The 2017-2018 Brewers offseason is now officially closed.
With the Baltimore Orioles signing of Alex Cobb to a four year, $57 million contract, the final potential free agent target for Milwaukee is off the board. As management has been telling us for months even as we dismissed it as “GM speak,” the Brewers major offseason moves all took place within the space of two hours on the evening of January 25.
Other moves were made, of course: Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Albers and Boone Logan, in that order, should make an impact on the major league club this season. But as far as needle-moving transactions, the trade for former Marlins CF Christian Yelich and the return of former Royals CF Lorenzo Cain ended up as the only significant additions Milwaukee made.
The Yelich trade makes sense. The Brewers acquired a 26-year-old stud who can be a cornerstone of their offense for the next five years, and he’s cheap (under $12 million AAV, assuming they pick up his $15 million option in 2022). They traded mostly blocked prospects from positions of organizational strength, including Lewis Brinson, who the Brewers would have been lucky to have turn into a Yelich someday.
The Cain signing? Well, it seemed to be obvious at the time what that meant: more moves were coming. Cain filled a hole already filled a couple hours earlier, and he came as a more expensive, older, and almost certainly less productive option than Yelich over the lives of their contracts. Yelich figured to move back to left field, and that meant that either Domingo Santana or Ryan Braun, both above-average starting options in the outfield, figured to be moving on.
I wasn’t entirely enthused about Cain as a replacement for Santana, who I think can be a superstar. I understood it, though, if the Brewers felt Santana has unfixable holes in his game or if they felt they could get a haul for him. That never happened, however, and now the Brewers are left with redundancies on their roster, while they have ignored deficiencies elsewhere.
This is not a criticism of Lorenzo Cain, the player, nor of the deal itself, which will see the soon-to-be 32-year-old paid $80 million over the next five years. Cain is a fine player, albeit one on the wrong side of 30, and one of the few who was compensated fairly this offseason; in a vacuum, his deal makes plenty of sense. Let’s take a look at how this move, and the moves unmade as a result, will affect the Brewers this season.
In The Outfield
The Cain signing created an roster crunch that rippled across the diamond. With Milwaukee carrying an eight-man bullpen, the bench is likely set with Manny Pina, Eric Sogard, Hernan Perez, and whichever of the Braun/Santana/Thames triumvirate is sitting on Opening Day. This means there’s no room for Jesus Aguilar, who impressed in his rookie season with a .265/.331/.505 slash line and 16 home runs. Aguilar is out of options, and will almost certainly be claimed if exposed to waivers; Milwaukee would lose a talented bench bat for nothing.
Also without Opening Day roster spots are Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips, the former a 20/20 player a year ago and the latter one of the Brewers best outfield prospects. Both have options remaining, but just because you can put Broxton and Phillips doesn’t mean you should. Neither stands to gain anything from spending more time in Colorado Springs, and they will demand daily at-bats with the Sky Sox that might otherwise go to rising prospects like Clint Coulter and Tyrone Taylor, both of whom are set to become minor league free agents next off-season.
The end result is that both of Milwaukee’s franchise cornerstones, the new (Yelich) and the old (Braun), will be forced into action at unfamiliar positions on occasion (right field and first base, respectively). The Brewers will also send a handful of talented major league-level talents to the minors or lose them outright.
On The Mound
Meanwhile, the Brewers rotation remains, at best, a huge question mark. Chase Anderson was brilliant last year, but has never thrown more than 153 innings in a season. Zach Davies looks like a solid mid-rotation starter, but that’s probably his ceiling; ditto Jhoulys Chacin. The competition for the back end of the rotation is populated with aging reclamation projects (Junior Guerra, Wade Miley) and young, lower-upside players and prospects (Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter); their ceilings are also as mid-rotation guys, but with lower floors.
There’s no reason (outside base miserliness) that the Brewers can’t have signed both Cain and another starting pitcher. But if we suppose that Cain took their payroll to a place where they weren’t going to spend any more, then investing in the outfield instead of on the rotation feels like a huge misallocation of resources.
For the price of Cain’s contract, the Brewers could have signed both Lance Lynn (1 year, $12 million) and Cobb (4 years, $60 million). A rotation of Cobb, Anderson, Lynn, Davies and Chacin — paired with a Brewers offense that simply slots Braun and Santana back into regular outfield spots — sounds like a true contender. Instead, the Brewers are crossing the fingers on the mound for the sake of an abundance of riches in their outfield.
Of course, there’s really no reason the Brewers couldn’t have had both. The Brewers were praised earlier in the winter as the only team “going for it” in a free agent climate that registered somewhere between “strangely quiet” and “intentionally inactive,” almost entirely because of their actions on January 25. Yet they remain in the bottom third of the league’s payroll rankings and nearly $50 million off the league average, ranking just behind the tanking Royals and Reds, who are situated in similar sized markets. Milwaukee’s payroll is barely $1 million higher than Miami’s, a team that became the butt of the baseball world’s jokes for it’s payroll-shedding ways this winter.
Now that nearly everyone has finally signed (someone give Greg Holland a hug for pete’s sake), the Brewers have fallen behind the National League competition. They are now clearly a tier or two below the heavyweight Cubs, Dodgers and Nationals; and a step or two behind their likely wild card competitors in Colorado, St. Louis and Arizona. Even Philadelphia has caught the Brewers with their franchise-altering acquisition of Jake Arrieta.
The twin moves for Yelich and Cain generated a ruckus not only for what they meant on their own, but for what they so obviously signaled: that more moves were coming. Surely the addition of two great players at an already strong position meant someone from that deep talent pool was ticketed for a trade; surely these moves meant the Brewers would attack their deficiencies at second base and pitching in earnest. Yet somehow, nothing else ever materialized. They pushed their chips in, then walked away from the table, and we’ll have to wait and see whether they ended up with a winning hand.
The Brewers caught Chicago napping last spring, and it allowed them to stay in a division race they probably had no business being a part of for the better part of the season. The Cubs have reloaded this season, and if the Brewers are taking a wait and see approach at the deadline, they may find themselves in too deep a hole to climb out of. While the entire league slept on a collection of free agent stars gathering dust, the time to strike has now come and gone.