Brewers Trade Deadline: The Path of Unsustainability

I’ve been touting my “pre-trade deadline tank” for some time on Twitter, so the following perspective on the Brewers isn’t new (in reality, it’s about two months old), nor should it come as much of a surprise.

In short, Milwaukee (44-47) should needs to sell at the deadline. They need to get on the phone and attempt to trade Greinke, Marcum, Wolf and K-Rod — whose contracts expire after this season — or any other player who has reached their upside, yet still holds decent value on the open market (say, Corey Hart, who will have a big payday coming up).

I’m frustrated, too, Zack. (Credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images; h/t Brew Crew Ball)

I respect those who disagree – those who want the Brewers to stand pat or even “buy” at the deadline for the off chance they make a run at the postseason. However, I suspect those people are still allured by last year’s NLCS appearance and unwilling to let go of the Brewers’ relative success the last seven or so years.

That success was and is unsustainable – I think just about everyone acknowledges that. When it comes down to it, some people just disagree on how open the window of success still is. A small market baseball team can’t continually make big splashes – ala C.C. Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum – by selling off the farm system. The well eventually runs dry. The money eventually becomes too scarce to retain numerous stars, even when Attanasio is willing to dig deeper and deeper into his pockets.

The window got dangerously close to shutting when Fielder walked in free agency, but I thought the Brewers could still muster another decent season in 2012 with an above-average rotation and a competent left side of the infield. Before the season, I predicted the Brewers would win anywhere from 80 to 85 games. But now, even that threshold seems unrealistic. The window has all but closed, accelerated in large part by the following:

  • Injuries to Narveson (torn rotator cuff – out for season), Gamel (ACL tear – out for season), Gonzalez (ACL tear – out for season), Marcum (right elbow tightness – expected to return in August) and Lucroy (hand fracture – expected to return within the next couple weeks)
  • The struggles and/or regression of Rickie Weeks, Nyjer Morgan and Randy Wolf
  • The utter implosion of the bullpen

Alex Gonzalez’s injury was a major blow to Milwaukee’s 2012 plans, as he was one of the only upgrades on this year’s roster. (Credit: Ed Szczepanski/US Presswire; h/t USA Today)

Most small market teams have to remain patient and build through the draft overtime. The Brewers did this admirably in the early to mid-2000s – grooming the likes of Fielder, Weeks, Hart, Hardy and Gallardo – but even that was not quite enough for prolonged success. Milwaukee got impatient, rightfully so, and started trading off extra pieces for impact players. It worked well in 2008, while sneaking into the Wild Card slot on the back of CC Sabathia. It worked masterfully in 2011, with a trip to the NLCS. Now, however, those extra pieces are no longer “extra.” In fact, Milwaukee’s lackluster farm system largely lacks “pieces” all together.

It’s now time for everyone, including the front office, to let go and acknowledge that we’ve reached the endroad of an unsustainable team build. It was fun while it lasted, certainly, but it hasn’t been so fun this season. If the Brewers neglect to sell at the deadline, it’s not likely to get any more fun next season, or the season after that, or the season after that, or the season after that, and so on, for the foreseeable future.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at why the Brewers need to sell at the deadline:

Lack of Top Prospects

Though the Brewers’ last two drafts have produced several intriguing prospects, Milwaukee’s farm system as a whole is in relative shambles. Need evidence? Here’s a look at Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospect List for the Brewers prior to this season. (Hence, Milwaukee’s top picks this year – such as Clint Coulter (C), Victor Roache (OF) and Mitch Haniger (OF), who were their first three selections – were not factored into the list):

1. Wily Peralta (rhp)

2.Taylor Jungmann (rhp)

