How has the face of your team changed over the last five years?
The network’s theme for this year’s MLB season previews is “the changing face of baseball” and few teams have seen as much change recently as the Milwaukee Brewers. Five springs ago, the team was coming off one of the most successful seasons in franchise history, winning 96 games and going all the way to the NLCS.
The Brewers had winning seasons in 2012 and 2014 but couldn’t quite get over the hump back into the playoffs, and when the bottom fell out during a 5-18 start in 2015 the club entered into a complete rebuild mode. Doug Melvin began the process by firing Ron Roenicke and installing Craig Counsell as his new field manager in May, and then dealing away the first wave of veterans during that summer. After Melvin moved into an advisory role following the season, the youthful David Stearns picked up right where he left off. Between the two general managers, the club has traded an entire 25-man roster’s worth of players - from blockbuster deals for Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy to smaller ones including players on the fringes of the roster like Jason Rogers or Luis Sardinas - in less than two calendar years, quickly stripping the payroll to one of the lowest levels in the league while rebuilding the farm system into one of baseball’s best.
The last time the Brewers underwent a rebuild project of this magnitude, it yielded stalwarts like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, JJ Hardy, Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, and Yovani Gallardo (among others) to form the core of those playoff-bound teams of 2008 and 2011. A top-flite farm system also allowed the team to go out and acquire CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, and Shawn Marcum to supplement to those postseason runs. Ryan Braun, now the team’s longest tenured player by a long-shot, stands alone as the last remaining connection to those playoff teams, and even he was reportedly nearly dealt to the Dodgers this past summer. Now that the tear down phase is essentially complete, Milwaukee will be a team in transition in 2017 as they continue to give chances to their young players to see which ones will become the core of the next run of successful Brewers’ teams.
To start the year at least, the Milwaukee Nine won’t look altogether too different from the team that was fielded during the end of last season. Ryan Braun returns to man left field with Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana patrolling center field and right field. Broxton and Santana were both terrific during about a half-season’s worth of games last year and offer similar, high-variance profiles. Both players are adept at taking walks and have brandished plus home run power, but both struck out in more than 30% of their plate appearances last season. Keon at least offers strong defense in center field should his offense crater, but Santana has graded out as a poor defender in right field thus far in his young career and will therefore have more pressure on him to produce value with his bat. Backing up at all three positions will be lefty Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who was solid in a 4th outfielder role last season and brought back on an arbitration deal. Super-utilityman Hernan Perez should also see some time in the outfield, as could Scooter Gennett, who is attempting to transition into more of a versatile role with the club after losing his grip on the second base job.
On the infield is where we’ll see a bit of change, with two new players manning the corners. Third baseman Travis Shaw was acquired from Boston as a part of the package for shutdown reliever Tyler Thornburg, and he’ll be looking to show his poor finish to last season was a fluke. He’s hit 29 home runs in just 778 MLB plate appearances and plays strong defense at the hot corner, so he should get every chance to prove he can handle the position everyday with Milwaukee. The club made their biggest splash of the winter at first base, cutting reigning NL home run champion Chris Carter and his 41 home runs loose in order to go out and sign Eric Thames to a three-year deal worth $16 mil. Thames put up pedestrian numbers during his first stint in the big leagues in 2011-12 (96 OPS+), but was downright Ruthian during a three year stint in the Korean Baseball Organization that saw him club 124 home runs with an 1.171 OPS and win the league’s MVP in 2015. The Brewers will be hoping that some of that production will translate back to the big leagues, and even if Thames can become an average regular or useful platoon bat at the cold corner then his contract will look like a bargain. Both left-handed hitters, Thames and Shaw will help provide balance to what has been a righty-heavy lineup in recent seasons.
Up the middle, Jonathan Villar returns hoping to build off his breakout campaign from a year ago. The switch-hitter posted an .826 OPS along with 19 home runs and a league-leading 62 stolen bases in 156 games last season and bet on himself to keep up that level of production when he reportedly spurned a $20 mil extension offer from the Brewers this past winter. Villar began last year at short but will be playing second base full-time to start this year, having made the shift to allow Orlando Arcia to become the regular shortstop. Long considered Milwaukee’s top prospect, the defensively gifted Arcia made his big league debut last season and struggled with the bat, managing only a .631 OPS across 55 games. He looked a little more comfortable by the end of last season, however, and he should get a long leash to start the year to prove he can be the long-term solution at the 6.
