MLBTR will provide a broader view of each club’s winter plans when our annual Offseason Outlook series kicks off at the end of the regular season. Until then, the Brewers are the latest team to be featured in our quick look at this season’s non-contenders. We’ve already covered the Angels.
Milwaukee GM David Stearns has continued to engineer a rebuild that was kicked off by his predecessor, Doug Melvin. The payroll is way down and the high-priced veterans have mostly been cleared out, but it has taken place in a fairly methodical manner thus far with largely positive results (despite the anticipated, subpar record). Here are three needs for the organization as the offseason approaches:
1. Trade Ryan Braun.
I know, very edgy choice. Braun is the last remaining Brewers player who is promised money past the 2017 season, making him an obvious trade candidate. (Only one other — Matt Garza — has a guaranteed contract next year.) On the one hand, that means, that the club doesn’t need to move Braun just to pare down the costs; even with him this year, the payroll sat at just over $60MM on Opening Day and has receded since.
The key here, though, is timing. Milwaukee has prospered immensely from selling at the right moment on players such as Carlos Gomez (traded before a fall-off) and Jonathan Lucroy (traded after he rebuilt value). You could argue the same, in varying ways, of hurlers Mike Fiers, Jeremy Jeffress, and Will Smith.
With Braun, the question has never been talent or productivity. But he has a sketchy injury history, carries the stain of a PED melodrama, and turns 33 in two months. The $76MM left on his contract over four years remains a bit of a limiting factor, but is a pretty fair price for a player who owns a .306/.371/.537 slash with 27 home runs and 15 steals.
It’s unlikely at this point that Braun’s value will ever be higher, and there’s a chance it could tumble. Whether he goes to the Dodgers or elsewhere, the coming offseason is probably the time to finish clearing the books. (Moving Garza, too, could make sense — either in a winter bereft of open-market pitching talent or after giving him a chance to boost his value in the first half of 2017.)
2. Find the next Junior Guerra …
Or the next Jonathan Villar. Or, really, just the next Chris Carter or even Aaron Hill. Stearns’s first move as a GM — plucking Guerra off the waiver wire — remains his most impressive. But he has proven adept at finding hidden gems from free and cheap talent pools. All the guys he’s tried out haven’t worked, but plenty have. Better still, the most notable success stories thus far have not only been cheap, but have had service time remaining, greatly increasing the upside/expense ratio.
So, who’s the next candidate? If I knew that, I’d probably be peddling the information to a major league team. But while organizations desperate for near-term production will feel compelled to plunk down several million dollars for the best-bet bounceback veterans, odds are that Stearns will be mining the ranks of underappreciated journeymen who have shown a spark and intriguing young players who aren’t going to keep roster spots with their organizations.
These players have plenty of function just by showing up, because they help prop up the quality of the on-field production at virtually no cost. What will be most interesting to see, though, is whether Milwaukee can begin to parlay these bargain finds into real value — either by flipping some of the players in trades or deploying them during a winning season.
3. Chart out an ascension plan.
Call me crazy, but I think things could move fairly quickly for the Brewers. Unlike other recent tear-down situations, Milwaukee has not really had to offload huge and burdensome contracts; the veterans they have dealt have been appealing players who brought good, high-level young talent.
To be sure, I’m not advocating for the club to ramp up spending in anticipation of contending in 2017. But there are some benefits to planning for an optimistic scenario, which might include something in the vicinity of a .500 record next year with some more upward mobility to follow. Doing so in a measured way would allow the club to build toward contention without weighing down the future balance sheet.
With that in mind, perhaps the Brewers don’t need to keep a perfectly pristine balance sheet for the entirety of the near-future. Adding some well-conceived, reasonably youthful talent through free agency or trade isn’t only a strategy for larger-budget rebuilders — at least when a team’s payroll is already low. In Milwaukee’s case, there are a few arb raises to account for in 2017, but none that figure to make much of a dent. Perhaps being willing to pay a bit for one or more mid-level, health-concern/bounceback free agents — Luis Valbuena, Neil Walker, Charlie Morton, Andrew Cashner, or (dare I say it) Carlos Gomez are a few who come to mind — could be a viable strategy.