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Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For Milwaukee Brewers

SS Orlando Arcia (L) and 2B Jonathan Villar (R) can form a potent duo up the middle for the Brewers for the next few years.
Photo credit — Arcia by Jon Roth/USA Today Sports, Villar by Roy Dabner for Journal Sentinel

Over the next few weeks, The Point of Pittsburgh will be evaluating the 5-year outlooks for each team in the National League Central.  Next up are the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Cincinnati Reds’ outlook can be reviewed at your leisure.

The Brewers make for an interesting contrast to the Reds in how to approach a rebuilding effort.  While the Reds have appeared to be passive for most of this rebuilding attempt, the Brewers have been quite active.  Through a series of low or no-cost maneuvers, the Brewers have acquired some players recently that are either future building blocks for the next potentially great Brewers team, or assets to be flipped to augment the effort to build that team.

While the Brewers and Reds occupy a close proximity to each other in the standings, the Brewers are primed to accelerate far away from them in the short term future.

Last 3 Opening Day Payrolls (via Cot’s Contracts)

  • 2014 — $103.7M (82-80)
  • 2015 — $104.3M (68-94)
  • 2016 — $63.9M (73-89)

When the Brewers hired then-30 year old David Stearns in September 2015, it signaled that the organization was ready to go in a bold, analytically-inclined direction.  In the little over a year that he’s been on the job, Stearns has made a series of under-the-radar pickups that have greatly accelerated the rebuilding efforts.

  • Acquired RHP Junior Guerra off waivers from the White Sox.
  • Traded minor league pitcher Cy Sneed to the Astros for SS/2B Jonathan Villar
  • Traded 1B Jason Rogers to the Pirates for CF Keon Broxton and lottery ticket pitcher RHP Trey Supak
  • Traded Jean Segura to the Diamondbacks for SS Isan Diaz, RHP Chase Anderson (and Aaron Hill)
  • Traded reliever Jeremy Jeffress and catcher Jonathan Lucroy to the Rangers for OF Lewis Brinson and RHP Luis Ortiz
  • Traded reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox for 3B Travis Shaw and other spare parts

Stearns was able to get good value for his prized asset of Lucroy (after having Lucroy reject a deal to the Indians that may have been an even better return) and has been able to work on seemingly low-key deals to unearth hidden gems, as well.

Current Cornerstones

Ryan Braun is still on the team and got back to posting very good numbers at the plate in 2016, but I find it hard to believe that he’s long for the organization.  I have to think they’re going to move him either during the 2017 season or in this offseason when his contract is even more palatable.

Eric Thames was recently signed out of Korea after rehabbing his career over there.  He’s signed for 3 years, but I don’t consider him a cornerstone in the truest sense.

In terms of true, youthful cornerstones currently on the team, I’d select three players.  RHP Zach Davies (24 years old) may look like a high schooler (and at 6 foot, 155 lbs is hardly imposing), but his performance last year as a high-end #3/low-end #2 signaled that he’s a key piece.  SS Orlando Arcia (22 years old) had a rough debut last year, but his pedigree and minor league production portend better things for him.  The 26-year old Jonathan Villar is a little older than preferred for a rebuilding team to make a cornerstone, but his breakout season in 2016 had the Brewers already approach him about a long-term deal this offseason, although they were far apart on terms.

2017 Top 100 Baseball America Prospects

  • OF Lewis Brinson (#27, projected level in 2017 AAA)
  • LHP Josh Hader (#33, projected level in 2017 AAA/MLB)
  • OF Corey Ray (#42, projected level in 2017 A+)
  • RHP Luis Ortiz (#79, projected level in 2017 AA)
  • RHP Brandon Woodruff (#82, projected level in 2017 AAA/MLB)
  • SS Isan Diaz (#93, projected level in 2017 A+)

Here’s the rest of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Top 10, as per Baseball America.

There’s a few other Brewers prospects to highlight, starting with OF Brett Phillips.  He had a huge regression in 2016, keyed by his propensity for strikeouts, but he still remains on the radar as a potential piece.  RHP Phil Bickford was obtained from the Giants in a trade for reliever Will Smith last year.  Bickford likes to rock the ganja, which has him suspended for the first 50 games of the season, but if he can straighten himself out there’s a ton of potential there.  And OF Trent Clark backslid last season after putting up a strong debut in 2015 after being drafted.  He needs to hit enough to justify being a corner outfielder defensively.

