Baseball and Milwaukee go hand in hand. Ever since Bud Selig brought the sport back to the Cream City, his Brewers have provided an integral source of civic pride and enjoyment. In the summer months, Miller Park drums as the city’s collective heartbeat. In the winter, it stands as a reminder of the thrills and excitement yet to come.
“Yet to come.”
With the Brewers’ recent rebuilding efforts, words like those have held a heightened emphasis over the past two years. A clear majority of the focus surrounding the club centers around future success and achievement. While valid, what if I told you that the “yet to come” is already here?
The Brewers entered 2017 with the most modest of expectations. Many Vegas sports books pegged the team at just around 70 wins, and with sound reasoning. The Brewers appeared to lack effective starting pitching, with Jimmy Nelson coming off a rough campaign and Wily Peralta taking not steps, but full strides, backwards. Add in a line-up ravaged from trades and a bullpen without any clear order, and you see a team that seemed to be a shoo-in for last place in the division.
So, what changed? How did this group go from a filler-year squad to a legitimate playoff contender?
Rebuilding has become somewhat of a sports culture phenomenon over the last few years. Without the financial firepower to retain homegrown talent long term or to acquire top-flight players in free agency, small market teams must sell off their current on-field assets to acquire potential prospects and avoid a sunk cost. Multiple years of futility usually follow, a drastic example being the Houston Astros. After committing to rebuilding, they experienced three straight seasons of sub-60-win baseball from 2011-2013 before finally breaking through to the playoffs in 2015. Now, the Astros look to be a serious threat for the 2017 World Series crown.
The Brewers’ rebuilding project started at the 2015 trade deadline, as they traded several key players for minor league prospects. In the process of shedding their major-league assets, the Brewers acquired current contributors Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Zach Davies and Brett Phillips. In the following offseason, the teardown continued and the Brewers brought in Jonathan Villar, Keon Broxton and Chase Anderson among others. The early results, for a year and a half of a hardcore “rebuilding” organizational mentality, are simply astounding.
Rebuilds are not supposed to work this fast. Many pegged 2019 as an arbitrary goal of when to expect the Brewers to compete. Yet the Crew entered the All-Star break leading the NL Central and rolled into September still firmly in the playoff hunt.
The difference between the timeline of the Brewers’ rebuild and a more traditional timeline like that of the Astros’ lies in the specific returns targeted by the Brewers during trades. Think of all those prospects the Brewers have acquired as “lottery tickets,” which is an accurate moniker for unproven minor-league talent. For many rebuilds, you hit on a couple of these tickets each year and then subsequently acquire more with your remaining expendable assets. Eventually, you field a team full of those successful lottery tickets accumulated over time, along with a sprinkling of effective free agent signings. For the Astros, this process took over four seasons. However, with the Brewers, they have seemed to hit the jackpot. Nearly all their tickets resulted in “winning numbers” right away.
What was the ideal return that the Brewers believed would result in “winning numbers,” and therefore a winning team? A package of prospects close to being major-league ready. This type of player (“lottery ticket”) inherently comes with less risk due to the fact that they have proven themselves over multiple levels of the minor leagues. The headlining returns of every big deal the Brewers pulled off resided in the upper-levels of the minors prior to being traded. In some cases, the Brewers’ targets were already at the major-league level, such as the acquisition of third baseman Travis Shaw. Add in the outstanding job of the Brewers’ scouting department in finding players they considered to have breakout potential and it became the perfect solution. This strategy allowed minimal time to pass between competitive cycles with the Brewers still having a surplus of remaining high-level prospects lurking in the minors and ready to significantly contribute over the next several years.
Therein lies why the ultimate “success” of the 2017 should not be judged upon the Brewers making the playoffs. With a plethora of elite talent remaining in the minors, the Brewers have pulled what many think is impossible for a small-market team: being playoff caliber before reaching the climax of their competitive potential. 2017 is not an “all-in” type of season like 2008 or 2011. 2017 is a rebuilding year in its purpose, yet has been a competitive year in its results. Those two usually do not coincide, which makes the 2017 Brewers one of the most intriguing teams in recent memory. The “yet to come” has arrived prematurely and is still in its beginning stages. With expectations at the outset of 2017 close to nil, the progression shown throughout the year and its corresponding successes are a treat none of us expected. This exciting realization should be the main takeaway at the culmination of the season, regardless of a playoff berth or not.
Even after reading this, many fans’ attitudes will still be “playoffs or bust.” Why? Because Milwaukee and baseball go hand in hand. This is about more than wins and losses to many. It is about identity, pride and passion. Brewers’ fans have packed Miller Park to the tune of over 31,000 fans per game, greater than the Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros, all division leaders in larger markets than Milwaukee. These Brewers’ faithful want some return on their investment of time, energy and emotion. Those of you that feel this way, I simply ask you to stay patient. The Brewers are still in the process of rising, and they are not even near their ceiling yet. This team could push into the playoffs this year. They could miss by a sliver. Either way, this season has provided a glimpse into just how bright the future is for your Milwaukee Brewers.