By most measures, the 2017 season was a very good one for the Brewers. On the heels of back-to-back sub-.500 seasons, the first of which saw them shift into rebuilding mode, they spent over two months atop the NL Central, from mid-May to late July, and remained in the Wild Card hunt until the season’s final weekend. Their 86 wins and second-place finish in the NL Central represented the franchise’s best showing since 2011. They made a big splash in late January, signing free-agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain and trading for left fielder Christian Yelich. They made some lower-cost moves as well, most notably adding a solid starter, Jhoulys Chacin, to a rotation that finished in the NL’s top five in ERA and WAR.
It’s not unreasonable to think that those improvements would put a team that missed a playoff spot by a single game in the thick of this year’s race. Yet, as of publication, the Brewers are projected to finish just 78-84. What in the name of Bernie Brewer is going on?
It bears repeating that projections are not destiny and that, at the team level, the error bars on a given year of preseason projections tend to average six to eight wins in either direction. The 2017 Brewers were one of those teams that push such averages higher, because as of Opening Day last year, they were forecast to win just 70 games. In terms of overachievement, they matched the Diamondbacks (77 projected wins, 93 actual wins) for the majors’ largest discrepancy; the Giants, projected for 88 wins but finishing with 64, had the largest discrepancy in the other direction.
Of course, those projections never foresaw the various other additions and subtractions the Brewers made throughout the season, and it’s fair to point out that, while they banked 86 victories, the Brewers were not necessarily a “true” 86-win team. Their PythagenPat estimate was for 85 wins, their BaseRuns estimate for 84 wins. Looking further afield, one finds that their Baseball Prospectus third-order projection was for just 82 victories. Considering that the Diamondbacks’ PythagenPat and BaseRuns estimates were in the other direction (97 and 96 wins, respectively), the Brewers don’t stand out as the year’s biggest miss in this department.
With regards to this year’s projections, 78 wins actually does place a club in the thick of the Wild Card race given the strange state of the Senior Circuit. Among NL teams, only the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals project to win 87 or more games, with the Brewers among a group of six clubs in the 76- to 82-win range (including the Jake Arrieta–improved Phillies) and the league’s five other teams — the Braves, Marlins, Padres, Pirates, and Reds all clearly looking beyond 2018 as far as contending goes — projected for 75 wins or fewer.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the Brewers to see what’s driving their projections downward despite their big additions. Here’s a position-by-position comparison between our Depth Charts and last year’s splits. All rankings are NL-only:
|Position||2017 WAR||NL Rk||2018 WAR||NL Rk||Dif|
At third base, Travis Shaw is projected to regress significantly after a breakout season, but three other areas stand out to a greater degree, for better or worse: the outfield/first-base situation, second base, and the rotation. Let’s zoom in.
The additions of Cain and Yelich shored up two of the lineup’s weakest spots. Keon Broxton got the lion’s share of the work in center field last year but hit just .220/.299/420/84 wRC+, with defense that was in the red according to both UZR (-2) and DRS (-7). He may not have a spot on the 25-man roster come Opening Day, whether he’s optioned to Triple-A or traded away. Yelich takes over a spot where the injury-plagued Ryan Braun started 95 games last year and hit .268/.336/.487 for a career-low 110 wRC+ with defense that wasn’t special (+1 UZR, -5 DRS). Braun doesn’t appear likely go to back to right field, which he last played regularly in 2014-15; that position is now occupied by 2017 breakout Domingo Santana, who bopped 30 home runs while batting .278/.371/.505 for a 126 wRC+.
Right now, the plan to alleviate this logjam appears to be moving Braun to first base, or at least adding him to the mix at a position where he had no previous professional experience. Perhaps the Brewers should bring in Ron Washington to oversee the transition, because, as the 34-year-old slugger is learning, it’s incredibly hard. “I don’t feel remotely comfortable now,” he told reporters on Sunday, at which point he had logged just 19 innings at the new spot in four games.
Whatever playing time Braun fills at first base will come at the expense of the productive Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar platoon, which — with a bit of Neil Walker thrown in late in the season — produced 41 homers and 3.5 WAR last year.
Yelich and Thames are the only lefties in this group, so it’s not like Braun can platoon with both; Thames (career 119 wRC+ vs RHP, 70 vs LHP) has the wider platoon split than Yelich (130 vs RHP, 95 vs. LHP) and so figures to sit more often, but any way you rearrange it, the parts just don’t fit together well.
Via our depth charts, the Brewers are projected to rank among the NL’s top five at all three outfield positions, with Yelich (projected for 2.6 WAR), Cain (projected for 3.0 WAR), and Santana (1.7 WAR) as the primaries, Braun taking 175 PA (out of 500 total) in left, and Yelich reclaiming 140 of those at the two other positions (mostly right field).
That’s the good news. The bad is at first base, where the assorted mix — Thames (350 PA), Braun (175 PA), and Aguilar (161 PA) at this writing — is projected to be the league’s fifth weakest. In actuality, Aguilar probably won’t fit on the current roster and is out of minor-league options, so he could be done in Milwaukee. He’s projected to be replacement level (0.0 WAR) and so divvying up his playing time between the other two looks like a gain of about half a win. Still, this situation cries out for a trade of somebody at some point.
The Brewers got the league’s worst production at the keystone last year, and they don’t project to have improved much. Central to both last year’s woes and this year’s forecast is Jonathan Villar, whom the team acquired from the Astros in November 2015 in exchange for one Cy Sneed (yes, really). Villar enjoyed a nice breakout in 2016, producing 3.1 WAR via a 119 wRC+, a league-high 62 stolen bases, and solid defense at shortstop, with his versatility to play third base or second coming in handy once Orlando Arcia was called up in August. Towards the end of spring training last year, the Brewers put second basemen Scooter Gennett, the incumbent for the previous three-and-a-half seasons, on waivers and Villar took over the position, but he wasn’t up to the task. He hit .241/.293/.372 for a 71 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR, losing his job when the team acquired Walker from the Mets on August 12.
