After spending much of the 2014 season in first place and then collapsing down the stretch, the Brewers will try to regroup for 2015, perhaps hoping for the best with a talented but flawed core and a marginal, though improving, farm system.
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
The Brewers unexpectedly got off to a great start in 2014 and continued that hot start into the summer, with a 51-32 record as of June 28. As the first half of the season became the second, however, the 6 1/2-game lead they had held over the Cardinals evaporated, and in the end they missed the playoffs and barely finished above .500.
The Brewers retained manager Ron Roenicke following their collapse, although they dismissed hitting coach Johnny Narron and first base/infield coach Garth Iorg. Despite any lingering frustrations, it appears unlikely they’ll make many huge moves this offseason.
One position they will likely upgrade is first base, where they’ve struggled to find a reliable contributor since Corey Hart‘s last healthy season with the team in 2012. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay platooned at the position in 2014 and, unsurprisingly, neither of them helped much. Reynolds hit 22 home runs in 433 plate appearances, but with his usual very low batting average and a .287 OBP. Both are free agents; Overbay appears likely to retire. Adam LaRoche (whose mutual option the Nationals are likely to decline) looks like the prize of this year’s free agent class, with the injury-prone Michael Cuddyer and the defensively challenged Michael Morse close behind. The Brewers could also lean on rookies Matt Clark and Jason Rogers, who both hit well with Triple-A Nashville, although both are minor league veterans who might not have much to offer at the big-league level.
The Brewers will also need to figure out what to do with Aramis Ramirez. Given his $4MM buyout, Ramirez’ $14MM mutual option is effectively $10MM for the Brewers. They would be wise to exercise their end, given that Ramirez produced a reasonable 2.1 fWAR while hitting .285/.330/.427 last season. Ramirez would not get the buyout if he were to decline his end, so it might make sense for him to accept his end of the option, particularly if he intends to retire after 2015. He could also decline the option and seek a multi-year deal, however. Ramirez said in July that he planned to reach 2,500 games for his career, which would take at least three more seasons, but he also said in September that he was not sure whether he would play 2015. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicts that Ramirez will ultimately re-sign with the Brewers for two years and $26MM.
The middle infield is mostly set with Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura, although Segura took a big step backward after a strong rookie season in 2013. The Brewers will surely decline their $11.5MM option on Rickie Weeks, who didn’t get enough plate appearances for his option to vest. The 2003 No. 2 overall pick doesn’t expect to be back in Milwaukee in 2015. If he isn’t, the Brewers could pursue a cheap right-handed infielder to platoon with Gennett, or have Hector Gomez, who had a good season at Nashville and is out of options, occupy that role.
The Brewers could also continue with Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis in the outfield. Gomez continues to produce at an extremely high level and is a bargain at just $17MM total through the next two seasons. Braun, though, struggled in 2014 (hitting .266/.324/.453, not a good figure for a player with little defensive value), and the $117MM he’s owed through 2020 looks like it could become a problem. Perhaps a healthier Braun (he suffered from a thumb injury this season and has already had unusual surgery to freeze a nerve) can rebound in 2015.
The Brewers could retain Gerardo Parra as an outfield backup — it’s hard to pass on an average hitter and elite defender (although defensive metrics weren’t keen on his 2014 performance). Still, Parra is coming off a disappointing season and will get a modest raise on his $4.85MM 2013 salary, making him an expensive backup. Dealing or non-tendering him might be a way for the Brewers to free up salary. Another possibility might be to move Braun to first base and have Parra start in right field.
Behind the plate, of course, there’s Jonathan Lucroy, who is, like Gomez, an elite, prime-age player signed to a bargain contract. Lucroy’s five-year deal is among the most team-friendly in baseball — it guarantees an MVP-caliber player a mere $11MM and gives the Brewers an option on what would have been Lucroy’s first free agent season (2017) for just $5.25MM.
In the rotation, the Brewers have already decided to exercise their $13MM option on Yovani Gallardo, and they also have Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse under contract and a reasonable collection of pre-free agency pitchers in Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and promising newcomer Jimmy Nelson. Marco Estrada could be a non-tender candidate after allowing 29 homers in 150 2/3 innings in 2014, although he’ll still be fairly cheap and his other peripherals were reasonable. The Brewers don’t figure to be big players for free agent starting pitching.
Their bullpen will be trickier. Closer Francisco Rodriguez and lefties Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny will all be eligible for free agency. Duke emerged from oblivion to become the Brewers’ best reliever in 2014, posting a 2.45 ERA with a remarkable 11.4 K/9 in 58 2/3 innings, and his production will be difficult to replace if he departs.
The bullpen’s season demonstrated how crucial a good relief corps can be. Rodriguez, Duke, Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith dominated in the early going, leading the Brewers as they jumped to the division lead. During that time, however, those relievers piled up appearances as little-used Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang occupied a bullpen spot that could have gone to someone capable of soaking up innings. Rodriguez couldn’t keep up his early pace, Smith imploded in July, and Thornburg faded in May and eventually ended up on the DL with an elbow injury. The team also lost Jim Henderson to shoulder problems. Finally, they acquired Jonathan Broxton — and his entire $9MM 2015 salary, plus a $2MM buyout — from the Reds in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
In March and April, the Brewers had the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball, at 2.45; in the second half, it was more than a run higher, at 3.62. While variance in bullpen performance is normal, and the team did get some good work from second-tier relievers like Gorzelanny and Jeremy Jeffress, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Brewers attempt to avoid last season’s struggles by pursuing bullpen depth this winter. Re-signing or replacing Rodriguez at closer could also be a priority.
Despite the trajectory of their 2014 season, the Brewers’ 82-80 record was about what they should have expected, given their talent. The question is what they’ll do from here. Having two excellent and cheap players in Gomez and Lucroy is a strong place for any franchise to start, but the Brewers’ complementary pieces aren’t nearly as valuable, and it’s unclear where their next group of stars will come from. Including Gallardo’s option, the Brewers already have about $70MM on the books for 2015. Retaining Ramirez will add to that total, as will arbitration raises for Parra, Estrada and catcher Martin Maldonado (assuming Parra and Estrada are retained). The Brewers will need to address first base as well, which should leave them without much money to make a big splash this offseason, given that their highest ever Opening Day payroll was their 2014 total of about $103MM. Perhaps their best shot at an attention-grabbing signing would be if they acquired someone like Chase Headley to play third base, and that would only happen if Ramirez left.
An infusion of star talent doesn’t appear imminent from the minors, either. The Brewers’ farm system has improved after a strong 2014 draft, but they don’t currently have anyone in MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in the game, and their best talents (Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and top 2014 draftees Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood and Monte Harrison) have little or no experience in the high minors.
The Brewers are therefore in a tight spot. They don’t appear to be as good as the Cardinals or Pirates, and perhaps they soon won’t be as good as the rapidly improving Cubs. But given the state of their farm system, a rebuild would potentially be long and painful. And as the team’s outstanding 2014 first half suggested, the Brewers are still probably good enough to win an NL Central title or a Wild Card if everything breaks right. If Gomez and Lucroy were to maintain their production in 2015, if Braun and possibly Segura were to return to form, and if a couple more players (Davis and Nelson, say) were to break out, it wouldn’t be a shock if the team won 88 games or so and made the playoffs.
Given that possibility, rebuilding can wait. But if the Brewers get off to a poor start in 2015, expect to hear plenty of rumors about their veterans. In particular, Gallardo, Lohse and Broxton, who can all become free agents after 2015, would likely be fair game.