The Milwaukee Brewers weren't sellers at this year's MLB Trade Deadline. A couple of minor deals for relief pitchers notwithstanding, they weren't really buyers, either - though not necessarily due to a lack of trying.
That has plenty of people calling the Brewers a deadline loser, the idea being that since the Brewers were mentioned a whole lot in rumors over the past couple weeks and only came away with Anthony Swarzak and Jeremy Jeffress, they were a disappointment.
While these are largely the same people who believe the Chicago Cubs to be some unstoppable juggernaut now that they're 8 games over .500, they're still criticizing the Brewers for not Going For It while the opportunity is there. This mentality that those near the top of divisions have to DO SOMETHING on July 31st or risk being labeled as lame tends to overlook long-term goals -- and very recent history.
Let's take a look at two situations that were very similar to the 2017 Brewers at their respective deadlines, the two different approaches and how the ended up playing out.
What The Hell, Let's Get Weird - The 2015 Houston Astros
This might be the most recent example of a young team contending a couple years before they were expected to be any good. After losing 92 games the year before, the ‘15 Astros found themselves leading the AL West from mid-April to mid-July. With one of the best farm systems in the game, they were well-equipped to make a major acquisition or two that would not only help in that year's pennant race, but the next couple years when they were expecting to make the leap from Pretty Good to Really Good.
That front office -- which included current Brewers general manager David Stearns -- decided to roll the dice. After seeing their division lead erode following a stretch in which they lost 9 of 11 (sound familiar?), they made their first deal shortly after on July 23rd, bringing in Scott Kazmir from Oakland in exchange for Jacob Nottingham (who Stearns would later re-acquire with the Brewers) and Daniel Mengden.
Kazmir had a 2.38 ERA and 164 ERA+ in 18 starts with the A's that year and was coming off an All-Star season the year before. He was a pure rental, but a veteran pitcher having a phenomenal year that figured to shore up the Astros' rotation for the stretch run. He ended up being pretty average, and even the success was the result of being more lucky than good -- he had an ERA of 4.17 in 13 starts, but his FIP was a full run higher at 5.19. Moving from the spacious Coliseum in Oakland to the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park, he gave up 13 home runs in those 13 starts. He was far from the steady veteran they thought they were getting.
A week after the Kazmir deal, the Astros made their big splash, agreeing to the trade that effectively helped put the Brewers in a similar situation just a couple years later -- Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips and Adrian Houser for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. It was considered a lot for the Astros to give up at the time, but the idea behind the deal was similar to what the Brewers were potentially looking at with Sonny Gray this year -- talent that would be controllable beyond that season, hopefully bridging the gap between the surprise year and the time they were "supposed to" start contending, effectively opening that window a little more.
As we now know, that trade ended up being a dumpster fire from Houston’s perspective. The Mets' medical staff, for as much flak as they get, ended up being right this time around -- Gomez was terrible for the Astros for the remainder of 2015, hitting .242/.288/.383 in 41 games, and was even worse the next year while he tried to play through problems with his hip. A little more than a year after the deal, Houston straight up released Gomez.
The Astros were generally regarded as Winners after that year's trade deadline because of those two prospect-laden deals. They proceeded to go 28-30 over the last two months of the season, squeaking into the playoffs as a wildcard at 86-76. They won the Wildcard Game against the Yankees, thanks to a gem from eventual Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, but lost in the division series to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals. The next year, when Gomez was also supposed to help, they took a step back, finishing in third place and missing the playoffs altogether.
They’re finally breaking through this year to become one of the best teams in the league, but they possibly could’ve been even better if they still had Santana and his 124 OPS+ in the lineup (either in left field or at DH) and Hader coming out of the bullpen.
Fix Some Holes and Wait - The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates
2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the last time the Pirates had a winning record, let alone reached playoffs. After spending much of the first half hovering around a game or two behind the division leader in an unexpectedly poor NL Central (again, sound familiar?), the Pirates actually took a division lead into the All-Star break, leading the Cincinnati Reds by a game.
