Five (More) Reasons the Brewers are in First Place (and the One Thing They Must Do to Win the Division).

at Miller Park on April 7, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In the final week before the All Star Break the Brewers swept the Orioles, stomped the Cubs and came a Corey Knebel Curveball away from sweeping the Yankees in the Bronx. This was “the statement” all the pundits needed to finally accept that the Brewers were a story worth talking about, not just a 1st half fluke. Despite the National attention, the most comprehensive analysis was Milwaukee’s own Tom Haudricourt. I agree with pretty much all of his “10 Reasons the Brewers are in 1st Place“, but there are a few important ones that were left off the list. And when the division could easily be won by a single game, any one of these factors could be the thing that secures the Brewers their 5th playoff appearance in franchise history.

1. Double Plays

The Brewers are second in all of baseball with 98, behind only the Rockies (101). They led the league for most of the season and a number of early analyses of the Brewers cited this as a reason they’d fade, after all you can’t lead the league in double plays unless you allow a lot of base-runners right? Looking at the leader board in this stat this logic seems to hold. Besides the Brewers and the Rockies at the top, teams 3-12 are all under .500. Not until the Nationals at 13 does another winning team show up. Look a little closer and some interesting things show up.

Brewers MLB rank in a number of  pertinent stats:

  • Tied for 14th with a 1.35 WHIP (Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched)
  • 7th best at generating soft contact (19.7%)
  • Tied for 9th best at generating ground balls (45.7%)

While middle of the pack in terms of WHIP is not where you want to be, check out the league with runners on base:

WHIP with Runners on

With Runners on the Brewers WHIP drastically improves. There they sit at 4th, right in the middle of the 5 other Division Leaders. They also get better at soft contact % (5th) and Ground Ball % (6th).  It seems the Brewers ability to generate soft contact and ground balls means that letting someone get to 1st is not actually that bad for the Brewers, as long as they can keep him there. Which brings us to #2.

2. Shutting Down the Opponent’s Running Game: Manny Pina is a bad, bad man. Among MLB Catchers with at least 100 innings Manny Pina ranks 4th in rSB (Stolen Base Runs Saved). Per Fangraphs “rSB measures two things: the pitcher’s contributions to controlling the running game, and gives the catcher credit for throwing out runners and preventing them from attempting steals in the first place.” I love this stat because it helps to control for the Jimmy Nelson’s of the world who are terrible at holding guys on, while also measuring the extent to which base-runners are too scared to even attempt to run. Manny Pina definitely falls into this latter category.

It’s not just Stolen Bases however, Manny is the 2nd best Catcher in all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, and tied for 4th in Defensive Runs Above Average. When he’s behind the dish even the best running teams in baseball become cautious, moving station to station, and getting short leads.

3. Bullpen “Shutdowns”

First, let’s get something clear, Saves and Holds are garbage statistics, and we should never mention them again. Anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly a troglodyte and is no longer my friend. While I’m amenable to Nate Silver’s replacement stat, the Goose Egg, Fangraphs doesn’t track it. Instead they produce an infinitely more useful pair of stats called “shutdowns” and “meltdowns”. The first and most important reason these stats are better is that they track all relievers successes or failures, not just pitchers in “Save” or “Hold” situations. 2nd reason it is a great stat is that it factors in the context of the appearance. We know for example that giving up a home run in a tie game in the 9th is much worse than the same homer in a 10-0 blowout. Beyond that if you wanna understand ’em better, go read the links and level up player!

Alright now that that’s out of the way, why am I bringing up Shutdowns? Cause of this:

Shutdowns

See that SD column? The Brewers have far and away the most Shutdowns of any team in baseball. You might be thinking “but Javi, what about that MD column right next to Shutdowns?” Hold your horses there bud, all in due time.

