It hasn’t been easy being a Milwaukee Brewers fan the last few years. Following 2014’s late-season collapse and an awful start to 2015, the front office commenced a rebuilding process that traded away most of the remaining pieces from the 2011 team that advanced to the National League Championship Series in exchange for prospects that were mostly a year or more away from reaching the majors.
But here we sit a little over a month into the 2017 season, and the Brew Crew are just over the .500 mark, tied with the defending World Series champions and just 1½ games out of the division lead. It obviously remains to be seen if they can maintain this pace all season, but there are plenty of signs that the organization’s rebuilding process is working so far.
The big league team
Sure, Jonathan Villar’s base-running gaffes can be exasperating and it often feels that no lead is safe with a Neftali Feliz-anchored bullpen that’s been charged with 10 of the team’s 16 losses. But Milwaukee has been one of baseball’s most potent offenses, leading the majors in home runs and ranking fourth in runs scored through May 9. A big part of those stats are fantastic starts from Ryan Braun and Eric Thames, who’s arguably the best free agency find in baseball, but five of the six other regular position players were acquired in trades since 2015. That’s with an ultra-low payroll with plenty of capacity to expand as the team develops, and with more help working its way through the minors.
The farm system
The Brewers’ farm system has become one of the deepest in baseball, with five of the top 57 prospects ranked by MLB.com. Triple-A affiliate Colorado Springs is off to a 19-8 start led by No. 15 overall prospect Lewis Brinson, who was acquired in last year’s Jonathan Lucroy trade and will likely make his debut in the Milwaukee outfield sooner than later. While the major-league pitching staff has been inconsistent at best, there are also much-needed reinforcements in the pipeline on that front as well, with left-hander Josh Hader — acquired in 2015’s Carlos Gomez trade — also expected to make his Brewers debut in 2017.
The difficult question, of course, is identifying which players to build around and which to flip for additional prospects. There are likely to be more trades yet to come — Matt Garza is a prime candidate if he continues to pitch well — and the two most valuable trade chips the Brewers currently have are Thames and Braun, but there is no reason they can’t keep both unless they encounter a blockbuster offer for elite talent. Braun is the more likely candidate to be moved, although trading the cornerstone of the franchise would be a tough sell to fans, and his history and big contract make him difficult to move. Thames, who has been nothing short of a revelation in his first month back from his Korean sojourn, shouldn’t be going anywhere. At age 30 and beginning an affordable three-year contract, he could be the type of steady, veteran presence the Brewers will need as they complete the transition from the Braun-led era to the next core of young up-and-comers.
Trading fan favorite players will never be a popular move, and not all the prospects will pan out. But the returns on the trades so far have given the Brewers a solid foundation of talent in or approaching the big leagues, with enough money and prospects still stockpiled in the system to fill in the remaining gaps when the time comes. Make no mistake, there’s still a lot of work and development to do before the Brewers can realistically get back in the championship hunt, and we probably won’t know for sure just how successful it is until at least 2018 or 2019. But so far, this looks to be an example of how rebuilds are supposed to work.