The Brewers Are Trying to Add to the Top

People are always going to talk about baseball, even when there isn’t much baseball to talk about. Lately, people have been talking about the fact that there isn’t much baseball to talk about, and a recurring theme is that, in this current league environment, there just aren’t enough teams showing a commitment to winning. Now, that’s a belief supported by questionable evidence, and we can only truly evaluate this offseason after it’s finished, but let me say this right now for the Brewers — the Brewers are trying. Emboldened by the success of 2017, the Brewers don’t want to take a step back.

For some time, the team has been connected to Jake Arrieta. Recently, there have been reports the Brewers have made an offer to Yu Darvish. And now the Brewers have been strongly linked to Christian Yelich.

We’re talking about one of the smaller-market clubs in the league, and the Brewers shouldn’t get too much credit for anything until something actually happens. For the time being, the Brewers’ roster remains the same. But from the sounds of things, a decision has been made that the time could be right. As the Brewers emerge from their own tear-down process, they’re ready now to bring in some stars.

The best place to start: Only a few years ago, the Brewers ran payrolls just north of $100 million. As tends to happen during a rebuild, that payroll plummeted, and at this writing, the 2018 Brewers are projected right around $70 million or so. Ryan Braun has the only significant contract on the books. We know the Brewers can support a higher payroll, because they’ve recently had far higher payrolls. Ownership will invest a little heavier when it seems like the team has a chance.

Last year’s Brewers, of course, won 86 games, and for an astonishing amount of time, they kept the Cubs out of first. Time brought its inevitable regression, and the Brewers don’t look quite so good now, but this is a young organization. No one important is looking ahead to free agency next fall. Eric wrote about the Brewers’ deep farm system in December, and the team just placed six guys in the Baseball America top-100. It’s not so much that a core already exists, but the Brewers figure core players should emerge. Just as importantly, with so much young talent around, the Brewers know a lot of their long-term players ought to be affordable. That’s important for the sake of efficiency, and efficiency is important for the sake of making a splash.

That’s where an Arrieta or a Darvish would come in. A team like the Brewers generally can’t play at the upper end of the free-agent market, because a dollar to the Brewers means more than a dollar to, say, the Cubs or the Yankees. If the Brewers were going to make a large investment, they’d have to be as sure as possible about the timing. In this instance, the Brewers project to have a lot of relatively cheap players, and the club is about ready to be competitive. I don’t know if they’ll do enough to land one of the starters in the end, but this is a team with actual financial flexibility.

As far as Yelich is concerned, that would be a pursuit of a different sort of splash. Yelich isn’t under contract for free-market rates, but that’s precisely what makes him so valuable. The Brewers could afford a high-priced free-agent starter, because they have so little money committed. The Brewers could afford someone like Christian Yelich, because their farm system is sufficiently stocked. It’s a hypothetical move that wouldn’t be just about 2018. It would be about 2018, and the next few years ahead.

Just last week, there was a rumor connecting Yelich to the Braves, and Peter Gammons reported the Marlins sought Ronald Acuna. Acuna is probably baseball’s top prospect, and I wrote about how that trade request wasn’t crazy. I think you can make a pretty convincing argument that, if Acuna belonged to a better team, it could make sense to trade him for Yelich. You might agree, or you might disagree, but the general and undeniable point is that Yelich is absurdly valuable. He’s young, he’s under control for a while, and he still comes with untapped offensive upside. The Brewers know all about what Yelich would mean, and I assume any legitimate trade offer would have to begin with Lewis Brinson. The package would get bigger from there. I don’t know how the Brewers would get Yelich without Brinson being included, but that would be the cost of doing business. It would be moving a potential future star for a potential immediate star.

This is where the Brewers are currently lacking. This is why the Brewers aren’t projected well at all by Steamer. This is probably why the Brewers are showing so much interest in some great players in the first place. What the Brewers have assembled is a cheap, young foundation. They have dozens of would-be major-league contributors, average starters or plug-in role players. Everyone has his own share of upside. But looking at the 2018 Steamer projections, the Brewers don’t have a single player in the top 150. By WAR, you find Jimmy Nelson ranked at No. 156, and Nelson seemed to break out last season as an ace, but he’s also going to miss the start of the regular season, because he’s coming off major shoulder surgery. And Nelson, it turns out, is the Brewers’ only player in the top 300. I don’t mean to suggest that Steamer is flawless, and I don’t mean to suggest that Ryan Braun or Domingo Santana or Chase Anderson are bad. But this isn’t a club with an obvious star. The best player is a question mark, because of his health. Stars aren’t everything, but good teams tend to need them, which could explain the Brewers’ pursuits. They know they already have plenty of upside, but it’d be good to also have some higher-end certainty.

You might not think the Brewers are in the right spot. I figured Acuna for Yelich would be a non-starter for the Braves, mostly because of the timing. I don’t think the Braves are ready to be good yet, and perhaps you see them and the Brewers as occupying basically the same level. But the Brewers themselves are encouraged, and it’s hard to blame them, after the season they had. Many of the necessary decent or good players are present. All that could be left is to find one or two great ones.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Brewers are trying to be the Anti-Pirates