Make no mistakes: this is a good major league team. Most projection systems suggest Milwaukee will end up with around 84-86 wins, putting them in close contention for the NL Central crown with the Cardinals and Reds. When ranking their overall organization’s health, though, the Brewers’ depleted minor league system really brings them down.
Present Talent – 77.73 (15th)
Future Talent – 65.00 (four way tie for last)
Financial Resources – 75.83 (19th)
Baseball Operations – 76.82 (21st)
Overall Rating – 75.02 (22nd)
Upon first glance, it’s easy to fall in love with the Brewers. This is a team that is built around stars: Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum form the backbone of the Brewers. Big names are easy to love, and these seven players are projected to produce 31.3 WAR next season according to the Fan Projections. These projections are optimistic as a whole, but still, that total is better than 10 teams from 2010 produced with their entire roster. Also, the Brewers’ front office has made a concerted effort over the past year to lock up this core for an extended period of time. Gallardo signed a five-year deal before the 2010 season began; Corey Hart signed a three-year contract this offseason; Rickie Weeks signed a four-year deal (with a fifth year option) in mid February; and Ryan Braun is already signed to a team-friendly long term deal that lasts through 2015. With the exception of Prince Fielder, this nucleus will be together for multiple years into the future.
The problem is, once you look outside these seven players, the Brewers are sorely lacking depth. Jonathan Lucroy and Casey McGehee contribute value at catcher and third base – and they’re young enough that they can still keep improving – but the Brewers have noticeable holes at shortstop, centerfield, and the back end of their rotation. After moving Alcides Escobar in the Greinke trade, the Brewers are plugging in Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop; Betancourt hit for moderate power last season, but he’s still been the worst everyday shortstop in the majors over the last three seasons both offensively and defensively. Gomez provides value through his defense and speed, but he strikes out like he’s a slugger (24%) and doesn’t have good plate discipline (5% walk rate), so he’s lucky to crack a .300 wOBA. And in the rotation, Randy Wolf (4.85 FIP in 2010) and Chris Narveson (4.22 FIP) are fine as #4 and #5 starters, but they have limited upside for the future.
In a vacuum, this lack of depth on the major league roster isn’t a horrible thing. The Brewers are still one of the favorites for the NL Central, and acquiring star players is more difficult to do than acquiring average role players to complement those stars. But the dearth of depth goes deeper: after trading away three of their top five prospects this offseason, the Brewers’ minor league system is one of the worst in the majors. Their top pitching prospect is Mark Rogers, a 25-year-old starter that has had constant injuries throughout his career and suffers from control problems, and their top position prospect is Hunter Morris, a 22-year-old first baseman that should be starting the season in Advanced-A. Matt Gamel is the only exciting bat that’s anywhere near the majors, but his defensive issues don’t seem to be improving.
So once Prince Fielder leaves after this season, what then? Fielder is a huge cog in the Brewers’ offense and is a solid bet for +/- 5 WAR in any given season; the Brewers will take a significant hit in talent with his departure, but they have no ready replacement. While they’ve averaged around an $80 million payroll over the past four seasons, the Brewers already have $60 million in commitments for 2012 and $40 million for 2013 – and all that money is locked in on only seven players. That doesn’t leave them much room to fill out a roster and replace Fielder’s contributions through free agency, meaning the Brewers will almost surely see a drop in their team’s talent level in 2012. And then once Marcum and Greinke (possibly) leave through free agency after that season, what pitchers will the Brewers have to complement Gallardo? Plenty can happen between now and then, but looking at the Brewers’ system right now is not especially encouraging for the future.
And that’s where the front office comes in. While the Brewers operated as a small-market team for many years, the combination of a new-ish stadium (Miller Park, opened in 2001) and a competitive team has seen their attendance climb to near around 3 million for the last four seasons in a row. Their payroll has increased as a result, and the Brewers now look closer to a mid-market team, having payrolls near $80 million on a yearly basis. Of course, if attendance were to shrink the Brewers would likely be forced to lower their payrolls, as they’ll never have the same revenue streams as a larger market club, but that seems unlikely to happen in the short term. Their owner, Mark Attansio, seems committed to the team and wrote an open letter to the Brewers’ fan base this off season, and there have been no blatant instances of him sticking his foot into baseball operations decisions.
General Manager Doug Melvin has made some questionable decisions (Randy Wolf? Brandon Looper?), but overall I’d say he’s done a good job building the Brewers into contenders and keeping them competitive over the last six seasons. He’s not perfect, but the contracts for Hart, Weeks, Gallardo, and Braun are all fairly valued, and Melvin hasn’t been afraid to trade away prospects with hovering question marks (e.g. Matt LaPorta, Alcides Escobar). He may have traded away the future in an effort to win in 2011, but he also didn’t overpay for Marcum or Greinke. If anything, their front office is boringly effective: they don’t make huge, laugh-inducing gaffs, but they also aren’t ones to find a bargain. Melvin seems to pay near market rate for contract extensions, free agents, and trades, and while that’s served him well in the past, the Brewers will need to find some free agent bargains to stay competitive in 2012 and 2013.
With all this in mind, though, a bit of perspective helps to understand the Brewers’ #22 ranking better. In our points system, the Brewers are separated from the last place organization by 9 points…and 9 points above the Brewers is the fourth best team in the rankings. There are lots of teams that are ranked close together around average, so while the numerical ranking might be low, the Brewers’ overall organization is only a few points below average, held that low primarily by their weak farm system and a low-to-mid market status. So Cardinals and Reds fans shouldn’t get too excited: despite the long-term questions hovering, the Brewers have a strong enough core that contention should never be out of the question.