Know Your (2016) Enemy: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers, after years of rough draft classes and tough breaks, are finally in rebuilding mode, and it’s pretty obvious they’ve got a long way to go. But thanks to new management, a good draft last year and a few decent trades, there’s at least a little light at the end of this dairy-infused tunnel. Let’s dig in.

 Last Season’s Record
68-94, 4th Place in NL Central

The Crew began the 2015 season by posting a brutal 7-18 record. So the team fired manager Ron Roenicke and replaced him with the baby-faced Craig Counsell, he of the Ryan Theriot school of cherubic cheeks and gung-ho guttiness. Not to belabor a point, but the youthful Counsell makes Dennis the Menace look like Methuselah. This guy would look more natural aiming a slingshot than filling out a lineup card.

But it wasn’t Counsell’s boyish countenance that led the team to a final record of under 70 wins last year. The offensive side of things wasn’t all terrible. Braun posted a solid line of .285/.356/.498, which gave him a TAv in the top forty in all of baseball. On the other hand, All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy’s numbers dropped from 2014’s stellar .301/.373/.465 (which earned him 4th place in NL MVP voting) to .264/.326/.391 in an injury-shortened season.

But the pitching—oof. Their top three pitchers inning-wise (Jimmy Nelson, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza) had an average ERA of 5.20 and a WHIP of 1.44. In the rarified world of advanced statistical modeling, the technical term for those numbers is “bad.” There are other bad numbers here: Compared to other NL teams, the Brewers were 9th in ISO, 11th in ERA, 12th in baserunning… you get the idea.

So, in a credit to the team’s management, they blew it up and started fresh. The Brewers booted GM Doug Melvin upstairs and hired then–30-year-old GM David Stearns from the numbers-loving Houston Astros, and he wasted no time making his presence felt. Stearns made several big trades and brought in a at least 16 new players (and possibly many more), including some that have some serious promise. Which brings us to this year.

Key Losses/Additions

Realizing the team had as many holes as… damn, I can’t think of a cheese metaphor here, the Brewers have traded away the following players since last year:

  • Jonathan Broxton
  • Khris Davis
  • Mike Fiers
  • Yovani Gallardo
  • Carlos Gomez
  • Adam Lind
  • Gerardo Parra
  • Aramis Ramirez
  • Francisco Rodriguez
  • Jean Segura

Meanwhile, here are some of the more notable players Stearns brought on-board:

  • Free agent 1B Chris Carter — a boom-or-bust slugger whose 90 homers over the past 3 seasons are tied for 8th in the majors. He also struck out 151 times last year, but walked a fair amount as well.
  • Shortstop Isan Diaz — Brought back in the Segura trade, Diaz batted .360/.436/.640 with 13 homers and 12 stolen bases in 68 games for the Missoula Osprey, the Diamondbacks’ rookie league team.
  • CF Brett Phillips — The big return in the Gomez trade, Phillips flashed five-tool potential in the minors, hitting 15 homers and slugged a .268 ISO in for the Astros’ High-A team. Plus, he has just about the weirdest laugh we’ve ever seen.

For starters, there are starters Nelson and Taylor Jungmann. Yes, as I mentioned earlier, the pitching wasn’t great. But Nelson did have a solid 10-game stint where he struck out nearly a batter an inning had an ERA under three. The team is hopeful he can even out his crazy righty/lefty split: righties had an OPS of .558 against him, while lefties clubbed an OPS of .867.

As for the 26-year-old Jungmann, he started the season strong, boasting an ERA of 2.23 and allowing an OPS of just .613 over his first 10 games. The rest of the season—particularly the end—wasn’t quite as promising. And Wily Peralta, who posted 17 wins and a solid 3.53 ERA in 2014, could improve—some say an oblique injury is why he struggled last year. (Or not: PECOTA has him notching a 4.46 ERA with a WHIP of 1.4.) As for Garza? Well, the Brewers are probably stuck with him: They’re on the hook for two years and $25 million for the fading hurler who posted a brutal 5.63 ERA and a WHIP of 1.57 last season. Gulp.

If It All Goes Right

It’s all about the future for this team, so the best-case scenario has fans patiently accepting mediocrity while the prospects continue to improve: shortstop Diaz, who they got from the Diamondbacks for Jean Segura, posted a crazy .436 OBP for the Diamondbacks’ rookie league. And top prospect Orlando Arcia has drawn raves—he was ranked the 6th overall prospect by, and Brewers fans are waiting for his debut like Cubs fans looked forward to Kris Bryant. Other prospects are catching a lot of eyes, including righty Jorge Lopez and catcher Jacob Nottingham.

The team’s offensive philosophy is starting to change, as well. For the last several seasons, the team’s batting philosophy could be summarized as “swing at ball, maybe it go far.” As the 2016 Baseball Prospectus guide notes, the Brewers have the fewest walks of any major-league team over the last five years. Carter, Keon Broxton, Colin Walsh, and Ramon Flores (among others) are all starting to change that, and if that trend continues, it’ll definitely help.

It would also help if the two stars, Lucroy and Braun, had great years—but not for the reasons you might think. A solid first half would just about guarantee that Lucroy gets traded, something he’s definitely been open to in the past: “I want to win and I don’t see us winning in the foreseeable future,” he said in January. “I want to go to a World Series. That’s what all players want. Rebuilding is not a lot of fun for any veteran guy.”

As for Braun, his past PED usage and massive contract make a trade difficult, to say the least: the team surprisingly (which is a generous way of saying “foolishly”) gave him a five-year, $105 million extension in 2011, which means he’s on the books until 2020. So a trade is unlikely, but a strong start could convince some team to take him on, which would unburden the Brewers of his financial burden and bring back even more young talent.

If It All Goes Wrong

There’s a certain leap of faith in torching it all and starting over: you have to assume the players will reach their potential. Few players, short of your Harpers and Bryants, are even close to sure things. So the worst-case scenario would be that the Brewers’ developing players, well, don’t. Santana could prove to be a good-look, bad-hit specimen (his 33 percent K-rate could prove to the the norm, not the exception), Arcia and Diaz could take steps backward, and so on.

Meanwhile, the Brewers’ older players are far from sure things: Braun’s surgically repaired back is already looking ominous, and yes, Lucroy can pin last year’s diminished numbers on a broken toe and a concussion. But he is going to be 30 soon, so time isn’t exactly on his side. Similarly, top reliever Will Smith’s right knee might be gettin’ jiggy with the surgical blade, as he recently tore his lateral collateral ligament taking his cleats off (for real), so he will miss a “significant” amount of time, according to Counsell.

Then there’s Garza, whose numbers have slid notably over the last few seasons. Plus, there was the whole brouhaha over not wanting to go to the bullpen, which he said was due in large part to his bedridden wife getting ready to deliver twins. Now, Garza is doing pilates and yoga, and he says he wants to help instill a positive environment.

“Winning is a culture, and that’s what we’re trying to create here,” he told Ryan Davis. “It’s not just what you see on paper…. we’re having a really good energy in camp right now, so it’s going great.” But depending on the mercurial Garza to help a team’s culture is, one might say, counterintuitive. So if the maybe’s turn into no’s, it could snowball and go bad in a hurry.

Notable PECOTA Projections

PECOTA has the Brewers with exactly two hitters with WARP values above 1.5—one is Braun, whose back is looking problematic, and another is Lucroy, who’s one of the top trade candidates in the NL. Suffice to say that that stat doesn’t smile on the Brewers.

But if Braun is healthy, PECOTA optimistically picks him to post 27 homers and an OPS of .854, which would be a step up over his last two years, when he’s averaged 22 homers and an OPS of .815. Lucroy is picked for a comeback WARP of 3.2, but the beer is on me if he’s on the team after the All-Star break.

The Brewers’ top pitchers look to be Nelson, Jungmann, Garza, Peralta, and Chase Anderson, and their average ERA of 4.33 won’t likely earn any Cy Young votes. After that, it’s all-youth-all-the-time for the Brewers. PECOTA picks Arcia to post 0.6 WARP, which would probably satisfy most Brewers’ fans. Overall, PECOTA has the team at 78-84, which feels about right.

Final Thoughts

The Brewers have a mix of middle-of-the-road and solid vets, then a lot of young talent. It might take a few years before it comes to fruition, and this season probably won’t be one for the ages, but the team finally seems to be on the right track. Who knows, in a few years they may even be in the playoff hunt.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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