Milwaukee Brewers: Two ways to push and one way to win

With the deadline looming, the Milwaukee Brewers will have to decide whether to stand pat or make a push now. The wrong move could impact the team for years. 

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Milwaukee Brewers: The all or nothing that could have been

The Milwaukee Brewers were maligned by fans and pundits alike after not grabbing a big arm in free agency this preseason, but the David Stearns methodology may be turning the talking heads on their heels.

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Milwaukee Brewers: What is key to the keystone?

Despite ending just a game out of clinching a Wild Card spot in 2017, the Milwaukee Brewers entered the offseason with a new lexicon of afflictions in the eyes of sports pundits everywhere: logjams, patchwork rotation, Johnny Bullpen. And yet, even with these purported shortcomings, injuries have made logjams a deep bench, the patchwork rotation has a top-5 ERA in the National League, and Johnny Bullpen currently ranks as the second best in all of baseball.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been deficiencies.

While most positions have had a third of the season to shake themselves out into some semblance of clarity, second base still seems to be devoid of any sort of consistency. And to be fair, historically, it’s never really been a position of strength.

Sure, Scooter Gennett had a couple decent years as the Brewers second base stopgap, but he didn’t hit his stride until he got a needed change of scenery, went back home to Ohio and now happens to be only a few hits short of leading the NL in batting and with it, boasts a .937 OPS this season after a gangbusters 2017 in which he tallied 27 HR and 97 RBI.

You could also go back to Rickie Weeks, but even including the year he received an All-Star bid, he still enjoyed only three truly productive MLB seasons. If you want to wade through players with one or two productive years, you could also include guys like Fernando Viña, but you’d have to go back to Jim Gantner, who was really only heralded for his general likability and tenure, to find any semblance of consistency — and even he struggled in the on-base percentage department and rarely tallied meaningful counting stats in consecutive years, despite a decent yearly average (don’t worry Jim, you’re still our hometown boy).

And yet, even with the David Stearns method of having any-variable-number-plus-three irons in the fire at any given moment, a third of the way through the season, the keystone still hasn’t shaken out. In fact, it’s still shaking.

Yes, Jonathan Villar has appeared to bounce back, even if not to the gangbusters 2016 campaign that had him so confident he declined a lucrative extension offer, but he’s still falling far short of both need and expectation in 2018. He’s at least slashing an improved .273/.323/.377 over 2017’s sub-tepid rollercoaster at leading the pack in starts, but his 0.5 WAR and 83 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) still leaves much to be desired, especially considering his suspect defense has him ranked near the bottom of all qualifying second basemen.

By comparison, Hernan Perez, the team’s undeniably versatile utility man, has done no better as the second in line (20 G at 2B, .245/.270/.355) and it seems that Eric Sogard’s Nerd Power has lost so much of his mojo (.113/.222/.155), he’s seen nearly an equal amount of time in Triple-A. Even Tyler Saladino, who has been a glimmer of hope, has only manned the position a handful of times, more often being slotted at short, and is currently mending a badly twisted ankle (sprain).

And while there may have been some hope prior to May that the team’s No. 10 prospect, Mauricio Dubon, could be the iron to finally strike, despite his significant struggles with plate discipline, any hopes that remained were dashed to the rocks with his season-ending ACL tear.

So where does that leave the Brewers? Well, short-handed, frankly. But that doesn’t mean that options don’t still exist.

Here’s a look at some potential players the Brewers could end up rolling with for the remainder of the year, outside of their current options of Villar, Perez, etc.

In House

Tyler Saladino

Outside of his injury, which only looks to keep him out of the starting lineup for a few weeks at best, there’s still a decent likelihood that the Brewers lean on Saladino when he returns. While his previous MLB numbers don’t jump off the page, a change in his swing had his numbers in Triple-A looking promising and seemed to translate well at the major league level during his short stay (.324/.359/.622, 6 R, 3 HR, 8 RBI).

His playing time increased dramatically with the ineffectiveness plaguing shortstop Orlando Arcia, but it remains to be seen whether they will slot him at second and fill in the blank at short or have him split playing time with Arcia and find a more permanent solution at the keystone.

Nick Franklin

Franklin is also a possibility, but like Saladino, landed on the disabled list, this time before he had even completed his first appearance this season. He’s supposedly due back from the disabled list in mid-June after suffering a quad strain, but if his previous work in Milwaukee is any indicator, he may not be long for the position (.190/.253/.310, 7 R, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 91 PA).

