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Buying at the trade deadline doesn’t mean “mortgaging the future” of the Milwaukee Brewers

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The moves executed by Milwaukee over the last few years have put them in enviable position this summer.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When the Milwaukee Brewers take the field at Miller Park tonight against the Phillies to begin the second half of the 2017 MLB regular season, they’ll do so with a 5.5 game lead in the National League Central. That obviously didn’t sit too well with the reigning world champion Chicago Cubs, who yesterday went out and made a blockbuster deal with the crosstown White Sox to bring Jose Quintana into the fold.

The Brewers don’t appear to be content with resting on their laurels prior to this year’s trade deadline and are reportedly planning on being buyers. In fact, Milwaukee was one of a few other teams that were said to be involved in conversations regarding Quintana before he wound up going to the Cubs. When the deal was announced and the prospect package that the Cubs gave up was revealed, however, a collective gasp went up from the fans around Milwaukee. Headlining the deal was one of the league’s top prospects, outfielder Eloy Jimenez, along with top-100 arm Dylan Cease and lesser pieces in Matt Rose and Bryant Flete. When Adam McCalvy tried to come up with a comparable package from Milwaukee’s system, #BrewersTwitter went into a collective frenzy:

For those that are opposed to Milwaukee making any significant trades this summer, the phrase “We can’t mortgage the future!” has become a rallying cry. If the interactions that BCB have been getting on Facebook and Twitter are any indication, most fans are not in favor of dealing away prospects in an effort to make the playoffs this season.

If reports are true, however, it does not appear as though David Stearns and the Brewers’ front office are in agreement with those fans. According to Bob Nightengale, the Cubs “thwarted” Milwaukee’s “aggressive attempt” to acquire Jose Quintana. Per Jon Heyman, the Brewers are planning to be buyers at the trade deadline this summer. As Adam McCalvy noted in his latest mailbag, Slingin’ Stearns has said that he is open to any moves that make the organization in the near-term and long-term. “I'm pretty sure we should believe him,” the Brewers’ beat writer quipped.

Milwaukee’s young GM appears to be ready to begin moving some of the prized prospects from within the top-flite farm system that he (and Doug Melvin) worked to assemble over the last few seasons. The caveat, of course, is that Stearns will reportedly only consider targeting players with multiple seasons of control. That mindset is what will prevent Milwaukee from “mortgaging the future” even if the franchise does make a blockbuster trade sometime in the next few weeks.

It feels like, as fans, this “rebuild” has skewed our mindset quite a bit. We were conditioned to believe that a rebuild has to take something like five years, because the Cubs and Astros went through extended periods of losing. We were constantly bombarded with messages that the organization won’t be, can’t possibly be competitive until 2019 or 2020.

Look folks, whether you like it or not, the Brewers are competitive right now. It may not be when you expected or with the players you expected, but the Milwaukee Brewers are the best team in the National League Central this season. 2014 aside, history says that in the Wild Card era, 70% of the teams that were leading their division at the All-Star break have gone on to make the playoffs. As of today, Baseball Prospectus gives Milwaukee 52% odds of making the playoffs, 12% better than the Cubs. A rebuild is over when it’s over, and the Brewers have any more of those obvious trade candidates on their MLB roster. What’s left is a starting lineup and pitching staff full of talented, controllable players, one of the top minor league systems in baseball, and a window that has begun to open. Our old friend Kyle Lobner may have put it best in his recent Shepherd Express article when he said that this year might be Milwaukee Nine’s best chance for a deep postseason run.

As Jaymes wrote yesterday, Stearns and co. needn’t feel pressured to respond to the move made by Chicago, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t make a move that he feels will strengthens his club this year and years in the future. The most prominent starter remaining on the market is Sonny Gray, another player that the Brewers have been linked to. At first blush, Gray’s 4.00 ERA this season may not seem all that impressive. But looking a little deeper, his 3.19 Deserved Run Average (66 DRA-, 34% better than league average), 23% strikeout rate, and 11.5% swinging strike rate all support the fact that he’s pitched at a high level this season and has moved beyond the struggles he dealt with during an injury plagued 2016. Gray is a player who not only should definitely improve this year’s starting rotation, but also gives Milwaukee a top-of-the-rotation starter for what ought to be a competitive 2018 and 2019 at below-market arbitration salaries, as well. And if Milwaukee winds up going in the tank next season, well then Gray becomes a trade candidate much the same as Zack Greinke was in 2012.

Even if trading for Gray requires the same level of package that Jose Quintana required, the one that McCalvy suggested, Milwaukee’s farm system is in an excellent position to be able to absorb those losses. Using MLB Pipeline’s prospect list for reference, subtracting Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz would still leave Milwaukee with 3 other top-100 prospects - Corey Ray, Josh Hader, and Isan Diaz. Lest we forget just how deep Milwaukee’s farm system is, the Brewers would still have 11 other players outside the top-100 rankings that project as average regulars or better: Trent Clark, Lucas Erceg, Brandon Woodruff, Mauricio Dubon, Brett Phillips, Marcos Diplan, Phil Bickford, Jorge Lopez, Jacob Nottingham, Cody Ponce, and Ryan Cordell. Even beyond those players, there are breakout prospects like Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, Monte Harrison, Jake Gatewood, Mario Feliciano, and Trey Supak (among others). Pipeline’s top 30 doesn’t even include players like Keston Hiura and Tristen Lutz from the 2017 draft class, yet! Even taking away two premium prospects like Brinson and Ortiz would leave Milwaukee with a farm system that would easily rank in the top half of the league, if not in the top 10 overall.

The bottom line is this: the Brewers have the ability to make an impact addition at the trade deadline this year without it “mortgaging the future.” Every key player on the big league roster is under control for multiple seasons, which softens the blow of possibly tapping into the minor league reserves. The overall strength of the farm system softens the blow of losing one or two highly-rated players in order to further supplement the current contending core at the big league level. And given the controllable nature of the major league roster, Stearns should have no trouble replenishing the minor league pipeline next year if for some reason the endures a sudden, unforeseen regression.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I would be in favor of Milwaukee getting into a bidding war over any available players. One may in fact be brewing over Sonny Gray, if reports that the Cubs remain in pursuit even after the Quintana trade are true. But David Stearns has proven to be a shrewd general manager during his brief tenure, making moves only when he believes he is getting requisite value in return. No matter whether he stands pat, makes only minor additions, or goes lands a big fish on the trade market, there isn’t really a wrong direction that the Brewers can go in the coming weeks before July 31.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs