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How Will the Milwaukee Brewers Do in 2017 and Beyond?
The Brewers Are Rebuilding for the Future
The direction of the Milwaukee Brewers for the future and decision making by ownership and management changed after the team's collapse at the end of the 2014 season and miserable start in 2015. It was at this point that Milwaukee realized it had to rebuild to be competitive in the future. Older established players started to be traded for minor league prospects. By the end of 2015, the Brewers had not only a new manager but also a younger general manager. The rebuild continued in earnest in 2016 with the trading of more older starting players for prospects. By the beginning of 2017, Milwaukee had some of the best minor league prospects in baseball.
In this article, I first reflect on Milwaukee's decision to rebuild. Next, I analyze the present state of the rebuild and conclude by speculating on the Brewer's performance in 2017 and beyond.
A Disheartening Collapse in 2014
The Milwaukee Brewers began the 2014 season with an annual payroll of 123 million dollars. Being only two and a half years since the Brewers last appearance in the 2011 playoffs, Milwaukee had a roster of experienced veterans both for pitching and position players. Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza had been signed as free agents, and Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez anchored the starting line-up. There were also a lot of good younger players like Jonathon Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis.
The Brewers had a record of 20-7 in April and were leading the National League Central Division up until September of 2014. At that point, Milwaukee started scoring fewer runs per game. In the final 31 games of the season, the Brewers scored zero, one, or two runs per game on 17 occasions. It amounted to an offense averaging 2.73 runs per game. This undoubtedly led to Milwaukee's 9-22 finishing record at the end of September.
It is almost certain that Milwaukee's opponents took advantage of the Brewers free swinging dependence on home runs and lack of plate discipline. At the same time, St. Louis and Pittsburg played much better ball in September and finished first and second respectively in the Central Division with 90 and 88 wins. The Brewers struggled to an 82-80 record and missed getting into the playoffs.
Mark Attanasio Brewers Owner
Deciding to Rebuild in 2015
In early October, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, general manager Doug Melvin, and manager Ron Roenicke met to discuss Milwaukee's collapse in September of 2014. No reason could be found for the team's disheartening finish other than a streak of bad luck reflected in a prolonged hitting slump. Doug Melvin's and Ron Roenicke's jobs were now temporarily safe going into the 2015 season.
During the offseason prior to 2015, the Brewers traded pitcher Marco Estrada to Toronto in exchange for first baseman Adam Lind. Milwaukee had been in need of a first baseman during the 2014 season. Rather than pick up Yovani Gallardo's 14 million option for 2015, the Brewers traded him to the Texas Rangers for Cory Knebel and Luis Sardinas.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, Milwaukee played horribly in April and had a 7-18 record when Doug Melvin decided to fire Ron Roenicke and hire Craig Counsel as the new manager. At this point, Attanasio and Melvin realized that the Brewers would have to rebuild with younger players to be competitive again. Unproductive aging veterans like Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Jonathan Broxton, and Rickie Weeks had to be traded or released. Younger players of value such as Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Mike Fiers, Khris Davis, Jonathon Lucroy, and Jeremy Jeffress had to be traded in exchange for younger minor league prospects who were talented and controllable salary-wise.
As a result, third baseman Ramirez was traded to the Pirated on July 13, 2015. On July 30, Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers were traded to Houston for minor league prospects pitcher Josh Hader and outfielders Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana. On July 31, Jonathan Broxton was traded to St. Louis and Parra to the Baltimore Orioles. Zach Davies was obtained in exchange for Parra.
Milwaukee finished 2015 with a 68-94 record good for fourth place in its division.
Directly following the 2015 season, general manager Melvin was replaced by David Stearns. Stearns had been assistant general manager of the Houston Astros and had successfully helped rebuild that team.
The Rebuild under David Stearns in 2016
After David Stearns took over as general manager in October of 2015, he announced his philosophy of rebuilding the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers would trade or release expensive veterans and replace them with younger minor league prospects who were controllable salary-wise and who had a potential to be successful.
During his first three months as general manager, Stearns signed Junior Guerra who was released by the Chicago White Sox and then let veteran pitcher Kyle Lohse become a free agent on November 2. In November, Stearns also signed Hernan Perez and infielder Villar who was released by the Houston Astros. Veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez was traded to the Detroit Tigers for catcher Manny Pina. Then in December, first baseman Adam Lind was traded.
In January of 2016, Stearns signed Chris Carter who was released by Houston to play first base. Then on January 30, David Stearns made his first big trade by sending shortstop Jean Segura to the Arizona Diamondbacks for pitcher Chase Anderson and infielders Isan Diaz and Aaron Hill. On February 12, Khris Davis was traded to Oakland for catching prospect Jacob Nottingham. To conclude the offseason, pitcher Carlos Torres was signed as a free agent on April 2.
