Remaking an Outfield in 60 Minutes

cainWithin an hour or so last week, the Brewers committed over $124 million to two outfielders, taking on Christian Yelich’s contract in trade ($44.5 million) and signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $80 million deal.  It’s a huge monetary outlay; to date, the Brewers’ most lucrative contract went to Ryan Braun’s 5-year, $105 million extension in 2011.  The deals were made all the more significant by the substantial prospect haul the Marlins received in return for Yelich: consensus top-25 outfielder Lewis Brinson, as well as well-regarded OF Monte Harrison and IF Isan Diaz.  The deals marked an aggressive commitment to contending baseball where, in past seasons, the focus was on stockpiling young, controllable talent.

While the Brewers paid a hefty sum in money and prospects, they brought back clear major league talent that marks a substantial improvement in their outfield corps.  After showing offensive flashes in 2016, RF Domingo Santana put up an eye-popping .372 wOBA last year, but struck out in nearly 30% of his plate attempts.  Defensively, Santana gets pretty low marks using the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metrics.  While Yelich has never had an offensive season quite as good as Santana’s 30-homer binge in 2017, the 26-year-old is an annual 20-home run threat with excellent contact and plate discipline.  Defensive metrics (a substantial portion of which were, granted, based on his work in left field) are fairly kind to Yelich.  All said, he’s accumulated nearly 16 fWAR in his four full seasons.  If we assume that a win is worth about $8 million, and that Yelich will continue to produce about 3.9 fWAR for the remainder of his deal, he will produce about $100 million in excess value over the life of his contract.

Perhaps the more marked improvement is in center field, where Lorenzo Cain is now expected to roam.  In 2017, that was Keon Broxton’s territory, and despite having a 20 HR/21 SB season, Broxton was the definition of average.  He compiled just a .308 wOBA, struck out in nearly 38%(!) of his plate attempts, and took a step back defensively from an otherwise solid 2016 campaign.  Expect no such struggles from Cain, who has been an elite defender and all-around offensive contributor the last four seasons with Kansas City (+17.9 fWAR).  Statcast tells us Cain is one of the premier players in baseball.

There are a couple red flags with Cain, but they involve the difficult task of predicting an aging curve and injuries.  Cain will be 32 in April, but that’s not necessarily a cause for concern.  While no player has yet escaped Father Time, Cain’s ceiling is so high that there’s a lot of room for decline.  And Mike Petriello notes there are plenty of late-career success stories for players comparable to Cain.  Cain’s injury history is more problematic; Cain played an abbreviated 2016 schedule after landing on the DL in June with a hamstring injury, and Cain tried to play through a painful wrist injury before ending his season in September.   Yet Cain was still worth +2.5 fWAR in that season, and showed no ill effects in a fantastic 2017 campaign where he hit for a .140 ISO, swiped 26 bags, and was an above-average CF according to UZR.  One thing to keep an eye on will be Cain’s defense, though, and particularly his range, as there is a clear downward trend in his zone rating attributable to reduced range and ability to keep baserunners from advancing.

But again, the point here is that both transactions make the Brewers better now, and for the foreseeable future. The moves bring long-term stability to a lineup that has seen near constant turnover in the David Stearns era.  Yelich and Cain will join Ryan Braun as (presumably) the primary outfield trio until at least 2020.  There’s the potential for an additional year together if Ryan Braun’s 2021 option kicks in.  Cain and Yelich become free agents together in 2022.

The moves have the added benefit of preserving flexibility.  The Brewers total projected payroll for 2018 currently sits at around $84 million.  That drops to $72 million in 2019 and $64 million in 2020, though there are some arbitration salaries, for example Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies, that are not included in those totals.  Signing Cain in particular does not mean the Brewers have to forego signing another premium free agent in the next year or two, and indeed they are rumored to still be in the dogfight for Yu Darvish this offseason.

Making a substantial improvement to a team while achieving stability and preserving flexibility isn’t an easy task.  David Stearns and the Brewers’ baseball operations department deserve much credit for their efforts at remaking the outfield, in which us fans got to see the reward for months of work over the course of about 60 minutes.

 

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Brewers Do the Right Thing At the Deadline

david-stearnsThe high-water mark for the Brewers this season was July 15, at which point they looked down upon the NL Central from a 5.5 game perch.  With the All-Star break (signaling the unofficial beginning of baseball’s second half) having come and gone earlier in the week, and two wins under their belt to start the long summer stretch, things were looking up.

But what goes up usually comes down, and by July 30, the 5.5 game lead had become a distant memory.  A brutal road trip left the team’s record in shambles: swept in four games in Pittsburgh, losses in two out of three games in Philadelphia, a single win in Washington D.C., and a brutal series defeat at the hands of the Cubs in their return home.  The carnage relegated the Brewers to 2.5 games back at the close of business on Sunday.

What was a storied run atop the Central, the kind that had finally attracted the notice of national writers everywhere, vanished in what seemed like an instant.  And GM David Stearns was left with a mess on his hands.

When the Brewers acquired C.C. Sabathia on July 7, 2008, the trade came with the stipulation that it occur as early as possible to maximize the pitcher’s innings with his new team.  GM Doug Melvin was at the time so confident in Sabathia’s ability to propel the Brewers to the postseason that he offered up the team’s best prospect in the trade, 1B Matt LaPorta.

With a 4.66 ERA after April, the Brewers starting corps hardly looked like a solid bet to challenge the Cubs for the NL Central lead.  And yet, despite losing opening day starter Junior Guerra and Chase Anderson for extended periods, the Brewers improved their starting rotation’s ERA – in every single month, all the way to a 3.51 ERA in July.  In other words, by ERA the starting rotation improved from a bottom 5 to a top 6 rotation over the course of four months.  (FIP is a little less kind to the Brewers, but hey, when Manny Pina can throw out would-be basestealers at a 33% clip and Lewis Brinson can go over the wall to rob home runs, it’s going to fudge the numbers a bit).

The general improvement in the starting rotation-led by Zach Davies’ recent reemergence, as well as an All-Star caliber season from Jimmy Nelson-lessened the pressure to pay for a top arm like Sonny Gray.  And boy, would the price tag have been exorbitant.  The mere rumors surrounding Gray and the Brewers prompted the Cubs to make a preemptive move and trad their top two prospects (including a consensus top 5 prospect) for Jose Quintana.  The Yankees later acquired Gray for the team’s 4th, 8th, and 12th best prospects.  For reference, that would have been Brett Phillips, Tristen Lutz, and Brandon Woodruff for the Brewers, according to MLB.com.

Meanwhile, the Brewers bullpen hasn’t found similar success.  The relief corp in the top half of the league in Fangraph’s “Meltdowns” stat and lead the league in walks per 9 innings.  They give up far too many home runs, and pitched too many innings early on.  Carlos Torres and Jacob Barnes, once thought to form a solid one-two punch in the 7th and 8th innings, are giving up a run nearly every other inning.  The one saving grace is the number of ground balls they produce, in no small part due to Jared Hughes’ extreme batted ball profile (nearly 60% grounders).  Corey Knebel, the Brewers’ lone All-Star representative, has distinguished himself and still holds a sparkling 1.68 ERA with 18 saves, but one man does not a bullpen make.

It’s only natural, then, that David Stearns, surveying the team’s general collapse, his starters’ strong performances, and the bullpen’s woes, decided to address the latter issue by making modest additions.  The Brewers first nabbed a resurgent 31-year-old right, Anthony Swarzak, from the White Sox for OF Ryan Cordell, the player to be named later in last year’s trade sending Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers.  Stearns also pulled off a deadline deal, reacquiring Jeffress from the Rangers in exchange for Shuckers RHP Tayler Scott.

Swarzak has already slotted into the set-up role; tonight is Jeffress’ first game back in now his third stint with the Brewers.  Jeffress hasn’t had a great year with Texas, but his previous body of work stands for itself.  (We’ll ignore Stearns earlier dealing for LHP Tyler Webb, who pitched all of 2 innings with Milwaukee before being sent down to Colorado Springs).

The modest acquisitions should help shore up a taxed bullpen (though Jeffress’ home run rate this season is reason for pause).  But most importantly, the players added cost little in terms of prospects.  The best prospect given up was Ryan Cordell, #17 on the team’s list according to MLB.com in a system brimming with OF talent.  Stearns didn’t make a splashy add like the Cubs, but he also did something the Cubs weren’t able to do: hold on to the team’s future.  The middle-of-the-road approach likely won’t win amongst the Brewers fanbase, but it’s the right tactic in a rebuilding year in which the Brewers find themselves suddenly in postseason contention.

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.

 

 

Trade Suitors for Lucroy

By Nathan Petrashek

Jonathan Lucroy isn’t penciled in to start for the National League in this year’s All-Star Game, but it is nonetheless a nice showcase for baseball’s third-best catcher by fWAR (2.4).  In addition to being highly skilled, Lucroy is tremendously affordable and under team control through 2017, so he’s not necessarily a one-shot rental for any team looking to acquire him as the Brewers rebuild.

There was speculation that the Brewers could lock up Lucroy to a long-term contract, but in light of Lucroy’s comments yesterday that there were no ongoing extension talks, that outcome seems unlikely.  Although Lucroy doesn’t have much choice in the matter, he did reaffirm that he wants to play for a contender.  As luck would have it, that’s likely to be the nature of the team to make a play for Lucroy.  The Brewers are, by all accounts, demanding a king’s ransom for the 30-year-old catcher, so lets look at some possible landing spots.

  • Texas Rangers.  This has been the team most connected to Lucroy in the past few days.  That’s no surprise; Houston is hot on the heels of the division-leading Rangers, who are middle-of-the-pack in terms of catcher fWAR and are currently leaning on journeyman Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. The Brewers reportedly had a cadre of scouts recently at the Rangers’ Class A affiliate.  Probably not coincidentally, RHP Dillon Tate, MLB.com‘s #31 prospect, pitched in games on July 5th and 9th.  The Rangers have another top RHP prospect, Luis Ortiz, in AA, but the Brewers will almost certainly check in on Texas’s top prospect, Joey Gallo, an MLB-ready 3B/OF whom the Brewers passed on in the 2012 draft in favor of Victor Roache.
  • Boston Red Sox.  The Brewers have already matched up with the Red Sox once this year, trading IF Aaron Hill for two mid-level Boston prospects.  Boston is just two games back in the AL East, and has received terrible production from their catcher position, which currently consists of 27-year-old Sandy Leon and 35-year-old Ryan Hanigan.  A rotation arm no doubt tops Boston’s want list, but if Boston is unable to improve its starting pitching through the trade market, it just might look to build on its offensive strength by adding Lucroy.  Boston has plenty of highly ranked prospects that might interest the Brewers, including top-tier talent in IFs Yoan Moncada and Rafael Delvers.  If Boston is unwilling to offer up one of those elite prospects, the Brewers might consider RHP Anderson Espinoza (MLB.com’s #34 prospect), an international signee currently pitching in A ball who can hit 100 MPH with his fastball and is developing plus secondary pitches.

*UPDATE: Boston has since traded Espinoza to Oakland for Drew Pomeranz.  The Red Sox have one other top-100 prospect, Andrew Benintendi, but being an OF (a position at which the Brewers are stocked), that may not be enough to move the needle.  One other interesting player is Sam Travis, one of the 1B prospects in baseball.  Travis is currently hitting .272/.332/.434 at AAA Pawtucket.

  • Cleveland Indians.  Despite leading their division, the Indians are dead last in baseball for catcher fWAR (-.9).  The once highly touted Yan Gomes has been trending toward awful for a few years now, and this season he’s slashing just .166/.201/.315.  The Indians’ offense hasn’t been terrible, but Lucroy certainly presents an upgrade at the plate.  The Indians may be even more interested in pairing Lucroy’s elite pitching framing skills with their dominant rotation (Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Tomlin, Bauer).  The top of Cleveland’s farm system is outfielder heavy, a position at which the Brewers already have ample minor-league talent.  But there are some attractive options a bit further down on Cleveland’s prospect list, including the powerful lefthanded firstbaseman Bobby Bradley (MLB.com’s #83 prospect).  The Indians’ system also boasts two high-end lefties pitching in the low minors: Brady Aiken, the unsigned #1 draft pick in 2014, and Justus Sheffield, a 2014 first-rounder.

A Trade!

Nathan Petrashek

K-Rod-mulls-legal-action-against-former-agents-3O1144NF-x-largeThe Brewers haven’t really made any significant player moves since the end of the season, but that ended today with new GM David Stearns flipping Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers in exchange for two prospects.  Although Stearns claims otherwise, the motivation for the move appears fairly straightforward: Rodriguez was guaranteed $7.5 million in 2016 and has a $2 million buyout on a $6 million club option in 2017.  Detroit is reportedly eating that entire amount, so there are significant cost savings for the rebuilding Brewers, for whom retaining an expensive, aging closer seems foolhardy.

Not that K-Rod wasn’t effective during his time with the Brewers.  He wound up pitching all or part of five consecutive seasons with the Brewers, despite being the subject of repeated trades (and trade rumors).  K-Rod racked up a serviceable 2.91 ERA over 268 appearances, finishing 154 games and accumulating 95 saves.  That places him at fourth on the franchise all-time saves list, just two shy of mustachioed great Rollie Fingers.  Rodriguez was particularly effective in 2011, coming to the Brewers at the trade deadline and tossing 29 innings of 1.86-ERA ball to help the team secure the team’s first division championship since 1982.  And despite a great year in 2015 (57 IP, 2.21 ERA, 38 SV), the Brewers couldn’t find a willing trade partner at the deadline – possibly because of K-Rod’s noted off-field issues that include repeated allegations of abuse, including an incident in the Met’s clubhouse.

