Compete or rebuild. Everyone seems to think baseball teams need to choose one or the other. I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive. In a year where they finished last in their division, the Red Sox traded away a bunch of their marquee players. Then the following year they won the World Series. The Rays traded away one of their front-line starters (among others) and still made the playoffs. I’m not at all suggesting the Brewers have the ability to do exactly the same thing. They have neither the money nor caliber of pitching, but I think they can do something similar. Here’s what I’d try to do:
1. Trade Lohse; Sign Scott Kazmir to replace him.
Several clubs were reported to have interest in Lohse at the trade deadline, but for some reason the Brewers weren’t interested. I expect there to be even more clubs looking in on Lohse over the winter, especially since the free agent class for starting pitchers is so very mediocre. I’m not sure what they could get for Lohse, but I imagine it would by a package with 2 or 3 prospects coming over. If they do trade him, they would have the money to sign a guy like Kazmir. If MLB Trade Rumors is accurate with their prediction, Kazmir could be had for something like 2 years and $16 million. With Kazmir they’d still have a chance at getting the same level of performance from their rotation. Kazmir experienced a career renaissance in Cleveland. He threw his fastball harder than he has in years and had great peripherals (9.23 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9). They’d also have the potential to trade him at a later date as well. Gallardo is another guy I’d listen to offers for, but I think if he pitches well leading up to the trade deadline he could be worth quite a deal more. I know the reverse is true as well, but I’d hang onto him until then.
2. Trade Aoki; Use Khris Davis in left and Ryan Braun in right.
I would absolutely trade Aoki. I like Aoki, but he’s essentially a league average player well into his decline years. I’d like to see Khris Davis play a full year in left field (with Ryan Braun in right). I was impressed with what he did in 2013 and if he can perform near that level over 150 games he’ll be a very productive (and cheap) player for several years. Aoki is a fourth outfielder on most teams, but he’s a reasonably productive player on an extremely cheap one year contract. I think he could fetch one B type prospect. That’s what I’d aim for rather than a major league player.
3. Trade Weeks; Platoon Gennett with Bianchi or Mark Ellis.
Trading Rickie Weeks before the season starts would prove exceedingly difficult. Weeks was awful in 2013 and missed the second half of the season with a torn hamstring. He’ll make $11 million in 2014. There’s a chance, remote though it may be, that a team like the Royals or Blue Jays get desperate and trade next to nothing for Weeks and a significant amount of cash. Gennett has proven he simply cannot hit left-handed pitching so they'll need someone to platoon him with. They can probably find a cheap option on the free agent market but, they may already have one in Bianchi. He hasn’t acquitted himself well at the plate in the majors but he was a much better batter in the minors, specifically against left-handed pitching. If they don’t feel comfortable with Bianchi, Mark Ellis would provide a cheap and productive option. Despite his age he still hits LHP well and has good defense so he could also serve as a defensive replacement late in games.
4. Trade Ramirez; Sign Juan Uribe to replace him.
Ramirez also missed a significant chunk of time due to an injury (knee). He was still very good when he played, putting up a triple slash line of 283/37/461 over 91 games. A team may be interested in that, especially if they can put him at DH every once in a while to keep him fresh. He’ll need to show he’s healthy and his salary is going to make a trade difficult. He’s owed $16 million in 2014, $6 million of which is deferred. There is also a mutual option in 2015 for a salary of $14 million with a $4 million buyout. If the Brewers were to pay the $6 million in deferred salary it might make a deal viable. If/when Alex Rodriguez is suspended, I bet the Yankees at least check in with the Brewers. Should they find a way to complete a trade, my top target to replace Ramirez would be Juan Uribe. His 2013 season at the plate (278/331/438) might prove to be a fluke but he’s a plus defender at third base. That will be a nice change especially for the Brewers starting rotation which features an ever growing cadre of ground ball pitchers. Again, if MLB Trade Rumors is accurate with their prediction, he’ll be a comparatively cheap option at the hot corner and can likely be had on a two year deal. That could bridge the gap for recently acquired Nicky Delmonico, assuming he can actually stick at third.
5. Re-sign Corey Hart to play first base.
He comes with serious health concerns after a season missed to multiple knee surgeries, but there aren't any very good first basemen on the market. Already several teams were reported to have shown interest in Hart as a buy low right handed power option. I still think he ends up back in Milwaukee. I look at Mike Napoli’s 2013 contract as a model for what Hart’s will look like. Ultimately, I believe he’ll sign for something close to $6 million in base salary with the potential to earn another $8 million in incentives. He’ll be a useful player, assuming health, if the Brewers are able to compete. If they can’t, then maybe he could bring in a mid-tier prospect or two at the trade deadline. Should they trade him (or never sign him to begin with) I would platoon Juan Francisco with Sean Halton or maybe even Jason Rogers rather than pursue a free agent or make a trade.
They’ve both proven to be successful in high leverage situations, have high strikeout rates, and low home run rates. Madson has been better at limiting walks. They’re both coming off injuries, but Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011. I expect both will want a 1 year deal to rebuild value. Crain’s deal might include incentives based on games played or finished, but I doubt it would raise the entire salary to something the Brewers couldn’t afford. A deal for Madson is more difficult to figure out. It’s been two years since he pitched so he might have to settle for a minor league deal similar to what Francisco Rodriguez signed with the Brewers in 2013. Otherwise, I would be surprised to see him get a major league deal worth more than $2 million dollars. That’s right in the Brewers wheelhouse. It’s possible the Brewers could sign both of them for $3-5 million in total (plus incentives for Crain). Much like Hart, they would be useful to the Brewers if they compete or as mid-season trade bait.
Before the season begins it might prove impossible trade any one of these players I mentioned (Weeks/Ramirez), or not to their advantage either because his value might be too low (Gallardo), or they just signed him and simply aren't allowed to trade him yet (Hart, Madson, Crain). If that’s the case, and unless they had an impressive lead for one of the playoff spots, I’d revisit the trade market at the deadline. Depending on health and performance, Estrada might draw some interest too. I’d even start to listen to offers for Gomez. I know, I love him too, but my main goal here is to build a competitive team. With the current major league talent and the farm system the way it is (consistently ranked at or near the bottom), I think the Brewers best window to start competing again is around 2016-2018. With that in mind, I’m fine with putting together a team to compete now if it’s done intelligently and with an eye towards the future. I think this combination of trading as well as signing (and then possibly trading) players is the best way for the Brewers to do that.