If there was an end-of-season award for best value based on individual players or team payroll, the Milwaukee Brewers would have easily been nominated, if not in prime position for taking it home with little competition.
Instead, manager Craig Counsell was stiffed by the writers for Manager of the Year nomination despite taking a young, generally inexperienced team within one game of the playoffs, ending their season at 86-76, around twenty games above what was almost universally predicted in the preseason, all on a $83 million total payroll. It merits mentioning that Counsell won the award from The Sporting News.
While money has largely been one of the most influential factors across the league as a whole, frugal front offices in recent years have made a statement that money isn’t everything, including the most recent World Series-winning Houston Astros, who hovered just below Major League Baseball’s league average salary at around $150 million. The four years prior have seen no shortage of the small-market, big-result narratives either. The Cleveland Indians made the World Series in 2016 with a total payroll of $115 million. The 2015 Kansas City Royals won it with $132 million while the 2014 version came up with an AL pennant spending only $105 million.
The story of winning has undoubtedly shifted in recent decades, primarily led by the evolution of advanced analytics. Few examples of such transformations have been so prevalent since the development of the forward pass in the NFL and the public eye is now beginning to focus more consistently on baseball’s ‘Moneyball’ revolution.
Brewers fans don’t have to look far, either. Before general manager David Stearns helmed the front office in Milwaukee, he did the lion’s share of the work assembling the talent of these 2017 World Series champion Astros. The major difference? As it stands, the Brewers have only just over $32 million on the books after jettisoning Matt Garza’s $12.5 million final contract year this offseason — and that includes re-upping with the team’s surprise front-of-the-rotation starter Chase Anderson for $11.25 million (two-year with a pair of club options covering ’20 and ’21).
Considering the comparison of wins to cost (86 wins for $83 million), the Brewers got considerable value that ended up just under $1 million per win, one of the best ratios in baseball. In 2018, they’re positioned even better with more payroll headroom and over half the roster still under team control.
The team does have numerous players entering arbitration including Jeremy Jeffress, Jonathan Villar, Hernan Perez, Jimmy Nelson, Corey Knebel and Stephen Vogt, but only Nelson and Knebel look to provide any significant jump in salary and given their talent, the team may try to settle before the deadline. Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana, another pair of 2017 standouts often seen as potential building blocks, may also be candidates for early settlement.
But there is still one looming question that could shift the entire paradigm: Will the Brewers jump into the starting pitching market during the hot stove?
Milwaukee has been linked to just about every starting pitcher on the market entering the offseason, including Jake Arrieta, who was predicted by MLB Trade Rumors to receive somewhere around $100 million on a four-year deal. Although there seem to be chances that the Brewers test the current market, one of the strongest starting pitching markets in recent years, Stearns has shown little consideration for anyone but generally young, controllable starters like Jose Quintana, that is, before he was scooped up by the Cubs just before the mid-season deadline.
But three important factors seem to have gone overlooked in this year’s early hot stove predictions for Milwaukee.
The first is that Stearns puts a premium on value, no matter the position. He did not overpay for either Eric Sogard (who was recently re-signed for $2.4 million) or Neil Walker, yet both produced far beyond their relative pay grades, as did reliever Anthony Swarzak and first baseman Eric Thames, despite the ups and downs of his first year back in the majors. It seems unlikely that the GM will overpay for only average or even tailing production like Arrieta unless his crew sees significant upside in one or more free agent candidates and of course, for the right price.
If he even pursues the position at all, it seems far more likely that Stearns will look for under-the-radar candidates like Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill or Tyler Chatwood, low-cost fill-ins with upside that could again extend far beyond their pay, players who could rise in value or identify those in the system that could become expendable and strengthen the team’s competitive longevity with return on investment, either in production or prospects.
The second, is that the team is already loaded with talented pitchers. Chase Anderson will likely be slotted in the number one spot at season’s start. Zach Davies also looks to be a shoo-in. Brent Suter, who held down Anderson’s spot admirably while the latter was on the disabled list for nearly two months and continued to roll once he returned, is another viable option considering the numbers he posted during that stretch (From July 3 onward: 13 GS, 3.24 ERA, 52 K, 16 BB, 66.2 IP). Brandon Woodruff was nearly lights out in his first foray in the majors, posting a 1.52 ERA with 20 strikeouts and nine walks over his first four starts before getting gassed as soon as the calendar turned to September, stretching him beyond the comforts of the shorter minor league season. Aaron Wilkerson is another option, as he carried his solid Double-A stats (11-4, 3.16 ERA, 1.075 WHIP, 143 K, 36 BB, 142.1 IP) into his MLB introduction (1-0, 3.48 ERA, 0.677 WHIP, 7 K, 1 BB, 10.1 IP).
And of course, that doesn’t even count Josh Hader’s potential transition back into a starting role, the return of Jimmy Nelson or the high upside of minor leaguers Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Luis Ortiz and Cody Ponce, who all could see their first Major League time in 2018.
The third is that Stearns is a man who loves to defy convention. His acquisition of Thames and Jesus Aguilar, who ended up being one of the best pinch hitters in the majors after being abandoned by the Cleveland Indians, largely solved the glaring issue at first base, all for under $6 million — and the duo went on to produce 47 home runs and 115 RBI in 2017.
While the pitching options are more limited than position players when reaching back into the minor league free agent pool or potentially overseas with any level of certainty, especially given the substantial escalation of talent in the majors, Stearns’ history has shown that his economic approach has been his greatest asset.
Whatever the case may be, the Milwaukee Brewers are now positioned with few gaping holes left to be filled and more than enough options to exercise in the coming months. And above all else, given the proven dexterity of their front office, the 2018 team will primed to prove that money isn’t everything.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.