In return, the Brewers will receive a player to be named later and a Betancourt – not THAT Betancourt, but rather infield prospect Javier Betancourt.  Betancourt, who hovers somewhere around 10th on most of the Tigers’ prospect lists, is a light-hitting second baseman noted for his defense, but also has the ability to play at third base – two positions in which the Brewers do not have much current depth.  Betancourt doesn’t necessarily have that much upside, but he is a capable body at a scarce position and you can only expect so much when the other team is taking on a sizable salary commitment.

Brewers make a move, trade for Gerardo Parra; Schafer optioned

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

While the Cardinals have stacked up rotation arms over the last couple days, the Brewers went a different route as they acquired OF Gerardo Parra from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for prospects OF Mitch Haniger and LHP Anthony Banda.

Gerardo ParraParra gives the Brewers a badly needed left-handed bench bat.  Over his six-year career with the Dbacks, Parra has slashed .274/.326/.395, though its worth noting the last couple years have dragged down that career line.  Parra has two Gold Gloves, is an excellent fielder, and can play all three outfield positions.  Predictably, current backup OF Logan Schafer has been optioned to AAA Nashville, and I don’t think any Brewers fan is going to be upset about that.  It’s worth noting Parra has a heavy platoon split, so you shouldn’t expect to see him in any lineup facing a lefty.

The Brewers gave up two recent draft picks in Haniger and Banda, both coming to the team in the 2012 amateur draft.  Haniger, the last of the team’s three first-round picks that year, has struggled at AA Hunstville this season after playing reasonably well with the Class A Appleton and high A Brevard County last year.  Banda, a 10th round pick, has been fine in 83 innings with Appleton this year.  Neither are high-value prospects.

We’ll see if the Brewers make any more moves before the trade deadline this afternoon.  If Doug Melvin has some more magic in his bag, you’ll find it here.  Stay tuned to creamcitycables.com and @creamcitycables on Twitter.

Reviewing a crazy week for the outfield and bullpen

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

It’s been a interesting few days for the Brewers. Injuries to Ryan Braun (oblique), Aramis Ramirez (elbow), and Jean Segura (bat to the face) have left the team shorthanded on the bench, and heavy bullpen use has left it short on relievers, too.

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Mercifully, Martin Maldonado returned from a 5-game suspension on Monday, only to find himself pitching on Wednesday in the final inning of a blowout loss to the Cardinals.  After an abbreviated start from Matt Garza and another three-inning disaster for the seldom-used Wei-Chung Wang, there really weren’t many better options. Most of the high-leverage players had been used the previous two days, and it made no sense to toss them in for mop-up duty. The Wang story has been fun, but instinct tells me it won’t last the year.

Yesterday, the Brewers somewhat addressed their reliever crunch by adding Rob Wooten to the mix, but at the outfield’s expense. Utility man Elian Herrera was optioned to Nashville, leaving Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis as the Brewers’ only true outfielders. Mark Reynolds started in right field in the first game against Cincinnati. If you saw Herrera play right during the Cardinals series, you’ll probably agree he wasn’t missed much.

Wooten, for his part, was a mess yesterday. He inherited a bases-loaded jam from Jim Henderson, who also gave up a go-ahead two-run Great American shot before departing.  Wooten walked the first batter, allowed a two-run single, and hit a batter before recording the final out of the inning.  After the smoke cleared, the Reds had scored five in the frame.

Fortunately, Segura and Ramirez both returned to the lineup yesterday. Ramirez went 0-4, picking up right where he left off, but Segura had a pair of hits and a RBI.  Braun remains out indefinitely, and my strong suspicion is that he will wind up on the DL tomorrow, when Logan Schafer is likely to be activated.

That doesn’t help much for tonight, though, so this afternoon the Brewers placed Henderson on the DL with shoulder inflammation and called up OF Caleb Gindl, who is starting in right tonight. If that seems a little too convenient for you, Disciples of Uecker does note that Henderson was again struggling with his fastball velocity yesterday.

The outfield crunch won’t be entirely solved when Schafer returns, as Gomez’s appeal of his three-game suspension for the Pittsburgh brouhaha remains pending.  Word is that will be heard on or around next Monday (UPDATE: The Brewers say it’s Friday), so don’t expect lineup consistency any time soon.