It appears as though a new era has started in Milwaukee Brewers baseball. This new era may be one of the toughest for Brewers fans to swallow, as a massive rebuilding effort is necessary in order for the Brewers to compete in a dominant National League Central Division forthe years to come. General manager duties have now been placed in the hands of David Stearns, and hometown hero Craig Counsell is on the verge of beginning his first full season as Brewers manager. The Brewers need to be built for the future, and with Stearns and Counsell under the helm, Brewers fans must be patient and see out the full extent of the rebuilding process. Let’s recap the Brewers’ past season, a synopsis of the offseason thus far, some thoughts on some future moves, and a few early keys to success for the 2016 season.
Last Season: The Bad
Simply stated, the Brewers were not a very good baseball team last season, finishing with a 68-94 record. Only five teams finished with the same or worse record than the Brewers – the Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and Colorado Rockies. The Brewers dug themselves into a hole early on to the season, getting off to a 7-18 start in their first 25 games, leading to the firing of manager Ron Roenicke on May 3rd.
Many of the Brewers veterans saw a drop in production during the 2015 season. Starting pitchers Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza were expected to anchor the starting rotation, but both put together perhaps their worst seasons of their respective careers. Lohse started Opening Day for the Brewers and never was able to find a rhythm throughout the season. After starting 22 games, he was pulled out of the Brewers starting rotation and accepted an assignment to pitch out of the bullpen for the last two months of the season. He finished the season with a dismal 5-13 record and a 5.85 ERA. Garza was not much better, as he was also pulled out of the starting rotation in late August, and never appeared in a game in September. He finished the season with a 6-14 record and a 5.63 ERA.
Additionally, star catcher Jonathan Lucroy was limited to only 103 games during the season, missing time early in the season after suffering a broken toe, and missing time late in the season after suffering a concussion. His numbers were also quite down in 2015. During the 2014 season, Lucroy hit .301 to go along with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs. However, in 2015, his batting average dropped to .264, and he hit seven home runs to go along with 43 RBIs. Injuries always affect performance, but the Brewers ought to hope that the drop in batting average was simply only a fluke. It’s also never a good thing when your start catcher suffers a concussion. This could eventually lead to a position change (first base?) for Lucroy.
Last Season: The Good
There had to be some good to come out of a 94-loss season, right?
First, Ryan Braun showed signs of his younger days during the 2015 season. He made his first All-Star game since the 2012 season, and stayed relatively healthy all season long, limiting the franchise’s concern about a lingering thumb injury that he suffered a couple seasons ago. He played in 140 games, and ended up hitting .285 to go along with 25 home runs and 84 RBI. 2016 is the first season of his 5-year, $105 million contract extension, so the Brewers are hoping he continues to put up solid production over the next several years to come.
Taylor Jungmann, a former 1st round draft pick by the Brewers in 2012, made his Major League debut in 2015, and he showed promising signs that he can be a top of the rotation pitcher in the Major Leagues for the years to come. He pitched incredibly well over his first couple months in the Majors, but unfortunately, he suffered some fatigue throughout September, which limited his effectiveness over the final month of the season. He started 21 games for the Brewers in 2015, finishing with a 9-8 record and a 3.77 ERA.
With the Brewers out of contention already as the July trade deadline approached, the Brewers were able to stockpile their farm system after trading away veterans Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, and Jonathan Broxton. Four of the players acquired in those trades actually made their debuts with the Brewers later in the season—Yhonathan Barrios, Domingo Santana, Adrian Houser, and Zach Davies. Other prospects the Brewers acquired, such as Brett Phillips and Josh Hader, seem to be on track to make a significant impact in the Major Leagues.
Overview of the Offseason
The Brewers have made a handful of trades so far this offseason, but none have necessarily yielded “Major League-ready” talent. Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez was traded to Detroit for two minor leaguers and Adam Lind was traded to Seattle for three minor leaguers, all under the age of 19. Luis Sardinas was also traded to the Mariners for outfielder Ramon Flores, who may win a backup outfield job in 2016, while Jason Rogers was just traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for two highly-touted prospects, one of whom, Keon Broxton, may play some center field for the Brewers in 2016. These trades opened up many vacancies on the Brewers’ active roster, including a closer, a starting first baseman, and utility infielders.
