Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Milwaukee Brewers.
73–89 (.451), fourth place in National League Central
RHP Blaine Boyer, LHP Chris Capuano, 1B Chris Carter, C Martin Maldonado, RHP Tyler Thornburg
RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Tommy Milone, 1B/3B Travis Shaw, 2B Eric Sogard, 1B Eric Thames
Off-season in Review
The Brewers are in rebuilding mode, and most of their off-season moves reflected that. But a trio of decisions stand out. The biggest one came this week, when they signed Feliz to a one-year, $5.35 million deal. Feliz, 28, had a 3.52 ERA and 61 strikeouts for the Pirates last season, though he allowed 10 home runs—double his previous career high—and didn't pitch after leaving an early September game with "arm discomfort." He is no longer the star he was for the Rangers, for whom he won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 after finishing with a 2.73 ERA and 40 saves. But last season seemed to suggest that his 2015 performance—a 6.38 ERA split between Texas and Detroit—is behind him. He could be nice trade bait at midseason.
Before signing Feliz, Milwaukee's most interesting move this off-season was to cut ties with Carter, who led the NL with in home runs (41), Isolated Power (.277) and at-bats per home run (13.39) in his first season with the club. Of course, he also led the league in strikeouts with 206 and batted just .222. He was non-tendered in late November.
Carter's replacement is Thames, who hasn't played in the majors since 2012 but signed a three-year deal in November. He has starred in Korea over the last three seasons, hitting .348 with a .450 on-base percentage and a .720 slugging percentage along with 124 home runs. Players coming over from Korea have had mixed results in the majors, ranging from successful (the Pirates' Jung-ho Kang and the Mariners' Dae-ho Lee) to decent (the Orioles' Hyun-soo Kim) to middling (the Twins' Byung-ho Park). Where Thames will fall on that range is unclear. Will he hit for power? Perhaps; he has 21 home runs in 181 career major league games, but he's never played more than 95 games in the bigs, and that was back in 2011.
In case Thames can't handle the transition back to the States, Milwaukee brought in Shaw in a trade with the Red Sox that sent Thornburg out of town. The latter went 8–5 last year with a 2.15 ERA and 13 saves in 67 innings, including an impressive 90 strikeouts. Shaw, 26, hit .242/.306/.421 in his first full season with 16 homers and 71 RBIs, playing 105 games at third base and 50 at first base. His defensive flexibility will be valuable, as is the fact that he's under contract until at least 2022.
Unfinished Business: Trading Braun?
Former NL MVP Ryan Braun might be a trade candidate, though there has reportedly been little interest so far in the 33-year-old, who has four guaranteed years at $86 million remaining on his contract. He's still Milwaukee's most productive player, having posted a .305/.365/.538 line with 30 home runs and 91 RBIs in 2016. With the team likely years away from contention in a division dominated by the Cubs and Cardinals, expect Braun to become a more frequent topic of trade discussion in the months and years ahead. The Giants and Dodgers have been reportedly linked to Braun, though other teams could potentially get involved if he gets off to a hot start.
Preliminary Grade: B+
In the past two years alone, the Brewers have traded away a slew of important players, including outfielder Khris Davis, first baseman Adam Lind, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, second baseman Jean Segura, starting pitchers Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo and relievers Jeremy Jeffress, Francisco Rodriguez and Will Smith. The deal that sent All-Star catcher Lucroy and closer Jeffress to Texas last Aug. 1 brought back top outfield prospect Lewis Brinson. Smith brought back Phil Bickford, a righthanded pitcher and a former first-round draft pick of the Giants.
Milwaukee's system now boasts enviable depth, but most of the players added in those deals are still more than a year away from the majors. The Carter/Thames swap will be interesting to watch, but it won't be franchise-altering in either direction. Shaw is a nice player who could become a mainstay, but with a .251 average and a .754 OPS he doesn't profile as a superstar. The Brewers were wise to make minor periphery moves—and will be even smarter if they decide to rid themselves of Braun’s contract.