3. Jed Bradley (lhp)

4. Tyler Thornburg (rhp)

5. Scooter Gennett (2b)

6. Logan Schafer (OF)

7. Cody Scarpetta (rhp)

8. Taylor Green (INF)

9. Jorge Lopez (rhp)

10. Jimmy Nelson (rhp)

That’s not a very impressive list of prospects. Jungmann and Bradley were just drafted last year, as Milwaukee’s top two picks in 2011, and are a few years away from showing their potential. Peralta and Thornburg are nice prospects, but their ceilings seem relatively limited – some, me included, project Thornburg as a bullpen arm. Gennett, Schafer and Green are middle-of-the-road prospects, who might be average starters at their respective positions. However, they are all seemingly blocked at the next level by the likes of Weeks, Ramirez, Braun and Hart. In short, no one on that list screams, or even whimpers, top-tier talent, which should be somewhat alarming.

Wily Peralta, Milwaukee’s top prospect prior to this season, has struggled in AAA this year, with a 4.98 ERA in 19 starts. (Credit: Rich Pilling/Getty Images; h/t Bleacher Report)

Just looking at the Top 10 Prospect List doesn’t perfectly portray the Brewers’ farm system as a whole, but it does a pretty accurate job. In February, Keith Law ranked Milwaukee’s farm system 23rd out of 30, only better than Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Cleveland and Chicago (White Sox). Nearly all those teams, minus Houston and Cleveland, are in a big market – where luring and affording impact free agents are not nearly as tough. Those teams might be able to sustain a winning team without rebuilding from the bottom up. The Brewers can’t.

A team like the Yankees can choose to sell off their farm system, because they have a seemingly endless amount of cash to fill every single gap on their roster via free agency. Milwaukee has been following a large market strategy of trading prospects for major-league talent. But, unlike large markets, they can’t afford to fill every hole through free agency – and, more importantly, they can’t even afford to retain the big pieces they acquire. The Brewers couldn’t afford to keep CC Sabathia, despite offering $100 million contract. It appears they won’t be able to hold on to Greinke, either, even while offering him a similar contract. Heck, even keeping Marcum isn’t a given at this point, especially with the recent injury concerns.

When you’re renting players, you’re not receiving a significant return – just compensatory picks – when they walk in free agency. For example, the Brewers traded Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, along with a couple other insignificant pieces, for CC Sabathia. The Brewers received two compensatory picks, which turned out to be Kentrail Davis and Max Walla. If those players never combine to have the value LaPorta and Brantley had, which is likely, then that’s a net loss (obviously, this is ignoring the half-year of Sabathia’s production, the sentimental value of the playoff run, etc.). A team like the Brewers can’t continually take net losses in prospect talent – every “miss” in the draft now becomes magnified and more significant.

So, why is Milwaukee’s farm system largely devoid of talent? The Brewers have “bought” at the deadline the last few seasons, and it has come at the expense of top prospects. If you look at the Brewers’ first-round selections the last decade, it gives you a pretty good idea. Jungmann, who is currently pitching for the Brevard County Manatees (advanced Single A), was last year’s first-round selection, but let’s take a look at the five first-round picks prior to him. (It’s also important to keep in mind Jack Zduriencik – who oversaw prospect scouting and the draft – left Milwaukee in 2008, which has been significant blow to player development):

  • 2010: The Brewers selected Dylan Covey, a prep pitcher, with the 14th overall pick. Covey, after discovering he had Type 1 diabetes, balked at Milwaukee’s contract offer and elected to attend the University of San Diego to better accommodate his needs. The Brewers lost the rights to Covey, but received a compensatory first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
  • 2009: The Brewers selected Eric Arnett – a 6’5, 230 lb pitcher out of Indiana – with the 26th overall pick. At 24, he has not surpassed Single A and has a 5.44 cumulative ERA in the minor leagues. This year, however, he has pitched reasonably well out of the bullpen for the Brevard County Manatees (39 Ks in 37 innings, .254 batting average against, 3.41 ERA).
  • 2008: The Brewers selected Brett Lawrie (Traded to Blue Jays for Marcum)
  • 2007: The Brewers selected Matt LaPorta (Traded to Indians in Sabathia deal)
  • 2006: Jeremy Jeffress (Traded to Royals in Greinke deal)

Ryan Braun (2005), Mark Rogers (2004), Rickie Weeks (2003), Prince Fielder (2002) were the Brewers’ first-round selections prior to 2006 – all of whom the Brewers have kept, sans Fielder, who left in free agency. It’s evident there was a major shift in philosophy when the Brewers started winning at the major-league level.

