Offseason In Review: Milwaukee Brewers

Although the Brewers made a few significant moves this offseason, they hold about the same cards they did last year — too strong to fold, too weak to raise.

Major League Signings

Trades And Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Brewers entered the offseason in a precarious place. They fell apart down the stretch in 2014 and didn’t necessarily look like they’d contend in 2015. But they were also too talented to dismiss that possibility entirely, and didn’t appear to have enough minor-league talent to be able to get through a quick rebuild. Their offseason seems to reflect their situation — they made one significant trade to exchange a veteran for young talent, but their other key deal actually added a veteran. They seem to be trying to win as many games as possible in 2015 while still aiming for 2016 and beyond. That is, of course, what many teams are doing — going for it and and rebuilding have both become passé, with organizations trying to position themselves for playoff runs both now and in the future. But the thin line the Brewers are walking is one that makes some degree of sense for them, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere.

The biggest move of the Brewers’ offseason was their trade of Yovani Gallardo and $4MM to Texas, which netted them shortstop Luis Sardinas and pitchers Corey Knebel and Marcos Diplan. None of those players will make the Brewers’ Opening Day roster. Sardinas has significant upside if he can develop offensively, given his speed and excellent defense. Even for a 21-year-old with time to improve, however, that might be a tall order, given what he’s shown so far in the minors: good batting averages, but with no power and few walks. Even if he doesn’t improve much, though, he at least has a future as a utility infielder.

The hard-throwing Knebel was a first-round pick in 2013 who zoomed through the minors with the Tigers and then came to the Rangers organization in the Joakim Soria deal. He’s racked up huge strikeout totals everywhere he’s gone and might eventually become a late-inning option in the big leagues, although his upside is somewhat limited since he’s a reliever. Diplan, meanwhile, is a small Dominican righty with a good fastball who the Rangers gave a $1.3MM bonus in 2013. He’s promising, but he’s 18 and so far from the Majors that it’s impossible to guess what he’ll become.

In the end, then, the Brewers got three interesting pieces. None of them are sure bets, but the Brewers likely didn’t expect to get any blue-chip prospects, given that Gallardo was only one year from free agency. And more broadly, Gallardo gave the Brewers more of something they don’t necessarily need right now: adequacy. Gallardo, whose strikeout rate declined for the second straight year in 2014, has become more of an innings-eater than an ace. As we’ll see below, the Brewers have plenty of players who project to be good, but not enough who project to be more than that, and that goes for their rotation as well as the rest of the team.

The Brewers’ other big move of the offseason was to send Marco Estrada to Toronto for Adam Lind. Lind should solve what’s been a persistent problem at first base, where they haven’t had a reliable regular since Corey Hart in 2012. Lind comes relatively cheap, too, at $7.5MM in 2015 and either an $8MM option or a $500K buyout the following year. To get two years of a hitter who produced a .321/.381/.479 line last season, even if he won’t help much defensively and is likely to take a step backward in 2015, was a coup for Milwaukee, particularly given that Estrada isn’t a high-wattage arm and is only one year away from free agency.

The Brewers also added lefty Neal Cotts for $3MM, a deal roughly in line with his talent. The three-run jump in Cotts’ ERA from 2013 to 2014 suggests an extreme decrease in performance that wasn’t exactly there, but his peripherals did take a step backward, and he’s 35. He isn’t a specialist, however — he’s good against lefties and not bad against righties, so the Brewers will have some flexibility with how they use him. He’s not Zach Duke, the pitcher he’s effectively replacing, but he’ll probably be worth about a half a win above replacement, which makes his deal a reasonable one.

The big move the Brewers made to address their bullpen was to re-sign Francisco Rodriguez for two years and $13MM. The Brewers were already set to pay a former closer, Jonathan Broxton, $9MM in 2015, and they easily could have had Broxton take over the closer’s job and spent the money elsewhere. $13MM for Rodriguez wasn’t a massive overpay, however — in fact, K-Rod’s $13MM total fell $1MM below the contract MLBTR’s Jeff Todd projected at the beginning of the offseason. (Whether the Brewers should have traded for Broxton’s contract in the first place is a different question, although that happened before this offseason. Without Broxton on the books, the Brewers might have found more room to do something really creative this offseason, or to sign someone who projected to be a big bullpen upgrade, like Andrew Miller.)

