2016 generally went as expected for the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers struggled on the field and key veteran pieces were traded for promising prospects, but faithful fans still arrived to Miller Park in droves, helping eclipse the 2.3 million tickets sold mark for the eleventh straight season. Numerous stories helped define the Brewers season, and here are some of those which stand out most.
The Most Hectic Offseason Possible
“Slingin” David Stearns had his work cut out for him when he assumed the position of Brewers GM in the fall of 2015. He was handed an underachieving big league roster and a mediocre minor league system, and wasted little time in tearing it apart. Heading into spring training, more than half of the 40-man roster that began the 2015 season with the Brewers had been flipped. Following up on his plan to infuse young, controllable talent into the minor league system, Stearns made a bevy of trades to acquire players that fit this mold. Two of the larger deals were sending power-hitting outfielder Khris Davis to Oakland for prospects Jacob Nottingham and Bubba Derby and trading Jean Segura to Arizona for starting pitcher Chase Anderson, infielder Aaron Hill, and prospect Isan Diaz. Both Diaz and Nottingham are regarded as top-20 prospects in the system and Chase Anderson proved to be a decent rotation option at the big league level. Hill, however, was traded to Boston in July after a hot start to the season, netting two organizational depth prospects in infielder Wendell Rijo and pitcher Aaron Wilkerson.
Some of Stearns’ smaller deals were the ones that proved to be most noticeable on the field in 2016. In November of 2015, Stearns acquired Jonathan Villar from the Houston Astros in exchange for pitching prospect Cy Sneed, which turned out to be an absolute steal. Villar broke out as a potential all-star in 2016, hitting .285/.369/.457 with 19 home runs and 62 stolen bases. He also offers great defense potential, offering above-average play at second base, shortstop, or third base. Villar is certain to be a player the Brewers will build around in the coming years, as he is only 25 years of age and only getting better.
Another one of “Stearns’ Steals” was pitcher Junior Guerra. Stearns claimed Guerra off of waivers from the White Sox in early October in his first move as the Brewers’ GM. Guerra has a complex past, as he used to be a catcher and was out of professional baseball from 2008-2014. In 2015, he resurfaced with the White Sox and had a successful year in the minor leagues. However, the White Sox placed him on waivers to free up a spot on their 40-man roster, and Stearns took advantage of their mistake. After being called up by the Brewers in May, Guerra established himself as the rotation’s ace. He went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, striking out 100 batters in 121.2 innings. After missing time with an elbow injury in August, Guerra was shut down for the final two weeks of the season. He certainly provided a bright spot in a toilsome season for Brewers’ fans.
Coming into 2016, the Brewers’ starting rotation looked to be one of their strong points. Taylor Jungmann was coming off of a strong rookie campaign, Jimmy Nelson looked to be developing well, and Wily Peralta was expected to be the club’s ace. Additionally, Chase Anderson was supposed to bolster the back-end of the rotation, with Matt Garza being a potential x-factor. However, all five of these options faltered in their own regards. Jungmann and Peralta were both demoted to the minor leagues, Jimmy Nelson took a step back and struggled immensely down the stretch, Anderson was inconsistent, and Garza battled injuries. One bright spot in the rotation was Zach Davies, who stepped into the mix and excelled after Jungmann was demoted. Over the course of the year, he went 11-7 with a 3.97 ERA, and is certainly an integral part of the Brewers’ plans going forward. Peralta was called back up at the end of the year and pitched well, but most likely does not have a rotation spot locked down. Garza, Anderson, and Nelson all likely have rotation spots, but minor league options such as Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff are knocking on the door, and could potentially replace two of them at some point in 2017. Garza is a potential trade candidate this off-season, as Stearns likely would appreciate having his contract off the books and enjoy the opportunity of being able to test different, younger options in the rotation.
Trades, Trades Galore
Headed into the 2016 season, no one expected the Brewers to compete. They already were in full rebuild mode and featured several replacement level players competing for starting roles. However, the season was certainly not meaningless, as the Brewers held several trade chips that could translate to high quality prospects and a brighter future for the franchise. The first trade of the 2016 season sent infielder Aaron Hill to Boston for minor leaguers Aaron Wilkerson and Wendell Rijo. This was an excellent return for Hill. It can be considered a success anytime you get two prospects for a 34-year-old utility man.
As the season approached the trade deadline, there was much talk surrounding who the Brewers could potentially trade. Who would win the bidding for Jonathan Lucroy? Could Braun be traded as well? After weeks of speculation, Stearns pulled the trigger in the hours leading up to the deadline, finalizing two deals that brought an influx of talent into the Brewers’ minor league system. First, reliever Will Smith was shipped to the Giants in return for a Top-100 prospect in Phil Bickford and a former Top-100 prospect and capable catcher in Andrew Susac. Susac has a great shot at being the Brewers’ catcher going forward, and Bickford added a power arm to the Brewers’ farm.
Later that day, Stearns put to rest the Lucroy speculation, packaging him and closer Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers in exchange for Top-50 prospects Luis Ortiz and Lewis Brinson, in addition to advanced minor league outfielder Ryan Cordell. This trade came with a little extra story, as it was made possible only after Lucroy vetoed a trade to the Cleveland Indians earlier in the week, who coincidentally ended up sweeping Lucroy and the Rangers in the ALDS. Nonetheless, the trade package the Brewers’ received from the Rangers was far more impressive than that of which they would have received from Cleveland, as it gives them two potential big-league difference makers in Brinson and Ortiz. Both could potentially be all-stars.
