The Brewers have been linked to almost every big name on the pitching market this year, but their best move may just be doing nothing at all.
Yes, that’s a hard pill to swallow for a first-place club that has been the biggest surprise in baseball this year. It’s even harder when you consider some of the big names they’ve been pursuing, from Sonny Gray to Justin Verlander and just about everyone in between.
But there’s a long-term plan in Milwaukee that shouldn’t be interrupted by the club arriving as playoff contenders a couple years early, and frankly, this year’s trade market isn’t one to go all-in on. Gray and Verlander, almost unarguably the top two starters readily available this week, both have their flaws, with Gray’s shaky medical history and performance in recent years and Verlander’s contract serving as a major obstacle in talks. Even the top available relievers (Detroit’s Justin Wilson and San Diego’s Brad Hand) will cost a huge haul this time of year, as evidenced by some of the prices we’ve seen paid already.
The available options simply aren’t good enough for the Brewers to plunder a farm system that has changed tremendously in two years. While the White Sox have received deserved praise for completely re-stocking their farm through trades and the draft over the past 13 months, the Brewers have done something similar, albeit more slowly, over a two-year stretch.
Milwaukee has traded Aramis Ramirez, Mike Fiers, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Adam Lind, Francisco Rodriguez, Jean Segura, Khris Davis, Aaron Hill, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg since the deadline two years ago. That’s 14 veteran players in 12 different deals as sellers.
The fruit of that labor is beginning to produce at the major-league level, with Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Travis Shaw, Zach Davies and Josh Hader all acquired in trades. Three of the club’s top nine prospects (Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz and Isan Diaz) have also come via trade, pairing with top-10 picks Corey Ray and Keston Hiura to give Milwaukee an impressive stock of controllable talent.
It has felt like the Brewers have been playing with house money all season, with many in baseball believing that the Cubs would eventually return to their rightful place on the NL Central throne. Fueled by the acquisition of lefty Jose Quintana, Chicago is 8-2 since the All-Star break and the Brewers have lost seven of eight, causing Milwaukee’s lead to shrink from 5.5 games to just a half-game in a 10-day stretch. The Pirates (2.5 games) and Cardinals (4 games), both previously seen as potential deadline sellers, have also closed the gap and are now legitimate threats in as well.
Obviously, projection systems haven’t been kind to the Brewers, who were predicted to win just 68 games in FanGraphs’ preseason forecast. That same system now projects a limp to the finish for Milwaukee, pegging them to finish fourth the division at 81-81, behind the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals. The 538 blog sees just as morbid of a future for Milwaukee, giving them only a 23 percent chance to make the playoffs (compared to the Cubs’ 70 percent chance) and a 1 percent chance to win the World Series.
Almost every surprise contender has already made a move, with the Diamondbacks (J.D. Martinez), Rays (Adeiny Hechavarria and Sergio Romo), Twins (Jaime Garcia), Yankees (Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle) and Royals (Trevor Cahill, Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer) all making early strikes in the trade market. The Twins, who many have compared to the Brewers this year as a team arriving a bit early, made a measured move by acquiring Garcia, giving up only a fringe prospect while taking on a rental salary for the rest of the year.
Milwaukee shouldn’t be pressured by the moves of their surprise peers, even if the temptation to strike currently exists. It’s tough to sell the idea of inactivity to a fan base that has jumped on board for their overachieving club, but the risk of paying a high price for a small chance at winning this season is too high.
Teams are surely asking for guys like Brinson, Ray, Hader and Phillips in talks for controllable starters because clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros have stronger farm systems and can make great offers. Milwaukee, despite having five top-100 prospects (per MLB Pipeline), doesn’t have the depth or roster redundancy of their competitors and would likely have to overpay.
Maybe the Brewers do something similar to Minnesota in a controlled buy, taking on some money for a rental starter like old friend Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano or Jeremy Hellickson or adding a lesser reliever like A.J. Ramos or Pat Neshek. They’re reportedly “fading” in talks for Gray, which makes sense considering their competition for the righty consists of more motivated buyers like the Dodgers and Astros (who are World Series favorites) and the Yankees (who have all the financial flexibility in the world moving forward).
The Brewers have been a phenomenal story this year, and normally, it’s best not to fall in love with prospects who are, at their core, pure lottery tickets. But the club can’t get caught up in the hysteria of a race they’re unlikely to win just to get to a playoff series they’ll also be unlikely to win.
The time is now for the other teams linked to Gray and Verlander, like the Astros, Dodgers and Cubs, to strike. The time will come for the Brewers as well. It’ll just come later.