Ignoring for a minute the Meltdowns (a category which astute readers of charts will have noticed the Brewers also lead), when we combine Shutdowns, with Manny Pina’s base-running prevention, and the Brewers success at turning double plays, we have three elements of “Run Prevention” that will often get overlooked. This gets missed because overall the Brewers are not great defensively (15th in Defensive Runs Saved and 23rd (ouch) in Defensive Runs Above Average) and because standard measures of bullpens (14th in K/9, tied for 11th in ERA) mask the Brewers successes in shutdown appearances.

Let’s look at two more areas that explain the Brewers first half success. One is the inverse of Manny Pina:

4. Speed on the Base-paths

The Brewers are tied for the NL lead with 75 stolen bases, and this comes with Jonathan Villar (the league leader in SBs in 2016) greatly under performing in the first half. Beyond that the Brewers rank 6th in all of baseball in Base Running (BsR) “Fangraphs all encompassing base running stat“, and 3rd in raw Speed. This speed has the obvious benefit of getting extra bases for the Brewers, but it also has benefits in distracting the pitcher, altering defensive alignments, avoiding double plays, increased number of infield hits, and increased pressure on defenses.

Last but not least of my 5 (more) reasons the Brewers are in first is:

5. Management

At the halfway point of the season Craig Counsell’s gotta be on the short list for Manager of the Year doesn’t he? With a bunch of players no-one’s ever heard of, your Opening Day pitcher leaves in the third inning on crutches and misses two months, your best hitter and highest paid player misses more than 50 games, your closer implodes and is released from the team, and somehow you cobble together a 5 1/2 game lead over the World Series Champs and sit 9 games above .500 at the All-Star Break?

By all accounts the Brewers seem to have followed Counsell’s lead and have done a tremendous job focusing exclusively on the game at hand. The Brewers are one of only 5 teams in baseball who have avoided getting swept in a 3 or 4 game series (the other four: D-Backs, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Blue Jays). They’re also often working with a lead, as the Brewers lead all of baseball in runs scored in the 1st inning. At least some of this should be attributed to good preparation from coaches.

Then there’s David Stearns. Just looking at players he’s acquired this year, whom any team could’ve had, (Thames, Sogard, Aguilar, and Vogt) that’s a total of 4.4 WAR. All 4 of these players were acquired without giving up any of our own players (Thames was a Free Agent and the other three were claimed off waivers). That’s to say nothing of the highway robbery perpetrated upon the Boston Red Sox. As of right now Travis Shaw (2.8 WAR) for Tyler Thornburg (yet to play for the Red Sox) looks one sided even as a one for one deal. Yet somehow Stearns was able to get 3 more prospects from Boston!  We would be remiss if we didn’t consider the role that management and coaching have played in this team thus far.

Speaking of Stearns, let’s take a look at that Meltdown stat that I avoided a few paragraphs ago. As I mentioned above, the Brewers lead the league in shutdowns (96) but also meltdowns (56). This is partially a function of an overtaxed bullpen. The Brewers are currently 4th in Relief innings pitched, but only dropped to that spot from 1st, after an extended run of solid outings from our starters. They’re 1st in all of baseball with 60 1/3 High Leverage Innings pitched (stressful innings where the game hangs in the balance) during the 6th-9th Innings. And while no team in baseball has a better shutdown/meltdown ratio, if they had avoided even a few more of these meltdowns the Brewers would actually be much farther ahead in the Division, and we’d be looking at the Brewers as one of the best teams in baseball.

One more chart courtesy of Fangraphs:

Brewers SD vs MD

We already knew Knebel has been fantastic. But seeing Barnes SD/MD ratio is a reminder of how important he’s been to the team this year. In the majors both he and Knebel are in the top 20 for Shutdowns. No other duo has more than their combined 44. In early June, Jared Hughes did not look nearly as good as he does now, but both Torres and Drake are a huge risk being put into any close games.

