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When Do the Stars Come Out?: The Milwaukee Brewers Quiet Rebuilding Efforts

Feb. 13, 2017
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Photo Credit: MJZ Photography (Flickr CC)

Welcome to the 2017 debut of the On Deck Circle, a weekly feature covering the Milwaukee Brewers from all angles with interviews, analysis and more. Starting today, this column will run on Mondays through the 2017 MLB season.

A long, cold winter will take one step closer to spring on Tuesday when pitchers and catchers are expected to officially report to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. They’ll take part in the first workout of the spring on Wednesday, position players are expected to join them on Saturday and the entire squad will have less than a week to prepare together for a scheduled exhibition against UW-Milwaukee on February 24.

As the offseason draws to a close we have another opportunity to look at the big picture and discuss the organization’s rebuilding efforts. This winter was much quieter for general manager David Stearns and company than the one that preceded it, but the organization’s focus pretty clearly remains on the future. So where, you might ask, does that leave the present? The answer is more interesting than you might think.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a statistic that attempts to measure all of a player’s various contributions to a team on the field (batting, pitching, baserunning, fielding, etc) and quantify it in one number that shows the difference between that player and others that might be freely available. As Ben Lindbergh, Jeff Sullivan and Jack Moore recently noted on the Effectively Wild podcast, the widely-respected ZiPS projection system showed the Brewers with 20 players with a projected value at or above 1.0 WAR for 2017 even before their offseason addition of likely closer Neftali Feliz. For comparison purposes, the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs have just 18 such players once you remove departed free agents Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel, Aroldis Chapman, Chris Coghlan and Tim Federowicz.

As such, the Brewers’ rebuild can already be counted as a success in one light: Through low-risk acquisitions and trades that have netted large volumes of prospects, the Brewers have built a collection of MLB or near-MLB players that form a roster without many glaring holes. On the other hand, they also find themselves pretty light on star power.

While the Brewers lead the Cubs a bit in terms of organizational depth in the above comparison, the difference between the two teams becomes easily apparent when you look at their stars. ZiPS projects 2017’s most valuable Brewer to be Jonathan Villar, with an expected value of 2.8 wins. The Cubs have ten players expected to be worth three wins or more. Two of them, Kris Bryant (6.7 WAR) and Anthony Rizzo (5.7 WAR), are both projected to more than double Villar’s contributions.

So, while the rebuild has successfully patched many of the holes in the Brewers’ organization, the next step probably revolves around some of those stopgaps and prospects either becoming or being replaced by stars. Therein might lie the biggest storyline of the Brewers’ 2017 season: Who is ready to turn the corner? Here are some likely candidates.

The outfield, regardless of whether the Brewers decide to retain or remove Ryan Braun, is likely to be one of this organization’s greatest strengths for a long time to come. Assuming Braun opens the 2017 season in left field, three breakout candidates will likely see time in two positions alongside him this spring and beyond:

  •  Keon Broxton, whose electrifying third stint in the big leagues in 2016 (where he hit .294 with a .399 on-base percentage and .538 slugging over 46 games while playing excellent center field defense) put him on the map in a big way. To say the aforementioned Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs is on his bandwagon would be a massive understatement.
  •  That link also includes a cause for optimism for Domingo Santana, who hit the ball harder (by exit velocity) than any MLB hitter not named Miguel Cabrera or Nelson Cruz in 2016. Cruz is an interesting long-term comparison for Santana, who is likely to provide nearly all of his value on the offensive side of the ball.
  •  With that said, one of those two players might just be keeping a position warm for near-consensus top prospect Lewis Brinson, who reached the AAA level in both 2015 and 2016 and possesses a rare combination of power and the ability to play center field.

The middle infield has the potential to be another solid asset for the Brewers in 2017 and the years that follow. Orlando Arcia is still only 22 and his bat hasn’t come around yet, but his defense is good enough that he is still projected to be worth more than two wins in 2017 despite a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Any step forward in his development at the plate could result in him becoming one of the organization’s most valuable talents.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Villar has a big spring ahead as he attempts a full-time move to second base, a position he’s played just a handful of times as a professional. He is also only 25 years old and could continue to develop, but his power and speed combination would continue to be valuable even if he’s never much more productive than he was in 2016.

On the pitching side, Josh Hader stands alone as a player that could be a big determining factor in the Brewers’ attempts to return to contention. While the organization has done well to fill in a starting rotation with players who have been productive, they’re likely to need the front end of their staff to be better than it’s reasonable to expect the likes of Junior Guerra and Zach Davies to be in the long term.

The Brewers have accumulated several highly-regarded pitching prospects in recent years, but Hader is the most likely to provide the kind of outcome that ends the “The Brewers don’t have an ace” narrative that has followed the team for years now. He turns 23 in May but has already dominated the minors across five seasons, striking out more than ten batters per nine innings in four different seasons while climbing the ladder in the Orioles, Astros and Brewers organizations. He’s unlikely to open the 2017 season on the MLB roster, but expect to be monitoring his status closely in the minors as he nears a much-anticipated major league debut.

It probably won’t surprise many Brewers fans to hear that the organization’s long-term rebuild is not yet complete, and 2017 likely isn’t the year when this team turns the corner and starts competing for a postseason berth. If one or more of the six players listed above can take a big step forward this season, however, then the window to win might open sooner rather than later.

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