The issue at hand is that there are no high-impact pitching prospects, interpreted as #1/#2 level, in the system currently.  Hader has a chance to be a #2, if he can reign in the walks and develop a third pitch to offset right-handed batters.  But other than him, I see a lot of #3 to #5 types on the farm right now.  With the Brewers not drafting in the top 5 and probably being in the mid-70’s of wins for the next few years, it’s hard to imagine them being able to snag a top talent early on in the draft where most spawn from.

5-Year Outlook

  • 2017 ($63M committed salary) — The Brewers are doing the right thing this year.  Aside from Ryan Braun’s $20M salary, there are virtually no long-term commitments (aside from Eric Thames’ low-cost deal through 2019) and the rest of the salary is on one-year stopgaps and pre-arb young guys.  Whether it happens during the season or after it, the Brewers will be looking to move Braun’s remaining 3 year/$60M remaining after 2017 to fully finish off the teardown.  With Thames in place at 1B, Braun will be blocking a spot for Lewis Brinson, either later this year or for 2018.  His salary is actually not all that much, provided he retains his recent production level at the plate.  The Brewers should also look to move RHP Junior Guerra.  The 32-year old Guerra will not be here for the next great Brewers team, so looking to move him and his four years of team control after the season would be a shrewd move by GM Stearns.  I think some type of deal gets done with Jonathan Villar before he heads to arbitration after the year.  The Brewers will probably finish in the mid-70’s of wins.
  • 2018 ($25M committed salary)– If the Brewers can move Braun and his $20M, they’ll have virtually no committed payroll.  This year should see the debut of Lewis Brinson in the outfield on a corner.  If some players break out or continue their upward trendlines, I could see the Brewers doing a few team-friendly extensions, specifically with RHP Zach Davies, OF Domingo Santana, and CF Keon Broxton (if he delivers on the preseason hype for 2017).  It’s possible that if Braun is gone for 2018, the Brewers win total may hold steady, but it’s also entirely conceivable that they could flirt with 80 wins.
  • 2019 ($25M committed salary)– Whether or not Braun is still on the roster, this is the year that I target the Brewers to be a winning club again.  The bones of a good team will be rounding into form for them with Davies and Hader in the rotation, along with the others from the Woodruff/Ortiz/Nelson/Peralta/Anderson/Jungmann pool of candidates, and a core of hitters like Thames/Arcia/Villar/Brinson/Broxton/Santana in the lineup.  It’s possible that Isan Diaz debuts later this season, perhaps as their 3B of the future.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see OF Corey Ray in Milwaukee at some point, too.  I would look to make an Alcides Escobar-type of deal with Orlando Arcia this season, as this is the last minimum salary year he has before arbitration.  Catcher is a position of dire need in the organization, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a veteran brought in to possibly make a push for a Wild Card run.
  • 2020 ($18M committed salary) — As I’ve mentioned a few times by now, the Brewers lack an impact top-of-the-rotation arm in the system.  If they haven’t been able to procure one through the draft or via a trade by this point, I could see them making some type of splurge via free agency.  RHP Wily Peralta is presumably gone as a free agent or trade and this is both Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson’s last year of team control, so unless a new wave of arms has cropped up, it’s possible the Brewers could allocate some dollars to 1 or 2 rotation arms.
  • 2021 ($4M committed salary) — Everything’s wide open this year, as I have to think that Braun and his $4M buyout are off the books by now.  Depending on how they treat free agency in the one or two years prior, the Brewers will have some key guys in arbitration, but still relatively inexpensive, such as Domingo Santana/Zach Davies/Orlando Arcia/Keon Broxton/Josh Hader/Lewis Brinson.  I would like to think that a few of these guys will already be locked up for additional team control at fixed prices, but who knows.  Deals for Isan Diaz and Corey Ray could also be on the slate this year, too.

***

In my view, the Brewers are doing this rebuild the right way.  They tore it down to virtually the studs — Ryan Braun is the load-bearing wall in this analogy — and are acquiring assets that are a broad-based mix of short and long-range pieces.  With virtually no payroll commitments past this year, the Brewers have almost a blank slate to add pieces and decide who to offer contract extensions to as the rebuild progresses.

They’ll need to augment the process with some key free agents, especially on the starting pitching side, but it won’t be long until the Brewers are challenging for a playoff position again.

About Kevin Creagh (274 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.