The Brewers also acquired Jonathan Villar, an infielder from the Houston Astros, along with Garin Cecchini, a third/first baseman from the Boston Red Sox. The Brewers did not give much to acquire these two players, both of whom are young and have had limited Major League experience. Both players were in dire need of a fresh opportunity and change of scenery, and the Brewers hope they can both make an impact in 2016 and beyond. Villar has a shot at the everyday third base job, but most likely can fill in the roster as a utility infielder, capable of playing anywhere in the infield. Cecchini, a left-handed hitter, has a shot at forming a platoon at both third base and first base.
Additionally, the Brewers signed two more players, Will Middlebrooks and Nick Hagadone, to minor league contracts with invitations to Spring Training. Both Middlebrooks and Hagadone are both former highly-touted prospects. Middlebrooks has already made an impact in the Major Leagues with the Boston Red Sox, particularly in his rookie season in 2012 when he hit .288 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI in only 75 games. He was on path to win the Rookie of the Year Award, but unfortunately suffered a season-ending wrist injury in August 2012. Since that injury, he has failed to put up any sort of consistent production with both the Red Sox and the San Diego Padres. Last season for the Padres, he hit .212 with 9 home runs and 29 RBI in only 83 games. The Brewers are hoping Middlebrooks can return to the form he showed earlier in his career. He has a chance of being the everyday third baseman in 2016. Hagadone, a former first round draft pick, has appeared in 143 major league games, including 36 games for the Cleveland Indians during the 2015 season, where he had an 0-1 record to go along with a 4.28 ERA. He has a shot at earning a spot in the Brewers bullpen in 2015.
Finally, the Brewers selected two players in the 2015 Rule 5 draft that may make the roster in 2016. First, second baseman Conor Walsh was selected from the Oakland Athletics’ system. In 2015, he played in Double-A, hitting .302 to go along with 13 home runs and 49 RBI. Walsh, a switch hitter, also has some experience playing third base. He is a Stanford University alum. Also selected was Zack Jones, a relief pitcher from the Minnesota Twins’ system. He split time in Single-A and Double-A in 2015, appearing in 45 games and finishing with a combined 5-4 record and a 4.18 ERA.
What’s Left on Stearns’ To-Do List?
The Brewers have a significant void at first base after trading away both Adam Lind and Jason Rogers this offseason, both of whom put together solid seasons in 2015. While Middlebrooks and Cecchini could see some time at first base, the Brewers certainly will look to find a more reliable option to man first base in 2015. While Stearns is clearly not afraid to make some trades, there are two potential veteran options available in free agency for the Brewers. First, there is Pedro Alvarez, the former #2 overall draft pick, who has hit multiple home runs against the Brewers while playing for the Pirates over the past several seasons. Alvarez came up to the Majors as a third baseman, and while he has struggled there defensively in the Majors, the Brewers could look to give him some time at there as well, if he were signed. Alvarez is also the son-in-law of new Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy. Alvarez, a left-handed hitter, could be a great platoon piece at both corner infield positions. While he hit only .243 in 150 games for the Pirates in 2015, he hit 27 home runs and has hit 137 home runs throughout his career. Another option is Chris Carter, a right-handed hitter, who has struggled to hit for average throughout his Major League career but has some dominant power like Alvarez. He has hit 109 home runs throughout his career with the Athletics and Astros, including 37 home runs for the Astros during the 2014 season. He also has played corner outfield in the past. Stearns has some familiarity with Carter during his days in the Astros organization. Carter and Alvarez could form quite a powerful platoon at first base. Jonathan Lucroy could also see some extended time at first base for the Brewers in 2016.
The Brewers also need to figure out their third base situation. After trading Aramis Ramirez last July, the Brewers gave most of the playing time to Hernan Perez and Elian Herrera, both of whom have recently been taken off of the Brewers’ 40-man roster. Neither impressed the Brewers brass, so they’re searching for some more reliable production out of the hot corner. Perez and Herrera will both be in spring training for the Brewers, so they could end up making the roster in the end. However, Middlebrooks and Cecchini will challenge them for playing time. There could also be a position change. With shortstop Orlando Arcia on the verge of cracking the Majors, could Jean Segura be moving to third base? It will be interesting to see if the Brewers make another move or two to upgrade at third base in 2016.
