Winter Report Card: Milwaukee Brewers
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
2014 results: 82-80 (.506), 3rd place in the NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: LHP Zach Duke, RHP Marco Estrada, RHP Yovani Gallardo, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, 1B Lyle Overbay*, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, RHP Francisco Rodriguez*, 2B Rickie Weeks* (*free agent, still unsigned)
The most significant part of what has been a rather quiet offseason for the Brewers has been a pair of trades, both made out of what appears to be a strong belief in the organization’s young pitching talent. On Nov. 1, Milwaukee sent righthander Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays straight-up for first baseman Adam Lind. Then, just last week, they flipped would-be ace Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers for a three-prospect package built around 21-year-old shortstop Luis Sardinas. In both cases, the Brewers traded a stalwart of their pitching staff heading into his walk year to address an area of weakness in the lineup, and in the two trades together, the team shed $4.9 million worth of salary while adding multiple years of team control.
Per sOPS+, which is park-adjusted OPS measured against the league average in a given split, Milwaukee was below average offensively at just two positions in 2014: first base and shortstop. The 2014 Brewers’ first baseman, led by the departed Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, hit a combined .207/.287/.356 for an sOPS+ of 70, 30 percent worse than the park-adjusted league average at the position. Lind has his faults, which we'll get to below, but he is a career .273/.327/.466 hitter who has hit .301/.366/.490 over the last two seasons combined, making him an easy upgrade at the position for Milwaukee. He also arrives with an $8 million option for 2016, giving Milwaukee one more year of team control than they had for fellow 31-year-old Estrada, who served the Brewers well as a league-average swing-man over the last four seasons but had been bumped back to the bullpen in July and had never thrown more than 150 2/3 innings in a season.
At shortstop, Milwaukee got a .245/.287/.322 (80 sOPS+) line last year, mostly from Jean Segura. A well-regarded prospect acquired from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade at the 2012 trading deadline, Segura got off to a blazing start in 2013 and made that year’s All-Star team, but since that game, has hit just .246/.289/.326 in 783 plate appearances. He’ll turn 25 in March and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next winter, so the Brewers are clearly aware of the possible need to make a change at the position. Thus the trade for Sardinas, a top-100 prospect whose .261/.303/.313 line in 125 plate appearances as a rookie last year would already represent an upgrade over Segura’s 2014 performance. Sardinas isn’t a blue-chipper, though. He’s a speed-and-defense shortstop who is all batting-average at the plate (and a career .289 hitter in the minors), but he comes with six years of team control and gives Milwaukee a stalking horse for the once more-promising Segura.
Also arriving with Sardinas in the Gallardo trade are 23-year-old righty reliever Cory Knebel and teenage Dominican righty Marcos Diplan. The latter just turned 18 in September and should make his state-side debut this year. Knebel, meanwhile, was the 39th pick in the 2013 draft and could contribute at the major league level this year thanks to his combination of a high-90s four-seamer and good curveball. As for Gallardo, he will turn 29 in February and has seen his strikeout rate fall each of the last two seasons, a span over which he wasn’t much more than a league-average innings eater.
Charged with replacing most of Gallardo and Estrada’s starts will be the two men who helped push Estrada out of the rotation last year, Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson, with Taylor Jungmann providing depth at Triple A. By way of comparison, Gallardo and Estrada combined for a 4.03 ERA in 299 2/3 innings over 50 starts last year, while Fiers and Nelson combined for a 3.46 ERA in 132 2/3 innings over 22 starts for the Brewers.
Unfinished business: Bullpen, righthanded bench bat
Lind’s faults were mentioned in passing above. The primary concerns are that he has hit the disabled list with back problems in three of the last four seasons, averaging just 114 games per season over that span, and is a career .212/.257/.331 hitter against his fellow lefties. Counting on him to start 140-plus games at first base is foolish and could be easily be resolved by the presence of a righthanded platoon partner, but the Brewers don't have one. In fact, despite their heavily righthanded lineup (Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez and Segura are all righties), the Brewers have a bench stacked with lefties (Matt Clark, Gerardo Parra and Logan Schafer and are all lefthanded hitters). That could be good news for righthanded corner infielder Jason Rogers, a former 32nd round pick who will turn 27 in March and hit .316/.379/.568 in 232 Triple A at-bats after a late-June promotion to that level last year, but the Brewers would be wise to bring in an inexpensive alternative.
As for the bullpen, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Francisco Rodriguez combined for 147 2/3 innings of a 2.50 ERA in 2014 and the only reliever the Brewers have added to the 40-man roster to replace them is Knebel, who has 8 2/3 major league innings of a 6.23 ERA under his belt. Rodriguez, a righty, may yet re-sign with Milwaukee, but with southpaws Duke and Gorzelanny gone there are roughly 80 very effective lefthanded innings unaccounted for.
Preliminary Grade: C
By the time we got to the Brewers in our Hot Stove Preview, eight days after the World Series ended, they had already acquired Lind, so we identified this team's two biggest remaining needs as improving the bullpen and finding a platoon first baseman. Milwaukee hasn't done either of those, but it did do a decent job of addressing its major needs while staying within its means. Still, for a team that was in first place through the end of August last year and plays in a very competitive division, this offseason was weak tea that didn’t obviously make what was ultimately a .500 team any better for 2015. This grade might be generous.