The Brewers’ pair of Tuesday morning moves sent a clear signal that their rebuild is far from over. By designating first baseman Chris Carter for assignment, they are parting ways with the team’s 2016 home run and RBI leader. In dedicating just over $15 million over three years to replace him with Eric Thames, who spent the last three seasons playing in Korea, the organization does not appear prepared to be a big spender in the short term.
Yet the front office may not see the Brewers’ window for contention as being that far off. According to an MLB.com report, team officials saw Thames as a better fit financially and performance-wise for when the Brewers are ready to compete again. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but given that the guaranteed portion of Thames’ contract ends in 2019, there is at least a possibility that the front office could expect the Brewers to contend as soon as 2018.
Though this season’s 73-89 record would suggest otherwise, there are reasons for optimism other than some members of the organization seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After a miserable first half, the Brewers went 35-40 after the All-Star break, outscoring opponents 329-315. They ranked 12th in runs scored and 11th in wOBA in the second half, as something clicked for Keon Broxton and Hernan Perez, Jonathan Villar started mashing and Domingo Santana finished strong after missing much of the season with shoulder and elbow injuries.
The pitching staff went from ranking 21st in ERA in the first half to the third in the second half. Much of the credit goes to the bullpen, which led the majors in second-half ERA, but the unheralded rotation ranked seventh with a 3.97 mark. Junior Guerra (2.29), Chase Anderson (2.83) and Wily Peralta (2.92) led the way, but Zach Davies and Matt Garza showed improvement as well. It’s also worth noting that the bullpen’s heroics occurred with just two-and-a-half weeks with the services of Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith.
The Brewers’ relative success in the second half gives them something build on until they are ready to contend again. One of their most immediate decisions is to determine whether Ryan Braun serves their future plans best as their left fielder or as their most valuable trade chip. Braun was nearly dealt to the Dodgers in August for Yasiel Puig, but general manager David Stearns recently said that there were no trade discussions underway.
Things could change quickly during the Winter Meetings, so it’s worth asking: How close is a Braun-less Brewers team to competing? It would depend on the return, but the nixed Puig deal shows that the Brewers may target a player (or players) they could use now and not two or three years down the road. It’s just as well that the Puig swap didn’t go down, because dealing Braun in order to replace him in the outfield would not be the best use of his trade value. As it stands, Perez has no assurances of an everyday role in the infield, but he could play one of the outfield corners, along with Santana. The outfield would be set, and there are other needs that have to be addressed.
Even without Braun, the Brewers could have a solid offense. Villar has improved dramatically as a contact and power hitter, and he could soon be a star. Santana, Broxton and Perez have shown signs of breaking out — just strong enough to make them possible centerpieces of the next good Brewers team, but not strong enough to bank on.
Thames is even more of a wild card. According to Clay Davenport’s stat translations, Thames’ 2015 KBO season produced the equivalent of a .968 OPS in the major leagues. Even his more modest 2014 season translated to an .823 OPS, which is still two points higher than the one Carter compiled this season. However, Thames’ actual track record in the Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles organizations reached its pinnacle in his 2011 rookie season, when he posted a .769 OPS with Toronto.
However optimistic you may be about the Brewers’ lineup, they still need a lot of pitching help. The rotation’s surprising second-half performance was partly a reflection of the unlikely coincidence of having three starters with strand rates above 80 percent. Those starters — Guerra, Anderson and Peralta — were the same three to register second-half ERAs below 3.00, but only Peralta had an xFIP below 4.00. Peralta has already shown the potential to be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter, and Davies appears to be on that trajectory as well. With Peralta and Davies ranking as the Brewers’ best starters, they still have no one even close to ace-caliber. Prospects Josh Hader and Jorge Lopez, both of whom could debut in 2017, also don’t figure to fill that void within the next two years.
Trading Braun for pitching would make some sense, but it won’t be enough. If the Brewers are going to contend in 2018, they will either have to spend on pitching in next year’s more plentiful free agent market or trade from the depth of their farm system to acquire some. And even if the Brewers go one of these routes, they will have to depend on Santana, Broxton and Perez to at least maintain their form from the latter part of 2016.
Alternatively, Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips could establish themselves as productive major leaguers, and then Santana and Broxton could be part of a package for pitching help. Both of these scenarios are far from a given.
The Brewers’ chances of contending aren’t helped by being in the National League Central. The Cubs and Cardinals could be powerhouses for years to come, making the fight for a divisional title especially daunting. With or without Braun, the Brewers would need everything to break right for them to be serious wild card contenders by 2018.
That may sound like a pessimistic outlook, but to see any scenario in which they could be competitive within two years is quite a feat considering they have shed Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez from their roster in just over a year’s time. Stearns has improved the team through low-key acquisitions like Villar, and between those types of moves, the arrivals of their top prospects and a few strategic splashes in the free agent market, the Brewers could be a good team for a long time. That successful run just may not start until 2019 or later.