Dust Off Your Crystal Balls, it's Prediction Season
We’ve reached the final week of spring training and, as such, prediction season. It’s the time of year when everyone dusts off their crystal ball and makes a forecast for the six months ahead. For at least one prominent prognosticator, the future doesn’t look good for the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers.
Over the last week FanGraphs has released their annual Positional Power Rankings for position players, ranking each position 1-30 based on each team’s talent and projected depth chart. It paints a bleak picture for Milwaukee: The Brewers are among the bottom six at catcher (25th), center field (25th), third base (26th), second base (27th), shortstop (27th) and right field (27th). The only positions where they crack the top half of the rankings are first base (15th) and left field (9th).
When you combine all of those factors, it’s easy to understand why FanGraphs projects the Brewers to win 70 games (a three-game setback from last year) and finish tied with the Reds at the bottom of the NL Central in 2017. But, I think it’s important to note that the Brewers have exceeded these expectations before.
A year ago FanGraphs didn’t think highly of Jonathan Villar at shortstop, projecting him to be worth just 0.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). He blew that projection out of the water, providing an estimated three wins’ worth of value despite being more than ten runs below average defensively. Undeterred by last season’s miss, FanGraphs now has Villar projected for 0.8 wins of value at second base in 2017. Villar has some work to do to keep the pace set by his breakout season a year ago, but even with some regression he’s likely to exceed those low expectations and his defensive deficiencies should be eased by a move to an easier position.
Across the outfield, FanGraphs moved Ryan Braun up a couple of spots in left field (from 11th to 9th) but remains low on Keon Broxton and the organization’s other center fielders (rated 25th in 2017, compared to 30th last year) and soured on Domingo Santana and company in right (18th in 2018, 27th in 2017). One of the primary critics of the site’s low expectations for Broxton has been FanGraphs’ own Jeff Sullivan, who has frequently made the case that a high strikeout rate shouldn’t outweigh the value he contributes by making solid contact and providing above-average center field defense.
Broxton may need to range to his left a bit more than usual to make up for Domingo Santana’s defensive shortcomings, but the latter’s bat is well worth that sacrifice: He overcame a tough start and early-season injury woes to salvage his 2016 season with a hot finish, batting .280 with a .344 on-base percentage and .508 slugging in his final 37 games. Santana is also still only 24 years old, so he has plenty of time to reach his potential.
Brewers catchers, led by Jonathan Lucroy, outperformed their projections by more than two WAR last season. Lucroy’s bounce back allowed the Brewers to get the organization’s new top prospect, outfielder Lewis Brinson, as part of the package in the trade sending him to Texas. Clearly, the Brewers are unlikely to receive that level of production from the catching position in 2017, but if they struggle it will be for the right reasons.
Instead of following their trend from the mid-2000’s and signing an aging veteran to serve as a temporary solution, they’re taking a long look at three younger players with an opportunity to be a part of the organization for years to come. Individually it’s unlikely that any of the three of Manny Pina, Jett Bandy or Andrew Susac will be a top-flight MLB catcher, but putting the three together leaves the Brewers in a position to capitalize and benefit for the long term if any of them exceed expectations.
Of course, even if all of the above-mentioned players exceed expectations this Brewers team still has some concerns and/or weaknesses that will likely keep them out of postseason contention. FanGraphs is likely right to be concerned about their production at catcher, third base and shortstop, where the organization appears to have valued the opportunity to evaluate and/or develop a young player over the marginal benefit they could have acquired by signing a veteran. Also, none of this conversation takes a relatively low-ceiling pitching staff into account.
On the whole, however, I don’t think the picture is as bleak as its individual parts may indicate. I’ll hold off on 2017 predictions for now, but I’m comfortable saying this is a better team than FanGraphs’ 70-92 projection.