Last week the Brewers–the Brewers, of all teams!–finally set fire to baseball’s cryogenically-frozen Hot Stove by trading for Christian Yelich, then signing free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million contract. The moves demonstrate a front office that is determined to build on last season’s 86-76 record and make the postseason in 2018.
But hold your beersteins, Brew-Crew: they’re not there yet.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I love both of these moves. In four full seasons in the big leagues, Yelich has produced 4 or more WAR 3 times (all WAR numbers from Fangraphs). His .290/.369/.432 career slash line offers an effective mix of contact and power, and his new digs at Miller Park should increase his lefty power potential. Yelich’s defensive range numbers were mediocre in 2017 (0.1 UZR, -6 DRS), but a move out of center and into left field should improve his effectiveness–he won a Gold Glove in left in 2014. If that weren’t enough, the Brewers are getting Yelich with another five years of team control at under $60-million.
Signing Cain allows the Brewers to move Yelich to his natural position in left field, and improves their outfield defense and lineup. Cain’s defensive metrics took a step backward last year. His DRS dropped from 11 in 2016 to 5 in 2017, and his UZR fell by 8 points. At the same time, Statcast’s “Outs Above Average” metric rated Cain the fifth-best fielder in the league, and his speed rating was in the top four percent (for more on Statcast and Lorenzo Cain, see Mike Petriello’s work this offseason). Cain hasn’t shown any signs of slowdown on the offensive side of the game. His .300/.363/.440 slash line in 2017 was a marked improvement from 2016, and was in-line with his 2015 campaign, when he finished third in AL MVP voting. Cain will undoubtedly decline somewhat over the course of his five-year deal with the Brewers, but the inevitable doesn’t seem particularly imminent or calamitous in his case.
Trading for Yelich without lobotomizing the farm system and acquiring Cain for a reasonable figure unquestionably improves the Brewers chances for 2018. FanGraphs projections now have the Brewers, who won 86 games in 2017, winning…77 games in 2018.
Wait, what? A team that was one win away from the postseason last year, a team that just picked up two great pieces in its outfield, a team that hasn’t lost any major pieces yet this offseason, is projected to lose nine more games?
Now, projections don’t tell the full story. Projections look at the roster on paper. For a team to excel during the season, players need to outperform their expectations, and teams need to stay healthy.
Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system is a useful tool to use here, if only to show how projections and reality can widely diverge. ZiPS predicted that Domingo Santana would produce around 1 WAR in the Brewers outfield in 2017; he actually produced 3.3. Travis Shaw was a revelation at third base, outproducing his projection by 2 WAR. Manny Pina was projected to play in a platoon with Stephen Vogt, but Pina became an effective full-time backstop for the Brewers en route to 2 WAR.
The Brewers’ pitching staff was even better. Szymborski projected the entire Brewers bullpen to produce 2 WAR in 2017. During the summer, though, Corey Knebel emerged as an All-Star closer. He produced 2.8 WAR alone. The starting rotation was anchored by strong seasons from two of their young pitchers, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson. Anderson was projected at just 1 WAR; he ended up producing 3.3. Jimmy Nelson wasn’t even included in Szymborski’s five-man starting rotation, but Nelson produced 4.9 WAR in a stellar 2017 campaign.
This is not a critique of Szymborski’s projection system; rather, it’s a demonstration of the extent to which the 2017 Brewers exceeded expectations. Could they outperform their expectations again? Sure. But projections can miss on the other side, too; anyone remember back in the spring of 2017, when the Giants were projected to make the NL Wildcard? See how well that worked out?
The other key to outperforming expectations as a team is to stay healthy. There were few teams as healthy as the Brewers in 2017. Spotrac.com measures the number of days missed by players on the disabled list, per team, per season. In 2017, the San Diego Padres were the most injury-riddled team, losing 17 players for a combined 2,643 days missed. In comparison, the Brewers lost 16 players for just 798 days–27th in the league in terms of days lost to injury.
The 2017 Brewers were an exceedingly healthy team that had surprisingly good seasons from a number of key players. To expect the same thing in 2018 is a gambler’s fallacy; high performance in 2017 won’t necessarily carry into 2018.
Look at the current Brewers roster. The outfield looks solid, though GM David Stearns is going to have to move one of Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, or Ryan Braun (if he can find anyone dumb enough to take that contract) to clear up the logjam in right field. Travis Shaw has grown into an effective option at third base, while Eric Thames offers solid power numbers at first.
The Brewers need to shore up the middle of the infield, though. A combination of Oswaldo Arcia, Jonathan Villar, and Eric Sogard isn’t going to get the job done (none are projected for more than 1.5 WAR). Rumors that Ryan Braun might be giving second base a try give me absolutely no confidence that the situation will improve.
And then there’s the starting rotation. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies are back as innings-eaters in the middle of the rotation. Maybe they get a strong season out of new acquisition Jhoulys Chacin (though I’m not betting on it). The big loss is Jimmy Nelson, who will be out until at least June after undergoing shoulder surgery late last season. Whether he returns to display the form he showed in 2017 is anyone’s guess.
There’s still time this offseason for the Brewers to keep making upgrades. Maybe they re-sign Neil Walker to shore up second base. Maybe they look to swing a trade with Cleveland–Milwaukee needs a second baseman and a pitcher, and Cleveland needs outfield help. Maybe the Brewers are Yu Darvish’s sixth “mystery team.”
If the Brewers are serious about contending in 2018, they have more work to do. Yelich and Cain are a good start, but if the Brewers hold pat, don’t expect any October baseball in Milwaukee this year.