2016 was not a playoff season for the Milwaukee Brewers. They didn’t have a winning record; they didn’t even have a .500 record.
Overall, they went 73-89, out-performing what was supposed to be a season that saw them lose over 100 games. Showing flashes of competitiveness, the Brewers still trudged along with the rebuild, trading the likes of Jonathan Lucroy, Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress. These marquee trades brought over marquee talent, but it was the smaller deals of 2016 that saw the Brewers move closer to the competing for the playoffs, a place many thought was years away.
General manager David Stearns lit up the transaction wire in 2016 with deals left and right. In doing so, he has rewritten the rebuild playbook, doing it faster than anyone before.
Going back into December of 2015, reaching a bit further than just 2016, the Brewers have won, time and time again in trades and signings.
The Adam Lind trade to the Mariners netted three pitching prospects all 20 years old or younger (one of them named Freddy Peralta, who had a 2.85 ERA over 60 innings pitched in single A ball). This trade brought over pitching depth at the lower levels of the farm system, given stability as to avoid being top heavy.
Only about a week later, they pulled off an even better trade. Jason Rogers, a first baseman who only had 25 at bats for his new team, was sent to Pittsburgh for two minor leaguers, one of them being Keon Broxton. In the second half of the 2016 season, Broxton broke through upping his OPS above .900 while his batting average crept closer and closer to .300. He also showed flashes of his power, with eight home runs.
This Spring Training, Broxton has improved even more, showing he has star potential in the outfield. In 36 at-bats, he has slugged for over for a line of .389/.488/.750 to go along with three home runs.
Stearns flipped a backup first baseman for a possible franchise center piece.
In January of 2016, Stearns signed Chris Carter. Older and a strikeout machine, expectations where low for the power-hitting first basemen. But, Stearns hit on what should have been a stop-gap player, holding the position warm waiting for minor league talent. Instead, Carter tied for the National League lead in home runs with 41.
The Brewers ended up not being able to flip Carter for prospects, but it goes to show Stearns can hit on supposed ‘stop-gap’ players. It makes it easier to trust him when he signs Eric Thames, a player who absolutely destroyed pitchers in the the Korean major league, and when he picks up a player like Jesus Aguilar.
(Side note: Aguilar looks to be turning into a real deal. Picked off of the waivers from the Cleveland Indians, he is raking in the Cactus League. In 33 at bats, the 26 year old is slashing for a .424/.513/.848 line and has driven in ten runs. This guy could be another Brewer surprise player like Villar was last year.)
Then comes possibly the best trade in terms of quantity for Stearns. Jean Segura, the shortstop who came over to the Brewers in the Zack Greinke trade, was traded for minor league infielder Isan Diaz, pitcher Chase Anderson and veteran third baseman Aaron Hill.
Hill was then flipped to the Boston Red Sox later in the season for minor league infielder Wendell Rijo and minor league pitcher Aaron Wilkerson. Chase Anderson pitched well for the Brewers in 2016 and was able to get deep into games. If he does that again this season, he too could be flipped for more prospects.
Diaz is the real prize, though. He dominated single A pitchers in the second half of the season and flashed power (20 home runs), speed (11 stolen bases) and slugged for 25 doubles on his way to being named the organization’s minor leaguer of the year.
In short, Segura, who is a fringe, aging all-star shortstop, turned into five prospects and players for the Brewers. That number could also climb even higher if Anderson is traded.
In last year’s draft, it seems Stearns also struck gold. First round pick Corey Ray looked well on his way to an impressive debut in the minors, but a knee injury sidelined him for most of the year.
Second rounder Lucas Erceg is starting to look like the third baseman of the future for the Brewers. With an absolute cannon of an arm he has the fielding ability, but his bat is what truly stands out. In 2016, over the course of 272 at bats, he slashed for a .327/.376/.518 line and drove in a whopping 51 runs. In spring training, he has continued this trend and also has showing increased power, going yard twice, once for a grand slam.
Then came the trade deadline deals that saw Lucroy, Jeffress and Smith go. In return though, the Brewers were able to nab stud outfield prospect Lewis Brinson and power pitcher Luis Ortiz (soon to be everyday players in the majors). They also got outfield prospect Ryan Cordell and pitching prospect Phil Bickford. Both players rest easy in the Brewers top 30 prospect list and both have potential moving forward.
Stearns was also ruthless this offseason, making two shrewd trades with the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels.
Bullpen arm Tyler Thornburg, a possible closer candidate, was traded to the Red Sox in exchange for Mauricio Dubon (a slick fielding shortstop prospect who was Boston’s 12th rated prospect), Travis Shaw (an infielder who figures to start at third for the Brewers in 2017 and who has been crushing in Spring Training) and Josh Pennington (Boston’s 22nd rated prospect who gives the Brewers depth in minor league pitching).
Thornburg, who is 28 years old, had a breakout year in 2016, but he was never in the long term plans for the Brewers. This is an absolute haul.
Then came another great trade: Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado for catcher Jett Bandy.
These two names will never jump off of the page at you, but it just goes to show how good Stearns is at finessing a deal. Maldonado will hit maybe ten home runs and a .210 average during his best season. But at 30 years old, those seasons will be few and far between. Bandy, who is 26 years old and hasn’t had much of a chance in the majors yet, has potential. All of his stats point to being a better hitter than Maldonado.
The 2016 Brewers showed the sports world how to work a rebuild faster than any other organization before. If you count the Carlos Gomez trade as the beginning of the rebuild, if took a little over a year to go from one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, to now, where the Brewers have a consensus top-five farm system. For reference, the Cubs had five losing seasons before they were back above .500.
Stearns is re-writing the rebuild play book and making other organizations look silly. Now, 2017 is the year to watch the talent grow and develop. After another year, we may be talking about how fast the Brewers rose back into contention.