Win or Lose, Don’t Expect a Brewers Rebuild After 2015

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The Milwaukee Brewers entered the 2014 season with tempered expectations. The team had a couple of disappointing seasons following their 2011 run to the NLCS, and had done little to augment their roster other than the late signing of Matt Garza in free agency. The Brewers were expected to be a decent team, but next to no one thought that they would start off the season 20-8 and spend five the first six months of the season in first place.

Following the epic September collapse that saw the Brewers offense evaporate as they tumbled all the way to a third place finish at 82-80, many fans’ were calling for the heads’ of manager Ron Roenicke and GM Doug Melvin. Owner Mark Attanasio took some time to cool off before deciding to bring back both the manager and GM for another season in 2015.

Some teams like the Padres or Mariners made wholesale lineup changes in their efforts to compete this year, and many fans and sports talk hosts around Milwaukee were looking for the Brewers to make similar moves. Heck, we still have the same GM that sent away five top prospects in two trades to bring in Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Yuni Betancourt and send the Brewers to the ALCS in 2011. The Brewers brass, however, were convinced that their team is much closer to the one who spent over 150 days in first place last season than the team that finished 9-22 over its final 31 games.

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Given that the Brewers seemingly took their fanbase to the altar last season before their brutal finish, some skepticism is warranted. A lot of money could end up coming off the books following this season, which gives some fans the idea that the team is somehow in a “do or die” type season. Many want to win NOW, and think “If we don’t win this year with these players, surely the rebuild must begin!” Teams like the Astros and Cubs have recently engaged in lengthy rebuilding processes that involved years of losing, trading away top/high priced talent for prospects without guarantees, and picking near the top of every draft for several seasons. While both teams appear to be on the cusp of beginning periods of long term success, their fanbases had to endure half a decade of hopelessness, despair, and a subpar product on the field.

It’s pretty clear, however, that the Brewers aren’t operating with a “playoffs or bust” mindset as we head into the 2015 season. The Brewers strengthened their lineup with the addition of Adam Lind (who can be controlled through 2016) while only giving up a non-tender candidate in Marco Estrada. Doug augmented the minor league system with Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel, and Marcos Diplan by sending Yovani Gallardo (in the final year of his contract and unlikely to return) and some cash to Texas. Sardinas (a former top 100 prospect who lost his rookie eligibility last year) and Knebel (a flame-throwing future closer) are both likely to see some time with Milwaukee this year.

The Brewers hope the rest of their offseason “additions” will come in the form of better play from several regulars in the lineup. No one is more important the Ryan Braun, who hit well below his career norms last season while battling a nerve injury in his right thumb. Braun opted for a procedure this offseason, and so far reports have been encouraging. Jean Segura is also a bounceback candidate after his tough year on and off the field last season. Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett were both solid in their first full seasons as starters last year, and the Brewers will look for them to continue to improve as they gain more experience.

As long as the Brewers play improved baseball in 2015 and are at least playing in some meaningful games as October draws near, it’s quite likely that both Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke will be brought back for another go around in 2016. As far as impending free agents go, here is who comes off the books after this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts:

Aramis Ramirez 3B-$14 mil in 2015, also will be 37, option year of a deal signed before 2012 season. Has hinted at retirement.
Kyle Lohse SP-$11 mil in 2015, will be 37 this year, final season of three year free agent deal signed in 2013.
Jonathan Broxton RP-$9 mil in 2015, $1 mil buyout on 2016 option, 31 years old in 2015, setup man in bullpen
Gerardo Parra OF-$6.2375 mil in 2015, will turn 28 this season, currently slated to be the fourth outfielder
Neal Cotts RP-$3 mil in 2015, will be 35 when the season starts, projected middle reliever

Adam Lind, who will be 32 this year, has a club option for 2016 at a reasonable $8 mil price tag, and if he stays healthy this year, it’s likely the Brewers would bring him back. The free agent market looks pretty thin at first next offseason, though if the Brewers do choose to let Lind go, he has a $500k buyout on his option. After agreeing to re sign Francisco Rodriguez late last month, the Brewers have only about $54 mil in payroll obligations for next season.

Though Lohse and Ramirez will likely be counted on as key contributors this season, they are not part of the Brewers’ long term future given their advanced age. Broxton, Parra, and Cotts are all slated to be secondary contributors this season, and their departures won’t hurt the Brewers much going forward. By no means am I saying that any of these impending free agents won’t be traded if the team falters; but I don’t believe that trading any of these pieces would constitute a “rebuild” in Milwaukee, and none of them figure to fetch a tremendous return.

With four of five starting pitchers and seven of eight offensive starters under team control for 2016, a rebuild would seem like a foolish proposition. Players like Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis, Mike Fiers, and Jimmy Nelson, who figure to be key contributors this season and beyond, are still able to be controlled near league minimum for another few years.  The Brewers have only Wily Peralta and Jean Segura as players likely to see significant raises through the arbitration process after 2015, leaving the team with somewhere between $40-$50 mil available to augment their roster next offseason. The Brewers also have plausible in-house options to replace their impending departures, should no free agents catch their eye; Tyler Thornburg or Taylor Jungmann appear ready to step into the MLB rotation, while slick-fielding Luis Jimenez figures to get the first shot at replacing Aramis and could develop into a solid option at the hot corner.

In my mind, for the Brewers to engage in a rebuild, they would need to start moving players like Carlos Gomez (controlled through 2016), Jonathan Lucroy (2017), Matt Garza (2017 with a 2018 vesting option), or Ryan Braun (2020 with a mutual 2021 option). These are the All-Star level players who could fetch big prospect returns, but are also integral to the Brewers success beyond the 2015 season.

It’s not as if the Brewers are in dire need of a rebuild, either. A few poor drafts and “go for it” trades left the Brewers’ farm system decimated earlier in the decade, however things have been quietly improving over the past few seasons. Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook ranked the Brewers farm 21st in baseball, and that was even before the additions of Knebel, Sardinas, and Diplan. Fangraphs ranked seven Brewers’ prospects among their top 200, tying them for 11th among the 30 major league franchises. Promising talents like Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and Clint Coulter should be making their debuts in Milwaukee sometime within the next two seasons, as well. If young, high ceiling prospects like Devin Williams, Monte Harrison, and Kodi Medeiros can continue grow into their immense potential, the Brewers’ improving farm system could take a big leap in the rankings next season even without any significant additions.

There seems to be a popular notion among those in Milwaukee that the Brewers are facing a “make-or-break” year of sorts that could change the direction of the franchise, however this is simply not the case. Though the Brewers will be able to shed a decent amount of salary following this year, the players that are leaving are either too old to be considered part of the long-term “core” (Lohse, Ramirez) or are not counted on to be significant contributors either now or in the future (Broxton, Cotts, Parra). While a team like the Phillies (filled with aging, expensive, and declining players) is engaging in a full-blown rebuild, the Brewers have a relatively young core, with most of their players under control at reasonable prices for several more years. Following this season, Milwaukee will have plenty of payroll flexibility to add free agents as they see fit who would make immediate impacts at the MLB level.

Some see 2015 as the year the window of contention closes for the Milwaukee Brewers. In reality, however, it appears as if we may have years of exciting and competitive baseball on the horizon for our beloved local nine, beginning with the 2015 Championship Season.

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