Milwaukee will be starting from scratch behind the plate after dealing away both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, who served as the catching tandem for the better part of the last five years. Manny Pina, Jett Bandy, and Andrew Susac were all acquired by Stearns in trades and are competing for two spots on the roster this spring, with Bandy and Pina appearing to hold the early lead while Susac has dealt with some injuries and a middling offensive performance. None of the trio has accomplished much of anything in the big leagues, and they all figure to receive a decent look at various points throughout the season until someone can seize the job with authority.
Lead by the unlikely duo of Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, the Brewers’ pitching staff was right in the middle of the National League last year with a 4.10 ERA. The arms got off to a slow start and it wasn’t until Guerra’s call-up in early May that things really began to stabilize. The #2016BrewersAce made 20 starts during his age-31 rookie season, posting a 2.81 ERA, 7.40 K/9, 3.81 BB/9, and a 45.3% ground ball rate in 121.2 innings pitched. He was mentioned in some trade rumors early on this past winter but never wound up being moved, and the club gave him a rather significant vote of confidence last week when they announced that Guerra would be getting the ball to start the season on Opening Day. Davies is the other member of the staff that was guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation after making 28 starts for Milwaukee last year and pitching 163.1 innings of 3.97 ERA ball. The diminutive righty doesn’t often get much past 90 MPH with his fastball, but he possesses an outstanding changeup and elite command that drive his success.
There’s an open competition for the three remaining spots in the starting rotation after those two. Matt Garza is making $12.5 mil this season in the final guaranteed year of the largely disappointing four-year deal he signed prior to the 2013 season. After a horrendous 2015, he was a roughly league-average starter during the 19 appearances he was healthy enough to make last year. Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta are both former top prospects who have failed to live up to expectations for the most part, and this could be a make-or-break season for both of their careers. Chase Anderson has been a dependable fifth starter for each of the last three seasons, but doesn’t offer much in the way of ceiling. Finally, Tommy Milone was signed to a non-guaranteed free agent deal this winter after struggling with Minnesota last year, but he does have a solid big league track record and being the lone lefty among the group may help his cause, as well.
The bullpen is largely in flux after Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tyler Thornburg were all dealt in 2016 and there will be spots up for grabs this season. Neftali Feliz was signed to a one-year deal as a free agent after a successful season in Pittsburgh last year and will likely begin the year as the closer. Carlos Torres was indispensable last year while leading the ‘pen with 72 appearances and 82.1 innings pitched while posting a 2.73 ERA, and Jacob Barnes posted a 2.70 mark during his first partial season in the big leagues. Corey Knebel struggled a bit last year but should also have a spot mostly sewn up, as well. Beyond that group, a myriad of arms will be competing for the final few spots, including: the losers of the starting rotation battle, Jhan Marinez, Michael Blazek, Tyler Cravy, Taylor Jungmann, Brent Suter, Rob Scahill, David Goforth, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Oliver, and Ryan Webb.
On the Farm
As previously mentioned, the Brewers have what is considered to be one of the top farm systems around baseball, no matter which outlet you prefer. There’s a good chance that we could see several of those players in Milwaukee this season, starting with Milwaukee’s top position prospect in outfielder Lewis Brinson (#18 overall according to the MLB Pipeline top 100) and top pitching prospect in lefty Josh Hader (#38). Right-handers Brandon Woodruff and Jorge Lopez could also be called upon this year, as could positional prospects like Mauricio Dubon, Brett Phillips, Ryan Cordell, and Michael Reed. Further on down the line, Corey Ray, Luis Ortiz, Isan Diaz, Trent Clark, and Lucas Erceg figure to be important players whose development will be worth keeping an eye on.
The Milwaukee Brewers are a team in transition. They’ve already dealt away most of the recognizable players on the roster and in the process, have stuffed their system with a large group of promising talent. Many of those players will get a shot to prove themselves at the MLB level this year as Milwaukee tries to determine which ones will be worth building around as they move forward. There could be growing pains this year as Milwaukee works to identify the new “faces of the franchise” that we’ll be talking about five years from now. Overall, however, the team should be a solid bet to improve on their 73 win total from last season.
Predicted Record: 77-85
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs