With the bulk of the heavy lifting in their rebuild behind them, the Brewers will start the process of climbing back up the NL Central mountain.
Headed into 2016, the mission was clear for the Milwaukee Brewers: everything must go. Any and everyone was available to be had, as the deconstruction of the previously triumphant Milwaukee roster, which had begun the year before, was still underway. Sure, there was baseball to play in the interim, but the baseball to come in the future was of far more importance (as was getting off the hook for the bill attached to the past prime collection of overpaid vets).
And along the way, they were fairly successful at accomplishing this. They were able to strike deals to move out Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress, and got increasingly close to striking gold on the elusive Ryan Braun trade as well. In the process, they were able to give an increasing amount of exposure to younger talents and acquire a boatload of prospects in the process.
All in all, the Brewers had a successful 2016 as a whole, if considering what the goal truly was. They have now turned the corner in their rebuild process and have arguably the top minor league system in the game, just a few years after being one of the most barren.
However, that is not enough to distract from the fact that there still are Major League games to play, and that there are expectations there too. The Brewers have not finished above 3rd place in the National League Central since 2011, when they won their lone divisional title since 1982. They have been stuck in a middling spiral since reaching that high point, stuck somewhere between the Braun-era (and the fallout that followed it) and being an annually mid-tier ballclub.
Yet now as they have come out on the other side of their efforts, who will the Crew become? It is not the best time to be a rebuilding club in an NL Central that is so stacked with established competitors, but anything is possible and the Brewers have the potential to be more exciting than they have in a handful of years.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers
A year ago, the staff was the middle point of NL starters, checking in eighth in collective wins and ERA, and in the top 10 in innings worked as well. But as is the case with staffs saddled amid rebuilding efforts, the results were varied. Four starters (Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson) posted double digit losses and ERAs north of 4.00.
They are set to return the same staff this year, albeit with hopes for a turnaround from two of its previously most promising components, Nelson and Peralta. Nelson battled inconsistency and control woes in an effort that concluded with him leading the NL in losses with 16. Likewise, two years removed from a 17-win effort, Peralta once again fell far short of expectations, posting his second straight year with of a losing record and a WHIP over 1.50. Both still have age and potential on their side, which in a situation such as Milwaukee finds themselves in, will continue to get them chances to live up to their potential.
Yet while they continue to go through the motions with their former top pitching prospects, one did finally step up and deliver on promise. In his rookie year, Zach Davies stepped up to win a team-high 11 games, while working to a 1.71 August ERA over four starts. Joining him in the pleasant surprise category was veteran journeyman Junior Guerra, who came out of nowhere to work to a 2.81 ERA over 20 starts. He’ll now become the team’s third opening day starter in as many years.
On the fringe looking in is Garza, who is in the rotation as more a part of being due an untradable $12 million, as he is for his performance at this point (six wins, 4.33 FIP over 19 starts in 2016).
On the bright side, the team’s top pitching prospect, Josh Hader, could make his way to the Majors this year, fresh off a year where he established himself as one of the best hurlers in minors. A bump in the road once reaching Triple-A Colorado Springs last year slowed his ascent, but the path should be clear for him to make his debut at some point this summer.
The Crew’s supporting pitching scene seems to be most set, early on. Well-traveled backend bullpen arm Neftali Feliz will take his next crack at closing in Milwaukee this year. Due to his vastly most established resume in comparison to any other options on staff (99 career saves), he’ll get every opportunity to keep the job.
The road to the ninth inning will be paved by Corey Knebel, Jhan Martinez, Jacob Barnes and Carlos Torres. Martinez (3.22 ERA over 58 innings) and Torres (2.73 ERA and two saves) proved to be solid parts of the Brewer pen a year ago, while Knebel and Barnes both show potential for being future closer options. However, both could also see time back in the minors if their stuff does not relay over into results early on as well. Their development is more important than forcing results early on.
The rest of the pen stands to be rounded out by a group displaced starters. Chase Anderson, Tom Millone and Taylor Jungmann all stand to compete for jobs and will get in where they fit in. Each could also move back into the starting staff if suitors are found for either Garza (who is perpetually available) or Peralta (who has garnered some interest after a strong World Baseball Classic).
The everyday look for the Brewers is the typical mix of what a rebuilding team looks like: a majority group of youngsters and prospects looking prove themselves, a few proven vets and a highly paid former All-Star that is notoriously difficult to trade.
The aforementioned ex All-Star is Braun, who at 33 is coming off his first 30 home run season since 2012 and has been good for 7.6 Wins Above Replacement over the past two years.
Falling into the group of proven vets are Jonathan Villar and Travis Shaw. Villar broke out in his first full year as a starter to swipe an MLB-best 62 bases, along with 19 homers and 38 doubles. Shaw, who was acquired from Boston for reliever Tyler Thornburg over the winter, got off to scorching hot start a year ago, before cooling down the stretch. He’ll take over the third base role that Villar finished the season in last year. Villar will move over to second base, where he will replace Scooter Gennett, who went to the Cincinnati Reds on March 28.
Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana join Braun in the outfield, while Hernan Perez (who hit 13 home runs and stole 34 bases a year ago), looms to be a part of the mix all around the field as well.
The most intriguing and anticipated part of the mix is shortstop Orlando Arcia, the former top prospect who will inherit a full-time role. While his defense is his calling card, how he adapts offensively is still in question. Regardless of what comes, he is a major part of the process moving forward.
To his credit, Counsell has done steady work of learning on the run. In his first managerial job, he has been tasked with guiding a team that is aggressively deconstructing, and has not been aggressive in adding pieces that could help make his job easier, quicker. A smart baseball mind with a championship pedigree as a player, Counsell understands what the job requires, yet it is tough to judge quality so far due to the ever changing nature of the roster at his dispense.
With the club moving away from overhaul stage and settling firmly into its reset this year, Counsell should have the opportunity to get to know his players better. Therefore, we should get a clearer picture of who Counsell is as a manager in his third year. It is not quite time yet to expect a vast improvement in the standings, but time could be arriving soon where a drastic decline could be more attributed to him than the talent level of the team.
Eric Thames, a career .250 hitter that has not played in the Majors since 2012, was the sole free-agent addition the team made this winter. This was due to the upside they saw in the player he became after leaving for Korea in 2013. Over the past three years, he became one of the most dangerous hitters in the Korean Baseball Organization, averaging 41 home runs, 126 RBI and a .347 average over the last three years.
The hope is that the reinvention of his swing carries over in his return across the Pacific, and he can inhabit the cleanup role on an everyday basis. His spring returns have not yielded much excitement yet, but the team is committed to finding a place for him in the everyday lineup, whether it be first base or as a corner outfielder.
It is a bit of a wish and dream for Thames to remain the world beater he was in the KBO. However, if Thames can translate into a middle of the lineup presence, with a 20 homer type of upside, he could be a welcomed and needed addition.
With so many moving parts, developing talents and a pitching staff is still without an absolute talent capable of carrying it through rough patches, these Brewers are not a threat to stun the Cubs and take over the division. More likely than not, they are not going to push the Cardinals or Pirates too hard either by making a significant climb in the division. Their competition this year is an internal one; to continue to learn the right lessons on the job and to develop as a team.
All things considered, they likely don’t move in the standings from the fourth place finish they garnered a year ago.