Brett Lawrie, traded for Marcum, is hitting .280, with eight home runs and 12 stolen bases this season in Toronto. (Credit: ED ANDRIESKI / AP; h/t Seattle Times)

A Half-Decade of Buying is Not a Sustainable Model

Again, successful small market teams build through the draft and develop their players. The Brewers did have a nice run while consciously averting this strategy. They made the playoffs twice in a four-year stretch and had a .500 record or better in four of the last seven seasons. Those are pretty big accomplishments for a franchise suffering through a 26-year (!) playoff drought from 1982 to 2008. A big reason for that success was the willingness of the front office to add salary and talent mid-season, in hopes of making the postseason. Let’s look at Milwaukee’s buying habits from 2006 to now, using my discretion on what trades to include in the “buying” criteria:

(Feel free to skim…or choose take a trip down memory lane).

2006

  • January 6 – Traded Brian Wolfe to the Blue Jays for Corey Koskie
  • May 13 – Traded Enrique Cruz and cash considerations to the Rangers for Brian Shouse
  • July 25 – Traded Jorge De La Rosa to the Royals for Tony Graffanino
  • July 28 – Traded Wilfredo Laureano to the Phillies for David Bell
  • November 25 – Traded Doug Davis, Dana Eveland and Dave Krynzel to the Diamondbacks for Greg Aquino, Johnny Estrada and Claudio Vargas

2007

  • July 26 – Traded Joe Thatcher, Will Inman and Steve Garrison to the Padres for Scott Linebrink
  • July 28 – Traded Grant Balfour to the Rays for Seth McClung
  • September 4 – Traded a PTBNL (Andrew Lefave) to the Nationals for Ray King
  • December 7 – Traded Kevin Roberts and Marino Salas to the Pirates for Salomon Torres

2008

  • July 7 – Traded Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a PTBNL (Michael Brantley) to the Indians for CC Sabathia.
  • July 20 – Traded Steve Hammond and Darren Ford to the Giants for Ray Durham.

2009

  • May 22 – Traded Tony Gwynn Jr. to the Padres for Jody Gerut
  • July 19 – Traded Roque Mercedes and Cole Gillespie to the Diamondbacks for Felipe Lopez
  • July 31 – Traded Vinny Rottino to the Dodgers for Claudio Vargas
  • August 9 – Traded cash considerations to the Reds for David Weathers

2010

  • December 6 – Traded Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum
  • December 19 – Traded Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jeremy Jeffress* to the Royals for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt

2011

  • March 27 – Traded Cutter Dykstra and cash considerations to the Nationals for Nyjer Morgan
  • July 12 – Traded PTBNL (Adrian Rosario and Danny Herrera) to the Mets for Francisco Rodriguez and cash considerations
  • July 28 – Traded cash considerations to the Rays for Felipe Lopez
  • July 30 – Traded Erik Komatsu to the Nationals for Jerry Hairston Jr.

The real prize (sarcasm) of the Greinke trade, going all sorts of beast mode last season. (H/t Plushdamentals)

It’s easy to argue the Brewers got the better end of the deal on a lot of those trades – and they did. Many prospects don’t pan out, but a franchise still needs a heap of quality prospects in order consistently buy pieces for their team. The Brewers have been trading talented prospects more than they’ve been producing them the last few seasons. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at the rosters of the Hunstville Stars and the Nashville Sounds. Unless Milwaukee opts to move the top draft picks of 2011 and 2012, I don’t see how they can make another big, Greinke-ish splash on the trade market – now or in the next couple years. It’s now time to replenish the farm. The Brewers are fortunate enough to have the talent they can flip for prospects – like Greinke, Marcum and K-Rod – to accelerate this process. Wait another three months without selling at the deadline, and it won’t be so convenient.

It’s now time for Milwaukee to shift back to the Brewers’ philosophy of the early-2000s – develop the farm system, play the young guys, and rebuild. The Brewers can sell now, and then buy again later.

Projecting Next Year’s Starting Lineup

I think I’ll let the following roster speak for itself. This is what I’d project the Brewers’ squad to look like next year, if they fail to sell at the deadline and can’t retain Greinke, Marcum and K-Rod this offseason. Keep in mind, there wouldn’t be many, if any, top-tier prospects in AA or AAA waiting for a call up. The Brewers, though, could plug a hole or two via free agency, as they’d have some cash to throw around.

C – Lucroy

1b – Gamel/Hart

2b – Weeks

SS – Alex Gonzalez (he would have to re-sign, as his vesting option is no longer relevant)

3b – Ramirez

LF – Braun

CF – Aoki

RF – Hart/Gamel

Bench: Doug Melvin’s favorite journeymen veterans that year…and Maldonado

SP – Gallardo

SP – Fiers

SP – Estrada

SP – Rogers/Thornburg

SP – Narveson/Peralta

*Brewers could bring back Randy Wolf if they choose to pick up his $10 million option.

RP – Parra

RP – Insert journeyman reliever

RP – Kintzler

RP – Loe

RP – Veras

CL – Axford

Even if the Brewers manage to retain Marcum (unlikely) or Greinke (more unlikely), I doubt the Brewers are even capable of playing .500 ball next season. If they’re going to lose this season – as they have – and next season – as it certainly appears they will – I’d much rather watch some younger guys than the likes of Cesar Izturis and Travis Ishikawa. A lot of fans predicted the Brewers would start an inevitable rebuild after the 2012 season, so I see no repercussions to starting the rebuild now – just a few months earlier than expected. They might upset a few season ticket holders and casual fans, but that’s a small price to pay if you can successfully begin the rebuild.

Sample Size: 85 games vs. 18 games

When I read the following paragraph in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I shuddered:

“With three consecutive three-game series against the three teams ahead of them in the National League Central Division standings – the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds – how the Brewers perform immediately after the all-star break will dictate general manager Doug Melvin’s moves heading toward the July 31 trading deadline.”

Then I tweeted my reaction: “Also, are the Brewers really going to use an 18-game sample size to determine whether to buy or sell, instead of an 85-game sample? Really?!”

Through the season’s first 85 games, the Brewers went 40-45. They’ve gone 4-2 since. Ask yourself, does a six-game sample size warrant the decision to buy at the deadline? Does an 18-game sample size? I’d argue no, neither does. I’ll definitely take the 85-game sample size over both.

At no point during this season have the Brewers shown an consistency or evidence that they’re capable of going on a tear to end the season. Milwaukee has won three or more games only four times this season. Their longest win streak has been four games, which they have accomplished twice. The Brewers’ run differential this season is -4, so it’s not like they’re getting unlucky, either. Nothing about the Brewers’ first half of the season, or their 4-2 record since, has screamed “future torrid win streak” to me. According to ESPN, Milwaukee’s playoff chances are 9 percent. Nine. Baseball Prospectus has the Brewers’ playoff odds at 10 percent. Ten.

Yes, there’s another wildcard spot this year, and the Brewers are “only” six games back of that spot as of right now. That might pique the front office’s buying interest. But, even then, the Brewers would have to jump over four other teams in the NL right now to claim the second wildcard. That’s why Baseball Prospectus has the Brewers’ wildcard odds at just 7.5 percent (2.5 percent for the division).

This team isn’t the 2011 Cardinals, folks – please don’t try to argue they are. Just because one team, one year, was capable of going on a ridiculous streak in September and October to win the World Series doesn’t automatically make the 2012 Brewers capable.

