Trade season is now in full swing and the Brewers are right in the middle of things. Clubs have reportedly been showing interest in several of their relievers and in starters Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse as well as outfielder Norichika Aoki. Clearly the Brewers aren’t competing this year, but there is much debate as to whether they should sell off significant pieces and attempt to rebuild for future success or stand pat and attempt a run again next year. The answer isn’t simple and one can make legitimate arguments for either side. I happen to believe it is in the Brewers best interest to trade what they can. The goal now should be sustainable long term success beginning in 2015 or 2016.
People who want them to make a run in 2014 point to the Greek tragedy of a season the Brewers are having and what their line-up looks like when healthy: Aoki, Segura, Braun, Ramirez, Gomez, Hart, Weeks, Lucroy. I acknowledge that is one potent line-up, arguably one of the best in baseball, but the caveat is “when healthy” which is far from what they are. Braun’s thumb aside, can we really say we couldn’t see this coming? Ramirez is a great player, but he’s 35 and in the twilight of his career. It’s not shocking he hurt his knee in spring training and reinjured it early in the season forcing a month on the DL. Corey Hart entered spring training last year with knee issues which returned in this spring. He ended up requiring surgery on that knee and most recently on the other, ending his comeback bid. His back-up Mat Gamel was coming off knee surgery from the previous year which he also reinjured ending his season before it started. Maybe no one could have foreseen the extent, to which injuries would ravage this team, but we knew there were risks, or we should have. Now these people want to re-up with more or less the same squad hoping the same problemsdon’t occur.
I say more or less because Corey Hart, for one, is not under contract after this season. And looking toward the future other regulars will see their contracts expire in the next couple of years. Aoki’s contract includes an option for next year but that’s it. K-Rod and Michael Gonzalez are off the books at the end of the year, which might even be a good thing. Lohse is signed through 2015. Ramirez, Weeks, and Gallardo’s contracts are through next year with an option for 2015 and while Weeks and Gallardo’s come at a reasonable price, Ramirez will start to become prohibitively expensive. Next year he is owed $16 million. His 2015 option is for $14 million with a $4 million buy-out. Braun, Segura, Lucroy, Axford, and Gomez are under contract past 2016 but, with the exception of Luc and Segura, they’re going to start getting expensive. So yeah, the Brewers could decide to run with those guys for the next two years, but you’re betting an aging Lohse and Aoki can maintain their current levels of production, that elder statesman Ramirez will be healthy and productive for two years, that Gallardo and Weeks’ struggles are exceptions to the rule instead of the new norm, and that Melvin will again be successful in cobbling together a bullpen on the cheap since they won’t be able to spend much. That’s not even addressing the concerns surrounding the starting rotation outside of Gallardo and Lohse.
I know I’ve been rather doom and gloom up until this point, but the future is brighter. Peralta has struggled but I still believe in his potential. It just might take some time and that’s okay. I’m willing to be patient with a guy that sits 96 mph with his fastball and can hit 98 and has solid secondary offerings. The same goes with Hellweg. That’s not all though. Tyler Thornburg, James Nelson, and Taylor Jungmann all have a chance to stick in the rotation. Thornburg may be ready now. Nelson could be ready by mid-season next year, Jungmann too though 2015 is probably more likely for both. After that they still have this year’s top draft pick Devin Williams, and perhaps Jorge Lopez, waiting in the wings for 2016 or 2017. The only knock against this cadre of pitching prospects is, aside from Williams, none of them project to be more than mid-rotation starters (Peralta and Hellweg were once thought to have the ceiling of a number 2, but it’s looking like they won’t reach that, not that they still can’t). Understand though, having so many mid-rotation candidates is by no means a bad thing. In fact, this is arguably the best position the Brewers have been in a long time.
Unfortunately their positional prospects aren’t quite up par with the pitching. That’s not to say they lack talent here either. Last year the Brewers went heavy on hitters drafting catcher Clint Coulter, and outfielders Victor Roache, Mitchell Haniger, and Tyrone Taylor. Coulter is young and raw defensively though scouts like his bat and think he could hit well enough to play right field or first base, maybe third base if he can’t stay behind the play and the Brewers want to try him there. He is probably the furthest away from the majors. Roache projects best at LF and has major power, but he might not hit enough to make it. Haniger and Taylor have been quite good since beginning their pro careers. Haniger could hit for average and a bit of power. He projects to play right field. Taylor is the most exciting position player in the Brewers’ system right now. He projects to play center field and though he was thought to be raw offensively has absolutely torn up the lower minors. Another exciting prospect is shortstop Orlando Arcia. He was always going to be good enough defensively to stick at shortstop but now that his bat is starting to come around he has a legitimate chance to be a regular at the position in the majors. Tucker Neuhaus, the Brewers second draft pick this year, is a shortstop/third baseman that is intriguing. Still, he’s very young so there’s not much to go on yet. It’s possible that Haniger and Taylor will be ready by 2015, but it is likely most of these guys won’t come up until 2016 or later. I suppose I should mention that Hunter Morris and Scooter Gennett will likely be as ready as they’ll ever be in 2014, but there’s a lot doubt surrounding the level of performance one should expect from those two.
The main problem with both the pitching and positional prospects is the lack of impact talent and here is where the Brewers could make significant strides over the next two or three years, starting right now. I think the ship has likely sailed on trading Aramis Ramirez, at least for this year. He may draw interest in the offseason, but I think it’s more likely he gets moved, if ever, next year. He’ll have a chance to prove he’s healthy again and the Brewers could include money in a deal to offset his large salary. Rickie Weeks has started hitting again but I’m not sure if anyone is interested right now. Again, he might be a guy they can trade in the offseason or next year if he shows his recent struggles are more flukes than trends. I’d be surprised if K-Rod and Michael Gonzalez weren’t moved before the deadline, but I’m not sure what the Brewers can get for them. Maybe an interesting prospect or two but I don’t see any impact players being shipped to Milwaukee for them. Axford could get moved as well and I’d expect a better return for him. He had a down year last year and struggled to start the year but has been dominant since. He also has two years left in arbitration after this year. Nori Aoki could prove to an interesting trade chip. He’s a decent defender in right or left field and can play center in a pinch. He’s a tremendous lead-off hitter though he hasn’t stolen bases this year at the same clip as he did in 2012 and his slugging numbers are down. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’s also ridiculously cheap this year and next. I really don’t know what the Brewers could get for him, but they’ll likely listen to any offer and move him for a solid return if they can. Lohse is another guy that I read some buzz about, though I really don’t know which team is a fit or what they could get for him. The concern is, if teams were reluctant to give up a first round pick to sign him, what, if anything would they be willing to give up in a trade for him. It’s a good question, but I wonder if teams are less willing to give up a draft pick than they are to give up certain known quantities, because the “what if” with prospects can be exciting and enticing. I also wonder if teams were wary about Lohse’s performance outside of St. Louis. As far as that is concerned, I’d say Lohse has proven himself. He could potentially be moved before the deadline, in the offseason, next year, or never. I really don’t know.
Despite his struggles this year, I believe Gallardo represents their best chance to get impact talent. He’s young, has a track record of quality, and his velocity seems to have returned which could allay fears about the 3year downward trend. He hasn’t helped his value lately, but I don’t think waiting to deal him is the right move. If his velocity does continue to trend down he may continue to struggle and his value will suffer. He’ll also offer less control time next year so his value will automatically suffer from that. The only benefit comes if he returns to mid-3 ERA form, but I think that is mitigated some by the lessened control years. The trading landscape could be very different next year too. Right now Gallardo is one of the top talents available. Who knows who’s available this time next year? The NL West is wide open right now and the Brewers could benefit greatly if a team like the Diamondbacks panics and decides it needs a starter. They reportedly like Gallardo and it’s believed that left-handed starter Tyler Skaggs is available as the centerpiece in the” right trade.” Skaggs is Arizona’s top prostpect and was ranked as the 7th best prospect in the minors by Fangraphs, 8th by MLB, and 12th by ESPN. He does have some question marks surrounding him. He scuffled a bit in the 9 starts he made for Arizona over the last two years and his fastball was clocked at 89-90 mph which a lot lower than the 91-93 that was previously reported. Still, the Brewers have had no success developing left-handers for whatever reason so he’s probably someone they’d covet. He’d also immediately become the Brewers top prospect. A warning though: As fans it’s probably best we don’t get attached to any one trade rumor as it’s never a sure thing and more often than not they prove to be nothing. Of course, trades aren’t the only way to improve the minor league system.
There are two ways the Brewers can improve their system outside of trades and free agency: The first year player draft and international signings. This is the silver-lining to the awful season they’re having. The worse their record is, the higher their draft position is next year. They also get a larger allotment of money to spend on their picks. Carlos Rodon, the consensus favorite to go off the board first, was drafted by the Brewers in 2010. Clearly he didn’t sign, but the Brewers may have a chance to draft him again this year. It’s unlikely the Brewers get the first pick overall or that he’ll fall past the first pick, but it’s not impossible and it’s something to dream on. He’d be the ace type pitcher the Brewers are sorely lacking. Even if they can’t draft Rodon, in the top 3 or 5 they’ll still have a good chance to get impact talent. They’ll also be allowed to spend more pool money in next year’s international draft. This year the Brewers already increased their international presence and I’m hoping it’s a precursor to a big splash next year.
I love the Brewers and I want them to compete every year. That’s just not a realistic goal. A small market team like them cannot afford to make big splashes in free agency very often and they can’t continue to trade away prospects like they did for Greinke, Marcum, and Sabathia. Even if they are able to compete next year and/or in 2015, that leaves them with a serious lack of impact talent that could end up hurting them long term by not allowing them to restock the minor league talent pool through trades. The best chance for long term sustainable success is by drafting, signing international free agents, and trading to build up cheap home grown talent. The Brewers have a chance to do this and I think it would be a short sighted and misguided decision not to.