Anyway, increasingly, even veteran relievers without significant closing experience get contracts in the $10MM-$15MM range, like the lefty Duke (who got three years and $15MM from the White Sox) or righty Pat Neshek (who got two years and $12.5MM from the Astros). The Brewers could perhaps have tried to re-sign Duke rather than re-signing Rodriguez and signing Cotts, but Rodriguez has a much longer track record of success than Duke does and is coming off a perfectly good season in which he posted 9.7 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 over 68 innings. If the Brewers paid extra for his ability to get saves, it wasn’t by much. Getting what is effectively a $4MM option for 2017 ($6MM minus a $2MM buyout) was a nice touch, too.

Questions Remaining

The Brewers have options that are at least reasonable at every position throughout their lineup and rotation, but only a few players who are likely to be standouts — Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Ryan Braun, who’s young and talented enough to rebound after having thumb surgery in the offseason to fix a nerve problem that bothered him in 2014. Gomez and Lucroy especially stand out as stars who are both very good and dramatically underpaid.

Beyond that, though, it’s hard to say where the Brewers’ upside will come from, particularly in their lineup. Lind, Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett (who has second base mostly to himself now that the Brewers declined their option on Rickie Weeks) are all capable, but it’s hard to imagine any of them  producing, say, 3 WAR. (Segura might be a possibility, though his performance last season, although it was a year touched by the tragic death of his young son, was probably more in line with the career patterns he established in the minors than his breakout 2013 season was.) This doesn’t mean these players aren’t valuable. Lind, for example, provides a good bat at a position where the Brewers didn’t previously have one. But they’re complementary players on a team that doesn’t have enough stars.

The rotation has similar problems — everyone in it projects to be competent, but no one projects to be a standout. Matt Garza‘s peripherals have declined in the past two seasons, and he isn’t as good as he was with the Cubs. Kyle Lohse has been essentially the same pitcher for the past several seasons, but he’s 36 and isn’t an ace. That leaves Mike Fiers (a 29-year-old soft-tosser who was mysteriously brilliant in 71 2/3 big-league innings last year), Wily Peralta and youngster Jimmy Nelson as the Brewers’ best hopes of providing very high-quality innings. (Fiers had shoulder issues this spring but figures to be fine to start the season.)

The 2015 Brewers figure to have a high floor, then — they have talent, and it’s hard to see them losing, say, 92 games. While predicting how a season will go is a notoriously inexact science, though, it isn’t easy to imagine scenarios where they win 92.

Deal Of Note

USATSI_8011999_154513410_lowresMutual options aren’t often exercised, but Aramis Ramirez and the Brewers each exercised their ends of a mutual option this offseason, and Ramirez is back in Milwaukee for one more year, after which he plans to retire. Personal reasons surely played a role in Ramirez’s decision to stay. “I’m comfortable here,” he told the Journal Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak at the time. Rosiak also quoted Brewers manager Ron Roenicke noting that Ramirez was “set financially.” Ramirez’s decision to accept his end of the option was, therefore, not primarily financially driven.

The structure of the option, however, also made it something close to financially rational for player and team. The $14MM option contained a large buyout of $4MM on the Brewers’ side. So for Ramirez, the option was effectively a decision on a one-year, $14MM contract. The $4MM buyout was a sunk cost for the Brewers, so the decision from their perspective was effectively a one-year, $10MM deal. So even if Ramirez hadn’t been thinking about retiring, it would have made sense for both sides to exercise the option if Ramirez’s market value had been between $10MM and $14MM (and if Ramirez hadn’t expected to get a lucrative multi-year deal if he rejected it). Ramirez produced 1.8 fWAR last year and projects to produce similarly next year. Given the cost of wins on the free-agent market, that puts him near or in that $10MM-$14MM range. Of course, Ramirez probably could have gotten a multi-year deal on the open market, but it’s interesting that, for the price of a single year, the option made good financial sense for both sides.

Overview

The Brewers aren’t particularly old, but they’re still essentially an aging team rather than a dynamic or young one. They’re victims of their own success — they’ve won 80 or more games in seven of the past ten seasons, so they’ve only had one top-ten draft pick since taking Braun fifth overall in 2005. They also haven’t generally been top bidders for international talent. As a result, their farm system, which previously had produced top players like Braun, Lucroy, Gallardo and Prince Fielder, hasn’t been as bountiful lately.

The Brewers did add Dominican infielder Gilbert Lara for $3.2MM last year, though, and also significantly improved their collection of minor-leaguers by drafting Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood and Monte Harrison and trading for Sardinas, Knebel and Diplan. A minor deal for Kyle Wren (a speedy outfielder who might one day become a useful bench player) also moved the needle a bit too.

