Owner Mark Attanasio brought money and legitimacy to the Milwaukee Brewers when he purchased the club prior to the 2005 season. The franchise ended a 26-year postseason drought with a simultaneously tumultuous and heroic Wild Card berth in 2008, and three years later the Brewers won the NL Central for the first time in three decades. Throughout that time, Attanasio pushed for consistent contention, or at least consistent relevance, continuously trying to squeeze another year of 80-plus wins out of an aging core.
In 2015, a flawed roster was being held together with duct tape and hope. Many of us, including myself, saw the potential for a season with a winning total in the low 80s. After all, the Brewers sat atop the NL Central for the better part of five months the previous year. The warning signs existed, though. PECOTA projected the club to win a mere 77 games. The starting rotation showed in spring that it lacked meaningful depth. The latent holes in the roster became a bit more obvious when Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy navigated through injury concerns in the spring.
Ultimately, the team stumbled through April like a team performing an extended dizzy bat contest. The Brewers won five games in April and fired manager Ron Roenicke on May 3. That signaled the beginning of wholesale changes in Milwaukee, the organizational transition from contender to rebuilder in the matter of a few months. Craig Counsell replaced Ron Roenicke. Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers went to Houston in return for four prospects. David Stearns, former assistant general manager in Houston, took over the GM role that Doug Melvin vacated. Gerardo Parra swapped his Brewers blue for Orioles orange in exchange for young starter Zach Davies.
Organizational change. That’s the obvious theme of the 2016 season. Something that Mark Attanasio and his staff desperately attempted to stave off had finally become unavoidable. Credit to Attanasio, though, as he flipped a mental switch and embraced a full-scale rebuild while the team still had tradeable assets.
It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of change that has occurred in the Brewers organization. Stearns infused the club with youthfulness, hope, and analytics—not that Doug Melvin and his staff ignored the sabermetric revolution, of course, but Stearns and his staff have proven to be quick to explore unconventional ideas that weren’t standard operating procedure in the previous regime.
We normally associate rebuilding with an exodus of talent. The Brewers, though, pushed against this conceptualization and began acquiring players via all available methods: major-league free agency, minor-league free agency with invitations to big-league camp, trades, waiver claims, and the Rule 5 draft. By these avenues, the club acquired 34 players from November through March 21. For comparison, the franchise only acquired 18 players using the same parameters between 2014 and 2015.
Here’s the complete list:
|Garin Cecchini||3B||Trade||Red Sox|
|Junior Guerra||RHP||Waivers||White Sox|
|Zach Jones||RHP||Rule 5||Twins|
|Colin Walsh||2B||Rule 5||Athletics|
|Eric Young Jr.||OF||MiLB||Braves|
The Brewers have done three key things this offseason to jump start their rebuild through this vast roster turnover, and the result has been one of the best offseasons in baseball. (And I don’t think the latter opinion is very controversial whatsoever.) Those three key things have been: (1) maximizing the use of the 40-man roster to acquire talent; (2) improving the return on fringy talent by leveraging available control years; and (3) taking chances on volatile rookie-ball talent.
Through trades and releasing players, the Brewers began the season with ample space on the 40-man roster, and instead of eating it up with free-agent signings, the club went on a spate of waiver claims and waiver-type trades. They targeted post-hype sleepers, such as Rymer Liriano and Garin Cecchini, and guys they suspected could be snuck back through waivers. Just 14 days after claiming Josmil Pinto, for example, the Brewers designated him for assignment and outrighted him to Triple-A. They “stole” Pinto, in a sense.
It proved to be a creative use of roster space. Garin Cecchini, a former top-101 prospect, is now in Triple-A for the Brewers. Same with Josmil Pinto. Rymer Liriano, another former top-101 prospect, suffered a frightening injury on Sunday but is also another post-hype player who could become useful. We’ll see what happens with Sean Nolin, too, as he’s someone who has a bit of prospect pedigree and came to Milwaukee via a waiver claim.
