“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Realistically, the Milwaukee Brewers are at least a season or two from contending, but they have a well-stocked farm system with a young core of very talented players. Of the top-101 prospects released by Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, the Brewers have seven players (that’s more than the Cubs), so there is plenty of reason for optimism among the Milwaukee faithful.
If that sounds familiar, it is because it reflects in many ways where the Cubs were just a handful of years ago.
This does not mean that the Brewers can follow the same course back to success, but a fresh-faced general manager presiding over their system has already demonstrated that he is serious about building a team set to contend in a very tough division.
Where this puts the Brewers for 2017 is maybe too early to tell, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt was gracious enough to share his thoughts. “2016 was the first full season of the rebuild, so the Brewers will be only two years in after ’17. Once we see how the team looks at the end of ’17 and which prospects are up or on the cusp of coming up, we’ll know a lot more.”
This is familiar territory for the Cubs fan. Just one year into the rebuild in Chicago, it was still very hard to tell where this was going. But, like the Cubs, Milwaukee’s leadership has been open about the work it will take to be competitive again.
“The Brewers have been very transparent about their rebuilding process and the fact it will take some time. Accordingly, fans seem to be showing patience and understanding. The Brewers drew 2.3 million fans in 2016, a pretty solid number considering the small market and the rebuild.” Haudricourt said.
The projection for the Brewers is at least for them not to finish at the bottom of the division. Last week’s division team preview holds that honor. In fact, the Brewers are currently forecast for a tie for third place in the division with the St. Louis Cardinals, who are currently scrambling to figure out what their season will look like if Alex Reyes is really going to need Tommy John surgery.
The projected 76-86 record is hardly reason for excitement in isolation, but it wothree-winthree win improvement over last year.
Individually, only Ryan Braun (3 WARP) and Orlando Arcia (2.2) are projected to stand out, but Jonathan Villar (1.8) is projected for a 48-steal, 15-home run season and doesn’t lag too far behind. The middle infield of Villar and Arcia is a look at the future for the Brewers. Newly-acquired Travis Shaw (1.9) is expected to add some pop at the hot corner with 21 home runs, and Milwaukee’s other corner of the infield comes with some intriguing questions. Eric Thames has not played in the United States since 2012, but his numbers in Korea are compelling. If he can touch anything close to that, his below-replacement projection won’t come true, but PECOTA is wisely conservative here.
The Brewers will draw the most value from their pitchers when Zach Davies is on the mound, but both Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson have some potential. And depending on how Junior Guerra is used, he can bridge the gap nicely until prospects like Josh Hader and Luiz Ortiz come up.
Goals for 2017:
Milwaukee seems to have the right skipper in place to navigate this rebuild, and perhaps unlike Mike Quade and Rick Renteria in Chicago, he will have the chance to stick around to manage the competitive clubs when they come. Even in a rebuild, Craig Counsell seeks to compete every day.
“Counsell always has the same goals: Win that day’s game, or do the best they can to do so. He is all about competing on a daily basis and letting the rebuild happen as it will. He obviously wants his young players to continue to show improvement as well.” Haudricourt said.
This is a fine line to walk for Counsell: to field even a mildly competitive team while developing the young talent that is currently on the 25-man roster. Barring a tremendous meltdown by the Cubs and deeply disappointing seasons from the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, this is not a playoff team. Yet.
Long- and short-term needs:
As a part of their rebuild, the Brewers traded off their biggest asset in Jonathan Lucroy, so their short-term questions naturally pertain to finding the right fit behind the plate.
“In the short term, the biggest question probably is who will establish himself behind the plate after the trade of Jonathan Lucroy last season. Right now, Jett Bandy, Andrew Susac and Manny Pina are the primary candidates,” Haudricourt said.
Susac is the projected best choice at 1.3 WARP, and if he can post the .254 TAv and double-digit home run total that PECOTA is calling for, he could cement his spot fairly easily. Susac has never played a full season, however, so Bandy will likely grab many of the rest of the starts.
Beyond the upcoming season, the Brewers have much bigger questions to answer, mainly about their pitching staff.
“In the long term, the Brewers must figure out which pitchers will form the starting rotation of the future. They have a nice group of arms in the minors, and the Brewers are waiting to see who stands out,” Haudricourt said.
Otherwise, their infield is well positioned to be locked in for a few more years, and in time for the outfielders like Corey Ray, Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, and Trent Clark to come and fill in the rest of their roster.
Like the Cubs of just a few years ago, if not even more recently, the Brewers’ cavalry is waiting. Even as the smallest market in baseball, they have effectively stockpiled talent and could make the NL Central an even more frustrating division as soon as 2018.
Off-the-radar players to watch:
When asked this question, Haudricourt mentioned a pitcher who has not landed on prospect lists yet, but who is moving in that direction.
“Probably right-hander Brandon Woodruff, the Brewers’ 2016 minor league pitcher of the year. He barely ranked in the Top 30 entering the ’16 season but had a huge year and soared up the ranks of their top prospects. He is one to watch in the next year or two.” Haudricourt said.
Woodruff might represent the pitcher who settles some of the rotation questions in the future. His 2016 season, split between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Biloxi paints a very different picture than his first two in the minors. Woodruff’s K/9 flirted with 10 at both levels last season, where previously it had been just over half that number, and his FIP plummeted as well.
No rebuild is certain, and plenty have gone awry, but in these early stages, a lot of things are going right in Milwaukee. Like their counterparts in Chicago, they have the front office and ownership with the willingness to be open about what they’re doing and the fanbase with the willingness to continue to fill their ballpark in the meantime.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports