Minor-league contracts don’t really matter all that much in baseball, no matter how much some fans might think they do. Each year, teams sign dozens of guys to non-guaranteed deals that may or may not include an invite to major league camp, and much of the time you never hear those names ever mentioned again after March. It’s not an official FanGraphs rule that minor-league deals aren’t worth covering, but it might as well be; when Delmon Young got a guaranteed contract from Philadelphia last year, there was a post about it. When the Orioles made him an NRI last week, there wasn’t.
Yet here I am, talking about Milwaukee’s decision to add Mark Reynolds to the first base mix on a non-guaranteed contract, partially because it seems likely that he will have a real impact on the team this year, and partially because of what it says about the Brewers.
Remember, Milwaukee didn’t just have a bad situation at first base last year. They had, according to our database, the worst first base collection in the history of baseball, at least dating back to 1900:
|1970 White Sox||.235||.287||.328||-41.8||-26.5||-3.8|
|1968 Red Sox||.198||.246||.267||-41.7||-8.0||-3.7|
Now, you can quibble with the term “worst” if you like. You can argue that WAR is imperfect and that we can’t really say we have a great idea of how well the 1920 Philadelphia Athletics played first base defense, which we probably don’t. You can say that by wOBA, the 2013 Brewers were really only tied for the 22nd-worst of the last 113 years. But it really doesn’t matter at that point, does it? It’s like arguing which of the many Weezer albums after Pinkerton was the most disappointing. Order them however you like, the answer is always going to be: all of them. If you’re even in the conversation, it’s a huge problem.
That’s what happens when Corey Hart and Mat Gamel both miss the season with knee injuries, and so instead you give 62 (!) starts to Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez, who were below-average hitters even when they were only being compared to shortstops. That’s what happens when 62 more go to Juan Francisco, who managed a .221/.300/.433 line that is almost, to the decimal point, consistent with his career average, and that’s what happens when one of the dim lights of a brutal farm system, Hunter Morris, follows up a 2012 Southern League MVP season with an age-24 2013 so disappointing in the PCL (.247/.310/.457) that he didn’t even merit a token September recall.
Obviously, the position was to be an area of focus this offseason, but nothing has come of it. Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin indicated that he’d attempted to import James Loney, who instead returned to Tampa Bay, and that he’d had little luck prying Mitch Moreland out of Texas, despite the addition of Prince Fielder. The Brewers have been attached to Ike Davis rumors for months, and something may yet come of it, but for now, nothing, and it’s not made easier by the fact that their divisional rivals in Pittsburgh need a first baseman as well, and can at least offer the allure of a playoff race.
And so: Mark Reynolds, who despite the minor-league deal is considered a “near-lock” to make the team and might even see the majority of starts, lest the team subject themselves and their fans to another season of Francisco and friends. At his peak, Reynolds was a masher who had enough balls leave the park — and somehow stole 24 bases in 2009, so raise your hand if you remembered that, because I certainly didn’t — to overlook his historic whiff rate. (Of the six times in history a hitter has struck out 200 times, three belong to Reynolds.)
But as fewer of the balls he did make contact with made it into the air, and fewer of those left the yard…
…and as Reynolds’ never-stellar third base defense disintegrated into near-unplayable, he’s become basically a replacement-level player. Despite 62 homers over the last three years for the Orioles, Indians, and Yankees, Reynolds has been worth all of 0.2 WAR since the start of 2011. Yet teams wanted him, with one report indicating that he had “several offers,” and another naming the Yankees, Rangers, Nationals, Twins, and Orioles as teams with interest.
Of course, for the Brewers, merely replacement-level represents a massive improvement. A full season of Reynolds and all his flaws over Betancourt and Gonzalez and the rest could be an improvement on the order of four wins, and perhaps slightly more if all goes well: Miller Park ranked as the fourth-best place in baseball for right-handed homers in both 2013 and 2012, and 148 of Reynolds’ 202 career homers have been to left or left-center. Again, it’s not because Reynolds is especially good, and perhaps not even better than Francisco, with whom he shared a 96 wRC+ last season, but simply being replacement-level or slightly above is a huge step up from last season’s garbage fire, especially with some potential of a platoon with the lefty Francisco.
For the price of nothing — $2m if he makes the team, and $500k in possible incentives — Milwaukee has probably added value, and so it’s difficult to argue with that. But then, the opportunity to discuss the Brewers in any context does raise the significant question of, well, what exactly the team is doing. They’re the only club in baseball not to have signed a single free agent to a major league deal this winter; other than than trading Norichika Aoki to Kansas City for pitcher Will Smith, their activity has been limited to bringing in Quad-A types like Reynolds, Zach Duke, Brad Mills, Irving Falu, and Greg Golson on minor-league deals, and taking a gamble on Rule 5 pitcher Wei-Chung Wang.
If the idea is that the team finished 23 games back in an extremely tough division and there was little they could do to close that gap this winter, then that’s a defensible decision, except so far there’s been no movement on turning older players with some remaining value like Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Lohse who aren’t likely to be part of the next good Milwaukee team into young talent. It’s simply treading water, neither building for the future nor contending for now, and no matter how you feel about some particular off-field problems, this is no way to be spending the primes of Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez.
At the moment, our depth charts have the Brewers ranked above only four other teams, and while the Phillies continue to entertain us, at least the White Sox and Cubs seem to have plans, and the Marlins have an enviable collection of young talent. The Brewers can’t say that, not with a farm system consistently ranked in the bottom five, and while giving up a first-round pick for Kendrys Morales certainly isn’t the answer, neither, it seems, is doing nothing at all. Signing Reynolds to a non-guaranteed deal is a nice little January move; it’s just a problem when it’s potentially your biggest move.
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