Young, controllable talent. It’s a phrase Milwaukee Brewers fans have heard plenty of times from general manager David Stearns, who kicked the team’s massive rebuild into overdrive in 2016, and one they’re going to hear plenty more of from the 32-year-old as they move into Year 2 of the project.
The 2016 Brewers weren’t nearly as bad as they were projected to be, finishing 73–89 under second-year manager Craig Counsell despite trading away key veterans in All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, reliever Will Smith and closer Jeremy Jeffress at the deadline. The haul for that trio combined with the talent the Brewers already had in the minor leagues wound up giving the organization the top farm system in all of baseball in the eyes of many talent evaluators, including an MLB-best eight top-100 prospects.
While the long-term goal is a sustained run of postseason appearances once the prospects come of age, the focus at the major-league level in the here and now is to identify the keepers moving forward while likely trading off the few established veterans — such as franchise cornerstone Ryan Braun — for even more of that young, controllable talent.
Milwaukee’s two top starters coming into 2017 weren’t even on the Opening Day roster in 2016. Baby-faced Zach Davies led the Brewers with 11 wins in his first major-league season, and well-traveled Junior Guerra used his terrific split-finger fastball to post a 2.81 ERA. Competing to round out the rotation will be Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson and Wily Peralta — all of whom had inconsistent 2016 seasons. Nelson went 3–13 with a 5.79 ERA over his final 21 starts in a year in which he was expected to develop into the Brewers’ top starter, although he was at least reliable by turning in a team-best 32 starts, 179.1 innings and 140 strikeouts. He’ll be expected to improve significantly in 2017. Garza, who muddled through another injury-riddled, subpar season, is the Brewers’ second-highest-paid player with $12.5 million remaining on the final year of his contract. Anderson finished 2016 strong, going 5–1 with a 2.56 ERA over his final 12 starts, and wound up posting career highs with nine wins, 120 strikeouts and 30 starts. Peralta, Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter, faltered badly early and was sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs but was recalled in early August and went 3–4 with a 2.92 ERA in his final 10 starts. Taylor Jungmann, prospects Josh Hader, Jorge Lopez and Brent Suter and veteran Tommy Milone will get looks in the spring.
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The Brewers have excelled at unearthing closers, and it appears as though they’ll try to do so again after trading Jeffress away last year. There are internal candidates in hard throwers Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes, but Knebel hasn’t closed since his first year as a professional in 2013, and Barnes has just 27 major-league appearances under his belt. Stearns also signed free agent Neftali Feliz, who has 99 career saves, as a veteran option. It’s possible that Feliz opens the season as the closer before stepping aside for one of the younger guys. Jhan Mariñez, Michael Blazek, Tyler Cravy, Damien Magnifico and Rob Scahill are returnees competing for spots, and Suter and Milone could also be considered if they don’t make the cut for the rotation.
Jonathan Villar, acquired from the Houston Astros in November 2015 for a minor leaguer, was a revelation. Playing shortstop, third and second, the switch-hitter batted .285 with 19 homers while stealing an MLB-best 62 bases. He made his share of mistakes (29 errors, including 12 in 42 games at third) but was a catalyst atop the order. With super prospect Orlando Arcia entrenched at shortstop, Villar becomes the primary second baseman, leaving incumbent Scooter Gennett without a clear-cut role. Gennett had a career year at the plate in 2016, posting career highs in almost every major category, but his lack of versatility — he only plays second base — is a drawback.
The Brewers remade themselves at both corner spots, first signing relative unknown Eric Thames to a three-year, $16 million free-agent contract and then acquiring Travis Shaw in a trade with Boston to play third. Thames, a former Toronto prospect, is coming off several monster years in the Korean League, while Shaw hit .242 with 16 home runs and 71 RBIs in 145 games with the Red Sox in 2016. Both are also left-handed hitters, a quality the Brewers have been sorely lacking in recent years.
Braun re-established himself as a premier offensive threat in the National League while also moving back to left field. His surgically repaired back held up just fine, but various other nagging injuries limited him to 135 games and 511 at-bats. In center, Keon Broxton turned himself into the starter over the final few months thanks to some tweaks to his stance he made in the minor leagues around midseason. He hit .294 with 16 stolen bases in his final 46 games and enters camp as the incumbent. Domingo Santana is hoping a strong close to 2016 (.301, seven homers over his final 24 games) helps keep him as the starter in right. He played in just 77 games overall after suffering right shoulder and elbow injuries.
For the first time since 2009, the Brewers won’t have either Lucroy or Martin Maldonado behind the plate, as both were traded. Taking their places are two former backups — Andrew Susac (Giants) and Jett Bandy (Angels). Both are younger, ascending players, with Susac known more for his offense and Bandy for his defense. Manny Piña, who showed well in 33 games last season, will also get a shot.
One of the great finds in 2016 was Hernan Perez, who morphed into one of the most versatile players in the game. He hit .272 with 13 homers and also stole 34 bases in 123 games split between right and center field and all four infield positions. Perez is likely to remain in his role of “super sub” moving forward. Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit just .209 overall, but his 13 homers and 44 RBIs (11 and 31 at Miller Park), solid defense in center and left-handed bat make him valuable. If the Brewers don’t trade Gennett, he’ll be a $2.5 million sub/pinch-hitter.
Stearns signed Counsell to a three-year contract extension that will take the hometown product through the 2020 season. His competitiveness and bent for player development make him a perfect fit for the rebuild. Stearns, in addition to remaking the organization on the field, continues to lead the Brewers’ shift toward the use of advanced technology and analytics in the front office.
With the Central Division-rival Cubs expected to run roughshod for the foreseeable future, the Brewers’ plan to rebuild from the ground up comes at a good time. As a small-market team, their best chance for sustained success is stockpiling as many young high-ceiling players as possible, letting them develop and then rolling them out in the major leagues. It’s an approach that takes remarkable patience, but one that can bear real fruit if done correctly.