So now I come to what I promised in the title of this blog “the one thing the Brewers must do to win the division.” They absolutely must reduce the number of meltdowns in their bullpen. Some of this has been addressed by stronger starting pitching performances. By this logic Stearns might improve the current bullpen simply by finding a good front-line starter, thereby decreasing the number of high leverage bullpen innings. The more direct strategy is to get another back-end bullpen arm. One who can join Barnes and Knebel as a reliable shut-down artist helping to turn our late-inning leads into wins. Is that player the recently acquired Tyler Webb? Maybe. He certainly has some nice #’s at AAA this year (15.67 K/BB with a 1.08 WHIP). We know Stearns is good at finding talent so I have confidence that Webb could do the trick. It’s also possible that Josh Hader’s success thus far could be sustained. That said both of those guys are rookies and it would be nice to have someone legit we could trust, perhaps someone like Zach Britton of the Orioles 118/14 SD/MD over the last 3 years? The cost might be expensive, but with just 4 playoff appearances in Brewers history, we can’t afford to squander what’s in front of us.

There are so many reasons the 2017 Brewers are better than expected, now it’s time to get the final pieces that will ensure they have what it takes not just to make the playoffs, but to make a sustained run at their first pennant since 1982.

The end of the line for Wily

May 14, 2017 was an important day for Wily Peralta.  Having been blasted by Boston for four runs over four and one-third innings in his previous start, he carried a 5.30 ERA into a home start against the Mets.  Peralta’s sinker had become increasingly ineffective, even as Peralta had been relying on it more.  His command-which was never his strong suit-had been terrible.  And in what was an opportunity to restore his team’s confidence in him as a starter, Peralta fell apart.  He labored through 4 and 1/3 innings of seven-run ball (six earned), although the Brewers would go on to win, 11-9.

That would be it for Wily in the starting rotation, though.  On May 17, the Brewers announced he would transition to the bullpen, a change many (including me) thought would be a positive change.  Peralta has many faults as a pitcher, but it’s never been his raw stuff; his heavy sinking fastball and biting slider had people positively salivating for his debut when Zack Greinke went down with a freak injury in early 2011.  The results, though, have never matched that potential.

The move to the bullpen seemed great for a few reasons.  Peralta would no longer have to worry about facing the same hitters multiple times.  He wouldn’t have to worry about extending himself over six or seven innings (something that, until the end of last season, appeared to happen relatively infrequently) and could give full effort, especially on his high-90s fastball.  And management could select his usage, reserving him for those situations in which Peralta’s frequent mistakes might not be so heavily punished.

Instead, Peralta has been absolutely pounded out of the pen.  In 13 and 2/3 innings, he’s allowed sixteen runs, walking nearly as many against fourteen strikeouts.  The move to the bullpen has actually ballooned his ERA from 6.08 to 7.21, and factoring in defense improves it substantially but still shows Peralta is a poor pitcher (5.00 FIP).  Peralta has not allowed a run in only two of his nine appearances, and last night he turned a 4-1 game (still well within reach for this offense) into an 8-1 blowout against the Pirates.

Somehow, Peralta still might wind up being an above-replacement level player for the season.  And his poor performance wouldn’t even be an issue if the Brewers weren’t still in first place in mid-June.  But the fact that they are only puts added pressure on the team to put the best players on the field, which means there are precious few innings to allow Peralta to continue to acclimate to his new role.  A minor league assignment is out of the question; Peralta has no options.

And so, as Craig Counsell put it after last night’s game, “it’s getting tough.”  It’s getting tough for the team, tough for fans, tough for management to watch Wily Peralta flail in hopes of rekindling the hope everyone once had for him.  This seems the definition of a “fresh start” situation for a player.  It’s time to move on.

2017 Position Preview: First Base, League Context, Chris Carter, and Eric Thames

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

thamesIt’s no secret that home runs were way up in 2016.  One-hundred-eleven players hit at least twenty home runs in 2016, easily topping the 64 from 2015 and 2014’s 57.  With no obvious explanation for the home run surge, speculation has ranged from pitchers throwing more cutters to hitting adjustments against hard throwers and even “juiced” baseballs.  Whatever the cause, 2016 saw the second-most home runs ever in a major league season.  There were an average of 1.16 home runs hit per game: a higher per-game average than during most of the steroid-infused years of the 1990s and 2000s.