As the 2016 season began, the Brewers still had outfielder Ryan Braun, pitcher Matt Garza, second baseman Scooter Gennett, catcher Jonathon Lucroy, and pitchers Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress available for trade. Right before the trading deadline on August 1, Stearns pulled off his second big trade by sending Lucroy and Jeffress to the Texas Rangers for prospects Luis Ortiz, Lewis Brinson, and Ryan Cordell. About the same time, Will Smith was traded to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Andrew Susac.
Milwaukee finished 2016 with a 73-89 record and still had Braun and Garza who were being paid big salaries.
During November and December of 2016, Chris Carter was released and then Eric Thames signed as a first baseman free agent on November 29. The general manager pulled off another trade on December 6 by sending pitcher Tyler Thornburg to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for third baseman Travis Shaw. Before the end of the year, infielder Eric Sogard was also signed as a free agent.
The Brewers Rebuild in 2017
In January of 2017, Milwaukee signed free agent Neftali Feliz to a five million one year contract. Stearns made this move due to Feliz's previous success and because the Brewers did not have a proven closer having traded Tyler Thornburg to Boston in December of 2016.
A few days before the 2017 season began, Stearns fortified his bullpen by signing Jared Hughes to a one-year contract. Hughes had been released by the Pittsburg Pirates. Oliver Drake who was released by Baltimore was also signed to give the bullpen depth. A final transaction was claimed off waivers infielder/outfielder Nick Franklin who was released by Tampa Bay. Since Milwaukee wanted Villar to play second base, Scooter Gennett was released and then signed by the Cincinnati Reds.
As the 2017 season began, the Brewers team payroll was at 52 million. Most of the payroll was going to Ryan Braun (20 million) and Matt Garza (12.5 million). Milwaukee had been unsuccessful in trading both players. Braun's salary and health were an issue and Garza wasn't a very good pitcher.
Milwaukee fielded an opening-day starting lineup of Eric Thames at first base, Villar at second, Orlando Arcia at shortstop, and Travis Shaw at third base. The outfield saw Braun in left field, Broxton in center field, and Domingo Santana in right field. Catching duties were handled by Manny Pina and Jett Bandy. The pitching staff had Junior Guerra, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, and Peralta as starting pitchers. Hughes, Drake, Torres, Milone, Jacob Barnes, Knebel, and Feliz were in the bullpen.
Although the Brewers started out at 2-5 on their first homestand, they started to play better on the road. By the end of April, Milwaukee was in first place ahead of the Cubs and Cardinals.
Guerra was on the disabled list after the first game and replaced by Milone. Matt Garza was also on the DL. When Ryan Braun went on the disabled list on May 13, he was replaced by Eric Sogard an infielder/outfielder. At about the same time, Feliz failed in saving games as a closer and was replaced by Corey Knebel. Top pitching prospect Josh Hader was also called up in early June to help the bullpen.
As of July 4, 2017, the Brewers with a 45-40 record are in first place two and one-half games ahead of the Cubs. The new first basemen Thames and Aguilar and the new third baseman Shaw have played very well. Thames has 21 homers and Shaw is hitting close to .300 with 60 runs batted in. Corey Knebel has also done very well since replacing Feliz as the closer. Milwaukee has scored enough runs, however starting pitching and at times the bullpen have been problems. Davies and Guerra haven't pitched very well, but Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson have been outstanding. Peralta failed as a starter and has been sent to the bullpen.
Milwaukee Brewers 2017 First 50 Games Highlights
Milwaukee's Future for the Remainder of 2017 and Beyond
With a 45-40 record on July 4, the Brewers are overachieving and probably won't win the Central Division in 2017. I say this because the starting pitching has been very inconsistent. Only two of the starters, Anderson and Nelson, have been consistent so far. Another reason is that other teams in the division such as the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates have been playing poorly. If Milwaukee stops hitting and the other clubs get hot, it will be just like the Brewers collapse in September of 2014.
During the past two years since Milwaukee has been in rebuild mode, the Brewers have amassed a lot of good prospects obtained in trades and through the draft. Players such as outfielders Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips have helped the Brewers Triple-A Sky Sox lead their division. A problem down the road might be a lack of good starting pitching.
It would be best if Milwaukee could trade at least Ryan Braun and obtain some good pitching prospects in return. As young players like Santana, Shaw, and Arcia get more experience and develop consistency, Milwaukee will start to be able to compete for the playoffs. Prospects like Brinson and Phillips must also be promoted and have a chance to develop as shortstop Arcia has.
© 2017 Paul Richard Kuehn