The Brewers would have to go 41-30 to finish with 85 wins on the season – a realistic mark to win a wildcard.

The Brewers would have to go 46-25 to finish with 90 wins on the season – a realistic mark to win the division.

I don’t see either of those records as being attainable. I’ll go with the overwhelming odds. Let’s hope the Brewers do, too.

The Consequences of Waiting

The Brewers front office should be proactive, not reactive – especially to just an 18-game stretch. Doug Melvin always touted how much more value he got in the Sabathia trade, because he acquired CC about three weeks before the trade deadline – hence, three more weeks of production. Perhaps Melvin could have used that experience and convinced other GMs to give up even more assets a few weeks ago to obtain Greinke than they’ll be willing to give on July 31st. Instead, they started Greinke three times in a week and now pushed back his latest scheduled start in order to “recharge the batteries” (whatever that means). Worse yet, according to Jon Morosi, other teams are now wary about trading for Greinke because he has a 9.00 ERA this month (I have no idea why a half-month workload trumps Greinke’s seven years of service time, but evidently it does) and velocity dip.

Of course, Milwaukee probably hasn’t traded Greinke yet, because they still want him in a Brewers uniform the foreseeable future. They’re supposedly willing to offer the ace a 5-year, $100 deal. Greinke hasn’t accepted it yet, and I’d say the chances he ever does is about the same as the Brewers’ playoff chances this year. Therefore, I don’t think that’s a practical reason to keep him around.

To add insult to injury, it might be too late to trade Marcum now, as it appears he won’t be able to pitch until August. Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose. On a positive note, K-Rod is probably increasing his trade value with every save he racks up in his new (old?) closer role.

K-Rod’s trade value is pointing up after two consecutive saves against the Cardinals. (Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson; h/t Brew Beat)

Compensatory Changes

One last thing to keep in mind as the trade deadline approaches is the new CBA. The free agent compensation system has been altered.

As MLB Trade Rumors highlights, this could affect the Brewers’ strategy with Greinke at the deadline:

“For example, if the Brewers trade Greinke, his new team won’t be eligible for draft pick compensation. If the Brewers hold onto Greinke and make him a qualifying offer after the season only to see him sign elsewhere, Milwaukee will obtain a selection between the first and second rounds of the 2013 draft. The team that signs Greinke would lose its first round selection, but that selection would no longer go to the Brewers under the sport’s new rules.”

That last line is rather significant. Under the new CBA, the Brewers would not get two compensatory picks, like they did with Sabathia. If Greinke walks in free agency, they’d only receive one pick.

A Fan’s Final Plea

As a fan, I can quickly get over the fact the Brewers won’t be good this year. I got over it, despite considering myself a diehard fan, about a month into this season. But I can’t get over how bleak the future looks now and how much bleaker it will look if Milwaukee doesn’t replenish their farm system at the deadline. It’s not like the Brewers have to conduct a full rebuild – they have pretty good cornerstones in Braun, Weeks, Hart, Gallardo and Axford – so it shouldn’t be too much to ask for. This doesn’t have to be a 10-year rebuild, it could take only a year or two to put another competitive team on the field if it’s done correctly. Flipping Greinke, Marcum, K-Rod and/or Wolf at the deadline is a necessary start, as they could fetch significant assets before they hit free agency.

I’m not here to bash the win-now approach Melvin and Attanasio have used the last half-decade or so — I fully supported it at the time. It was fun and necessary for a floundering franchise. All I’m saying is one window has closed, while another window has opened – one which could quickly close after the July 31st trade deadline.

Give me hope for a better and brighter future, that’s all I’m asking for. That – not the wins – is what I miss the most.

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Posted on July 19, 2012, in Brewers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think you have this pretty well covered. The Brewers played a dangerous game, and with the lineup they built they were actually very, very close to taking it all the way to a championship. They just wilted in the St. Louis series. Now their methods have them in this predicament you detailed. So while they are in trouble now, their methods almost achieved the ultimate goal. You’re right, they should be selling.

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