Although only two Brewers players topped twenty home runs for the team, they did help usher in the year of the homer.  Brewers collectively hit just a handful more homers than the league average.  And several lineup regulars set new personal single-season records in home runs: Jonathan Villar (19), Scooter Gennett (14), Kirk Nieuwenhuis (13), Domingo Santana (11), and Hernan Perez (13).

But when it came to raw power, there was only one Brewers player really worth talking about: Chris Carter.  And not just a team leader; Carter’s battle with Nolan Arenado for the National League home run title in the season’s final series was the highlight of an otherwise fairly forgettable year on the field.  They wound up tied at 41.

Carter, who hit .199 with 24 homers and 64 RBIs in 2015, made $4,175,000 in 2015 in his first year of arbitration. The Houston Astros let him go rather than pay the likely more than $5 million salary he would have commanded in arbitration in 2016.  The flaws in his game that led to his being non-tendered were apparent during Carter’s 2016 season with the Brewers; he maintained his low contact rate and struck out a league-leading 206 times.  But he also hit some monstrous home runs.

And yet, despite his prominent place atop the National League home run leaderboard, Carter couldn’t get a 2017 contract.  The Brewers weren’t interested, despite the fact that they had no obvious replacement candidate at the time.  Carter settled for a 1-year, $3 million contract from the New York Yankees, a meager deal reflective of just how little teams value power in light of last year’s surge.

To fill the gap, the Brewers looked to Korea, plucking lefty Eric Thames from the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization.  Thames, a Korean League MVP and owner of a 40/40 season in 2015, hit for a 1.162 OPS over four foreign seasons and turned his success into a 3-year, $16M deal with the Brewers.

Prior to that, Thames was the definition of a AAAA player.  He performed well enough in the high minors, with a triple slash line of .312/.389/.506 over three seasons.  And there were reasons to be optimistic following Thames’ 2012 campaign with the Blue Jays, in which he posted a .193 ISO over 394 plate attempts.  But 2013 was disastrous; Thames’ 30% K-rate and dreadful defense doomed him to the minors, from whence he would not return to MLB.

Until now. So what are we to make of Thames with the Brewers going forward?  Assuming the power sticks (and there’s no guarantee it will, as explained below), he couldn’t be going to a better park for a lefty masher than Miller Park.  And given his contract and the Brewers’ lack of a serviceable bat at the position, playing time won’t be an issue in the same way it was prior to Thames’ time in Korea.

But there’s a notoriously short track record for players coming from Korea and having success in the States.  And Korean players generally benefit from smaller parks and a hitting philosophy that does not emphasize on-base skills; in other words, Korea was perfectly suited to Thames’ predilection to swing at first-pitch fastballs.  Add that to the relative success of Thames’ Korean teammates last season (of the top eight NC Dinos players in plate attempts, all but one hit above .297), one definitely gets the sense that offensive output in Korean baseball is inflated.  So I’m not bullish on Thames, but I see the appeal.

While there’s little chance Thames will put up another 40-home-run season in his transition year, it doesn’t seem likely any of his NL Central competition will, either.  In fact of the expected NL Central first basemen, STEAMER projects only Anthony Rizzo to top 30 home runs – and then just barely.  Thames’ STEAMER projection comes pretty darn close to Rizzo’s:  their ISO is within .002 points, and while it’s safe to say Rizzo’s going display more on-base prowess than Thames, their slash lines are otherwise remarkably close (.279/.381/.523 for Rizzo, .272/.350/.515 for Thames).

It’s an optimistic projection to be sure, but if it proves accurate, Thames may push Rizzo as the most productive first baseman in the division, ahead of even Joey Votto.  I think Thames will fall short of those lofty goals given his trouble making contact and his rather average batted ball profile, but Brewers fans probably won’t be able to gripe much for his rather small contract.  With a win above replacement currently valued at around $7+ million, Thames could be an excellent return on investment even if he’s not Anthony Rizzo.

 

 

Second Thoughts on Scooter

By Nathan Petrashek

One of my pet peeves is people who buy so completely into an idea that they have completely closed their mind to any opposing, or even slightly contrasting, viewpoint.  This “tunnel vision” makes having a reasonable discussion at best difficult, at worst impossible.  So regardless of how firmly I might believe in something, I always try to entertain the possibility that I could be wrong.  This is a worthwhile exercise in humility.  And so far in 2016, Scooter Gennett is handing me a big helping of humble pie.

By midseason last year, I had pretty much written off Gennett as a platoon bat.  Gennett’s struggles against left-handed pitching have been well documented; he owns a paltry .123/.183./.172 slash line, although in recent years he’s had reduced opportunities against lefties thanks to the poor results early in his career.  But in the first half of 2015, Gennett couldn’t hit anyone.  He slashed just .239/.275/.384 in the first half and did a month-long stint in the minors as penance.

Gennett turned it on in the second half of 2015, dominated this year’s spring training (.457 OBP, 4 HR), and has continued his hot streak to start the regular season.  On opening day, Gennett rewarded manager Craig Counsell’s decision to give him increasing playing time against lefties, taking Giants’ ace Madison Baumgarner deep to right field.  On the young season, Gennett has tallied 3 HR and is slashing .237/.383/.474, which doesn’t account for two doubles in last night’s abbreviated loss to Minnesota.

Most notable about the “new” Scooter Gennett is his plate discipline. Gennett has benefited from Counsell’s well-documented philosophy of patience at the plate.  According to Fangraphs, Gennett has historically swung at over 40% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone; in 2016, that’s down to 25%.  He’s swinging at slightly fewer pitches in the zone as well (73% career, 66% 2016), presumably looking for better contact.

This new approach has led to a marked increase in Gennett’s walk rate.  Last year, Gennett drew a walk in just 12 plate appearances; in 13 games in 2016, he’s already walked 9 times.  The 16% increase in Gennett’s walk rate probably isn’t going to continue at that clip, but it’s easy to see how even a modest increase will add considerable value, particularly if Gennett continues to bat from the #2 position in the lineup.

Unfortunately, I can’t completely change my tune on Gennett.  While 6 of his 9 walks have come against left-handed pitching, the aforementioned home run off Baumgarner is Gennett’s only hit against southpaws in 2016; he’s 0-for-8 against them otherwise.  As a result, Gennett hasn’t necessarily changed my opinion about him as a platoon player – but I’m intrigued enough by his new plate approach to at least give him further opportunities to prove me wrong.

 

 

A light-hitting bunch for the Brewers

By Nathan Petrashek

The Brewers played their first game of the 2015 season yesterday, a confidence-boosting (sarcasm) 10-0 drubbing by the Colorado Rockies.  Four of the Brewers’ five bench players-Gerardo Parra, Luis Jimenez, Logan Schafer, and Martin Maldonado-recorded at least one at bat.  The group reached base zero times in five plate attempts (two of which belonged to Parra after Ryan Braun left the game due to injury).

This should surprise precisely no one.  Parra is inarguably the most offensively gifted bench player, and even he is thoroughly uninspiring.  Pick your metric:  Parra sports a career .325 OBP paired with a .394 SLG%, and a below-average rating per wRC+.  As a defensive outfielder, one could ask little more from the gold-glove winner, but there’s not much to like as his bat goes.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of Maldonado and Shafer.  With more or less a full season’s worth of plate attempts from both players (Maldonado has 586 in his MLB career; Shafer has 504), it’s apparent that neither is in the MLB for his bat.  Maldonado may be one of the better defensive catchers in the game, but owns just a .225/.291/.359 career slash line.  Whatever promise one might have seen in Maldonado following his 2012 season (.266 BA, 8 HR) has fallen away.  Schafer never even showed that much promise at the dish.  Even when given significant playing time in 2013, Schafer responded with 4 HR and a .211 batting average.  Again, both players are defensively gifted, but not much use coming off the bench.

