The Milwaukee Brewers do not exactly have a storied, exciting history, I’m sorry to say. The franchise debuted in 1969, and it has only a .476 winning percentage in 7,675 games since then. The team has made the playoffs just four times — yes, four. They have never won a World Series, but they came within one game of a championship in 1982, losing to the Cardinals in seven games.
According to FanGraphs, the Brewers are projected to win only 69 games in 2017, which is tied with the White Sox for the second-worst projected record in baseball. PECOTA is much more optimistic, measuring the Brewers as a 76-win team by true talent. Even at that projection, though, the team will not be competitive in 2017 without an absurd amount of good luck.
The good news is that things are looking up for the Brewers. GM David Stearns — who is the youngest GM in baseball and one year younger than Ryan Braun — took over in September 2015. Having worked for Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, he is well-versed in modern baseball analysis, and more importantly, how to rebuild a struggling franchise.
The Brewers are the smallest market team in baseball. They do not have a lot of money, and free agents do not seem to see Milwaukee as a destination city. As a result, their farm system is critical for the team to succeed. Currently, the system is in excellent shape. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked them sixth with a whopping eight players in his top 100 prospects list. Baseball Prospectus has seven players from the Brewers in their top 101 prospects list.
To be fair, former GM Doug Melvin deserves a fair amount of credit for the state of the system. He drafted Trent Clark, Cody Ponce, and Brandon Woodruff. In a very smart trade, he also acquired Josh Hader and Brett Phillips from the Astros for Carlos Gómez and Mike Fiers. Unfortunately, his first three picks in the 2014 draft, Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood, and Monte Harrison, are currently struggling pretty badly.
Though he has only been GM for about a year and a half, Stearns has done an excellent job of further building up the system. In his first draft, he selected Corey Ray in the first round and Lucas Erceg in the second.
Last offseason, he traded Jean Segura for Isan Díaz, a trade with unexpected outcomes on both sides. Segura went on to have a 5.7-WAR season that no reasonable person could have seen coming. Who know if he would have done that well had he played 2016 on the Brewers, but those extra wins could have hurt their draft position.
Díaz also surprised after the trade. He had an excellent 2015 in the minors, hitting .360/.436/.640 while being two years younger than the average player in the Pioneer League. However, he struggled very badly the year before, which is probably why he did not land on any top prospects lists that I could find from 2016. Luckily for Brewers fans, his 2015 was representative of some real improvements, and he continued to perform well in 2016 despite still being young for A ball.
While the Díaz trade was great, Stearns really nailed the Jonathan Lucroy trade at the 2016 deadline, as reviewed by our resident Brewers fan Travis Sarandos. Lewis Brinson headlined the deal, but Luis Ortiz was a good acquisition as well. Brinson alone would have been a great return for Lucroy, who will become a free agent after 2017.
And earlier this offseason, Stearns capitalized on Tyler Thornburg’s breakout, shipping him to the Red Sox. Though he likely will not compare to Brinson and Díaz, acquiring Mauricio Dubon for a reliever was a shrewd move. He has a chance to be an average everyday player, or at worst a good bench player. Upon making it to the Show, he will also be the first-ever player from Honduras to appear in the majors.
It almost goes without saying that it’s going to be a big year for Orlando Arcia as he goes into his first full season. He struggled mightily at the plate in 2016, hitting .219/.273/.358 in 216 PA. As good as he is defensively at shortstop, he is still going to have to hit better than that. Nevertheless, I am sure that any prospect analyst will tell you that the potential to hit is still there.
Jonathan Villar was another shrewd acquisition by Stearns. He led the league in stolen bases in 2016 with 62. Unfortunately, that single stat made him out to be a much better baserunner than he actually was. For one, he also led in most times caught stealing with 18. A 77.5 success rate is not great. Plus, if we look at UBR, a stat that measures how well a player runs the bases when he is not attempting steals, Villar came in at -1.5 runs. His total BsR came in at only 3.2 runs. That barely cracked the top 50 in baseball. He really needs to be more careful on the basepaths. The speed and talent is there for him to add up to a full win to the team via the basepaths alone.
All that being said, Villar was still worth 3.9 WAR in 2016 because he hit .285/.369/.457. Villar will be the everyday second baseman in 2017, and though some regression should be expected, he should remain a solid everyday player with the upside for more if he can stop running into outs on the basepaths. He will probably move to third base once Isan Díaz gets called up, though that likely won’t happen until late 2018 at the earliest. Even if he never comes close to four WAR again, he should be a nice player to have for cheap through 2020.
Obviously, I would be remiss to discuss the Brewers’ future and not bring up Ryan Braun. His prime is behind him, but he is still really good. The last two seasons he hit 295/.361/.518 and had 8.2 WAR. There is still $72 million left on his contract through 2020, and he has a $15 million team option for 2021. One could make the argument that he will still be productive when the team is competitive again and is therefore worth keeping. Then again, he is 33 years old and might fall off a cliff at any time, so he is likely more valuable as a trade asset.
Some analysts have stated that they believe Braun’s contract to be a significant impediment to trading him. Honestly, though, I don’t believe that’s true. A four-year, $72 million contract for a player of Braun’s caliber is not a lot in today’s game. A desperate team could easily overpay at the trade deadline, too, and if the Brewers are willing to eat a good amount of the contract, they can get a nice return for Braun.
Of course, the longer the Brewers wait, the less value Braun will have. It is also worth noting that he has always had a partial no-trade clause. On May 24, he will gain 10-and-5 rights, which will grant him a full no-trade clause. That could certainly complicate things. Besides being able to dictate where he will go, he could also demand that the acquiring team pick up his 2021 option. As we learned from Lucroy, a player dictating the terms of a trade could lead to the other team backing out.
With all their young up-and-comers, the Brewers are in a good spot, and they have a GM who has impressed in his first year. Trading Ryan Braun will be his biggest challenge, but I am sure that Stearns is up for it. I look forward to seeing what the Brewers will become in the next two to three years.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.