The Milwaukee Brewers surprised everyone this offseason with their aggression in building their line-up. They added Lorenzo Cain in free agency and Christian Yelich in a trade, making their offense one of the league’s best. In doing so, they improved their team’s strength whilst virtually ignoring their biggest weakness, starting pitching. Not only are they lacking an ace but they are also lacking depth in their rotation as well. Jimmy Nelson returning will help, but he is not an ace and will only give them a second front-line pitcher. Most people expected them to make a trade to try and bolster their rotation, but nothing materialized during spring. It’s not as if they have tremendous prospect depth at starting pitcher either, with Luis Ortiz and Corbin Barnes headline their pitching prospects, but neither is likely to throw a lot of MLB innings this season.
From the outside, the decisions seem to both make sense and are head-scratching at the same time. Acquiring two good hitters makes a lot of sense but ignoring the pitching altogether is a strange tactic. Perhaps they thought they could just outhit their opposition all season and negate the need for quality in the rotation?
In their opening series in San Diego, where they went 3-0, we saw the difference between a good starter and a bad one. Chase Anderson, their “ace”, gave up zero earned runs but got a no-decision after a bullpen slip up. Jhoulys Chacin got hit hard, giving up four earned runs against his old team. The Brewers however, took Brad Hand to pieces scoring five runs to pull that match out of the hat. Then Brent Suter gave up three runs in five innings but the Brewers did more damage to Luis Perdomo. The Brewers executed what appears to be their season-long plan in that series by outhitting bad starters, but how long can that last?
They couldn’t repeat the feat against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, where Zach Davies surrendered six earned runs. Scoring six plus runs to win is possible sometimes but not as often as the Brewers may need to. Can they go through a whole season needing to score five plus runs three or four out of five games?
The simple answer is probably not. It is hard to imagine that method leading to sustained success across a whole season. Even if this tactic delivers them a playoff berth, Milwaukee will need another starter if they are to go all the way. Neither Anderson nor Nelson would be an ace in the majority of other big league rotations. This means they would need to be creative with scheduling to match those guys up with weaker starters. Even so, that would likely make it near impossible to win a single series, let alone three. So the big questions are; when do the Brewers make the move and add to their rotation? With the Chicago Cubs starting slowly should the Brewers look to capitalise now and build a lead in their division? Let’s say they decide now is the time then who is the player they should move?
The candidates to trade
The only positions they appear to have the strength in depth to trade away players is either first base or outfield. On their current roster, they currently have four front line outfielders in Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Cain and Yelich. They then have two first basemen in Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar with Braun also able to play there. Finally, they have bench depth in Hernan Perez and Eric Sogard who can play both infield and outfield. In the minors they have outfielders Brett Philips and Keon Broxton who could be called up if required. They also have a couple of players who could cover first base in an emergency; Ji-Man Choi and Nick Franklin. Let’s break down what they might expect to receive in return from each of these players.
We can almost rule out them trading either Yelich or Cain at this stage, having just acquired them and with both on multi-year deals. Perez and Sogard are more valuable to the Brewers because of their flexibility than they will be as trade chips. Choi, Franklin, and Aguilar were all free agents or waiver claims so I don’t think they will command much attention.
That leaves Braun, Santana, Thames, Philips, and Broxton as potential trade pieces.
Thames would have had quite a lot of trade value about 10-11 months ago when he was raking. However, he somewhat came back to earth last season as the league caught back up to his offense. His value now is relatively low as the Brewers themselves only view him as a platoon option at best. Platoon guys are useful in certain situations, especially ones on team friendly deals, but their possible returns will be thin. Teams will likely hesitate to give up a mid-level starter for Thames alone and the Brewers need at least mid-level. It is likely they keep Thames as he can platoon with either Braun or Aguilar at first and give them match-up advantages coming in off the bench but I wouldn’t put it past them packaging him with someone in a deal.
Philips and Broxton are valuable depth pieces but their upside is not enough for them to command big returns alone. Again they would likely have to be packaged with others in order to help the Brewers improve their rotation significantly. Broxton is probably the more likely to be allowed to leave having failed to capitalize on opportunities given. Philips profiles as the heir to the Cain thrown and the Brewers will want to retain some upside depth with both Cain and Braun being injury risks.
If the deal is right
Braun is an interesting candidate because he has name value both as a positive and negative. His murky history with steroids will make him untouchable for some organizations, but others will remember the talented player. Even so, he is unlikely to net them the ace they require due to his age, contract and injury history. He might be a player they could deal for a Nelson/Anderson level starter, but in that case, he is probably more valuable on the Brewers roster. The only possibility I see for trading Braun for major upside is if another organization is regretting a deal given to an aging pitcher and need an outfield upgrade. This would be a case where both sides would be hoping a fresh start might kick-start a late-career surge. He could possibly be packaged with a prospect for an ace but the money exchange would have to be right for another team to be willing to even consider taking him on.
The final and perhaps best option for the Brewers is Santana, who had a good 2017. Santana is an everyday outfielder in most organizations and is a player that should garner attention. The right-handed hitter has shown both power and speed which is always a positive for teams. Santana has three years of arbitration remaining and is not locked into a monster contract. He is an OK if not great defensive outfielder so would not solely need to be a teams first baseman or designated hitter. Santana is a good combination of talent, age and team control meaning he could be used to net a decent return. Additionally, his value may never be higher than coming off a 30/15 power/speed season making him the perfect candidate for the Brewers to move sooner rather than later.
Moving Santana for an ace now allows the Brewers to stop experimenting with Braun at a position he does not appear to like. They would give that pitcher and their catchers time to adjust and they could try and extend their early lead over their main division rivals, the Cubs. Making this deal now may seem risky with their outfielders injury history but waiting could put them in a position where they have either let the Cubs get away or a Santana slump drastically decreases his value.