We can only hope that Tuesday night’s playoff game between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays was a harbinger of things to come in the MLB Playoffs. With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Edwin Encarnacion blasted a three-run homer deep into the left field seats, giving the Blue Jays a thrilling 5-2 victory. Moments like that are why fans of teams like, say, the Milwaukee Brewers stick around though a seemingly endless trek through the desert. Sooner or later it will be their turn to experience glory, and that will make the wait more than worth it. (My apologies to the Orioles fans out there.)
The Brewers, of course, are not in the playoffs. Barring a miracle, they will not be in the playoffs until 2019 at the earliest. The good news is that 2016 was a sign that the Brewers are on the right track.
The Brewers won five more games in 2016 than 2015, raised their team OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) from .700 to .729, and lowered their team ERA from 4.28 to 4.08. They also led the National League in stolen bases (181) and finished 2nd in home runs (194). In short, the Brewers were arguably the most sneaky-entertaining team in the league. It’s easy to think “The Brewers got better in 2016, therefore they’ll be even better in 2017!” But it’s more likely they’ll be worse.
For starters, Ryan Braun will probably be traded in the off-season. Braun had a vintage season in 2016, accumulating 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. Assuming he’s traded the Brewers will essentially be without their improvement in win total between 2015 and 2016. Players like Chris Carter (the NL Home run co-champion) or Junior Guerra (4.2 WAR) could also be traded for high-upside prospects. If those three players are traded the Brewers will be about 10 wins worse headed into 2017. That’s a discouraging thought. For now.
What was so encouraging about the 2016 Brewers – and why fans should be optimistic – is that General Manager David Stearns was able to cobble together a frisky roster for essentially nothing.
Jonathan Villar hit 19 homers, drew 79 walks, and led the Majors with 62 stolen bases. He was acquired in exchange for Cy Sneed. The afore mentioned Junior Guerra – a waiver claim from the Chicago White Sox – was the Brewers best starting pitcher this season. There’s also Keon Broxton, who was blossoming in center field before his broke his wrist at Wrigley Field in September. The Brewers nabbed him from the Pittsburgh Pirates by trading Jason Rodgers.
The Brewers improved in 2016 because the Stearns-led front office has a sharp eye for talent. This recent improvement might be a stepping stone to better things in 2017, but that’s largely irrelevant. These days the key word for any large scale rebuild is “process.” What the Brewers demonstrated last season is that an effective rebuilding process is in place. The only thing that’s unknown is how long this process will take – and which player will hit that big home run in the playoffs.