The Brewers obviously see at least something in him, as he’s certainly been given a premium opportunity over those seemingly better-qualified by remaining on the 40-man roster, but he’s certainly not someone many Brewers fans will be excited to take the field.

Nate Orf

He may not yet be a household name in circles that surround Cream City, but if the #FreeNateOrf campaign is any indicator, enough people know about him to want him to be given a shot. He’s not currently on the 40-man roster but his performance over the last few years, including this one, have certainly helped him place a strong bid to surface at some point this year, should those already in the majors do little to cement themselves.

He may not have the power of some others at the position, but what he lacks in power he makes up for in just about every other category. In 46 games this season, he’s slashing a highly-productive .311/.401/.413 and has already collected 30 R, 1 HR, 23 RBI and 9 SB.

Dylan Moore

Unlike Nate Orf, who seems to garner at least a fair amount of attention, Dylan Moore is quietly putting together a fantastic season so far in the minors. After crushing Double-A pitching in his first 24 games (.373/.429/.639, 12 R, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 6 SB), he seems to be carrying his success into Colorado Springs (.321/.356/.536, 8 R, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 3 SB) and competing for a potential call-up himself. Unfortunately, he also remains off the 40-man roster, but with the rest of the positions finally falling into place at the major league level, he may already be garnering consideration, even if it doesn’t reflect as much on the roster sheets. Eric Sogard has yet to prove himself in his final year of his contract and if Eric Thames returns to produce at the rate he was before he left, Ji-Man Choi, despite his effectiveness, may better serve as minor league depth or even a trade chip than another redundancy at first base.

Keston Hiura

Ok, let’s be real, Hiura is a long-shot, just days ago getting the call-up to Double-A. But as long as we’re talking real, it’s safe to say at this point that the kid is an absolute natural. He’s breezed through three levels since being drafted in 2017 and at age 21, has yet to post an OPS below .850 at any level.

He may still have a tendency to strike out, but when he’s able to produce numbers like he already has this year (.303/.368/.488, 35 R, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 4 SB in 49 G), that seems like only a minor concern. Even though his defensive numbers are skewed because he’s largely been relegated to DH, he still owns a sparkling 1.000 fielding percentage in 18 games at second base. He may be a stretch to make the jump this year, but he’s still worth mentioning — and let’s be honest, he’s certainly fun to talk about.

On the Market

Jed Lowrie

The guy may be 34 years old, but he’s outplaying his prime years by a long shot (barring his initial breakout in 2013). He enjoyed a productive 2017 season in which he tallied 86 R, 14 HR, 69 RBI in his first full season of playing time since 2014 and he’s built on it convincingly this year, already mashing nine homers and driving in 40 just a third of the way through the season. The best part? He’s in a contract year on a losing team and only cost $6 million — right in Stearns’ wheelhouse.

His chances may improve because he’s still a candidate to be part of a package deal, as the A’s are still likely in search of outfielders — which the Brewers have plenty of when you include their Triple-A roster — and have some pitching flexibility to boot. Oh, and did I mention they also have Trevor Cahill, who at only 30 years old is on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and off to a fantastic start (2.25 ERA, .886 WHIP, 41 K, 9 BB, 44 IP)?

He’s an ideal candidate for the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline but unfortunately, he’s also part of a very small market and a thin position.

Brian Dozier

Dozier has been churning in the rumor mills for a few seasons, but he’s finally now in a contract year, has been off to a slow start and is on a team that will need to make a significant turnaround if they plan to keep their buyer status heading into August and September.

His numbers in his age-31 season aren’t as good as the Twins might have hoped (.236/.310/.405, 33 R, 8 HR, 21 RBI), but in recent years, Dozier has surged in the second half and has averaged 101 R, 28 HR and 82 RBI per season with double-digit steals to boot, all of which have been eclipsed in both 2016 and 2017, leaving the door open to a significant turn at any moment.

His $9 million contract is nothing to scoff at, but with his recent scuffles and partial-pay come the deadline, he’s still a viable option should the Brewers choose to go that route and leverage some of the remainder of 2018’s salary for their potential to win now.