Luis Jimenez and the fifth utility player, Hector Gomez, are still young, but neither are any sort of reliable bench bat.  Jimenez may have the most potential of any of the Brewers’ utility corp, hitting .295/.327/.485 over parts of three AAA seasons in the Pacific Coast League; it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll adapt to major-league pitching, though.  Gomez struggled mightily in 2013 with Huntsville, though he did show some signs of life last year with Nashville in the PCL.

But, you ask, why should we care one bit about what kind of offensive contributions the bench can make?  Aren’t they on the bench for a reason?  Those are both fair points, but the Brewers play in the National League.  They’re going to need hitters to bring in for all those exiting pitchers.  Moreover, a weak bench means there’s not much ability to play matchups in critical situations.  On a team with a lot of evident weaknesses already (Adam Lind and Scooter Gennett’s inability to hit left-handed pitching, for example), that can be a tough thing to deal with.  And that’s not to mention the problems that come with injuries to regular players – a decrease in runs that might become evident with Ryan Braun day-to-day.

The Waning Days of Rickie

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

rickie_weeks2With the Brewers eliminated from postseason contention, thoughts are naturally turning to 2015.  It’s as if the late-season collapse that brought the first-place Brewers to their knees hasn’t infected all their fans with endless pessimism about the future.  But before we cast our eyes, gleaming with irrational hope, toward the new season, let’s stop for a second to reflect on  what we’re about to lose.

Rickie Weeks is a lightning rod among fans for a lot of reasons.  His early years on the team were marred by low batting averages and nagging injuries.  Fans were frustrated by high strikeout totals, lackluster defense, and a perceived careless approach at the plate, despite the fact that Weeks led the club’s regulars in on-base percentage in 2006, was second in 2007 and 2010 to Prince Fielder, and third in 2008 … well, you get the picture.  Fan sentiment about Rickie has never actually reflected his skill set, which included a power bat not generally found in the middle infield.

One thing people were generally correct about, even in those early days, was the injury bug.  Weeks is basically Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s had wrist surgery twice (2006 and 2009), and missed additional games because of a wrist injury in 2007.  Weeks had let thumb surgery in 2005 and missed handful of games in 2008 because of a sore knee.  Availability is a skill, as they say, and Weeks took plenty of criticism because he couldn’t stay on the field.

Fan sentiment seemed to shift after Weeks’ first healthy season in 2010.  Weeks was a dynamo for the 77-85 Brewers, playing 160 games and slashing .269/.366/.464 with 29 home runs.  The potential many had talked about for half a decade had finally been realized, and the Brewers moved quickly to sign Weeks to a long-term extension in the offseason.  On the eve of Weeks’ final arbitration hearing, he and the team agreed to a four-year, $38.5 million deal with a fifth-year vesting option covering 2015.  Smartly, the Brewers built outs for themselves if Weeks was not an everyday player in 2013 or 2014.

Unfortunately, Weeks didn’t stay healthy in 2011, and couldn’t quite replicate his success in 2012.  However, he still contributed plenty to to those teams.  In 2011, Weeks shredded his ankle when he landed on first base awkwardly and was limited to 118 games that year, although he still managed to accumulate 20 home runs with a very respectable .269/.350/.468 triple slash en route to his first All-Star berth.  In 2012, Weeks again surpassed 20 home runs in a healthy season but hit just .230.  By 2013, many were calling for Weeks’ ouster at second base in favor of the much-hyped Scooter Gennett.  They got their wish when Weeks suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in August after hitting just .209.

The left-handed Gennett did well in Weeks’ absence, and the two entered into a fairly rigid platoon during the 2014 season.  Weeks has rebounded to his best season since 2011, hitting .272/.350/.451 with 8 home runs in 277 plate attempts.  He declined to move to left field early in the season, preferring instead to market himself as a second baseman as he enters free agency after this year.  The Brewers will not pick up Weeks’ option, and we are presumably watching the last days of Rickie Weeks in a Brewers uniform.

