season. Many prognosticators pegged them to drop 100+ contests, but with five games remaining in the season the Brewers sit at 71-86, already three more wins than they had in all of 2015. If not for their 22-28 mark in one-run games or their 2-9 record in extra innings, the club might be sitting even lower on draft boards than their current 10th overall slot.

The 2016 Brewers had plenty of opportunities in both their pitching staff and starting lineup for some of Stearns’ aforementioned flyers to grab hold of. Some players, like Colin Walsh and Ramon Flores, flopped; they weren’t able to contribute enough to establish themselves as big leaguers and keep a roster spot. When you look up and down the roster, however, there are more than a dozen players who seized a role and thrived this season. Whether it’s as a regular player, a starting pitcher, a bench role or a bullpen arm, most of the roster has staked their claim to a spot in the big leagues next season. So let’s parse through the players who did well to establish themselves as major league contributors for 2017.

Infield:

1B Chris Carter
CC was non-tendered by Houston last winter, but landed on his feet by posting an .804 OPS with 38 home runs with Milwaukee in 2016. He’s below-average defensively and set the club’s strikeout record this year, but he’s a net positive overall with two more years of club control.

2016 Carter wRC+ - 108
2016 MLB average 1B - 107

2B/SS/3B Jonathan Villar
Another pickup from the Astros, the 25 year old finally made good on his considerable prospect promise in 2016. A .283/.368/.452 batting line will play no matter what position Villar is assigned to defensively, and he’s been a capable defender at three of them. He leads the league with 59 steals, has slugged 18 home runs, and has another four seasons of club control.

2016 Villar wRC+ - 117
2016 MLB average 2B - 101
2016 MLB average 3B - 106
2016 MLB average SS - 92

SS Orlando Arcia
Milwaukee’s most-hyped prospect this decade, Arcia got off to a slow start after being called up in August. He’ll never be an offensive force, but he’s shown that he’s capable of more than his current .616 OPS. He’s considered to be a potential Gold Glove player at shortstop, which is probably where he’ll draw most of his value from during his next six seasons of reserve control with Milwaukee.

2016 Arcia wRC+ - 60
2016 MLB average SS - 92

2B Scooter Gennett
Scooter did his best to shed the platoon-player label this season, batting .260 with an 86 wRC+ against lefties. He improved defensively at the keystone and bounced back nicely overall from a down season last year. Gennett has established himself as a roughly league-average starting second baseman during his four MLB seasons and showed some decent pop (92 wRC+, 14 HR) this season.

2016 Gennett wRC+ - 92
2016 MLB average 2B - 101

Outfield:

LF Ryan Braun
Braun was an outstanding player from 2007-2012, dealt with some injury issues (among other things) during 2013-14, and has had two outstanding seasons in 2015 and 2016. He reached 30 home runs this year for the sixth time in his career while playing solid defense after moving back to left field. He’s the anchor of the lineup and is under contract for another four years and $76 mil.

2016 Braun wRC+ - 135
2016 MLB average LF - 97

CF Keon Broxton
Keon bounced around with the D-Backs and Pirates before getting his first real shot in the MLB with Milwaukee. After struggling to start the season and getting sent back and forth to the minor leagues, Broxton made a mechanical adjustment with his swing and proceeded to earn a majority of the playing time in center before breaking his wrist (he’ll be healthy long before spring training). He posted a 110 wRC+ with 9 home runs and 23 steals in 75 games, which should firmly place him atop the center field depth chart heading into next spring. He’ll still have six seasons of club control thanks to his stints in AAA this year.

2016 Broxton wRC+ - 110
2016 MLB average CF - 96

RF Domingo Santana

The big right fielder missed several months with elbow and shoulder injuries this year, but a strong showing in September should merit a spot in the starting lineup for Domingo to begin next season. Thanks to his terrific performance of late since being eased back into the lineup, Santana now owns a .253/.354/.444 slash with 10 home runs in 72 games. He’ll have another five seasons under contract when 2017 begins.

2016 Santana wRC+ - 109
2016 MLB average RF - 102

Bench:

UTIL Hernan Perez
Perez got a pretty long look with the Brewers last year but wound up being non-tendered and brought back on a minor league contract. Injuries brought him back to the big leagues early on in the season and he’s thrived in a super-utility role. Perez has shown the ability to play passable defense at seven different positions this year (1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF), hit for average (despite limited walks), and has developed a little bit of home run power, to boot. He’s not an everyday-caliber player, but he could very well be the Swiss-Army knife type of player that every good team needs on their bench. He’ll have another four years of club control after this season.

2016 Perez wRC+ - 86

OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis

Kirk spent most of the beginning of his career with the Mets before getting claimed off waivers by Milwaukee this past winter. He strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for much of an average, but the recently-turned 29 year old showed a knack for drawing walks and above-average pop along with solid defense at all three outfield spots. 2016 has been the left-handed hitter’s most extensive opportunity in the big leagues (391 PA) and he responded by posting a solid 90 wRC+ with 13 home runs. He’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, but shouldn’t command a very large salary and seems likely to reprise his role as fourth outfielder next season.