DJ LeMahieu

The Rockies are currently leading the NL West, but signing LeMaheiu to a one-year contract could indicate that they may be ready to move on. He may not provide the power of Lowrie or Dozier, but he is nothing if not consistent with a career average of .302 and on-base percentage of .356, both of which would be improvements on the current slate in Milwaukee. Then again, they may opt to ride out the season with him if they stay in contention.

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There are still two months before the non-waiver deadline, so there is plenty of time for things to shake it in numerous ways, especially considering David Stearns’ penchant for the unconventional.

And of course, considering the laundry list of potential problems the team was supposed to be laden with at season’s start, there are certainly worse things to have to worry about than which stopgap will hold down the fort until two of the team’s top-10 prospects reach the major league level in the next year or two.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

The Milwaukee Brewers offense: Holy or holey?

In late January, the Milwaukee Brewers shook baseball by adding two of the league’s best two-way outfielders in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Now, they seem to be doing little but shaking themselves. But if the underlying numbers are any indicator, they should be on the road to redemption sooner than later.

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Step back from the ledge: Brewers pitching better than most think

After a whirlwind January where the Milwaukee Brewers added outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and reliever Matt Albers, something still feels amiss between the talking heads and Brewers fans alike. If chatter in baseball circles is any indicator, it seems that nearly everyone expected the team to make a big push for a frontline starter, going so far as to say the Brewers aren’t a true contender until they address their rotation.

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Christian Yelich is major boon to Brewers current, future outfield

While the rest of the league was sitting by the hearth, quietly contemplating the balance of expenditure and analytics, David Stearns was in the kitchen, his fingers on the dial of the burner, waiting for the temperature to be just right to make a splash. By the time he was through, he had cooked up one of the best outfields in the NL and served it to the rest of the league on a silver platter.

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Milwaukee Brewers Winter League surprises, bounce backs and continuity

While American baseball sits immersed in an ice bath, the hot stove unable to muster much more than a simmer after the Gerrit Cole trade, summer in the southern hemisphere has bats in full swing and with it, some of the Milwaukee Brewers major league and notable minor league talent.

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Milwaukee Brewers quiet offseason could pay big dividends in the long run

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.

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Miles Mikolas, other international pitchers could be Milwaukee Brewers’ ticket to success

Miles Mikolas, Hyeon-Jong Yang and Hideaki Wakui are all potential international pitching options for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.

The Milwaukee Brewers are officially out of the race for Shohei Ohtani, but that doesn’t mean general manager David Stearns will be any less willing to test the international market.

While the likes of Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn remain contract-heavy outside options the Brewers can most certainly afford stateside, Stearns has proven that big moves don’t always necessitate big names or big contracts. Even with his limited experience in Milwaukee, the young GM has already cemented his identity as an exceptionally-discerning deal maker, as evidenced by key additions like breakout third baseman Travis Shaw.

But Stearns’ greatest strength resonates far beyond his frugality. In truth, his taste for the unconventional may be the key to the team’s recent success and fans need to look no further than first base. Adding former MLB prospect and KBO phenom Eric Thames was about as under-the-radar as it gets, and bolstering the position by claiming Jesus Aguilar off waivers in February meant he was able to add a combined 47 home runs and 115 RBI — along with several years of security — to the stat sheet, all for an average of only $6 million a year.

With hot stove already in motion and the Winter Meetings less than a week away, there will be plenty of opportunities for Stearns to again prove his front office prowess. While Major League Baseball’s roster of free agents is already drawing speculation far and wide, it could again be unorthodox methodology that makes or breaks the Brewers’ playoff hopes in 2018.

One name that has surfaced that seems right in line with that type of thinking is Miles Mikolas, who, like Thames, was given limited MLB playing time before greatly improving his game overseas, as noted by Ken Rosenthal.

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Mikolas’ first foray in the majors was met with middling results at best, as he compiled a 4-6 record, 5.32 ERA and 1.423 WHIP with wholly-average strikeout and walk rates (6.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9) over 37 games split between three seasons. But since joining the Yomiuri Giants in 2015, he’s vastly improved in nearly every statistical category. Over the last three years, he’s compiled a record of 31-13, posted a 2.18 ERA and 0.994 WHIP, all while trimming his walk rate to an impressive 1.5 BB/9 and buoyed his strikeout rate to 8.0 K/9. In 2017, he even pushed those rates to 1.1 and 9.0 respectively.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a comprehensive arsenal either, and Mikolas suits the need with a fastball that has topped out at 94-mph, a curve with exceptional movement, a hard slider and a change-up to boot. Given the fluidity that Stearns and manager Craig Counsell regularly employ, he would also make a good fit for a mid-season move to the bullpen should another starting option become available outside of Jimmy Nelson’s return from injury.

