Monday, November 25, 2013

Team Postmortem: Milwaukee Brewers

Record: 74-88, -47 Run Differential

Summary: When you use 125 different lineups over the course of a 162-game season, it's probably not a very good sign. Well, the Brewers ran 125 lineups out there this season and, sure enough, they weren't very good. They suffered through multiple injuries, a rotation that amounted to mediocrity at best and "praying for rain" at worst, and the suspension of "Face of the Franchise" Ryan Braun for a violation of MLB's steroid policy. Not a good year for the Brew Crew. Let's get to it.

Offensively, the Brewers were the quintessential stars-and-scrubs lineup. Except very few stars and only one player who was actually amazing all year. So mostly scrubs. As a team, the Brewers hit 252/311/398 with a 94 wRC+ (18th in baseball), scoring 640 runs (19th). Things get a tiny bit better if you remove the pitcher from the equation, giving them a wRC+ of 100--essentially exactly average. They had basically average power with a  145 ISO (16th), but they were the worst team in baseball at drawing walks with a mark of 6.7%. That's really, really bad. Removing the pitcher doesn't help them much there either, bumping them up to only 27th.

The good news was Carlos Gomez who had a crazy breakout season. How crazy? Gomez hit for a 363 wOBA and a 130 wRC+ while playing stellar defense in centerfield, giving  him 7.6 fWAR and making him a legitimate MVP candidate. Brewers fans are probably incredibly pleased to have him around for the next few years. They see him as a cornerstone of the future, and rightfully so. However, there are some concerns. While his power and defense are probably for real, he suffers from a terrible walk rate (6.3%) and he posted an abnormally high BABIP at 344, way above his career norms and the MLB average. His LD% was also exceedingly high at 21.3%, although the rest of his batted ball types were largely in line. He's still a great player, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him regress quite a bit next year. Steamer (a Fangraphs' projection tool) pegs him to be 4.7 fWAR in 2014 and I suspect that's far closer to correct than what he did this year. The Brewers also got a good season out of young shortstop Jean Segura (3.4 fWAR) and Jonathan Lucroy (3.6 fWAR). Unfortunately, the rest of the team was either average or worse--no one else even hit 2 fWAR. Particularly disappointing was Ryan Braun--locked up for a million years for a zillion dollars--who, while hitting well as usual (370 wOBA), played in only 61 games due to injuries and a steroid suspension. There are certainly questions as to who Braun will be at the plate when he returns in 2014. Also the team comically signed former worst-shortstop-in-baseball, Yuniesky Betancourt, and had him play... third base. And first base. For 137 games. With a .240 OBP. Yeah. And this is the second time they've signed him.

The pitching staff was even more concerning. The Brewers allowed 687 runs (17th) with a 3.84 ERA (16th), which seems... well, average instead of terrible. Unfortunately, their FIP is far worse at 4.12 (25th!) and FIP is far more predictive. To make matters worse, the majority of the good on the pitching staff came from a solid, if lucky, bullpen (3.19 ERA, 5th best; 3.80 FIP, 22nd), while the starting rotation posted a 4.20 ERA and a 4.31 FIP. Most disappointing has been the continued decline of Yovani Gallardo. After a breakout season in 2010 where he posted a 3.02 FIP and a 4.5 fWAR, Gallardo has declined each season since. 2013 was his worst yet, posting a K/9 of 7.17 (a career low, down from 9.00 last year and 9.73 in 2010), although his GB% of BB/9 was not significantly altered. His FIP has increased to 3.89 and his fWAR has plummeted to 1.7, making him merely an average role player rather than the ace the Brewers once hoped he'd be. The rest of the rotation was either the same mediocrity (Kyle Lohse, 1.8 fWAR; Marco Estrada, 1.6 fWAR), or worse. Injuries forced prospect Wily Peralta to spend the entire season in the majors, despite walking 4.79 batters per nine in AAA last year. While he didn't walk quite as many in the bigs (3.58), he also didn't  strike anyone out (6.33 K/9 vs 8.78 in AAA in 2012) and posted a 4.30 FIP and a 1.0 fWAR. And that counted as good news for the Brewers' rotation. Ouch.

