Despite the seemingly growing malcontent in the ranks of Milwaukee Brewers fans over the team’s lack of big offseason acquisitions, David Stearns and the rest of the front office have been quietly proving that need is not best filled by big names or big money but by good timing and tangible value.
On Friday afternoon, the Brewers avoided arbitration by agreeing to one-year deals with infielder Jonathan Villar, super-utility man Hernan Perez as well as two staples of the 2017 roster, closer Corey Knebel and starter Jimmy Nelson, who both far exceeded expectations in their fourth and fifth Major League seasons respectively.
But the most surprising part is not that the team re-upped with their arbitration-eligible talent, but that they did so at nearly marginal costs.
While Nelson’s career numbers may not jump off the page (33-44, 4.12 ERA, 1.353 WHIP, 3.3 BB/9, 8.1 K/9), he was surely deserving of a raise after his 2017 performance, as he compiled a 3.49 ERA (3.05 FIP), a 1.249 WHIP, 199 strikeouts and only 48 walks in 175 1/3 innings before a shoulder injury derailed the end of his season. Reports on Friday indicate that Nelson settled with the team at a mere $3.7 million.
Knebel experienced a similar breakout in 2017, as he pitched his way to a 1.78 ERA and 1.158 WHIP while striking out 146 and walking 40 over 76 innings with a healthy 39 saves to boot and even received the team’s sole All-Star nod. His deal? $3.65 million.
On paper, the numbers-to-salary comparison indicate the Brewers came out on top with two exceptional values, but more than all else, they seem to perfectly frame the narrative Milwaukee has been writing since David Stearns has taken over the helm: If improvement is the goal, the word ‘premium’ does not need to be followed by ‘player’, it needs to be followed by ‘value.’
But if the public response to the team’s re-signing of Brewers veteran Yovani Gallardo and journeyman Jhoulys Chacin is any indicator, many fans are still miffed that the team hasn’t gone all-in on a healthy starting market filled with the likes of Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish or Lance Lynn.
Despite the potential improvement any of these players could supply Milwaukee, one large factor seems to be consistently overlooked at the surface: All of these players will be seeking multi-year deals at $14-27 million per year and they were all outperformed in a variety of categories by Nelson and fellow starter Chase Anderson, who was just re-inked on a two-year deal for around $12 million.
Of course, there’s still a chance that Milwaukee makes a splash before pitchers and catchers report in just over a month. But then again, if there is one point also failing to be mentioned, it’s that Milwaukee’s starters ranked 10th in ERA in the entire league last year (4.10) despite losing both aces Anderson and Nelson for portions of the regular season, Opening Day starter Junior Guerra to injury and subsequent ineffectiveness upon his return, losing two other starters, Tommy Milone and Wily Peralta to similar if not worse ineffectiveness, employing the middling likes of a declining Matt Garza and maintaining a plug-and-play method that saw pitchers with little or no Major League experience (Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, Paolo Espino) starting on the mound with some regularity, all without employing one of their top pitching prospects, Josh Hader (2.08 ERA, 0.986 WHIP, 68 K, 22 BB in 49 innings of relief), in a starting role.
There is undoubtedly a sea change happening in Milwaukee that also seems to be taking a hold on the league as well: Where the eye test may have reigned supreme in years past, analytics are taking a strong hold in front offices. Fans need no further evidence than the near stalemate taking place in the open market, as a plethora of big (and small) names have been floating in an ocean of uncertainty with less than five weeks to go before Spring Training.
Whether the stalling has taken place as a specific tactic by Scott Boras, the agent with the lion’s share of top talent this offseason who is seeking huge, multi-year deals for his clients, or because front offices are getting wise to the Albert Pujols-like high-demand, sub-par—return potential remains to be seen, but if it cements anything, it’s that the Brewers’ prudent approach to free agency may be the most effective approach to improvement, even if it remains unpopular with both pundits and some of the fanbase.
Evidence here is not scant either, both as a microcosm and league-wide. Both of the two previous World Series champions, the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs, had to endure the pains of multi-year deconstruction before taking home the Commissioner’s Trophy. The Kansas City Royals, repeat contenders in 2014 and 2015, placed it on their shelf in 2015 with a league-average and well-allocated salary of only $132 million while paying no more than $14 million (Alex Gordon) to any specific player, a majority of which fell under $6 million. Houston did much of the same, hitting $14 million only twice (Carlos Beltran at $16 M, Yulieski Gurriel at $14.4) while the Cubs and their big pocketbooks ran a bit more rampant — they needed $188 million total.
But regardless of the details, it remains clear that money is not everything. Smart roster building is, at its core, one of the most important factors in building a winning team especially for small markets who can’t just open their checkbooks to fill glaring holes at the drop of a hat.
There’s no doubt that the Brewers will be in a challenging scenario at season’s start in regards to their starting rotation. Nelson isn’t slated to return until mid-season at the earliest. Anderson will need to be at the top of his game to repeat or come close to his stellar 2017. Zach Davies is well-known for his slow starts to the season before getting into cruise mode. Chacin is moving from the second-most pitcher-friendly park in the league to the third-most hitter-friendly park in the league. The final two spots are open for Brent Suter, who despite lacking flash is still a solid out-getter, Brandon Woodruff, who has only eight career MLB starts under his belt to mixed results (2-3, 4.81 ERA), Aaron Wilkerson, who saw a total of only 10 1/3 Major League innings last year and Gallardo, who despite his past success in Milwaukee, is coming off the two roughest seasons of his career.
Minding these factors, there’s little wonder why the starting rotation has been a hot topic of conjecture, inspiring many to take to social media to air their frustrations with the team’s lack of big name signings. But that same scenario raises one big question: With so many talented arms coming up through the system like top prospects Luis Ortiz, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Cody Ponce, is it worth unloading an average of $20 million a year on a long-term contract over giving young talent time to shine before making the big push in the coming years.
Few offseason prognosticators have predicted the Brewers taking the division, especially with the already realized and impending deals made by the Cubs and Cardinals, let alone securing a Wild Card spot with any sense of certainty. Milwaukee’s top talent isn’t slated to hit the majors en masse for another year or two, making signing a top-tier starter look less and less reasonable in a system that looks destined to find success in the long game. Multi-year deals aside, there is no guarantee established talent won’t hit the brick wall many have already struck in recent years, leaving their contracts a possible eyesore on team stacked with young, controllable talent yet to hit their stride at the Major League level. Fans need no further reminder than some of previous GM Doug Melvin’s most notorious signings, names fans are already tired of hearing like Garza, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Suppan. It’s the type of scenario that truly begs the question: Is signing a big free agent really a step in the right direction or just placating a fanbase desperate for immediate success and notoriety? With any luck, a winning first half near the mid-season deadline could raise similar questions but at a much lower cost and much lower risk, reducing the impetus of immediacy to a negligible measure both on paper and in tangible on-field execution.
While the outsider’s perspective may look at the Brewers’ offseason moves as marginal improvements to the current club so far, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a league-low $83 million salary took the team within one game of playoff contention just last year. There’s no guarantee that all the players that flourished in 2017 will return to do the same in 2018, but it does make a good effort of proving that blockbusters are no guarantee either and that upside, regardless of cost, is the largest variable. The Los Angeles Dodgers, along with Yu Darvish and their league-leading $265 million payroll, may have learned that lesson in far more brutal fashion.
In baseball, nothing is a guarantee, but it seems increasingly obvious that if there was one, it’s certainly much more closely tied to a guaranteed contract than a guaranteed win.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.
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