Weeks is one of the last holdovers from the Brewers postseason appearances in 2008 and 2011, and has been a lineup staple since 2006.  Very few players have that kind of longevity with a team, which itself speaks for Weeks’ skills.  While its fair to say there is a certain segment of Brewers fans who have never liked Weeks, even they have to appreciate the 18 career fWAR he has accumulated as a member of the Brewers.  In these final two games, the fans always so critical of Weeks need to step back and admire a guy that not only gave his all when able, but contributed in real, definable ways to bring postseason baseball back to Milwaukee.

 

On exercising Aramis Ramirez’s 2015 contract option

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee BrewersAramis Ramirez may be an All-Star in 2014, and it’s pretty easy to see why.  The slugging righty is currently hitting .292/.340/.492 with 10 home runs, has the second-highest wRC+ (a measure of a player’s total offensive value above league average) among NL third-basemen at 129, and he’s shown quite a capable glove at the hot corner.  There are definitely other worthy candidates (Todd Frazier and Matt Carpenter, for example) but there’s no doubt Ramirez is having a great year.

It seems a prudent move for the Brewers to pick up their portion of Ramirez’s 2015 mutual option.  Ramirez is being paid $16M this year, but his 2015 option is for $14M, and the Brewers are already on the hook for a $4M buyout if they decline.  That means the option’s net cost is $10M.  If we assume the cost of a win in 2015 remains around $6M, Ramirez would only have to contribute about 1.6 WAR to be worth the money.  Ramirez accumulated 5.7 fWAR during a healthy 2012 season, 1.4 during an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, and currently has 1.6 in 2014, despite missing most of May.

The Brewers don’t have a lot of other third base candidates.  Internally, the closest the team has to a major-league 3B is Taylor Green, who was drafted in 2005 and is already 27.  Green has had an up-and-down career in the minors, but lost all of last season to a hip injury that required surgery.  Green currently sports an OBP below .300 at AAA Nashville, and hasn’t hit will in limited time with the big-league club.  He’ll also be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015.

The Brewers best 3B prospect is probably Nick Delmonico, who was acquired from the Orioles in 2013.  Delmonico, who currently plays for A Brevard County, will need more development in the advanced minors before he’s ready for the prime time, though.

Externally, the Brewers could do a few things, but none as good-or realistic-as bringing back Ramirez.  They could attempt to resign Mark Reynolds in 2015 and play him exclusively at third; this has the advantage of being relatively cheap.  Despite Reynolds very good year with the glove, I’m not sure it’s the wisest choice giving Reynolds’ reputation for defensive lapses.  Pablo Sandoval-the only full-time 3B free agent under the age of 30-is reportedly looking for a deal upwards of $100M and comes with health and performance concerns.  If the 31-year-old Hanley Ramirez doesn’t work out an extension with the Dodgers, he too would look for a big-money deal in likely his last long-term contract.  There’s Chase Headley, also 31, who may in the midst of a severe decline, raising questions about his fielding and plate discipline.  Beyond those four, it’s really just a bunch of guys, the most appetizing of which may be former Brewer Casey McGehee, currently hitting .309/.375/.392 with the Florida Marlins.

Of course, the option isn’t completely in the Brewers hands.  Ramirez, who turns 36 tomorrow, may think he can get a better deal on the free agent market and decline his half of the mutual option (though that wouldn’t necessarily preclude the Brewers from bringing him back).  Ramirez has also had lots of nagging injuries over the last few seasons.  In 2013, he missed time during both spring training and the regular season with knee issues, and a hamstring strain this year cost Ramirez almost all of May.  He left the game last Saturday with back tightness.  The injuries cut both in favor and against the Brewers:  they might scare off a few teams from a long-term deal and lower Ramirez’s market value, encouraging him to exercise his half of the option (resulting in the $4M buyout if the Brewers elect not to do the same).

On the whole, it seems that barring some catastrophic injury, the Brewers best plan for competing in 2015 might be to pick up Ramirez’s option and hope he reciprocates.  His big bat won’t be matched by any internal candidates, and the external candidates who could perhaps contribute equally will cost much, much more.  Even if Ramirez is true to his history and suffers some minor injury during the 2015 season, his expected contributions during healthy periods make it a worthwhile gamble.