With less than six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Milwaukee Brewers.
68–94 (.420), fourth place in National League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned; +Rule 5 draft pick)
Off-season In Review
Hey, it’s another rebuilding NL team! The Senior Circuit is thick with rebuilding franchises, with the Brewers joining the Phillies, Braves and Reds (and with the Rockies seemingly on the verge of joining in, as well) in tearing down current rosters in search of future contention. Milwaukee fired a warning shot by trading Yovani Gallardo in advance of his walk year last January, but the Brewers really got down to business in July: Their big move was the trade that sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Astros for a trio of good prospects, but they also flipped third baseman Aramis Ramirez (now retired) to the Pirates, outfielder Gerardo Parra (now a Rockie) to the Orioles and reliever Jonathan Broxton to the Cardinals—all three were pending free agents—before the non-waiver deadline, as well as reliever Neal Cotts to the Twins in August. That trimmed a lot of the veteran fat from the roster before the off-season arrived, but the Brewers still had two more deals up their sleeve.
New general manager David Stearns first sent closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has an affordable $6 million club option for the 2017 season, to the Tigers before Thanksgiving, then moved first baseman Adam Lind, whose final club option was picked up in early November, to the Mariners in early December. Neither deal yielded much return, however. One year of Lind brought back three soft-tossing, undersized, righthanded teenaged pitchers. Two years of Rodriguez, who turned 34 last week, brought back glove-first infield prospect Javier Betancourt, who will turn 21 in May and projects as a future utility infielder, and catcher Manny Pina, a journeyman minor leaguer who will turn 29 in June. Neither trade did much to move the rebuild forward beyond trimming $17.5 million in payroll commitments and making explicit the fact that neither Lind nor Rodriguez was going to be a part of the next contending Brewers team.
Also not part of the next contending Brewers team are corner infielder Jason Rogers and middle infielder Luis Sardiñas, the latter of whom was one of the three prospects acquired from the Rangers for Gallardo. Sardiñas joins Lind in Seattle via a trade that netted soon-to-be-24-year-old outfielder Ramon Flores, who made his major league debut with the Yankees in 2015 before being included in the Dustin Ackley trade. Despite solid on-base skills, Flores is unlikely to be more than a bench player in the majors. Rogers, who acquitted himself well as a 27-year-old rookie first baseman and pinch-hitter in 2015, was shipped to Pittsburgh for outfielder Keon Broxton and teenaged right-hander Trey Supak.
That last deal could prove to be the Brewers' best trade of the off-season, as the 6’5” Supak, who will turn 20 at the end of May, is a different animal than the three pitchers acquired for Lind. A second-round pick in 2014, Supak has the size and stuff to emerge as a legitimate rotation prospect, and if he does, Milwaukee will have pulled off a coup by acquiring him before he made the leap to full-season ball. Broxton, meanwhile, will battle Shane Peterson, waiver claim Kirk Nieuwenhuis and non-roster invitee Alex Presley for a chance to be Domingo Santana’s speed-and-defense backup in centerfield. Entering his age-26 season, Broxton could end up getting regular starts in center for Milwaukee if any of the Brewers' three starting outfielders hits the disabled list.
Returning our focus to the major league roster: Stearns traded minor-league righty Cy Sneed, the team’s third-round pick in 2014 (and not the lounge singer in Return of the Jedi), to the Astros for five team-controlled seasons of utility man Jonathan Villar, who will turn 25 in early May. Villar, who was acquired by the Astros from the Phillies in the 2010 Roy Oswalt trade, was Houston’s shortstop of the future until Carlos Correa came along. Fast and athletic, he should be a competent place-holder in the infield.
Another former Astro will likely play a big part in the Brewers' 2016 infield: slugger Chris Carter, whom Houston non-tendered in early December and who joined Milwaukee on a one-year, $2.5 million deal earlier this month. Carter, who has three team-controlled seasons remaining, has solid walk rates and has averaged 36 home runs per 163 games over the last four seasons, including 37 in 145 games in 2014. Undermining his power and patience, however, are brutal contact rates (he has connected with just 63% of the pitches he has swung at in the majors) that suppress his batting average (.217 career) and limit his overall value. Already 29, he’s a project, but he has the potential to carry a team for a few weeks, as he did with the Astros down the stretch in 2015.
Finally, the Brewers made a pair of Rule 5 picks that could stick on the major league roster. Second baseman Colin Walsh, a 26-year-old out of the Athletics' system, has experience in all four corners and could stick as a utility man coming off a big year at the plate in Double A (.302/.447/.470). Zack Jones is a 25-year-old righty reliever out of the Twins' system with outstanding strikeout rates and closing experience at Double A; he could find a spot in the bullpen if he can keep his walks under control.
Unfinished Business: Trading Jonathan Lucroy, but not now
Ryan Braun, whose five-year, $105 million extension begins with the coming season, and Matt Garza, who is owed $30 million for the next two years with a vesting option for 2018 and is coming off a season in which he went 6–14 with a 5.63 ERA, were essentially untradeable this off-season. But even with Lucroy's poor 2015, his team-friendly contract ($4.25 million for '16 with a $5.25 million club option for '17 and a $250,000 buyout) is a desirable one. Remember: Lucroy finished fourth in the NL MVP voting in 2014, posted a 126 OPS+ from '12 to '14 and ranks among the best pitch-framers in the game. That might sound like a player no team would want to trade, but he will be 30 in June and could have tremendous trade value mid-year if he gets off to a hot start.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The Brewers didn’t do anything this off-season that represented a significant and obvious move forward for their rebuilding process, but they did make several smaller moves that could pay off in the long term. Supak is the prospect to watch in the coming season, but Carter, Villar, Broxton, the Rule 5 picks and Betancourt all have compelling upsides, even if those are no more exciting than “major league regular.” I can’t muster even that limited enthusiasm for the three pitchers acquired for Lind, though.