Undoubtedly the most popular and contentious debate among Brewers fans is what this team should look like next year. What moves should Doug Melvin be making at the deadline? Last year it was clear to everyone that there was only one thing to do, deal off anybody to anyone for whatever we could get. This year though things are much more complicated. I predicted that Melvin and Yost would get a fair amount of free wins this year. Based on all of their raw totals last year the Brewers were very unlucky as a whole. Giving up more runs than you'd guess based on hits, BB, and HR allowed. They also scored fewer runs than they should have based on those totals, and had a poorer record than their actual run scored and runs allowed would predict. Altogether it made a decent case that the Brewers should improve 5-10 games just based on getting more normal luck. Of course, even with that free improvement, the team was still pretty bad. They were so bad that even assuming they would have had historically awesome luck they'd have barely hit .500 as a team. No one ever mistook this team for a contender.
What I don't think anyone could really have predicted, especially based on the paltry offseason moves, was how much more fun it was to watch the team play. There is no statistical explanation for this, but I've heard more than one casual fan comment that the Brewers were doing better this year and generally buying into the "Battling Brewers of 2003" theme. Further in my estimation things at the ticket stand have gone well. The Crew didn't make their season ticket goal, but that was unrealistic. Others have crowed about a further attendance drop, ignoring that the numbers are always down in the spring. June seemed to be regularly bringing in 20K + crowds, which for all the losing and weak economic conditions I'd say is pretty good. Milwaukee did not become Montreal/ Florida. June brought an even greater sense of optimism as the team played its best ball in what 2 years, maybe 3? Jenkins, still streaky, put together a lot more good streaks than bad ones. Richie struggled, but still struggled to one of the top 10 first basemen in the league. Podsednik really solidified this team with his clutch hits and ability to be on base for Jenkins. All around the offense was OK, save for SS, where Royce has struggled with his average despite solid peripherals. Pitching wise, Kinney, Sheets, and Franklin all have been solid, while the millstones have been removed from the rotation and the bullpen has sorted itself out into an effective though not spectacular unit.
Lot's of words, but it's time to get to the real meat of the article: how does this team go forward? The sides in this debate are firesale vs. hold on to what we've got. The flashpoint revolves around trading guys like Sexson, Jenkins, and even Sheets. As many of you are aware I have advocated trading Sexson and Jenkins since the offseason. But the play of the team has caused me to wonder is that still the best strategy? A person must be flexible and not lock yourself into a single position when new facts present themselves. As I type this I have not yet decided what strategy I will advocate by the end of this piece. That makes it fun and interesting, for the record I have one goal: build a playoff team capable of competing for a number of years. No one hit wonders, no scraping by and get a wild card spot. A team with a legitimate shot at the playoffs and by extension a chance of winning a ring. .500 is a worthless goal merely a sign post of the road to respectability, so if you're content with a .500 I doubt you will agree with my conclusions. I suspect most of us though would love to be able to watch the Packer game and not move as we sit in eager anticipation of the Brewers coming on afterward in game 1 of the NLCS.
Currently the team is on pace for 67 wins for the season. Not exactly a stunning success, but a large improvement from last year, and some would argue the current team is likely to better that and challenge 70 wins. Even more intriguing, the Brewers are exactly where their Pythagorean record predicts. Taking a further look at the luck factor the Brewers batting average and OPS are about the same with runners in scoring position as overall. So as a quick estimate the offense is performing about like you could expect. Pitching wise I don't have the same split, but nothing stands out as being unlucky. I think where the team has been lucky this year is with injuries. No major contributor has gone on the DL. If Jenkins hurts himself the team takes a huge hit, and as much as I like Pete Zoccolillo and Jim Rushford, they aren't going to replace him. Further, an injury to Sheets or Kinney would be huge. Even injuries to more minor players like Vanderwal could seriously hurt the team. One could also argue that there is no one on the team underperforming, while Jenkins and Podsednik are performing about as well as can be reasonably expected or better. Still let's say that by and large the team is on average experiencing average luck, so what we see is what we can expect.
It seems hardly controversial to anyone to put EY, Vanderwal, Clayton, and Leskanic or Dejean out on the market. None of these players is likely to contribute in a meaningful way to the next Brewer winning team regardless of when it is. Right now the trade market in terms of getting prospects looks pretty cool. Juan Gonzalez at the league minimum was reportedly worth only Sueng Song and a throw in. Then again we got Noochie and Petty for Sanchez, so there is a lot of variability. On the hole though any prospects these players would get us are going to fit in the solid player category. Which is fine because there's nothing wrong with getting cheap solid players out of the minors. But right now Jenkins and Sexson are All-star players and we need All-star prospects. So let's take a look at who we can trade with and who we might get to assess the trade for the farm strategy. Please note the trades aren't precisely balanced according to salary or additional throw-ins more of a slice of what could be.