In, say, two years, the Brewers could have an exciting group of prospects. For now, though, they’re a bit stuck, the result of a farm system that, following the 2013 season, Baseball America had ranked the least likely of any organization to provide high-quality help in the near term. Most of the Brewers’ best prospects are still far from the Majors. As I noted in my preview of their offseason, that makes rebuilding a difficult proposition, and the their big-league team could still contend if it catches some breaks. So what the Brewers did this offseason made sense — they didn’t rebuild, but they also didn’t do anything that would get in the way of rebuilding in the future. For example, they added Lind without giving up anyone likely to help them beyond 2015.

If they get off to a slow start in 2015, however, the Gallardo trade could be a preview of what’s to come, with pitchers like Lohse and Broxton potentially on the block. Again, though, there’s a case that more radical trades don’t make much sense — the Brewers have few payroll commitments beyond 2015 and could find a way to cobble together an interesting 2016 team even without much in the way of reinforcements from their farm system.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Dodgers Acquire Elliot Johnson From Rangers

The Dodgers have acquired infielder Elliot Johnson from the Rangers, Stefan Stevenson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tweets. Texas will receive cash considerations in the deal.

Johnson, 31, provides a shortstop-capable utility option to plug into the Los Angeles depth chart, though it is hard to imagine he will crack the active roster to start the season with so many infield options already in place. In parts of five seasons at the major league level, Johnson carries a .215/.269/.316 slash over 826 plate appearances but has contributed 46 stolen bases.


Orioles Acquire Audry Perez From Rockies

The Orioles have acquired catcher Audry Perez from the Rockies in exchange for cash, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com reports on Twitter. Perez is the third minor league backstop dealt away by Colorado this year.

The 26-year-old has played just three games in the big leagues, but had a solid year at Triple-A last season (.292/.298/.419) with the Cardinals. Perez has not done much with limited plate appearances in big league camp with Colorado, where he signed as a minor league free agent. He will provide some additional depth to a Baltimore organization that is still waiting to see how its major league catching situation sorts itself out over the season.



Rays Release Alexi Casilla

The Rays have released infielder Alexi Casilla, Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune reports on Twitter. Tampa will avoid having to pay the veteran a $100K bonus with the move.

The 30-year-old has previously spent time with the Twins and Orioles, averaging 269 trips to bat over the 2007-13 time frame while slashing .248/.302/.332 and swiping 80 bags in that stretch. Last year, however, Casilla only got one game in the bigs, spending most of the year at Triple-A with Baltimore.


Reid Brignac Opts Out From Marlins

Infielder Reid Brignac has opted out of his deal with the Marlins after learning he would not make the Opening Day roster, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (Twitter link). The 29-year-old is now a free agent.

Brignac, 29, has not cracked 100 plate appearances in a big league season since back in 2011. Over parts of seven seasons, he owns a .222/.266/.314 slash over 905 plate appearances. At this point, defensive flexibility — Brignac has spent most of his time at short — is his primary calling card.


Rangers Release Jamey Wright

The Rangers have released righty Jamey Wright, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on Twitter. Wright would have been owed a $100K bonus to keep him in the minors.

Wright, 40, has spent 19 years in the big leagues. Last year, he tossed 70 1/3 frames for the Dodgers, putting up a 4.35 ERA with 6.9 K/9 against 3.5 BB/9. He is sure to draw interest given his long track record of durability and solid results.


Blue Jays To Release Dayan Viciedo

After failing to make the Blue Jays roster, outfielder Dayan Viciedo has requested and will be granted his release, GM Alex Anthopoulos tells reporters including Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca (Twitter link).

Viciedo, a late entrant onto the free agent market when the White Sox released him, struggled at the plate this spring. The 26-year-old has seen plenty of action over the last three big league campaigns, averaging over 500 plate appearances per year. He has also hit an average of twenty long balls in each of those campaigns, though his on-base percentage is sub-.300 and he is not well-regarded defensively.

It remains to be seen whether any team will have a major league opportunity for Viciedo to start the year. Several clubs have less-than-clear corner outfield situations, but those organizations already had one opportunity to grab Viciedo. Of course, things have changed in some situations; the Phillies, for example, will start Domonic Brown on the DL and have watched Grady Sizemore scuffle this spring, so could be newly motivated to take a shot on Viciedo.


Marlins Release Nick Masset

The Marlins have released right-handed reliever Nick Masset, the club announced. Masset, 32, signed as a minor league free agent and enjoyed Article XX(B) protection.