Organizations need quality talent, yes, but quantity is underrated. The Milwaukee Brewers have amassed an impressive number of post-hype players. Not all of them will work out. Maybe only one does, for instance. Considering the fact that the club acquired each of those players for nothing but cash or a low-tier prospect, though, the risk is insanely low. The upside? The Brewers may have acquired a starting third baseman (Cecchini), a starting corner outfielder (Liriano), a starting catcher bat (Pinto), and/or a back-end starter or lefty reliever (Nolin) for nothing but roster space.
The second thing that David Stearns did this past offseason was to recognize a trend that seems to be taking hold across baseball: Control years are arguably becoming more valuable than pure talent on the trade market.
It’s the only explanation, to me, as to why Jason Rogers could have possibly netted Trey Supak and Keon Broxton. Rogers will be a 27-year-old rookie who is limited to first base defensively and lacks the traditional first-base profile. He’s a career .290/.372/.466 hitter, but was always old for his level and was buried in the Brewers’ organizational depth chart. A guy like that brought a 19-year-old pitcher who was just a second-round pick in 2014 and a guy who hit .273/.357/.484 a year ago with some loud tools. Yes, both of those prospects have flaws, but they are legitimate somethings acquired for a 27-year-old rookie who wasn’t going to win a starting job with the non-contending Brewers. And, hell, Broxton may yet win the center field job this spring while Rogers goes to Triple-A.
Then, the Brewers traded a pre-arbitration player in Khris Davis, who has power for days but was less than a two-win player in 2015, for a surprisingly lucrative return. Jacob Nottingham was Baseball Prospectus’ no. 66 prospect in all of baseball. That on its own is arguably too much for Davis, as the 28-year-old is best utilized as a designated hitter and may still be a platoon hitter, but the Brewers also got right-hander Bubba Derby, who posted a 0.78 ERA with a 34.9 percent strikeout rate in his professional debut.
All of the trading-block attention may have been on Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura and Adam Lind, but perhaps the two best trades of the offseason centered on guys who didn’t need to be traded and had lots of control years remaining. David Stearns and his staff have shown that they’re willing to make the difficult, and seemingly unnecessary, deals to improve the long-term outlook of the organization.
Thirdly, throughout this obvious roster turnover, it’s become obvious that Stearns has borrowed a play from his old employer’s playbook. The Houston Astros have placed a recent emphasis on the rookie leagues. It is where they picked up “afterthoughts” like Francis Martes, David Paulino, and Jonathan Arauz. The Astros identified teenaged prospects who oozed projection and acquired them before they broke out. Now, Jeff Luhnow and his front-office staff appear to be geniuses for acquiring potential big-league regulars as kick-ins to bigger deals.
David Stearns has similarly focused on teenaged players. Not only did they take on salary in the Jean Segura deal to grab 19-year-old Isan Diaz (who blew up last year and has gotten rave reviews this spring), but the entire return on the Adam Lind deal featured a trio of pitchers under 20 years old. One could even throw Trey Supak into this category. Contending teams don’t often hug these types of prospects, as they’re too far away to be meaningful during the current competitive window. For a rebuilding franchise, though, taking a chance on highly volatile, young talent offers a rare opportunity to acquire potential studs without the lofty price tag. It’s a gamble, for sure, as they could flame out before Double-A, but rebuilding teams need to acquire impact talent. And that’s cost prohibitive when it’s already identified as impact talent.
Ultimately, it’s obvious that the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers will look nothing like the 2015 Milwaukee Brewers. Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Martin Maldonado and Scooter Gennett are the only regular bats to return from a year ago—and even Santana hasn’t been with the organization for an entire season. Amidst that massive and seemingly chaotic roster turnover, though, is a master plan at work. It’s about acquiring talent via every possible avenue, acquiring quality and quantity, and taking low-risk chances at the edges.
Put in this way: The Milwaukee Brewers acquired 34 players over the winter to be part of their organization, many of them intriguing players, without moving their best trade asset in Jonathan Lucroy. An organization that lacked young talent in the minors as recently as 12 months ago is now awash with prospects and is easily a top-10 minor-league system. David Stearns is doing work, and he can proudly say that the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers will look very little like the team that lost 94 games a year ago. It is now a team of intrigue and transition. And among rebuilding teams, that is much preferable to a team that refuses to add talent to the major-league squad in the interest of tanking for draft picks.
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