Sexson: Of the contenders only the Expos, D-backs, Dodgers, A's, and White sox could use Richie. The Expos could potentially give us Termmel Sledge, Clint Everts, and Sueng Song a solid group of guys. D-backs Tracy, Overbay, and a pitcher? Dodgers I don't really have clue, but they could sure use him. A's need a bat and have a variety of attractive players like Swisher and Harden that could fit the All-star prospect mold, money would be a huge issue though. White sox could use another big bat since Konerko isn't doing anything, but I'm not sure what they can give us.
Jenkins: Expos, Dbacks, LA, KC, White Sox, A's. A lot of the same teams in the list teams that could really use a bat. KC is new to the list and it's not clear that they'll look to acquire players at the deadline. Yet they do have some interesting prospects, and maybe some sort of stay in contention swap revolving around Jenkins and Beltran would be workable though highly unlikely.
In fairness the trade market in prospects has been depressed enough that it's not a slam dunk that we could net the multiple top 100 prospects we need to make the 2003 Southern league champs the 2006 World Series champs. Let's look at a contend next year model.
My strategy for improvement is to aggressively try and turn your biggest weakness into a strength, you get your biggest bang for your buck. To that end under the contend in 2004 universe Clayton is released/ traded immediately and Bill Hall gets a call-up, while JJ Hardy and Krynzel get to see if they can help the Indy Indians film Minor League. Bill gets hopefully enough exposure to be our top utility man next year while JJ continues his meteoric rise and is penciled in at the 2004 SS. Net return: based on current EQA numbers if JJ were playing SS he'd be worth a good 10 runs more on offense than Royce, and I think he's better defensively. The EQA translation of his AA numbers though doesn't reflect any growth potential. I estimate that on a net total JJ would be 20 runs better on offense and defense. If he put up his Southern league numbers next year that number would be more like 40. Krynzel also is just about ready for primetime except when it comes to stealing bases. In the 2004 OF David plays CF, Jenkins shifts to RF and Podsednik plays LF. This is a pretty rangy OF and plus defensively. Offensively Krynzel based on his EQA could roughly give the same production as the Clark/ Vanderwal platoon. John has been quite good and David would be hard pressed to match that, but Clark's numbers are quite weak. Optimistically we'll call it a push on offense and a 10 run gain on defense. Continuing the offensive changes Ginter replaces EY at second giving the same defense and at least the same offense. His minor league numbers indicate he could be a huge plus on offense, but I was generous with Krynzel so we'll call it a push, and note that at this juncture the team could have a lot of .350 OBP's. Catcher is likely to undergo more changes, but I don't forsee any significant change in production because while Perez has been way better than expected offensively Osik has been rather bad now that his OBP has dropped.
Moving to the pen there are some easy spots for improvement. In the contend for 2004 mantra we don't trot Luis Vizcaino's out there into July. The Brewers have a good track record of finding guys on the cheap here and Nuegie could comeback as a dominant force here next year, combined with a quicker hook for struggling pitchers I think the pen could easily shave 20 runs off the total for the season (that's essentially the difference so far this year between Vizcaino good and Vizcaino bad). I hesitate to predict a bigger turn around but I could see the number rising to 30 for a full season. We'll give a cursory nod to the bench without naming names merely say that between Hall, Rushford, Zocco and the variety of cheap free agents plus more Brooks the bench should look at lot better next year with no Enrique Cruz's hampering late inning moves and no production. Call it 10 runs.
The starting rotation. We've got two holes right now and Franklin is far from a sure thing. It's a no brainer to think that RJ and Schilling would turn this team into huge players right away, but I don't see how we get them. Names like Sidney Ponson, and Javier Vasquez for salary reasons seem much more plausible. Either one of those players could easily shave 40 runs off our total by replacing the awful performance we got from Rusch this year. Finding another stopgap either Pasqual Cocco or through one of the above trades (our minor league pitchers won't be ready) could add another 10 to the list. Odds are pretty good that here we'd have to part with a Brad Nelson/ Prince Fielder and Jones/Parra/ Wilhemlsen quality player to net these quality pitchers. All told the win in 2004 model costs about 15 million more in payroll and adds about 10 wins. Alas that's still only a paltry .500 team granted there is upside there with some younger player that with some luck could push things to an 87 win team and for the low price of a few more prospects might net us a division title. But Jenkins would need to be signed to an extension as would are star pitcher. Despite the success Sexson would likely be allowed to walk and replaced with which ever 1st basemen we didn't deal. The team might get another boost from Hart at 3rd and maybe we'd have not dealt all of our young pitching studs. Yet I'm left with the feeling that this teams grasp at glory is rather tenuous and a simple injury to Jenkins or Richie or that new starter in 2004 puts the hammer on the teams playoff chances.
In the end I'm more optimistic that an aggressive strategy of keeping Jenkins and Sexson can work, and I'm less sure of the success of dealing them for prospects, yet I still feel the teams best chance at glory resides in a firesale because otherwise there are too many eggs in the 2004 basket.