Brew Crew on the Basepaths
After playing in a relatively conservative fashion under Ron Roenicke, it was quite surprising to see the Brewers lead the MLB in stolen bases this year. Even more surprising is the margin by which they achieved that mark. The Brewers stole 181 stolen bases; the next closest was the Cincinnati Reds, and they stole 139 bases. A margin of 42 stolen bases is extremely impressive. Comparatively, the Brewers stole 84 bases in 2015. Over the past couple of years, the Brewers simply have not had the personnel to make a large impact on the basepaths other than Carlos Gomez (prior to his departure). The remarkable 2016 effort was led by Jonathan Villar and his 62 stolen bases, with Hernan Perez adding 34 for good measure. Their 96 stolen bases combined would tie them two alone for 11th in the MLB with the Philadelphia Phillies. Keep in mind, Perez did not play for the first month and a half of the season, so his number could be even higher. Speed will be a large factor for the Brewers going forward. Centerfielder Keon Broxton possesses game-changing speed, and given a full season, he could steal 40+ bases. Orlando Arcia will be the Brewers’ shortstop for the foreseeable future, and could potentially steal 20+ bases a year. Finally, don’t forget all the Brewers prospects that are coming through the minor league system, as Lewis Brinson, Corey Ray, Brett Phillips, and Trent Clark all possess great speed. Below, you can see a graph comparing the Brewers stolen bases over the past six seasons.
While considered to be a weak spot in prior years, the Brewers bullpen in 2016 ended up being one of the top units in the league. According to FanGraphs, the Brewers bullpen posted a WAR (wins above replacement) of 4.8, which ranked 10th in the MLB. Six of the nine teams ahead of the Brewers were playoff teams, and the Brewers finished ahead of the Cubs and the Blue Jays, who both are still fighting for a World Series berth. The Brewers bullpen was bolstered for most of the year by one of the most effective 7-8-9 trios in the MLB: Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Jeremy Jeffress. After the trades of Smith to San Francisco and Jeffress to Texas, Thornburg was thrust into the closer role, a role in which he proved to be extremely effective. Over the course of the season, he achieved a 2.15 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, and held batters to a .164 BAA. FanGraphs had him ranked as the 12th best reliever in the MLB, which is quite an accomplishment. While the Brewers may continue to turn over parts of their roster as they rebuild, Thornburg is one piece that David Stearns will decide to build his bullpen around or deal for more prospects and future potential.
The Brewers also saw surprising contributions from a number of newly acquired players, who many (including myself) wrote off simply as stop-gaps upon their addition to the roster. Most notable of these pitchers are Blaine Boyer, Jhan Mariñez, and Carlos Torres. Torres arguably was the most impressive of this bunch, as he finished with a superb 2.73 ERA and threw a bullpen-high 82.1 innings.
The Brewers currently house a surplus of young talent, both on their big league roster and in the minor leagues. In the majors, players like Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Orlando Arcia offer a glimpse of a promising future. Although hampered by injuries for much of the season, Santana performed well when healthy, and displayed his advanced power bat. He is a great corner outfield option for the Brewers going forward, and should find himself in the starting lineup come Opening Day. The only aspect of his game that could hold him back is his propensity to strikeout. While he always has had this problem through the minor leagues and has carried it into his big league career, it should be an area that improves at least marginally in the coming years.
Even more impressive, in my opinion, was outfielder Keon Broxton. While he struggled in his initial taste of the majors in April, he retooled his swing after being demoted to the minors and showed great progress upon being recalled in July. Before ending his season with a fractured wrist in mid-September, Broxton displayed game changing speed in centerfield and on the basepaths, and fared much better at the plate. After being recalled, he hit an impressive .294/.399/.538. While he may not have arrived with the hype of a top-prospect, Broxton possesses the same electric tools that place young players on the map.
Much heralded top-prospect Orlando Arcia made his Brewers debut on August 2nd and experienced a mixture of success and failure in his first experience of the major leagues. Although he struggled at the plate, hitting .219/.273/.358, he displayed great aptitude at shortstop, and should offer gold-glove level defense at the position for years to come. It may take time for him to adapt to big-league pitching, but he showed glimpses of being able to make consistent hard contact over stretches of time. Expect him to improve significantly at the plate in 2017, as he now knows what to expect at the MLB level and has an entire off-season to prepare. Looking at advanced statistics via MLB.com, one area in which Arcia can most improve is in the launch-angle of balls he puts into play. On average, balls came off his bat at an angle of 3.64 degrees, nearly 2/3 less than the MLB average of 9.97 degrees. Part of this could be due to the fact that Arcia faced an exorbitant amount of curveballs due to his perceived weakness against the pitch, which often times led to him striking out or making weak contact for a ground ball. To back this claim up, let’s take a look at Fangraphs. Fangraphs categorizes every ball put in play by a batter as either soft, medium, or hard contact. Of all regular players, Arcia led the Brewers in that respect, with 24.0% of balls in play being deemed “soft contact”. Surprisingly, Wily Peralta, a pitcher with a career batting average of .091, had 23.1% of his balls in play noted as being “soft contact”. Arcia needs to improve in this regard to be successful, and if he can do that, expect to see his average rise significantly in 2017.
Bye Bye, Braun?
There was much trade speculation surrounding Braun at the trade deadline, but Stearns eventually decided to retain the six-time All-Star. However, it came to light in early September that at the waiver-deadline (end of August), Braun was nearly traded to the Dodgers for outfielder Yasiel Puig. Reportedly, the only thing that kept the deal from happening was agreement on the secondary pieces of the deal. Adding a young player with the talent and potential of Puig would have been huge for the Brewers going forward, Puig’s distractions and antics aside. You can be certain that Stearns will revisit this possibility in the offseason, and even if Braun does not end up being traded to the Dodgers, the likelihood that he is not with the Brewers come spring training seems only to be increasing.