The 2014-2015 Brewers: A Tale of Two Aprils

Let’s run the clock back a year. It’s July 21st, 2014, and the Brewers are frantically trying to hold off the storming Cardinals, having regained a half game lead in the division with a 5-2 win over the Reds. Brewers fans, nervously scoreboard watching as the Pirates sit just 2.5 games back as well, are wondering what sort of moves Doug Melvin plans to make to bolster the pitching staff and find a left handed hitter to plug holes that have allowed the rest of the NL Central to climb back into the race. Brewer Nation is nervous, having watched what once seemed to be a healthy division lead evaporate, but fears of missing the playoffs haven’t yet begun to take hold for even the most cynical fans; the shade of the horrors of the oncoming September collapse is creeping but remains in the shadows, just beyond our peripheral visions.

Now bring it back to the present. The surging Brewers have won 16 of their last 22 games, but at 41-52 still find themselves decidedly out of the playoff picture, and are one of a small handful of teams universally regarded as sellers at the trade deadline. After a decade-long commitment to winning now that resulted in only two playoff appearances and only one series victory, the farm system is weak, and the Brewers are expected to make a big push to trade most of their veteran players for whatever they can get in an effort to further bolster a recovering minor league system.

The Brewers rather famously got off to a 20-7 start last year, the best start in team history and one that put them in the driver’s seat for most of the year in the NL Central race. This season began just slightly worse, when they all but obliterated their playoff hopes with a disastrous 8-19 start over that same span.

But what about after those aberrational starts? Let’s take a look:

2014 Milwaukee Brewers 2015 Milwaukee Brewers
First 27 Games: 20-7 8-19
Next 66 Games: 32-34 33-33
Final record: 82-80 ???

So the difference between a solid World Series contender looking to buy at the deadline and one of the worst teams in the league due for a fire sale is … a month’s worth of games in April? It seems silly to judge these teams based on a number of games that amounts to about 16% of the season. More likely, last year’s team was significantly worse than we may have thought early on, this year’s version is quite a bit better than their record has shown to date, and the true talent level for both years is right around that 82-80 mark that the 2014 squad wound up with.

None of this is to say that the Brewers were wrong to go for it last year, or that they shouldn’t be sellers at the deadline this year. Often, all it takes is for an average team to get hot for a month to find your way into the playoffs. Remember the 2007 Colorado Rockies? They sat just four games over .500 on September 15th  and were just another NL West also-ran, but went on to win 20 of their next 21 games, including a walk-off win over San Diego in game 163, to find themselves in the World Series. On the flip side of that coin, as we’ve seen this year, a disastrous stretch of bad play like the Brewers experienced this April is more than enough to knock a borderline team out of contention.

That being said, if you thought the Brewers were a legitimate threat to win the World Series in 2014 (and we did), then there is little reason not to believe that going forward under the right circumstances, because it’s essentially the same team. For that reason, and especially given the Brewers recent surge, do not be shocked if the Brewers hold on to their assets that could help them win in the very near future at the trade deadline. Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and Adam Lind – the Brewers’ four most valuable trade chips outside of the blistering-hot Gerardo Parra – are all under team control next year in one way or another: Gomez and Lucroy are on team-friendly contracts that run through 2016, Lind’s $8 million club option next year is almost certain to be picked up by whatever team he’s playing for at year’s end, and Fiers won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2017. All of this give Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin the flexibility, if they so choose, to make one last run with this core in 2016, and should the fall flat again, trade them next July for a smaller but still substantial bounty.

There are holes that would need to be filled if the Brewers’ meant to compete as early as next year. Matt Garza remains under contract through 2017 (with a vesting option for 2018 that bears discussing sometime soon if he remains with the team), but he isn’t likely to offer a ton of value to a contender going forward, and his contract will make him difficult for the Brewers to move. Kyle Lohse is a free agent after this season, and he’s clearly outstripped his usefulness as a major league starting pitcher. The Brewers have some young talent in Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann in addition to Fiers, but that’s certainly not the kind of rotation that wins you a playoff series. The Brewers will also have to find a third baseman Ramirez retiring after this season, a position at which their farm system is totally bereft of talent. This is neither an endorsement nor a denouncement of a potential effort by the Brewers to try to reload for next year; I present this as a mere statement of fact. If they wanted to fill those holes, they would need to do so through free agency – to gut the already thin system again for an outside shot at a wild card spot in a spectacularly tough division would be a franchise-crippling mistake that I’m willing to trust Attanasio won’t make, no matter how great his drive to produce a team that can fill seats on a yearly basis.

Are the Brewers really, truly done this year? Probably, yeah. They were sitting at about the same spot they are now back in 2012, when a seven game losing streak left them 10 games under .500 and 10 games back of the second wild card spot. That late July slide forced Melvin’s hand toward selling, and Zack Grienke was dealt to the Angels. The Brewers, however, would rally all the way back to get within a game and a half of the Cardinals for that last playoff spot on September 21st before finally fading away. So there’s a slight gasp of hope if you feel like holding onto something, but the NL Central was a lot weaker in 2012, when the both the Cubs and Astros lost 100 games and the Pirates were still a year away from breaking their long streak of losing seasons. So the best case scenario, if you’re the impatient type, is a quick reload (though the free agent third baseman class for next year looks downright brutal) for next year.

What will the Brewers do at the deadline this year? At this point, who knows. It’s been a slow starting trade season across the league this year, but with so much parity throughout the league, the Brewers man be one of a very small amount of teams willing to toss in the towel and sell assets over the next week and a half. If you were hoping for a home run return for the likes of Gomez or Lucroy, the promising signs the Crew has shown over the past month has probably wiped that possibility out, if it ever really existed at all. Parra is the Brewers best and most obvious piece, and were he to still be on the team on August 1st, it would not only be shocking, it would be a grievous mistake on the team’s part. Ramirez may be traded, if he wants to be and if they can find a buyer. The Brewers would love to offload Lohse and/or Garza, but will find it difficult to find a contender that believes either can offer value down the stretch. For anyone else on the roster, the Brewers would really need to be blown away to consider moving pieces with multiple years of team control left. Whatever the Brewers choose to do, I would expect the big league team to look substantially different come August 1st.

Posted on July 19, 2015, in Brewers, Doug Melvin, MLB and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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