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Stay the course: the Milwaukee Brewers should continue the rebuild

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2017 was just a step in the process.

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Don’t get greedy, Slinger!
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers season was one of exceeding expectations. Most major projections had the team winning around 75 games, give or take, and even the more optimistic fans on BCB were looking for a .500 season. Instead, the team won 86 games, leading the NL Central Division at the All-Star break by five games, and competed for a Wild Card spot to the bitter end before ultimately coming up just short of the postseason.

The season wasn’t really a fluke. Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem for baseball projects that the Brewers should have won 85 games. Interestingly, the theorem projects that the Yankees should have won 102 games. So does that make Joe Girardi the worst manager in baseball, as they only won 91? In that case, Andy Green would be the best - the San Diego Padres should have won 57 games, but came in with 71!

The expectation is that after their success in 2017, the Brewers will escalate their time table for their rebuild and add veteran help for the upcoming season in a quest to compete for the division title and/or a Wild Card spot. My thought, after reflection and a few weeks removal from the end of the season, is that GM David Stearns should toss this season’s results out the window and proceed with the re-structuring of the team as if the Brewers had come in with their projected 75 win season.

I don’t know what David Stearns’ overall plan for the rebuild is. For all I know, this past season may have not been a shock to him at all, although his on-air comments during Brewer games this year sound as if he and principal owner Mark Attanasio were pleasantly surprised by their success. The Brewers were reportedly active in attempting to acquire a starting pitcher for the stretch drive, making sincere efforts to bring aboard both Sonny Gray from Oakland and Jose Quintana from the White Sox. Gray eventually went to the Yankees, while Quintana joined the Cubs. The sticking point was reportedly that Stearns wouldn’t part with top hitting prospect Lewis Brinson for Gray or top pitching prospect Josh Hader for Quintana.

Those two decisions lead me to believe that Stearns is building for the long-term success of the team. He has set prices that he will pay (at this point) to improve the squad over the short term, and will not step beyond that. The acquisitions the team made - reliever Anthony Swarzak from the White Sox, infielder Neil Walker from the Mets, and Jeremy Jeffress from Texas - didn’t cost the team much in the grand scheme of things. Ryan Cordell, a 25 year old AAA outfielder who had two same-level players ahead of him on the team’s prospect list and several lower-level outfielders projected as better prospects, went to Chicago for Swarzak. A player to be named went to New York for Walker and cash, and that player wound up being 23 year old high-A reliever Eric Hanhold. For Jeffress, Milwaukee sent Tayler Scott to Texas, a 25 year old AA reliever that they signed out of independent ball last summer.

Two of those acquisitions were for players that would be free agents after the 2017 season, and both trades were successful - Swarzak solidified the Brewers’ seventh and eighth inning relief corps, and Walker made solid contributions at second base and at the plate. It is reasonable to believe that the Brewers would have been out of the Wild Card race a week sooner if those moves hadn’t been made.

That’s a responsible cost for a run at the Wild Card. Perhaps they would have won the Wild Card with the addition of Gray or Quintana - there is no guarantee of that, of course - but they would have lost either their top hitting prospect or top pitching prospect. Indeed, the loss of Hader would have probably kept the Brewers out of the spot all by itself. His second half performance out of the pen was a huge piece of their run for the playoffs.

Both Walker and Swarzak could be targets for the team in free agency. Jaymes gave us a good rundown on the projected costs and contract details to re-sign Walker. Swarzak had a very good season and this may be the best chance he ever has to score a multiyear free agent deal, but teams are often leery of 32 year old relievers who just had their best season ever (and by a lot). It isn’t that the Brewers couldn’t afford either one - or both.

Their payroll is such that there is room for addition. Payroll will rise due to arbitration estimates, but that won’t be significant, let alone crippling. Taking the outgoing free agent into consideration, Milwaukee’s payroll projects to be around $60 mil in 2018 if they simply bring back the players they have under control. But given Stearns’ conservative approach to high-dollar, long-term free agents so far, my guess is that another team will offer more money and/or years than the Brewers are willing to spend at this time on either player. If I were to pick one as more likely to be back, it would be Swarzak.

