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The Brewers have been busy, but they haven’t gotten better

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If anything, they’ve gotten worse.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

There have been few teams more active than the Brewers this offseason. Just in the last week, the Brewers have signed six free agents, the most recent of which was Justin Smoak on a one-year deal with a club option for 2021. They’ve acquired three major league starters in two separate trades. It’s the sort of activity you want to see from a team that was two innings away from the NLDS. The problem is that few of the players they’ve acquired are especially good or at least better than the player they are replacing.

The rotation was the area the Brewers needed the most help in. So far, Milwaukee has swapped out Zach Davies for Eric Lauer. Chase Anderson was shipped to Toronto and Josh Lindblom has taken his place. Jordan Lyles left in free agency and he was replaced by Brett Anderson. By their Steamer projections, the Brewers has gotten slightly better, but not significantly so. Considering the difference isn’t so great to assume that ZiPS or PECOTA would have to agree that yes, the Brewers have made their rotation better, it’s more or less a wash.

Brewers rotation changes

Pitcher Projected WAR In Replacing Projected WAR Out Net WAR
Pitcher Projected WAR In Replacing Projected WAR Out Net WAR
Eric Lauer 1.3 Zach Davies 0.8 0.5
Brett Anderson 1.7 Jordan Lyles 1.3 0.4
Josh Lindblom 0.6 Chase Anderson 0.8 -0.2
TOTAL 3.6 TOTAL 2.9 0.7
Steamer

This doesn’t include Gio Gonzalez who started 17 games for the Brewers last season and is projected for a 1.5 fWAR season. Remember, the Brewers rotation wasn’t great to begin with. In 2019, Milwaukee starters ranked 17th in ERA, 16th in FIP, 18th in xFIP, and 20th in fWAR. That they’ve sort of gotten better on paper is hardly a victory and that’s before digging into the risks of the pitchers they signed and the chances they took in letting go the ones they had.

In 2019, Brett Anderson cracked 100 innings for the first time since 2015. Over the last four seasons, Anderson has dealt with myriad injuries including a forearm and shoulder strains in 2018 and a back strain in 2017. He’s coming off a clean bill of health in 2019, and his injury history of course doesn’t mean that he’ll get hurt. Injury prone pitchers stay healthy and innings-eaters get hurt all the time.

Even if the Brewers get 25 to 30 starts from Anderson, they shouldn’t expect anything more than league average innings from him. Anderson had the lowest strikeout percentage of any qualified starter in baseball. Anderson did a fine job of suppressing home runs in 2019, posting a 13.3 HR/FB percentage and 1.02 HR/9, but he’ll be going from one of the toughest parks to homer in to one of the easiest.

We don’t know what to expect from Josh Lindblom. The righty is coming off of two stellar seasons in the KBO, winning the Choi-Dong Won Award, analogous to the Cy Young Award, in consecutive years as well as the league MVP award in 2019. Lindblom could be the find of the offseason or he could be another Merrill Kelly. I’d probably take the over on his Steamer projections, but I don’t know if it’s a slam dunk.

Swapping out Davies for Lauer is a decent move, but it’s tough to get truly excited about it. Davies would be hard-pressed to repeat his 3.55 ERA with a strikeout rate only slightly higher than Brett Anderson’s. Lauer is younger and cheaper, but his ceiling is roughly the same.

While one could credit the Brewers for not getting worse, it also wouldn’t have been that hard to become clearly better. The Brewers didn’t appear to be major players in Madison Bumgarner or Zack Wheeler’s market, let alone Stephen Strasburg’s or Gerrit Cole’s. There’s still a chance that the Brewers could sign Dallas Keuchel or Hyun-Jin Ryu, but that seems about as likely as them trading Josh Hader.

On offense, things get even murkier. The Brewers have turned over almost all of their infield. The only returning members are Keston Hiura, Orlando Arcia, and Manny Piña. Travis Shaw, Hernán Perez, and Tyler Saladino were non-tendered. Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal declined their player options. Eric Thames does not appear to be coming back.

In their place, the Brewers have brought in Avísail García, Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak, Ryon Healy, and Omar Narváez.

Brewers infield changes

Player Projected WAR In Replacing Projected WAR Out Net WAR
Player Projected WAR In Replacing Projected WAR Out Net WAR
Omar Narváez 0.5 Yasmani Grandal 4.8 -4.3
Ryon Healy 0.1 Mike Moustakas 2.1 -2
Avísail García 1 Travis Shaw 0.9 0.1
Justin Smoak 1.2 Eric Thames 0.5 0.7
Eric Sogard 0.8 Tyler Saladino 0 0.8
Luís Urías 1.7 Hernán Pérez 0 1.7
TOTAL 5.3 TOTAL 8.3 -3

Who each player is paired with is mostly immaterial. It doesn’t change the fact that Steamer projects the corps leaving Milwaukee to be about three wins better than the group entering it. Most of that comes from replacing Grandal’s elite framing to Narváez’s abysmal receiving.

The Brewers improved their bench, and simply adding together projected WAR isn’t going to encapsulate the benefit of being able to more effectively platoon role players while resting starters. The Brewers are perhaps more versatile than they were before, but that doesn’t make up for losing Grandal or Moustakas. This also doesn’t include the 1.4 fWAR Trent Grisham is projected to turn in next year in San Diego.

All this roster shuffling might have just resulted in the Brewers being about three wins worse in 2020 than they would be if they retained or re-signed the 2019 crew. Maybe Grandal and Moustakas had no designs of ever coming back. It’s also not as if some of the moves they’ve made are without merit.

Getting Urías three years before he reaches arbitration could pay off handsomely (though the same could be said of San Diego acquiring Trent Grisham), and Lindblom could wind up being their best starter or a solid number two behind Brandon Woodruff. Even if the Brewers have done nothing but making lateral moves, they’ve had a much better offseason than the Cubs whose biggest move was to sign Hernán Peréz.

The offseason is still young, and the Brewers likely aren’t done. This offseason has been unusually active so far, and the Brewers are running out of impactful options. The Brewers have cleared about $25 million in payroll room, but if they don’t spend that, then who cares? So far, their moves have made them different, not better. For a team whose talent and performance was closer to the fourth-place Reds than the first-place Cardinals, that’s not enough.


Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.