Once a consistently productive presence in the Reds’ pen, Masset traveled a long road back to the big leagues after undergoing multiple shoulder surgeries. He ended a two-year layoff last year, throwing 45 innings of 5.80 ERA ball for the Rockies but posting a more promising 4.33 FIP. Masset was able to deliver typically strong groundball results while striking out 7.2 and walking 4.8 batters per nine.

Miami obviously had decided not to give Masset a spot on its big league roster and preferred not to pay him a $100K bonus to stay in the upper minors. Masset has scuffled somewhat this spring, striking out only three batters and allowing nine earned runs in 11 innings of work, but ought to hold appeal to organizations seeking depth.


Phillies Release Kevin Slowey

The Phillies have announced the release of right-hander Kevin Slowey. The 30-year-old was in camp on a minor league deal.

Last year, Slowey threw 37 1/3 frames for the Marlins, working to a 5.30 ERA with 5.8 K/9 against 2.2 BB/9. But his peripherals support some reason to believe there’s a reasonably productive arm to be had, as Slowey has averaged sub-4.00 FIP marks over 129 1/3 total innings in the last two seasons.

Slowey had good numbers this spring, allowing four earned over 9 2/3 while striking out seven and walking two. But it appears that he has lost the fifth starter’s battle to Sean O’Sullivan. Of course, as Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News notes on Twitter, the club figures to take a look at the arms that depart other organizations over the coming days.


Red Sox Release Felipe Paulino

The Red Sox have released righty Felipe Paulino, the club announced. As an Article XX(B) free agent, the 31-year-old would have required a $100K bonus to keep stashed in the upper minors.

Paulino struggled in minimal action last year with the White Sox as he worked back from Tommy John and shoulder surgery. After serving as a swingman for several years, Paulino was off to a very nice start as a starter with the Royals in 2012 when he began experiencing arm issues. This spring, he has allowed two hits and one earned run while striking out three and walking one in four innings of action.


NL West Notes: Garcia, Hatcher, McGowan, Bradley, Ray

Newly-inked Dodgers righty Freddy Garcia is now a client of the Praver/Shapiro agency, MLBTR has learned. It was reported last night that the long-time big leaguer was coming back from Taiwan to join the Los Angeles organization. As Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times explains things (on Twitter), injuries to Erik Bedard and Chad Gaudin opened up a need for innings and depth in the upper minors.

Here’s more from out west:

  • Righty Chris Hatcher played an important role in the Dodgers complicated swap with the Marlins this winter, but as Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register explains, he has had a tough spring. Hatcher blames that in part on trying too hard to impress his new employer, though as Plunkett notes, he is still all but assured an important bullpen role to start the year.
  • Meanwhile, the team actually has something of a tough call to make on fellow righty Dustin McGowan, who is guaranteed the league minimum but stands to earn a $1MM roster bonus if he breaks camp with the club. McGowan has also struggled, perhaps leading to some question of whether he is worth that commitment. Of course, Los Angeles is not exactly overflowing with alternatives for these two veterans.
  • One somewhat surprising roster battle is shaping up as Diamondbacks camp closes, as Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports. Prospects Archie Bradley and Robbie Ray are in the mix for a bullpen slot, manager Chip Hale says, explaining that many young rotation members have had their first taste of big league action from the pen.

NL Central Notes: Maholm, Bucs, Bryant, EJax, Ricketts

Lefty Paul Maholm has a “standing offer” at Triple-A with the Reds, tweets Jon Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. At present, however, Maholm is looking to secure a big league deal if possible. He was released yesterday by Cincinnati.

Here’s more from the NL Central:

  • The Pirates have pillaged the Yankees in recent seasons, particularly in the catching department, as Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. Both teams have placed significant value on pitch framing, but Sawchik suggests that perhaps Pittsburgh has remained more willing to commit to its ideas in that area. I’m not sure if they were ahead of us, we were ahead of them or if we arrived at this way of thinking at the same time. Actually, they were probably first,” said club GM Neal Huntington. “The two clubs evaluate catchers similarly.”
  • The agent for Cubs third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, Scott Boras, says that starting the season without the game’s top big-league-ready prospect in the majors is tantamount to staging “ersatz baseball,” Jon Morosi of FOX Sports tweets“MLB is not MLB without the best players,” said Boras.
  • Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, himself a former Boras client, is still waiting to learn what his role will be in 2015, as ESPNChicago.com’s Jesse Rogers reports. It seems likely that he’s headed to a middle relief spot, in spite of the fact that he’s still owed $22MM by the team.
  • Cubs owner Tom Ricketts indicates that his organization is still executing on its plan to build steadily, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports“We knew that if we’re ever going to bring a World Series to Chicago, it’s to be disciplined, and build things the right way,” said Ricketts. We’ve done that. Now, it’s up to us to deliver that promise.” That goes for the team’s player assets as well as its efforts to rehabilitate Wrigley Field, as Nightengale explains.