The Brewers may also look to add a veteran center fielder, as they wait to hand over the position to prospect Brett Phillips. The team acquired Keon Broxton from the Pirates last night, and view him as a possibility for the position in 2016, but Broxton has yet to appear in a Major League game. There has not been much talk this offseason about Domingo Santana, who played plenty of center field for the Brewers after coming over from the Carlos Gomez trade. Santana showed some ups and downs, but many feel he profiles as a corner outfielder, and both corner outfield positions are currently occupied by Ryan Braun and Khris Davis.
Finally, the Brewers may look to add a veteran starting pitcher, perhaps a left-handed starting pitcher. A left-handed pitcher has not started a game for the Brewers since Tom Gorzelanny during the 2013 season. Additionally, they may look to acquire a bullpen arm or two as well, as they are not in a rush to expose some of their younger players to the Major Leagues for a full 162-game season.
What’s the Roster Looking Like If the Season Started Tomorrow?
This is a scary question, but here are my predictions, considering the current roster situation:
2B Scooter Gennett
C Jonathan Lucroy
RF Ryan Braun
LF Khris Davis
CF Domingo Santana
3B Will Middlebrooks
1B Garin Cecchini
SS Jean Segura
C Martin Maldonado
IF Jonathan Villar
UTIL Elian Herrera
OF Shane Peterson
OF Ramon Flores
RHP Jimmy Nelson
RHP Wily Peralta
RHP Taylor Jungmann
RHP Matt Garza
RHP Zach Davies
LHP Will Smith
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP Corey Knebel
RHP Michael Blazek
RHP Tyler Thornburg
RHP David Goforth
RHP Yhonathan Barrios
Clearly, the Brewers are not done forming their 2016 roster. This roster has lots of inconsistencies and inexperience.
Early Keys to the 2016 Season
Below, I will outline five early keys to the 2016 season.
- The continued development of top prospects: The recent trend in Major League Baseball has consisted of drafting well and developing young talent, capable of performing in the Major Leagues at a high level. This is the approach the Brewers need to take if they look to contend with the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates throughout the years to come. Specifically, the Brewers will look for great seasons in the Minor Leagues out of Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips, including some of the young pitchers acquired in trades over the past season or two and those pitchers who performed well in brief MLB stints just a season ago, including Yhonathan Barrios, Adrian Houser, Josh Hader, Tyler Wagner, Tyler Cravy, and Jorge Lopez.
- The resurgence of Jonathan Lucroy: As mentioned above, Lucroy had a down season in 2015, which is most likely due to two separate injuries he suffered throughout the course of the season. A great season out of Lucroy will probably not be a difference-maker in the Brewers’ overall record in 2016, but he will be key when it comes to developing the Brewers’ young pitching. Also, the Brewers may look to trade Lucroy mid-way through the season if he puts up solid numbers over the first few months of the season. Right now, his value seems fairly low, so the Brewers hope he can get back on track in 2016.
- Consistency in the middle infield: Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett both struggled during the 2015 season, as Gennett actually spent some time in the Minor Leagues early in the season. Neither finished the season with an on-base percentage of over .300, which not a promising sign when looking forward to the future. With Arcia in the fold, one of Segura or Gennett will either be traded or forced to switch positions. Both need to convince the Brewers that they should be a part of their future. If Segura and/or Gennett struggle early on in the season, I expect the Brewers to turn to Jonathan Villar, who has experience at both middle infield positions.
- Starting rotation: Wily Peralta put together a fantastic season in 2014, finishing with a 17-11 record and a 3.53 ERA. However, he struggled to stay healthy and find a groove in 2015, finishing with a 5-10 record and a 4.72 ERA. The Brewers hope Peralta can find the stuff that made him so successful in 2014. He, along with Jimmy Nelson, figures to be a significant part of the Brewers rotation for the years to come. Additionally, Taylor Jungmann put together a nice rookie season in 2015, but struggled mightily in September. The Brewers will look for Jungmann to pitch like he did in the middle of the summer throughout all of 2016. Zach Davies, acquired from Baltimore in the Gerardo Parra trade last July, put together a few nice starts last September. He figures to play a nice role in the rotation in 2016.
- The back end of the bullpen: The Brewers may not win many games in 2016, but they will need to fill the void left by K-Rod. Both Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith put together nice seasons as the 7th and 8th inning set-up men in 2015, but one of those two figures to be the full-time closer in 2016. The Brewers will now turn to pitchers such as Corey Knebel and Michael Blazek, both of whom had nice seasons in 2015, to pitch in high-pressure situations in 2016.
Photo courtesy of newslocker.com.