We have been saying for a while now on these pages that the Milwaukee Brewers’ rebuild is over. Really, one could argue that it was complete following the 2016 season, as the Brewers had already traded away nearly an entire roster’s worth of players for prospects by that time. The outline of a competitive ball club had begun to take shape. The only major trade David Stearns and company pulled during the 2016-17 offseason was sending Tyler Thornburg to Boston, and one can’t really classify that as a pure rebuilding trade since in addition to prospects, Milwaukee also got their starting third baseman - Travis Shaw - in return.
Supporting evidence that the rebuild was over continued to develop during the 2017 regular season. The club spent a good chunk of the season in first place and despite being just two seasons removed from winning 68 games and starting the rebuild, Stearns was already getting involved in the trade market for significant upgrades. The club was linked the top starting pitchers available - Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Justin Verlander - and though they didn’t wind up landing any of those big names, the team did depart with a few prospects to acquire major upgrades in Anthony Swarzak and Neil Walker. Both of those players were rentals and while the cost was relatively modest, the moves marked the first clear departure from the steadfast “acquire, develop, and retain” mantra adopted by Stearns and company in regards to their young talent.
The Brewers won 86 games in 2017 and narrowly missed a postseason berth, falling one game short of qualifying for the Wild Card. But the perfect storm was developing for Milwaukee to really start pushing towards competitiveness during the 2017-18 offseason. The club entered the winter with one of the top farm systems in the league, an embarrassment of talent up and down their minor league affiliates. Almost the entire Major League roster was set to return for 2018, and most of the team is under control for multiple years beyond that. The talented and controllable group of players that were returning projected to cost the team only around $60 mil in payroll, and after spending the previous two years at roughly that level, there was plenty of money available for the team to spend on upgrading the roster. Finally, the National League as a whole looks like it will be a weak competitively in 2018; with a good chunk of the league rebuilding, there may only be seven or eight teams truly competing for a playoff spot next season.
Recognizing this confluence of factors, management met with owner Mark Attanasio in October following the regular season and decided that “2018 was just as important as 2020” and that now was the right time for the Brewers to begin making big moves. Though it was slow going for the first several months of the winter, Stearns continued to assure fans and talking heads around Milwaukee that he was involved in talks on a number of fronts in both free agency and on the trade market. The modest additions of Yovani Gallardo, Jhoulys Chacin, and Boone Logan briefly sated our appetite for transactions, but ultimately left most of the faithful hungry for more. And within about a 90 minute span on January 25th, the main course was served.
First, word broke that Milwaukee was sending four prospects to Miami in exchange for Christian Yelich. The cost was steep - Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, and Isan Diaz all ranked in the club’s top-10 prospects, and Jordan Yamamoto was one of David Stearns’ personal favorites within the system. But Yelich is a star player right now, a 26 year old with five years of remaining control who has averaged about 4 WAR per year since debuting in the big leagues in 2013. Then, while we were still trying to wrap our heads around that move, news leaked that Lorenzo Cain was being inked to a five-year deal. Cain, a former Brewer, had spent parts of the previous seven seasons with the Royals, generating over 25 Wins Above Replacement and helping to win a World Series while representing Kansas City. Both moves had been building toward completion for months, but they wound up getting over the finish line on the same day. All of a sudden, the Brewers had shipped away four top prospects, added two stud MLB players and some $130 mil in future payroll commitments, and loudly announced themselves as contenders in 2018 and going forward.
There’s no reason to think that the team is done adding for the upcoming season, either. Pitching remains their top target. All four of the best free agent starters are still available and each of the quartet - Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn - have been linked to Milwaukee throughout the offseason. Even after last week’s moves, Mark Attanasio assured fans at yesterday’s ‘Brewers On Deck’ that there is still enough money to go out and make another major acquisition to shore up the pitching staff.
If the free agents wind up signing elsewhere then Milwaukee could use its overabundance of MLB-ready outfielders to try and swing a trade for a proven rotation arm. The team still has three or four top-100 prospects left, too (depending on which outlet you subscribe to), and a deep stable of prospects with legitimate MLB futures beyond that. Chris Archer, Danny Salazar, and Patrick Corbin have all been connected to the Brewers at various points this winter and each can still be had in the right deal.
Milwaukee’s rebuild may not have taken five years like Houston’s or Chicago’s, but no one can say that the Brewers skipped any steps during their organizational reboot. Between Doug Melvin and David Stearns, the franchise shipped away 25 players beginning in July of 2015 and ending with the 2016-17 offseason. Almost the entire 40 man roster turned over; Jimmy Nelson and Ryan Braun remain as the only players who were on the Opening Day roster in 2015. The farm system was rejuvenated and several top prospects - like Domingo Santana, Zach Davies, Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, Orlando Arcia, Jacob Barnes, and Brent Suter - came up to the big leagues, earned playing time and helped to form the young core of talent. David Stearns supplemented that group through minor trades and free agent signings throughout his tenure, and now this offseason he’s decided that the timing is right to try and push the franchise over the top and into the postseason.
The rebuild is over. The switch has officially been flipped to ‘competing’ and the Milwaukee Brewers are going for it - not only in 2018, but for the years to come. There’s still 16 days until pitchers and catcher reports and about two months until the regular season begins, leaving David Stearns plenty of time in addition to a plethora of resources that he can use to make another splashy move. The change in direction may have come sooner than many fans around the city and state planned on, but isn’t it exciting that our local nine is confident in the foundation they have built and are trying to win again?
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference