With this talent base, the Brewers were one game from the playoffs in 2017, when they weren’t even really trying to contend. With a couple of big moves this winter, they could set themselves up for playoff pushes in each of the next few years. Mark Attanasio has money to spend this winter. Let’s use it.
Arbitration-eligible (with projected salaries from MLBTR):
Jared Hughes - $2.2 mil - Tender
Jeremy Jeffress - $2.6 mil - Tender
Stephen Vogt - $3.9 mil - Non-Tender
Jonathan Villar - $3.0 mil - Tender
Jimmy Nelson - $4.7 mil - Tender
Hernan Perez - $2.2 mil - Tender
Corey Knebel - $4.1 mil - Tender
As I brought up in the Tender/Non-Tender piece for Vogt, he brought some left-handed pop to the lineup and helped solidify the catching position when injuries took their toll. However, he proved to be a liability when it came to throwing out runners and didn't hit consistently outside of the home run binge. With him being 33 next year, the Brewers should move forward with Manny Pina as the starter, giving Jett Bandy and Andrew Susac an extended chance to hold down the backup job.
The rest can be kept at least until the end of camp and can be let go at a portion of the cost or traded later.
Impending free agents (re-sign, let go or qualifying offer)
Neil Walker: Let Go.
He probably won't be able to match the $17 million he made last year as a qualifying offer guy, but he'll probably find a deal guaranteeing him more years than the Brewers are comfortable giving someone who will be 32 next year. If he gets an offer similar to what Justin Turner (4 years, $64 million) or Ian Desmond (5 years, $70 million) got last year, this will be an easy decision to let him walk.
Anthony Swarzak: Re-sign.
He'll cost significantly more than the $900,000 he made in 2017, and if you bring him back on a multiyear deal you're taking a gamble that his one year of success was real. I'd prefer to get him back on a 1- or 2-year deal, but it'll usually take 3 years to get a free agent pitcher to sign. If the Brewers could sign him for something like 3 years and $15 million, that would be a solid deal and keep the Brewers have having to depend on Jacob Barnes in the 8th inning.
Matt Garza: lol no.
Jake Arrieta - 4 years, $105MM (with money deferred on the back end)
Consider this the Mark Attanasio allowance to make a push to get to the next level without jeopardizing the longterm plan. It'd be the biggest free agent signing in franchise history and would certainly carry significant risk considering Arrieta's injury history, but could also give the team a legitimate frontline starter.
There might be some concern about Arrieta's declining numbers since winning the Cy Young -- especially some of his performances in 2017 -- but there wasn't a better pitcher in baseball in the second half of the season, when he had a 2.28 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break.
Pat Neshek - 2 years, $15MM
Neshek will be 37 next year, but pitches in a way that still makes him an tough and effective reliever. He was an All-Star this past year, putting up a 1.59 ERA in 71 games for the Phillies and Rockies. Imagine a bullpen where Neshek can mow down tough right-handed portions of opposing lineups, with Josh Hader doing the same on the other side. This would also be a homecoming to end a career in a way, as Neshek was born in Madison.
Brewers trade Lewis Brinson, Corbin Burnes, Luis Ortiz and Isan Diaz to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer and Ryne Stanek
This will feel like a lot, but is a high-end talent on an absurdly team-friendly contract for the next four seasons with team options for the last two years. He'll make $6.4 million in 2018 and $7.6 million in 2019 before the team options for $9 million in 2020 and $11 million in 2021. For that, you get star-level strikeout rates (K/9s of 10.7, 10.4 and 11.1 the past three years) and 200 innings. He does struggle with home runs, but a move to the National League may help with that.
Stanek is a former first-round pick who ranks 21st among the Rays' top prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. He's 26 already, but has potential to be an impact reliever with an above-average slider and a 70-grade fastball that sits in the high 90s.
The Brewers' outfield logjam is one that will likely be resolved with some sort of trade this offseason, and while it's difficult to give up someone with 30/30 potential like Brinson, Brett Phillips showed enough during his time in the majors in 2017 that the Brewers might be willing to part with Brinson in a blockbuster trade like this. As good as Brinson could be, he's also had trouble staying on the field, so it may be wise for the Brewers to sell high.
Giving up both Burnes and Ortiz is hard, this is also about maximizing value. While Burnes dominated every level this past season, Brandon Woodruff had a similarly impressive year in 2016 before coming back down to earth (although he did end up making his big league debut). I've never been sold on Ortiz being an above-average starter despite the stuff due to conditioning concerns.
Diaz is a personal favorite prospect of mine, but he lost some prospect luster in the past year and was effectively leapfrogged by Keston Hiura in the organizational depth chart.
C - Manny Pina / Jett Bandy
1B - Eric Thames / Jesus Aguilar
2B - Jonathan Villar / Eric Sogard
SS - Orlando Arcia
3B - Travis Shaw
LF - Ryan Braun
CF - Brett Phillips / Keon Broxton
RF - Domingo Santana
UTIL - Hernan Perez
SP - Jake Arrieta
SP - Chris Archer
SP - Chase Anderson
SP - Zach Davies
SP - Brandon Woodruff
RP - Corey Knebel
RP - Anthony Swarzak
RP - Josh Hader
RP - Pat Neshek
RP - Jacob Barnes
RP - Jared Hughes
RP - Jeremy Jeffress
Projected 2018 Payroll
Starting Projection - $61 million
+ Jake Arrieta ($26.5 million)
+ Pat Neshek ($7.5 million)
+ Chris Archer ($6.4 million)
+ Anthony Swarzak ($5 million)
Total: $106.4 million
Admittedly, we didn't do much here to improve an offense that was extremely hot and cold in 2017. That's part of fielding such a young team, though, and there's hope that continued growth from guys like Orlando Arcia, Domingo Santana, and Brett Phillips will help solidify things.
Instead, we focus on run prevention. Keeping Swarzak and adding Neshek to Corey Knebel and Josh Hader should hopefully avoid those late-inning collapses that cost the Brewers so many games in 2017. The addition of Neshek also allows Jacob Barnes, Jared Hughes and Jeremy Jeffress to move down a slot in the bullpen pecking order, and means there are solid relief options up and down that depth chart.
Adding Arrieta and Archer would, in theory, give the Brewers one of the best 1-2 punches at the top of the rotation in the division. Just like the bullpen, those additions also allow everyone else to slot down a spot or two. If Chase Anderson pitches like he did last year, there aren't many "#3" starters that are better. Davies is more appropriately slotted as the #4, and Woodruff can be a very good 5th starter.
The Brewers plan to have Jimmy Nelson back sometime in the second half of the season, but with no guarantee he reaches the levels he got to before the injury, this plan is an attempt to make sure the Brewers stay in the postseason race even if Nelson's recovery doesn't go as planned. If it does, you could do a lot worse for a 4th starter.
While this is designed to capitalize on the unexpected success of 2017 and make a bigger push in the next couple years, this plan also doesn't throw the longterm big picture out the window, either. Archer would be in town for four years, and even with the prospects dealt away, more are climbing up the ranks. While the Brewers would lose Brinson, Monte Harrison is climbing up the ranks and Tristen Lutz also has the potential to hit it big. Woodruff still factors into the future plans, and Freddy Peralta had a breakout year on the mound. There's enough talent in the farm system to make a trade like the Archer proposal and still have enough left over to keep the waves of prospects going into the future.