Contract estimates have ranged between $7 and $10 million for a two-year deal, potentially making him an absolute steal given what he’s been able to produce. But like any international free agent, success at the MLB level is a long road to proof. The 29-year-old will be facing much different hitters than he was in Japan and given the precarious nature of even tenured pitchers, it’s still a risk, even if small. Luckily for Milwaukee, if they do decide to make Mikolas a competitive offer, it will likely have little impact on the incredibly low payroll still on the books, even after arbitration, as the team has hovered at the bottom of league-wide spending for the last two years.

But Mikolas isn’t the only international pitcher Milwaukee could open their checkbook to. Hyeon-Jong Yang, a left-handed pitcher out of South Korea could also be a potential fit. Like Thames, who was also signed out of the Korean league, Yang’s end-of-year status was held in high regard — he was named the KBO MVP in 2017.

Outside of being an additional left-handed arm the Brewers’ rotation could undoubtedly utilize, his numbers over the last three years (3.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/9) prove that he could be serviceable in the back end of the rotation.

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In the past, Yang had expressed his interest in playing in the majors and was previously posted by the Kia Tigers in 2014, but the offers the team received were quickly rejected for being too low. As recently as mid-November, a few MLB teams have already completed status checks on the 29-year-old but nothing has come to fruition in any official capacity and Yang has also stated publicly that he would like to return to the Tigers in 2018, leaving his status cloudy at best — not to mention the team would again need to post him before talks begin. But then again, with the MVP notch on his belt, his potential value may have already reached its ceiling and could be the impetus to his entering the MLB pool.

Another option could be right-hander Hideaki Wakui. Despite having only a modest 2017 season (5-11, 3.99 ERA, 1.323 WHIP) in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball at 31 years old, the tenured pitcher has maintained an incredibly consistent 13-year career, compiling a 3.45 ERA and 1.259 WHIP while posting solid walk and strikeout rates (2.7 BB/9, 6.6 K/9). Wakui’s contract expired at the end of the 2017 season and he’s previously expressed an interest in joining the MLB ranks. Given his age, he easily meets international requirements in both age and experience to surpass being restricted to international bonus pools, leaving a vast amount of financial room for the Brewers, or any team for that matter, to make him a considerable offer.

While Mikolas may be the greatest potential asset of the three, there’s little doubt that Stearns will be looking to explore every potential option available to secure a competitive roster for 2018 and beyond. Based on his previous history, almost nothing seems out of reach.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

Milwaukee Brewers primed for 2018 with or without free agent pitching

If there was an end-of-season award for best value based on individual players or team payroll, the Milwaukee Brewers would have easily been nominated, if not in prime position for taking it home with little competition.

Instead, manager Craig Counsell was stiffed by the writers for Manager of the Year nomination despite taking a young, generally inexperienced team within one game of the playoffs, ending their season at 86-76, around twenty games above what was almost universally predicted in the preseason, all on a $83 million total payroll. It merits mentioning that Counsell won the award from The Sporting News.

While money has largely been one of the most influential factors across the league as a whole, frugal front offices in recent years have made a statement that money isn’t everything, including the most recent World Series-winning Houston Astros, who hovered just below Major League Baseball’s league average salary at around $150 million. The four years prior have seen no shortage of the small-market, big-result narratives either. The Cleveland Indians made the World Series in 2016 with a total payroll of $115 million. The 2015 Kansas City Royals won it with $132 million while the 2014 version came up with an AL pennant spending only $105 million.

The story of winning has undoubtedly shifted in recent decades, primarily led by the evolution of advanced analytics. Few examples of such transformations have been so prevalent since the development of the forward pass in the NFL and the public eye is now beginning to focus more consistently on baseball’s ‘Moneyball’ revolution.