NL East Notes: Duda, Wilpon, Gonzalez, Turner

The Mets and Lucas Duda intend to cut off extension negotiations when the season opens, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com writes. It remains to be seen whether anything gets done, of course, especially since the 29-year-old still has just one complete season of strong performance on his ledger. A league executive tells Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com that the comparables suggest a deal in the four-year, $30MM range could make sense, pointing to the cases of Allen Craig, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler. In spite of his somewhat late start, Duda could have a higher earning capacity than that trio if he keeps hitting thirty-plus home runs.

  • One notable new feature of Mets camp has been the presence of owner Fred Wilpon, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News writes. Though Wilpon has not said much publicly, he has been fairly visible and active behind the scenes, says Martino, consistently conveying the message that he expects winning baseball.
  • Phillies righty Miguel Gonzalez looks like he may never pay off on the team’s investment, as MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki writes, particularly since he has not managed to earn a job in spite of the team’s desperate need for arms. “He hasn’t pitched well enough to be a major league starter for us,” said GM Ruben Amaro Jr. “His stuff and his command just weren’t good enough. It’s kind of simple. He needs to be better for us to utilize him in our rotation. He’ll go down and pitch and hopefully he improves. If he doesn’t, then he doesn’t.” Amaro continued to acknowledge: “He hasn’t performed as well as we would have liked. He may never perform as well as we would have liked, but that’s the risk you take. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a risk.”
  • Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post takes a look in at Nationals shortstop-to-be Trea Turner, who is currently still with the Padres until he can formally be sent to D.C. The club had to check with the league to see if the deal could be structured that way, and pulled the trigger when it found it would be permitted. Washington had been intrigued with Turner in last year’s draft, says Svrluga, and a strong entry into the professional ranks has only raised his stock. For his part, as he waits to get introduced to a new organization, Turner says that his former team has “treated me just like one of their players.”

Dodgers To Sign Freddy Garcia

The Dodgers have agreed to a minor league deal with veteran righty Freddy Garcia, MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick reports on Twitter. Garcia, 38, agreed to sign with Taiwan’s EDA Rhinos last year.

While details of Garcia’s stint in Taiwan are hard to dig up, it appears that he at least threw a full season as the Taipei Times credits him with picking up a Gold Glove award. Garcia had seemed ticketed for the Braves rotation last spring before the club dropped him in favor of Aaron Harang — a decision that delivered Atlanta a surprisingly excellent season from Harang and sent Garcia out of the bigs for the first time since he broke into the league in 1999.

Garcia came up with the Mariners, promptly reeling off 200+ inning campaigns in seven of his first eight years. He carried a 4.01 ERA with 6.6 K/9 against 2.9 BB/9 to that point. Injuries intervened, however, and Garcia did not even crack the 60-inning barrier from 2007 through 2009 (even while working as a starter).

He has been a useful swingman since then, however, and figures to provide a depth option for a Los Angeles club that is approaching the season looking somewhat thin on pitching.


Nationals Sign Reed Johnson To Minor League Deal

9:23pm: Johnson will earn $1MM if he makes the roster, MLB.com’s Bill Ladson tweets.

3:36pm: Though outfielder Reed Johnson was released by the Marlins earlier this morning, his brush with unemployment will apparently be fleeting, as the Nationals announced that they’ve signed him to a Minor League contract. Johnson, 38, will report to big league camp and be in the mix for a bench spot.

The Nationals could use some additional outfield depth with Denard Span likely out through mid-May and Jayson Werth unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. As I noted this morning in discussing Johnson’s release, while his overall work with the bat is light, he’s still a solid option against left-handed pitching. Johnson batted .303/.319/.409 in 69 PA against lefties last year and is a lifetime .310/.363/.454 hitter when facing opposite-handed pitching. He has experience in center field but is likely best suited for left field at this stage of his career.

It remains unclear exactly how the Nationals’ outfield situation will play out, but prospect Michael Taylor figures to slide into Span’s spot and receive the bulk of the playing time in center field.