Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The 2017 Brewers will be remembered as the team that did not do enough to maximize their opportunity to win. That’s right: they will not be known for their mundane rebuild; they will not be known for their risky farm system; they will not be known for the greatest collection of grit assembled west of Lonnie Chisenhall and Rajai Davis. The 2017 Brewers will be remembered for failing to do enough to win.
In case you missed it, here are the Brewers’ offseason moves that impacted MLB payroll:
- November 29, 2016: Designated 1B Chris Carter for assignment and signed free agent 1B Eric Thames.
- December 6, 2016: Traded RHP Tyler Thornburg to Red Sox for IF Travis Shaw, prospects Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington, and a PTBNL or cash.
- December 13, 2016: Traded C Martin Maldonado and RHP Drew Gagnon to Angels for C Jett Bandy.
- December 14, 2016: Signed free agent LHP Tommy Milone.
- January 19, 2017: Signed free agent RHP Neftali Feliz.
- Waiver claims: Adam Walker, Blake Parker, Steve Geltz, Ehire Adrianza, Jesus Aguilar.
- Waiver losses: Rymer Liriano, Adam Walker, Blake Parker, Steve Geltz, Miguel Diaz, Ehire Adrianza.
I once read that nearly the entire American GDP circulates the American economy each and every day, which is similar to how the Brewers approached their roster for the 2017 season. The goal was clearly to circulate talent rather than to assemble it. If you were an impartial observer, you’d be hard-pressed to say that “tanking” or “rebuilding” is an MLB epidemic, especially since you’d be so thoroughly convinced that not spending money was a much larger MLB epidemic. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone; [Insert Ivy League GM Here] is to an MLB payroll what Governor Bruce Rauner or Sam Brownback is to the Illinois or Kansas budget. Quickly stockpiling and then shredding assets is more fun than sinking money into a baseball team.
Chances are that this failure to spend in Milwaukee will not turn a single head across the MLB. However, BP Milwaukee’s Jack Moore demonstrated that this shift in approach is quite a departure for the Cream City crew, a club that until recently spent an entire decade amassing payrolls that pushed the team to its breaking point each year. This is a good thing: if MLB clubs are nothing more than real estate investments or cable subscription sales to owners, they are also nothing more than their payrolls to fan bases. Money means stars, or at least “names.”
Just as owners learned that they can earn boatloads of revenue even while purposefully fielding losing ballclubs, fans know that the appearance of spending money is much more exciting than wins on the field; what do the wins matter if you don’t have any stars? Or if you can’t attract key free agents? Or you’re not willing to keep your best players? (Corollary: While commissioner Rob Manfred frets that the dead time between pitches or during intentional walks turns off younger generations of fans from the game, he should investigate the correlation between ownership spending habits and the perceived lack of youthful interest in the game.)
So it goes that the 2017 Brewers will be known as the team that did not do enough maximize their opportunity to win. The overall 2016 vintage saw a nasty-looking performance that may be credited vaguely to “rebuilding,” but frankly all of that was finished by the trade deadline. In the last 30 games of the season, an audacious gang of power/speed, aggressive, positionally flexible nobodies (plus star Ryan Braun and top prospect Orlando Arcia) forged a 17-13 record on 132 runs scored and 108 runs allowed. In those 30 games, the club’s new faces stole 34 bases (on 47 attempts), and also drew 90 walks and slugged 46 home runs.
It should go without saying that Milwaukee deserves credit for keeping much of this flexible core in place for 2017. Arcia will have another chance to build off adjustments at the plate, as will super-utility man Hernan Perez and center fielder Keon Broxton. The arguable leader of the power/speed/discipline Brewers, flexible infielder Jonathan Villar, will return to defend his WARP title, while also showing that the clearest way to rebuild does not always involve trading for a highly regarded prospect (Kyle Hendricks 2.0, aka Zach Davies, fits the pitching side of this mantra). The most valuable long-term assets in Milwaukee are not products of the most prototypical rebuilding moves, but they are among the most laudable moves by president Doug Melvin (Davies) and general manager David Stearns (Villar).
In terms of scenario planning, there are several league-wide forces that shape the outlook of the Brewers:
- Baseball Prospectus has emphasized that there is less stratification among current prospects, which probably explains why teams have been so quick to unload so many “highly ranked prospects” within the last year. Should Milwaukee improve upon their solidly middle-of-the-road PECOTA projection, they will have ample prospects to make good on this trend and quickly reacquire solid MLB players and produce immediate wins while losing minimal surplus down the road.
- The MLB run environment spiked in 2016, largely due to inexplicable circumstances … such as a juiced ball. Between the league-wide goals to hasten the pace of play and increase offensive action, hastening the game may win, which leads one to expect a slightly less live ball in 2017. Should the run environment deflate to 2014-2015 levels once again, Milwaukee has the perfect tools to force the game, and then some: walks, aggressive baserunning and stolen bases, and homers on the batting side, and excellent command on the pitching side (especially in the form of Davies and the surprising CSAA percentage mastermind Wily Peralta).
- Of course, there is also the continuing trend of declining shares of MLB revenues spent on MLB payroll, to the benefit of ownership ranks.
Milwaukee possesses tools to control the pace of lower scoring games, which means that they also have the tools to outperform some of their projected stat lines or even their projected run environment. This is a situational ballclub poised to win many more games than expected. Milwaukee also has throngs of prospects, too many to develop or manage even, and certainly too many to clearly discern a certain star from the group. Trading away any of the BP's top 10 or even top 15 will fail to leave you speechless or even angry. (Go ahead, run the scenarios!)
Given the industry shift toward prospect parity, an aggressive midseason from Stearns could allow the club to capitalize on a pricing disparity; where prospects are more evenly matched, the ability to squeeze wins out of trades involving those prospects is much easier and more valuable. As a clear example, take the 2016 midseason deals involving catcher Jonathan Lucroy and right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, who still combine for nearly as much future surplus as Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and PTBNL even after Brinson earned an OFP ranking improvement and Ryan Cordell was reified as the PTBNL.
This is not to criticize the deal from Milwaukee’s standpoint, but rather to point out that the Rangers were able to extract exceptional big-league WARP and contract surplus from those three prospects. There is a good chance that Lucroy and Jeffress outperform this trio for the Rangers, especially given the contracts involved. Unfortunately, although the Brewers are ahead of the game with their prospects-to-spare and aggression-and-command MLB roster, they fell prey to the trend of failing to spend money on the MLB team.
Countering that trend would have put the Brewers ahead of the game in every facet: This 2017 club is precisely the type of team that could have benefited from more spending to bolster several areas of the roster, and they simply refused to do so. Should the roster composition remain intact during spring training, the Brewers are a good bet to break camp with a payroll lower than the $63.9 million mark entering last season. This is a problem of planning, or rather a failure to build a comprehensive, system-wide plan. For all the praise deserved for mitigating two driving forces in MLB (likely decline in scoring, parity of prospects), the Brewers currently stand to lose because of their suddenly steadfast refusal to spend money on a baseball roster.
Even if we all know this is a fool’s errand to criticize MLB spending habits, that the entire league is a vehicle to sell an entertainment experience shrouded in the guise of winning baseball games, those old “maximize winning” reflexes will twitch for another generation, especially among Brewers fans: winning baseball games is much more fun than finance cynicism, and hopefully the Brewers will learn that lesson before the trade deadline in 2017.
Nicholas Zettel is the editor-in-chief of BP Milwaukee.