Big Questions Loom as the Brewers Enter The Offseason
This offseason could indicate how long it'll be until the Brewers try to contend
Welcome to the On Deck Circle, Brewers writer Kyle Lobner's weekly look at the team's week to come and beyond.
First, a programming note: This edition of the On Deck Circle is the 31st and final for 2016. Thanks to the Shepherd Express for the opportunity to try my hand in this space, a wide variety of interview subjects that have been universally gracious with their time and stories, and to all of you for following along. It’s been a fun project and I’m hoping we’ll get to do it all again next year. In the meantime my other projects continue through the winter, including minor and offseason league coverage for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and the daily “Quick Mug” on Twitter @BrewFrostyMug. If you’ve enjoyed this project, I hope you’ll continue following me in those venues as well.
While this column is taking the next few months off, David Stearns and the Brewers front office will still be busy. Here are two of the questions they need to answer before pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix in February:
Is the tear-down over?
A year ago at this time, David Stearns was marketing everything that wasn’t nailed down at the MLB level. The result was one of the most active offseasons in franchise history, as the Brewers made trade after trade to sell off veteran assets for prospects to add to a rapidly improving farm system. That trend carried into the 2016 season, as the Brewers were one of the game’s most active sellers at the trade deadline.
If the Brewers want to continue down that path this winter, they should have the opportunity:
· Rumors have been surrounding Ryan Braun for some time now, including a recent suggestion that the Brewers will revisit a proposal from the Dodgers once their playoff run has wrapped up. Whether that happens or not, we’re likely to hear plenty about his possible destinations this winter.
· Matt Garza exceeded most expectations with his 2016 performance and may have moved his contract from “toxic asset” to “movable for the right price” status.
· Chris Carter is coming off a career year and the Brewers have said they anticipate bringing him back even though he’ll be due a significant raise via arbitration, but he could hold significant value for a team lacking power and/or an everyday option at first base.
· Elsewhere in career years, Jonathan Villar demonstrated his ability to contribute to a team as a leadoff hitter, speedster and shortstop, but he’d need to take on a new position to be a part of the Brewers’ long-term plans. He could be more valuable to someone else than he is to Milwaukee, given their likely dedication to Orlando Arcia at short.
The way the Brewers handle these players and a few others will tell us a lot about how close they feel they are to being a contender. Any or all of these players could be useful pieces in the short term, but Stearns and company would have to pass on the opportunity to acquire some long-term value by selling them off.
What’s the plan behind the plate?
Jonathan Lucroy’s midseason departure thrust Martin Maldonado into the starting lineup more often than not down the stretch, and his results were mixed. Maldonado batted just .202 in 2016 and his .351 slugging percentage wasn’t anything to write home about, but his .332 on-base percentage was the highest mark of his career and eight points better than National League catchers overall.
It’s tough to say much with any certainty about the three other internal candidates the Brewers had on the roster to finish the season. Manny Pina is 29 years old and had played in just five MLB games before appearing in 33 in August and September following the Lucroy deal. Andrew Susac and Josmil Pinto are both younger, but the Brewers seemed to prefer to give Pina playing time down the stretch for whatever reason.
Meanwhile, the Brewers made the decision to aggressively promote top catching prospect Jacob Nottingham for 2016, and he spent much of the year as one of the youngest players in all of baseball at the AA level. Unfortunately, he struggled at the plate with a sub-.300 on-base percentage and 138 strikeouts, second-most in the Southern League. He’s headed to the Arizona Fall League to continue to get game experience this winter, but his MLB arrival doesn’t appear imminent at this point.
Many Brewers fans will remember the days before Jonathan Lucroy, when Milwaukee featured a longstanding revolving door of veteran stopgap catchers. Between 1995 and 2010, they had 23 different catchers appear in at least 25 games over a span of 16 years. Barring a significant offseason move, we could see another year or several years like that before any long-term candidate is ready to take over.