Last year at this time, the Brewers were entering the season with some optimism that their extended run in 1st place in 2014 could be carried into a full season run in 2015. Those hopes were given a quick and bloody death, as the Brewers fell out of the gate, losing 17 of their first 21 games. Fortunately for Brewers fans, this season isn’t offering any such false hope. While some fans have thought a rebuild to be necessary for a few years, the prevailing wisdom has been that they weren’t too far away.
Reality, however, is that as they were constructed, the Brewers weren’t going anywhere worth going. Without the disastrous beginning of the season they had last year, they may have found themselves in baseball purgatory…that middle ground between actually being competitive and having a protected pick to help make a farm system healthy. Former GM Doug Melvin deserves a lot of credit. He made shrewd moves in the middle of last season to make immediate inroads on improving what was a pretty bad system. New GM David Sterns has continued along those lines, building a system with a watchful eye on the future.
As far as the on-field 2016 product is concerned, the Brewers have a number of place-holders and veterans who they will likely try to trade. That doesn’t sound like a strength per se, but if the Brewers do feel compelled to give their top prospects, Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips, a late call, there is nothing standing in the way. For a rebuilding team, that’s a strength. They have the ability to freely call up players as they become ready. Their primary concern is going to be about development, so the fact that they’ve already positioned themselves to do it without having to sit a veteran player is a strong positive for them.
The Brewers come into the season with some promising young (ish) arms. Wily Peralta isn’t a prospect anymore, and his results have been the furthest thing from good, but he still has the stuff and potential to be a solid starting pitcher. One of his biggest issues has been walks and for someone with his stuff, he doesn’t register the strike outs you’d like. But he is only 26, so he isn’t old by any stretch. Jimmy Nelson is also 26, but he has much less big league time than Peralta under his belt. The results for his first full year in the rotation were solid, too…especially considering the quality of the team around him. He kept the ball on the ground, relied on his defense, and was a solid strike out pitcher. He, too, had a bit of an issue with free passes. But, considering the Brewers had the 4th highest BB/9 in the bigs last year, neither Nelson nor Peralta should be admonished more than some of the veterans that were also walking a bunch of guys.
This strength may be temporary, but Jonathan Lucroy is still really good. He was limited by injury last year, which shows in his .264/.326/.391 line. When he’s healthy, he’s as difficult to get out as they come. He strikes out infrequently. His 15.4% K rate was his highest since 2011. He is also willing to take his walks. Lucroy will truly give a professional at bat just about every time in the box. As long as he’s with the Brewers, he will be their best player. That time, though, appears to be borrowed, as he will likely be traded before the July deadline.
Team defense was a problem last summer. It doesn’t figure to be much better this summer. The Brewers were 24th in team UZR, at -24.4. They were also 24th in defensive runs saved, at -14. Those numbers don’t figure to improve much. Jean Segura wasn’t a great defensive short stop, but you could do worse. And Carlos Gomez proved to be a wizard of sorts in center field at times. With both of those players gone, the Brewers are relying on unknown commodities in their places. This season figures to be similar to last…if the ball is in play against the Brewers, the opposition will have their fair share of good things happen.
When a team is weak defensively, the worst thing it can have is a weak pitching staff. Aside from some of their younger pitchers with upside, the Brewers aren’t going to be trotting out the best and the brightest arms that they’ve had in the last five years. 2015 Matt Garza was horriffic. 2016 Matt Garza shouldn’t be as bad…but who knows? The Brew Crew was middle of the pack as a team in striking hitters out. They walked a ton of them. They gave up a 12.7% HR/ fly ball rate, which was worse than all but the Yankees, Padres, and Rockies. And because they walked guys, have poor defense, and gave up long balls, their 4.28 ERA was 7th worst in baseball. And chances are this is going to get worse before it gets better.
The Brewers tied for the 5th lowest on-base percentage in baseball last year (.307). They were in the bottom 10 in home runs, which used to be their calling card. Their hitters had the 4th lowest fWAR, ahead of only the White Sox, Phillies, and Rockies. They swung at more pitches out of the zone than any team in baseball and were about tied with the Rockies for the highest swing rate in the league. In short, they go up hacking and make a lot of weak contact. That’s not the recipe for scoring a lot of runs. Opposing pitchers are aware that they don’t have to throw strikes against the Brewers.
2016 Is a Success If…
If their group of young players in the minor leagues stays healthy and can make positive strides in their development, the Brewers will consider their season a success. If they can further that base by trading Lucroy, and possibly players like Matt Garza (if he somehow rediscovers the strike zone and keeping the ball in the park), that will only further the degree of success that this team can look back at 2016 with. In some ways, after a great off-season, the Brewers can be successful this year by merely staying the course.
2016 Is a Failure If…
Things could get dicey if Brewers owner Mark Attanasio changes his mind and decides he can’t stomach seeing Miller Park mostly empty day in and day out. He’s admitted that he doesn’t like empty seats (because he’s the owner, so…duh). He also admitted that his competitiveness prevented him from blessing a rebuild sooner. If he gets cold feet and decides to chase veterans, force difficult personnel decisions on his new GM, or try to rush the process, he could actually set the process backwards.
The Brewers are coming back. Not this year. Probably not next year. But after that, this is going to be a team full of good young players. If they stick with their process, their new front office is setting to build this team in a similar way to the Astros, where David Sterns worked before he was hired by Milwaukee. There are going to be a lot of losses in the mean time, but there is some talent worth keeping an eye on. In Wisconsin, “Arcia Watch” is in full swing.