Brewers fans don’t have to look far, either. Before general manager David Stearns helmed the front office in Milwaukee, he did the lion’s share of the work assembling the talent of these 2017 World Series champion Astros. The major difference? As it stands, the Brewers have only just over $32 million on the books after jettisoning Matt Garza’s $12.5 million final contract year this offseason — and that includes re-upping with the team’s surprise front-of-the-rotation starter Chase Anderson for $11.25 million (two-year with a pair of club options covering ’20 and ’21).

Considering the comparison of wins to cost (86 wins for $83 million), the Brewers got considerable value that ended up just under $1 million per win, one of the best ratios in baseball. In 2018, they’re positioned even better with more payroll headroom and over half the roster still under team control.

The team does have numerous players entering arbitration including Jeremy Jeffress, Jonathan Villar, Hernan Perez, Jimmy Nelson, Corey Knebel and Stephen Vogt, but only Nelson and Knebel look to provide any significant jump in salary and given their talent, the team may try to settle before the deadline. Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana, another pair of 2017 standouts often seen as potential building blocks, may also be candidates for early settlement.

But there is still one looming question that could shift the entire paradigm: Will the Brewers jump into the starting pitching market during the hot stove?

Milwaukee has been linked to just about every starting pitcher on the market entering the offseason, including Jake Arrieta, who was predicted by MLB Trade Rumors to receive somewhere around $100 million on a four-year deal. Although there seem to be chances that the Brewers test the current market, one of the strongest starting pitching markets in recent years, Stearns has shown little consideration for anyone but generally young, controllable starters like Jose Quintana, that is, before he was scooped up by the Cubs just before the mid-season deadline.

But three important factors seem to have gone overlooked in this year’s early hot stove predictions for Milwaukee.

The first is that Stearns puts a premium on value, no matter the position. He did not overpay for either Eric Sogard (who was recently re-signed for $2.4 million) or Neil Walker, yet both produced far beyond their relative pay grades, as did reliever Anthony Swarzak and first baseman Eric Thames, despite the ups and downs of his first year back in the majors. It seems unlikely that the GM will overpay for only average or even tailing production like Arrieta unless his crew sees significant upside in one or more free agent candidates and of course, for the right price.

If he even pursues the position at all, it seems far more likely that Stearns will look for under-the-radar candidates like Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill or Tyler Chatwood, low-cost fill-ins with upside that could again extend far beyond their pay, players who could rise in value or identify those in the system that could become expendable and strengthen the team’s competitive longevity with return on investment, either in production or prospects.

The second, is that the team is already loaded with talented pitchers. Chase Anderson will likely be slotted in the number one spot at season’s start. Zach Davies also looks to be a shoo-in. Brent Suter, who held down Anderson’s spot admirably while the latter was on the disabled list for nearly two months and continued to roll once he returned, is another viable option considering the numbers he posted during that stretch (From July 3 onward: 13 GS, 3.24 ERA, 52 K, 16 BB, 66.2 IP). Brandon Woodruff was nearly lights out in his first foray in the majors, posting a 1.52 ERA with 20 strikeouts and nine walks over his first four starts before getting gassed as soon as the calendar turned to September, stretching him beyond the comforts of the shorter minor league season. Aaron Wilkerson is another option, as he carried his solid Double-A stats (11-4, 3.16 ERA, 1.075 WHIP, 143 K, 36 BB, 142.1 IP) into his MLB introduction (1-0, 3.48 ERA, 0.677 WHIP, 7 K, 1 BB, 10.1 IP).

And of course, that doesn’t even count Josh Hader’s potential transition back into a starting role, the return of Jimmy Nelson or the high upside of minor leaguers Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Luis Ortiz and Cody Ponce, who all could see their first Major League time in 2018.

The third is that Stearns is a man who loves to defy convention. His acquisition of Thames and Jesus Aguilar, who ended up being one of the best pinch hitters in the majors after being abandoned by the Cleveland Indians, largely solved the glaring issue at first base, all for under $6 million — and the duo went on to produce 47 home runs and 115 RBI in 2017.

While the pitching options are more limited than position players when reaching back into the minor league free agent pool or potentially overseas with any level of certainty, especially given the substantial escalation of talent in the majors, Stearns’ history has shown that his economic approach has been his greatest asset.

Whatever the case may be, the Milwaukee Brewers are now positioned with few gaping holes left to be filled and more than enough options to exercise in the coming months. And above all else, given the proven dexterity of their front office, the 2018 team will primed to prove that money isn’t everything.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.