The Brewers are a difficult team to get a read on. They are either a team in decline, or one transitioning to a new, young core. While they certainly have stars in Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun (around both of whom there are concerns going forward--particularly Braun) and two potential young contributors in Segura and Lucroy, the rest of the team is exceedingly mediocre.  There is some hope, in that there were a lot of young players on the team, and one can hope they take a huge step forward next season, but outside of Segura, they aren't that highly regarded. There's not a lot more help on the way either. The Brewers have recently stopped drafting well--a talent they were once known for--and their farm system has plummeted. It was ranked 24th by Bleacher Report late in the season. Perhaps of more immediate concern is Baseball America's recent Near-Term Value rankings, which ranked organizations based on talent close to the majors. The Brewers were ranked dead last. The Brewers gave up a lot in their 2011 run, and while they got some talent back in the Greinke trade, ultimately the future doesn't look very good. I don't think the Brewers will go into a full rebuild yet--certainly the fact that outside of a 6-22 record in May, they were basically a .500 club, suggests giving this core another shot or two at contention--but if 2014 goes a lot like 2013 did, that time may be coming soon.

Team MVP: Carlos Gomes, 7.6 fWAR

Team LVP: Yuniesky Betancourt, -1.8 fWAR

Down On The Farm: Between trading away talent in their 2011 push and graduating a number of players to the majors in 2013--including Khris Davis, Wily Peralta and Scooter Gennett--Milwaukee is left with a weak farm system whose upper levels are nearly empty of anything resembling impact talent. There are some intriguing players in the system, but most have significant question marks around them. The Brewers will certainly be banking on a big year from the farm in 2013 if it is going to provide them with worthy MLB reinforcements in the near future.

Jimmy Nelson, perhaps the top prospect in the Brewers' system, is a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher. He has a big fastball that he throws 94-95 mph and a swing-and-miss slider that comes in around 85-87. His third pitch, a change-up, is a much more rough offering--the reports I've read label it as currently projecting to be a below average pitch. He has good sink on his fastball, resulting in a lot of groundballs, and his slider definitely has strikeout potential--evident by his 9.39 K/9 in AA and 9.83 in AAA this season. However, his Achilles' heel is his control. In 2012, in AA, he posted a horrifying 7.24 BB/9. He did improve on that in 2013, posting a 1.96 in AA in twelve starts, but that improvement quickly vanished upon his promotion to AAA where he recorded a 5.40 mark. His future role will be defined by developing that control as well as his changeup. He projects to be a #3-4 starter or a late-innings reliever.

Tyrone Taylor is an 18-year-old OF prospect, picked up by the Brewers in the 2012 draft. His youth--and the fact that he focused more on football before being drafted--makes him exceedingly raw and, while he has a high ceiling, he also has a very low floor. His solid speed has served him well in centerfield, but some scouts think he'll end up in a corner spot. He has decent power potential (20 HRs as a ceiling) and good contact skills hitting .278/.338/.400 in A-ball this year. He does need to work on  his patience with a 6.4% walk rate and 11.5% strikeout rate. Taylor has a lot of polishing to do, but will have time to do it as he is probably three-to-four years away from Milwaukee.

Offseason Outlook: The Brewers are not yet rebuilding and will certainly try to put at least a winning--if not contending--team on the field in 2014. One major hole they will have to fill this offseason is at first base, since Corey Hart--who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury--is now a free agent. Certainly, Betancourt should not be getting any playing time there. They probably will try to bring Hart back on a one-year deal, and failing that, may target someone like Morse or Loney. They also should look at some veteran support for their rotation. Scott Kazmir will probably be relatively cheap, could benefit from NL competition, and could be a good fit.

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