Wait 'Til Next Year: Brewers stumble early, never recover in dismal year
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Milwaukee Brewers. All stats are through Sept. 17.
Current Record: 62–84 (.425, fourth in the NL Central)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 13
What went right in 2015: Ryan Braun had his best season since his career was derailed by a positive performance-enhancing drug test and thumb injury, topping 20 home runs and 20 steals for the first time since 2012. Adam Lind, acquired before the season for Marco Estrada, proved to be a long-awaited solution to the Brewers’ first base issues, hitting .286/.370/.478 (129 OPS+). Pressed into action by injuries to Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis, Gerardo Parra turned in a big walk-year performance (.328/.369/.517, 138 OPS+), allowing the Brewers to flip him for 22-year-old righty Zach Davies at the trading deadline. When healthy, Davis improved his walk rate and hit for more power.
The bullpen, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez, lefty Will Smith and prodigal son Jeremy Jeffress, was excellent. Only the Yankees’ relief corps has compiled more strikeouts on the season than Milwaukee's bullpen, which has a 9.2 strikeout-per-nine ratio and 3.01 strikeouts to every walk as a group; only the Yankees, Giants and Indians have blown fewer saves than Milwaukee’s 12.
Rookie righty Taylor Jungmann, the team’s top pick in the 2011 draft, joined the rotation in early June and quickly emerged as the team’s best starter. Combined with a solid sophomore effort from 26-year-old Jimmy Nelson, that gives the Brewers some degree of optimism regarding their rotation going forward.
Despite a poor showing from an injury-riddled Gomez and the very public collapse of his potential trade to the Mets, outgoing general manager Doug Melvin was able to flip the centerfielder and 30-year-old starter Mike Fiers to the Astros for an impressive package of prospects. That return was headlined by Double A centerfielder Brett Phillips, a five-tool player who ranked 21st on Baseball America’s midseason list of baseball's top 50 prospects (one which included Brewers shortstop prospect Orlando Arcia at eighth), as well as slugger Domingo Santana, who has hit .257/.367/.514 in 23 games since being called up in late August.
What went wrong in 2015: The Brewers’ season was over almost from the instant it began. They lost their first four games, endured an eight-game losing streak in mid-April that sunk them to 2–13, were 5–18 before they won consecutive games for the first time on the season and found themselves 13 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central by May 8.
The team was a total disaster in April, struggling to hit and suffering injuries to several key players, but the failures of Milwaukee's starting rotation were the most striking. Veteran Kyle Lohse, who had been a stalwart for the Brewers in the first two seasons of his three-year deal with the team (111 ERA+ over 397 innings), gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings on Opening Day, setting the tone for both the Brewers’ season and his own. Lohse was ultimately demoted to the bullpen in early August, sporting a 6.31 ERA and having turned in just five quality starts in 22 tries. Matt Garza, in just the second season of his four-year deal, was only marginally better, posting a 5.63 ERA in 26 starts, only ten of them quality. The Brewers attempted to move him to the bullpen in early September so that they could audition some younger starters; Garza refused and has since been shut down for the season.
Speaking of young starters, 26-year-old Wily Peralta missed two months with a strained oblique and has posted a 4.86 ERA with lousy peripherals in ten starts since his return. On the whole, his season has been a significant step backward for a pitcher the Brewers were hoping would be a central part of their rotation going forward.
Other centerpiece players also fared poorly. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy got off to a lousy start in April, broke his left big toe on April 21, missed 38 games, played below his established standard after his return and suffered a concussion from a foul tip off his mask on Sept. 8 that could prove to be season-ending. Prior to being traded, Gomez saw all facets of his performance decline due in part to a variety of injuries—a hamstring strain that sent him to the DL in April, a hip adductor issue that would later be the subject of much debate when his trade to the Mets fell through and a wrist injury stemming from being hit by a pitch in early July.
Elsewhere in the lineup, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who announced his impending retirement before the season, played like he had one foot out the door before, and after, being traded to the Pirates. Shortstop Jean Segura proved unable to rebound from his dismal 2014 performance, replicating that showing to such a degree that you have to wonder if it represents his true level. Second baseman Scooter Gennett proved his many doubters right by sinking to Segura’s level of play, minus his double-play partner’s stolen bases.
Overall Outlook: Gomez, Ramirez and Yovani Gallardo (traded in advance of his walk year) are gone, Lohse is on his way out, Segura looks like a bust, and Lucroy and Braun will head into the off-season with injury concerns (Braun has been playing through a “pretty serious” back issue in the second half of the season); the core of the Brewers team that spent most of 2014 in first place is in shambles. In response, 2015 found Milwaukee changing course on several fronts. The team replaced manager Ron Roenicke with 45-year-old rookie skipper Craig Counsell in early May, signaled a rebuild of sorts with the Gomez trade in July and announced Melvin’s intent to step down in August.
Melvin’s as-yet-unnamed replacement has his work cut out for him, as well as several years of second-division finishes likely ahead. There is some young talent on this team and in the organization—Jungmann, Nelson and Peralta in the rotation, Arcia and Phillips in the high minors, Segura, Gennett and Santana in the lineup—but it’s not a particularly impressive bunch as a whole, and the team doesn’t have any particularly valuable trade chips with which to add to that youth movement. The possible exception there is Lucroy, but it would make little sense to deal him coming off a down year and a concussion, especially given that he’s owed just $4 million for next season and has a $5.25 million option for 2017.
With the NL Central home three of the four best records in baseball entering Friday’s action, all of them belonging to teams stocked with young talent, the Brewers may not rise as high as third place for the remainder of the decade.