2016 Nieuwenhuis wRC+ - 90

Starting Rotation:

RHP Junior Guerra
How much more can I gush about the #2016BrewersAce? He stormed the National League after debuting with Milwaukee on May 3rd and was unquestionably the Brewers’ best starting pitcher. He missed a month with what was described as a “precautionary” DL stint for a sore throwing elbow and was shut down after tossing nearly 150 innings between the MLB and AAA, a career-high. The 31 year old is perhaps the best candidate to be next year’s Opening Day starter and should be able to use his devastating splitter to shut down opposing lineups for the foreseeable future. He’ll be under contract for another five seasons starting in 2017.

2016 Guerra ERA/FIP - 2.81/3.70
2016 MLB average SP ERA/FIP - 4.35/4.31

RHP Zach Davies
Davies was a workhorse during his first full MLB season, starting 28 games and tossing 163.1 innings. He had some good stretches and some bad stretches, but such is the life of a pitcher who relies on changing speeds and commanding the baseball rather than overwhelming velocity. He’ll be 24 next season and with five years of control remaining, his best days may even be ahead of him. He looks like he’ll be a steady presence in the middle of the rotation going forward.

2016 Davies ERA/FIP - 3.97/3.89
2016 MLB average SP ERA/FIP - 4.35/4.31

Bullpen:

RHP Tyler Thornburg
Tyler has been terrific all season long, but he’s really been lights-out in the second half since taking over as closer following the trades of Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith. He’s missing bats at an incredible rate (11.83 K/9) and has allowed just one earned run in 22.0 innings since August 1st. Tyler is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter but looks to have locked himself into a high-leverage relief role after failing to stick as a starting pitcher.

2016 Thornburg ERA/FIP - 1.67/2.72
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99

RHP Carlos Torres
Another scrap-heap pickup, the Brewers signed Torres just days before the season began after he was released by the Braves late in spring training. The soon-to-be 34 year old wound up becoming a valuable piece in Craig Counsell’s bullpen, leading the club with 69 (nice) appearances and ranking first among Brewers’ relievers with 79.1 innings pitched. He has another two seasons of club control remaining and tendering him an arbitration contract shouldn’t be a tough decision for Milwaukee.

2016 Torres ERA/FIP - 2.84/3.87
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99

RHP Jacob Barnes
Barnes was a later-round draftee who made his big league debut this season and was surprisingly successful. He missed some time with injury but when he was on the mound, he used his high-octane fastball and devastating slider to prevent runs at a terrific rate during 25.0 big league innings. He’ll still have a full six seasons of club control entering 2017.

2016 Barnes ERA/FIP - 2.88/2.42
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99

RHP Jhan Marinez
Milwaukee purchased the contract of the well-traveled Marinez from Tampa Bay in mid-May and he has rewarded the club with 55.0 very strong innings out of the bullpen. Marinez finally wrangled control of his fastball/slider combination and limiting free passes allowed him to keep his spot in the bullpen all year long, even though he didn’t pitch a ton of high-leverage outings. The 28 year old will have another five seasons of club control remaining.

2016 Marinez ERA/FIP - 3.03/3.71
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99

LHP Brent Suter
Suter is a personal favorite of mine, and he’s been terrific out of the big league bullpen since making his big league debut in late August. It’s a small sample size, of course, but Suter has been quite successful as a swingman during his minor league career, as well. Every bullpen needs a lefty, and the Brewers could have found theirs for the next six years in Brent Suter.

2016 Suter ERA/FIP - 2.16/4.34
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99

RHP Tyler Cravy
The 26 year old debuted as a starter with the Brewers last season but didn’t have much success in that role. He’s been back and forth to the minor leagues this season, but he’s tossed 10 scoreless appearances (14.2 innings) since being recalled for the doubleheader against the Cubs on August 16th. Cravy may have finally found his niche with Milwaukee and should still have another six seasons of potential club control after spending significant time in AAA this year.

2016 Cravy ERA/FIP - 2.59/3.88
2016 MLB average RP ERA/FIP - 3.93/3.99


When Mark Attanasio said last weekend that the Brewers were “further along the continuum” towards competing, he was on to something. By my count, that’s 17 players who did well enough this season to earn themselves a place on Milwaukee’s active roster going forward. Even the positions that aren’t filled have a host of candidates who have had their share of bright spots this season. Behind the plate Martin Maldonado, Manny Pina, and Andrew Susac figure to do battle for the starting catcher spot next spring; in the starting rotation, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, and Jimmy Nelson have each had solid stretches this year and present Craig Counsell with a myriad of ways he can fill out his starting five.

Don’t let the brainwashed rebuild backers fool you - this team should be competitive next season with the core that is currently in place at the big league level. This doesn’t necessarily have to a five year - or longer - process of losing. David Stearns has brought in talented, controllable pieces all over the diamond and has a bevy of money to spend this winter should he choose to do so, although this year’s weak free agent market may not warrant such an investment. We shouldn’t expect to see playoff baseball in Milwaukee next season, but as things stand currently this looks like a potentially young, 80+ win ballclub on the rise.

And that’s before we even talk about what’s down in the minor leagues.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs