The bottom fell out for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2015 after they surprisingly contended in the NL Central in 2014. Having to contend with the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates in their division is a tough enough task, but doing it with one of the worst farm systems in baseball *and* an aging, mediocre roster? Please. The Brewers hit the reset button over the summer and continued mashing their palm on the button over the offseason, leading to a vastly different team going into 2016, along with a much better farm system.
Depth Chart (as of 3/8)
C: Jonathan Lucroy
1B: Chris Carter
2B: Scooter Gennett
SS: Jonathan Villar
3B: Aaron Hill
LF: Ryan Braun
CF: Kirk Nieuwenhuis
RF: Domingo Santana
SP: Jimmy Nelson
SP: Wily Peralta
SP: Matt Garza
SP: Taylor Jungmann
SP: Chase Anderson
CL: Jeremy Jeffress
New Faces: Chase Anderson, Chris Carter, Garin Cecchini, Aaron Hill, Rymer Liriano, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Sean Nolin, Jonathan Villar, roughly 80 minor leaguers
Departures: Khris Davis, Elian Herrera, Adam Lind, Francisco Rodriguez, Jason Rogers, Luis Sardinas, Logan Schafer, Jean Segura
Position Battles: The only guarantee in the outfield is Ryan Braun. Some combination of Keon Broxton, Rymer Liriano, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Alex Presley, and Domingo Santana will battle for the final two slots as well as spots on the bench because of their status on the 40-man roster and/or option status. Santana and prospect Brett Phillips are both quite young (23, 21) and have options remaining (while Phillips isn’t even on the 40-man roster yet), so it wouldn’t surprise me if both lost out on Opening Day roles.
Will Middlebrooks is in camp as a non-roster invitee, and he could end up wrestling a job from Scooter Gennett and/or Aaron Hill with a strong spring…but both of those players seem likely to end up with a spot on the 25-man roster, either due to platoon effectiveness (Gennett) or an unseemly contract (Hill). The rotation is actually pretty settled for Milwaukee, and the bullpen really only has two spots up for grabs, with Rule 5 pick Zack Jones and newly acquired Sean Nolin likely having the inside track. Matt Garza was awful last year, but since he still is guaranteed $25 million over the next two years, I doubt the Brewers cut bait on him – yet.
Injury Concerns: Ryan Braun will also be an injury concern until he can log 600 plate appearances (which he hasn’t done since 2012, either because of suspension or injury), but he’s actually been relatively healthy over the past two seasons, playing in 135 games in 2014 and 140 in 2015. His performance last season actually took a step forward compared to where he was in 2014, so maybe the 32-year old can build on that success with his hopefully healthy back.
Jonathan Lucroy also missed a chunk of time last season due to a toe injury, something you never want to see out of a catcher. Considering how much of a workhorse he was for the Brewers in both 2013 and 2014, it’s not fair to label his missed time as a sign of things to come…but Lucroy *will* turn 30 in June. It wouldn’t surprise me if the nicks and bumps started taking their toll on him. Also, Wily Peralta made just 20 starts last year, but will turn just 27 in May and made 32 starts for Milwaukee in both 2013 and 2014. The oblique injury that robbed him of one-third of his season shouldn’t necessarily recur – it’s not as if it was a shoulder or elbow injury.
Key Player: Let’s stick with Wily Peralta, shall we? Peralta pretty much took steps back across the board in 2015, partially because of that oblique injury. His strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate rose, his homer rate rose, his ground ball rate dropped, his velocity fell, and his ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all career-worsts as a result. He wasn’t great before the injury, but he was simply wretched after the injury, walking nearly as many batters as he struck out (23 vs 25) in 54 2/3 innings while allowing a shocking .302/.377/.479 triple slash.
Milwaukee primarily used six starting pitchers in 2015, and four of those six return, including Peralta. Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann were both pretty good, as was new addition Chase Anderson in Arizona, and if Peralta can return to form, the Brewers will have a decent enough rotation on paper – and that’s even with not expecting anything from Matt Garza.
Underrated Asset: I don’t like putting whole units in here, but the Brewers actually have a pretty decent bullpen. Yes, they dealt away closer Francisco Rodriguez, but they bring back strikeout machine Will Smith, fireballers Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel, the quietly effective Michael Blazek, and the talented, erratic Tyler Thornburg. Jeffress is the oldest of the five at 28, and Smith is the only one of the five that’s even arbitration eligible. A cheap, young, effective bullpen is an incredibly valuable asset, and that’s something the Brewers have. In July, if Milwaukee is looking to sell off some piece, I wouldn’t be shocked if they could get some value for Jeffress and Smith – barring injury, of course.
Burning Question: Are these the end of days for Jonathan Lucroy in Milwaukee?
We’re somehow reaching the end of Jonathan Lucroy’s five-year contract. It feels like just yesterday when Lucroy signed the deal with the Brewers and everyone was raving about what a great value it was. Well, here we are – Lucroy will make $4.25 million in 2016, and $5.25 million in 2017 when the Brewers (or whoever his new team is) inevitably exercises the club option to control him for one last season. It’s conceivable that the Brewers won’t deal him – after all, he’s only 29, incredibly cheap, and super productive. Plus, Milwaukee’s presumptive catcher of the future, Jacob Nottingham, has only played 60 games at high-A. He’s not exactly knocking on the door.
But if Lucroy is healthy and productive come the trade deadline, given the dearth of quality catching options in the majors, Milwaukee moving him to a contender for what would likely be a bounty of prospects seems like a guarantee. The question shouldn’t be “are these the end of days?”, but instead “when will the end of days come?” Will it be during this season? After the season? Sometime in 2017? We’re entering Lucroy’s final weeks and months as a Milwaukee Brewer, the last real player that can net them a significant return in their rebuild.
Best Case Scenario: Success for the Brewers in 2016 won’t be determined by wins and losses. If they lose 90+ games but guys like Orlando Arcia, Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, and Jonathan Villar all show signs of being future building blocks for the team. If those players have good seasons, awesome – the rebuild is going to plan.
Worst Case Scenario: …but if those players struggle, Milwaukee could be in an even more difficult situation. The Brewers don’t have many trade chips left – Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, and a handful of relievers. If the prime prospects don’t show promise, it’s going to be harder and harder to sell the rebuild.
Realistic Prediction: The question for the Brewers going into 2016 is whether they’ll finish fourth or fifth in the NL Central. I feel like they’re a better team than the Reds, but not by much. But as I said, it really doesn’t matter where the team finishes – success or failure is all about the performance of their prospects and other young players. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll all end up being superstars, but just some signs of hope would be welcomed in Milwaukee.