With the division there for the taking -- and an added fervor after two decades of losing -- there was a lot of pressure on Neil Huntington to use the prospect depth he had accumulated to put the Bucs over the top. At this point, the Pirates had built up their farm to a borderline Top 10 system. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Starling Marte were the top four prospects in the organization, but the system also had future big leaguers in Robbie Grossman, Jeff Locke and Jordy Mercer.
Andrew McCutchen was breaking out as a legitimate superstar that year, and the big league lineup also featured a young power threat in Pedro Alvarez and an offensive threat at second base in Neil Walker, but the team desperately needed some more pop -- specifically at first base, where they were playing Casey McGehee, who ended up putting up a .674 OPS that year. Outside of A.J. Burnett, the Pirates also didn't have much in their starting rotation. They were essentially riding a shutdown bullpen to a bunch of close victories and had some clear needs if they were going to contend down the stretch.
Instead, Huntington refused to dramatically change his plan. Cole and Taillon were unequivocally untouchable. Bell and Marte were also near-impossible gets. That was going to be his core going forward, and he wasn't about to give it up for a single year.
That's not to say he didn't try to patch holes and improve the club.
On July 24th, the Pirates sent Grossman to the Astros as part of a package for Wandy Rodriguez. They traded Brad Lincoln to Toronto in a buy-low deal on fallen prospect Travis Snider. On deadline day, they sent Gorkys Hernandez to Miami for first baseman Gaby Sanchez and sent McGehee to the Yankees for reliever Chad Qualls.
They were sensible, temporary fixes for problems the team was having that year. With any (more) luck, it would be enough to keep the wins coming, but contending in 2012 was never a priority. The Pirates actually got pretty good reviews for their deadline moves that year while the Reds didn't do much and teams like the Brewers were blowing things up. At the very worst, at 15 games over .500 at the deadline, it looked like their first winning season in 20 years was a given.
Well, it ended up being a good thing the Pirates didn't push the Cole and Taillon chips to the middle of the table. They went 11-17 in August and then, in one of the most spectacular collapses in recent memory (that don't include the 2014 Brewers), they went 7-21 in September. After being 16 games over .500 on August 8th, the Pirates again finished with a losing record at 79-83.
It was disappointing, but there would be better days ahead, and Huntington's refusal to trade his biggest prospects turned out pretty well -- backed by the debut of Cole and a full season of Marte, the 2013 Pirates won 94 games, beating the Reds in the Wildcard Game and taking the eventual NL Champion Cardinals to 5 games in the NLDS. The 2014 Pirates won 88 games, again grabbing a wildcard spot before running into God Mode Madison Bumgarner. The 2015 Pirates won 98 games.
Of course, if you're in the "Every Season That Doesn't Win a Title is a Failure" camp, you'll probably bring up the fact that keeping Cole, Taillon, Marte and Bell didn't even net the Pirates a division title, let alone a league pennant or World Series championship. That's probably a little harsh in my view -- they ran into some historic performances in the playoffs during that stretch -- but yes, still true.
The point here, though: in very recent history, two organizations in very similar positions to where the Brewers find themselves this year took two very different approaches. In the year those teams were faced with those decisions, neither approach really "worked" -- the 2012 Pirates collapsed and the 2015 Astros made the playoffs despite Carlos Gomez rather than because of him and came up short. There are no guarantees in baseball, but the Pirates staying the course led to more prolonged success than they've seen in 20+ years.
Given everything David Stearns has said this year during the unexpected success of the first half, that's ultimately his goal: win as many big league games as possible for as long as possible, with eyes on many of those wins coming in October. Any national headlines saying the Brewers "lost" this deadline (before any games are actually played post-deadline) loses sight of that -- and the fact that Stearns might have learned the perils of jumping in before you're ready firsthand as part of that 2015 Houston front office. We'll see how this ends up playing out for the Brewers, but it's simply way too early to pass judgment on their deadline approach.
Statistics and transaction records courtesy of Baseball-Reference