Walker, whose 0.8 WAR and 126 wRC+ provided a bit of punch down the stretch, was a free agent at the end of the year — and, in fact, he was a free agent until Monday, when he agreed to a one-year deal with the Yankees for just a $4 million base salary and another $1 million worth of incentives. He’d sought a multiyear deal, and the Brewers checked on him early in the offseason, but it doesn’t appear that they showed significant interest even once he became willing to settle for a short-term deal. It’s easy to knock them for not signing Walker to the deal that he got from the Yankees, but we can’t assume that they could have had him at a similar price. The Yankees offer a better shot at winning right now, and the man did spend most of 2016-17 in New York (with the Mets); perhaps those factors made a discount more palatable to accept in the Bronx than elsewhere.
The Brewers have returned the position to Villar, hoping that what he did in 2016 can be recaptured. Given both Villar’s upside and a payroll that’s climbed from $63 million on Opening Day last year to a projected $91 million this year, it’s tough to blame them, as the going-on-27-year-old is making a modest $2.55 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. In our depth charts, journeymen Eric Sogard and Hernan Perez are expected to round out the playing time at second base, though the roster may only have room for one. If things go very right and Villar rebounds, the team could definitely outpace their projection by a couple wins here, but on paper (or pixel), this is a spot dragging their numbers down.
The Brew Crew’s surprising move to contention owed much to the collective leap forward of a rotation that finished eighth in the NL in ERA (4.40), 13th in FIP (4.63), and 11th in WAR (8.2) in 2016. Twenty-eight-year-old Jimmy Nelson and 29-year-old Chase Anderson both improved from ERAs in the mid-4.00s and FIPs above 5.00 to much more respectable numbers. Nelson lowered his arm slot and emerged as the staff ace, improving from 0.7 WAR to 4.9 before a rotator cuff strain sidelined him in September. Anderson added 1.6 mph to his fastball velocity and reaped the benefits of a newish grip for his curveball. (He learned it in 2016.) His ERA dropped from 4.39 in 2016 to 2.74 last year, and while a seven-week absence due to an oblique strain limited him to 141.2 innings (10.1 fewer than in 2016), he improved from 0.5 WAR to 3.3.
Twenty-four-year-old ground-baller Zach Davies devoured a staff-high 191.1 innings despite striking out just 15.2% of hitters, the lowest rate of qualified NL starters; the larger workload helped him fill a similar WAR footprint as in 2016 despite recording a FIP that was a third of a run higher (from 3.89 to 4.22). Twenty-seven-year-old soft-tossing lefty Brent Suter arrived from the minors to fill in for Anderson and gave the team 1.6 WAR in 81.2 innings. That quartet helped offset the injury-related ineffectiveness of Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, and 2016 surprise Junior Guerra.
Nelson underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in mid-September and won’t throw off a mound before next month, at best. While he owns the only projected ERA and FIP below 4.00 of the group, he’s currently estimated to take up just 95 innings. Garza and Peralta are gone. Arriving are the 30-year-old Chacin, who resurrected his career with the Padres last year (3.89 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 2.3 WAR), and 31-year-old Wade Miley, who’s been beaten like a rented mule for most of the past two seasons. The former signed a two-year, $15 million deal, the latter a minor-league one.
Low K rates, soft-tossers, pitchers with short track records of success… all of these are recipes for unimpressive projections, because such systems don’t necessarily see the underlying reasons for their various breakthroughs. Which isn’t to say these guys will all be lousy, but you can understand a bit better why their ERAs and FIPs are forecast to land in the mid-4.00s. Davies (4.39 ERA, 4.37 FIP) has the strongest projection of any pitcher besides Nelson, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Currently, he and Anderson are the only pitchers estimated to throw more than 140 innings.
The Brewers reportedly pursued both Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish. They were said to have made a sizable offer to the latter but didn’t ultimately land either. While they explored the possibility of adding Lance Lynn, he instead went to the Twins on a one-year, $12 million deal this past weekend.
That leaves Alex Cobb as the last major free-agent starter available, and while the Brewers have been in contact with him this winter, the 30-year-old righty is still unsigned, and, quite understandably, reportedly still seeking at least a three-year deal. Cobb is coming off a solid full-season return from Tommy John surgery, albeit with the AL’s fourth-lowest strikeout rate among qualifiers (17.3%). He’s currently projected to deliver a 4.11 ERA and 4.21 FIP, which would place him among the Brewers’ top starters. Even in in just 140 innings, his 2.0 WAR forecast is higher than all but Davies. The match seems so obvious, but can the team stretch its budget even further? It doesn’t sound likely, and on paper/pixel, it won’t move the needle much.
Alas, the bottom line for the Brewers is the bottom line. While making a couple of impressive additions that should turn major 2017 problems into long-term strengths, they’ve increased their payroll (albeit not quite back to where they were in 2014-15). They’ve bet on the upside of affordable young and prime-aged players such as Anderson, Arcia, Davies, Santana, Shaw, and Villar. It doesn’t all show up on the projections, and in some cases, the parts don’t all fit together that well. A trade of somebody in the outfield/first-base cluster (obviously, not Cain or Yelich) for another rotation option makes sense, and if we can see it from here, so can general manager David Stearns. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or that everything will work out well enough for the Brewers in 2018. It will take a few breaks in their favor to be as good as last year, a team that can rise from the muddle in the middle of the NL to claim a playoff spot.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.