I imagine the Brewers had a win range expectancy for 2017, and already had one in place for 2018 and beyond, as part of their plan. The final record for 2017 was more than likely at the top end of that projection, but I don’t believe that it will change their projection for 2018. Indeed, the end of the season might actually give the team cause to be a bit negative in their projections for next season - mainly because of the injury to Jimmy Nelson.

Nelson was in the midst of his break-out season when he injured his pitching shoulder diving back into first base on Sept. 8th, and surgery in mid-September was on the more extensive side of the “hope” spectrum. Nelson will miss “a chunk” of the 2018 season while he recovers and rehabs. This is a huge blow to the construction of the rotation for (at least) next season. His return to full effectiveness from the surgery is by no means a guarantee.

There are two solid starters on the roster for next season. One, Zach Davies, seems to have shown over the last two seasons exactly what he will be - he seems to be a solid third starter that will keep the team in games most of the time. He fields his position well, is adept at the plate, and has very good baseball instincts. Chase Anderson also had a break-out season as a starter for the Brewers despite missing nearly two months with an oblique injury. Anderson finished the season with a 2.74 ERA (with an FIP of 3.58) and 1.09 WHIP in 25 starts.

Those are excellent numbers for Anderson. I would expect some regression from him next year, but still look for a #2 or #3 level starter. Beyond those two, the Brewers will have Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, and some minor league arms available to fill out the remaining spots. It is possible that they can build a contending rotation from that group if a couple of those arms pitch at their ceilings, but in reality that seems unlikely to me.

That leaves trading for starting pitching or signing a free agent. Given the asking prices at the trade deadline for pitchers that would be upgrades, and the Brewers’ reluctance to send off top prospects for them, an upgrade via trade is unlikely. Free agent pitchers that might help will draw expensive multiyear deals that could weigh down the Brewers’ efforts to contend in future seasons. It is more likely that the team will sign pitchers looking to come back from injury, or formerly successful pitchers available on “prove it” deals, than go the sign-an-ace route at this juncture of the rebuild.

The bullpen has a few reliable arms, but beyond that there are several average pitchers that may need to be augmented. It would be hard to see improvement from Corey Knebel at closer, but a similar season would be just fine. It seems that Hader will be back out in the pen, and he could contribute a lot in his unique role as multi-inning fireman. Jared Hughes, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jacob Barnes will likely reprise their relief roles next season.

There could be some expectation of improvement at the plate next year, but it may be minimal. Milwaukee scored the tenth-most runs in the NL last season, and most of their success came in the first half. The top opportunities for growth come from centerfield and second base. If the team elects to go with Brinson and Brett Phillips instead of Keon Broxton, they could see improvement both at the plate and defensively. Second base remains an issue. As I don’t expect Walker to return, the job would seem to be Jonathan Villar’s to lose. He has shown that he can hit at various points in his career, and despite his poor numbers on the whole last season his second half was at least mildly encouraging. He will be a reasonably affordable player for the next several seasons - so long as he can produce anywhere close to his 2016 season at the plate.

Elsewhere, I don’t see much improvement coming offensively. Domingo Santana could continue his growth as a budding force at the plate against major league pitchers, but even just a repeat of his 2017 numbers would be quite welcome. Ryan Braun will be another year older. Travis Shaw had a fine season at the plate, but it is quite likely that this is his ceiling. There could be regression at the plate from Orlando Arcia after an up-and-down first full season in the big leagues. Should the Brewers return with Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar at first I’d expect more or less the same results there. I enjoyed Manny Pina’s season (a breakout in it’s own right), but I don’t see opportunity for growth there.

Perhaps the Brewers view this differently than I do. They may expect more growth from their hitters, and have higher grades on their minor league starters. There is room to grow the payroll to augment the roster. But another season of developing the youngsters, giving them room to grow into major league players, and maybe dealing away some players to continue stocking the system with talen looks like the way to go to me.

Who knows, maybe that growth that comes from playing the kids might be enough for a playoff spot without giving up anything from the future.