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Should the Milwaukee Brewers Consider “Selling” a Prospect?

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Last week, a very curious trade took place between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves. The D-Backs moved injured veteran Bronson Arroyo along with 19 year old prospect RHP Touki Toussaint in exchange for utilityman Phil Gosselin, with Atlanta taking on the entire remainder of Arroyo’s salary. The move essentially amounted to the Diamondbacks selling Toussaint, ranked by Baseball America as the number 71 overall prospect prior to the season, for the roughly $10 mil owed to Arroyo, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and may not even pitch this season.

The Diamondbacks have been almost universally criticized for the move after selecting Touki in the first round last season (16th overall) and giving him a well over slot bonus. The team paid $16 mil for Cuban pitching prospect Yoan Lopez (including tax for going over their pool) months before, and Toussaint, three years his junior and with better “stuff,” is considered to be an even better prospect than Lopez. Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa referred to Toussaint as someone who could be a “serviceable to a good major league pitcher” after five or six years of development, but stated that the Diamondbacks are not pushing a five-year plan. While high-school arms drafted in the first round have a history of flaming out, the Diamondbacks should have netted a higher return for a prospect of Toussaint’s caliber.

While the early belief is that the Diamondbacks made a mistake by executing this trade (though it remains to be seen how Touki’s development will continue), the move itself may have greater implications around baseball. The Dodgers made a move earlier in the year to effectively buy a draft pick from Baltimore by paying the remainder of reliever Ryan Webb‘s deal, but there is almost no precedent for a team “buying” a prospect. Unless action is taken by the commissioner to block these types of deals, we could see them becoming a trend in the game.

The Milwaukee Brewers are not in a similar position to the Diamondbacks this season, but perhaps they should keep in mind how Arizona was able to rid themselves of Arroyo’s contract. The Brewers are likely to embark upon some level of rebuild beginning with this trading season; owner Mark Attanasio recently referred to the team as “definite sellers” this year. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, most of the players they would like to move are not performing up to even a replacement level clip. Expiring contracts like the ones of Kyle Lohse and Aramis Ramirez aren’t likely to hurt the team much over the long run, even if they can’t be moved this year. Significantly more detrimental could be the long-term deal given to Matt Garza, however.

Prior to last season, Milwaukee handed Garza a four year, $50 mil deal with a vesting option for 2018 (per Cot’s Contracts). Garza is still owed roughly half his $10.5 mil salary for this season plus another $21 mil through 2017, with $8 mil deferred salary paid out between 2018-2021. On top of that roughly $34 mil commitment, the Brewers could be stuck paying “The Count” $13 mil in 2018 if his option vests, which occurs if he: makes 110 starts from 2014-17 (he’s made 43  so far, and needs to average just 27.5 per season), pitches 115 innings in 2017 (a mark he’s eclipsed six times and is well on pace for this year), and he does not end the 2017 season on the disabled list. Altogether, the Brewers could be on the hook for somewhere in the neighborhood of $47 mil to the right hander who will turn 32 after this season.

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Statistically, Garza is having the worst season of his career in 2015. He has allowed the most hits in the NL with 105 and his 5.48 ERA is 28% below league average (and the worst since his 10 game rookie season in 2006). He is striking out the lowest percentage of hitters in his career at 16.1% and both his contact percentage of 84.2% and line drive rate of 24.8% are the worst of his career. Garza’s Deserved Run Average of 5.13 is tied for 324th among the 457 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings this season, and his cFIP- of 113 projects him to continue pitching below average going forward. On the wrong side of 30, this could be the beginning of a long and painful regression.

While there is some chance that Garza could bounce back, he has still only proven to be a modestly above average (96 ERA-, 97 FIP-) and somewhat oft-injured pitcher throughout his career. With his best days likely behind him, the large sum of money Milwaukee owes him could be spent in a much better capacity during a rebuild. One MLB executive reportedly stated he didn’t think “(Garza) could even be moved.” But what if Milwaukee packaged Garza together with a top prospect, like Arizona did?

The Brewers have a farm system that is getting stronger seemingly by the day, with most of their best young talent at the lower levels. While it normally wouldn’t make sense for a rebuilding team to part with young talent like a Monte Harrison or Jake Gatewood, if the Brewers could convince a team to take on the total of Garza’s contract it could set them up for longer term success. While it would be difficult to part with someone like Harrison, who has five tools that project as average or better, is it reasonable to expect a 19 year old currently playing in rookie ball to provide $34-$47 mil in future value to Milwaukee?

A team like Philadelphia could possibly be interested in making a deal along these lines. Like Milwaukee, Philadelphia is in the midst of a rebuilding process, but they have a significantly higher payroll capacity given their market. Philadelphia’s $140+ mil payroll figures to drop after Cliff Lee‘s contract expires after this season, Chase Utley‘s vesting option is in question given his health and lack of production, and Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Papelbon are all being shopped around. The Phillies will have the means to add payroll, which they could potentially be convinced to do if they were also acquiring a top-flite prospect without giving up much of anything in the way of players in the process.

The move wouldn’t make sense for Milwaukee unless they smartly reinvested the achieved cost-savings, however. The Brewers would have to subtract someone of Harrison’s ilk from their system, yes, but the freed up capital could be used to make some aggressive gains on the international market, which Milwaukee has shown a greater willingness to enter in recent years. The Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Angels and Diamondbacks have all gone over their international bonus pools prior to this year’s deadline, meaning less competition for international free agents during the next signing period. Milwaukee could aggressively take advantage of this fact and blow past their pool value of $2,389,300 by some $15 mil, and even with the pool overage tax it would still be less than the total that is owed to Matt Garza. This would allow Milwaukee the flexibility to go after several “lottery-ticket” type players, similar to the toolsy but raw Harrison.

The buying and selling of prospects could be risky business for the MLB, but the league has already showed a willingness to allow deals like the Touki Toussaint “sale” to occur without interference. With a need to step back and look towards the future, the Brewers could be in a position to take advantage of what might become a new trend throughout the league. The keys are knowing the true value of one’s prospects and re-investing the cost savings in a smart way.

Next: Troy Stokes Prospect Report

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