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After missing out on a bite of the apple in 2022, Brewers management must reflect and adapt

SB Nation logo SB Nation 10/7/2022 Jack Stern
© Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 season was a failure at the big-league level for the Milwaukee Brewers.

For the first time since 2017, the Brewers will not play postseason baseball. After winning 95 regular-season games last year, they finished 86-76, lost the division to the Cardinals by seven games, and fell one game short of the Phillies for the newly-instituted third Wild Card.

For an organization attempting to win a World Series, that is not good enough.

Adding to the frustration is that they squandered a franchise-record 32-18 start through their first 50 games. The Brewers went 54-58 the rest of the way in an extended display of inconsistent and lackluster play. Injuries, underperformance, controversial transactions, and surprisingly blunt comments by players to the media made the team difficult to watch even as they remained squarely in the hunt for a postseason spot.

The Brewers had plenty of chances to right the ship, and they responded by repeatedly tripping over their own feet.

On September 1, they were 2.5 games behind the Phillies for the final Wild Card and 3.5 games behind the Padres. The Phillies went 14-17 the rest of the way, and the Padres went 16-14.

That was enough to give the Brewers a good deal of control over their destiny, but they failed to take advantage of the opportunity. They concluded the season by going 17-16, dropping series against the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Marlins along the way, and were eliminated on Monday night.

As the year progressed, the Brewers settled into a pattern of one step forward, one step back. They rarely played complete baseball.

Perhaps the best assessment of the season came from Christian Yelich, who relayed that this year’s team struggled to find its identity.

Yelich noted that the teams that took the Brewers to the postseason in recent years had a discernable formula for winning games, but this year’s group did not.

That assessment is correct. The 2022 Brewers were not a bad team but lacked a clear strength. Offensively, they finished with a 104 wRC+ and ranked 11th of 30 teams in runs scored. While that’s a hair better than average, it’s nothing exciting.

The same was true for the pitching staff, which finished seventh with a 95- ERA. Defensively, the Brewers also ranked seventh in Defensive Runs Saved and in FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average metric.

The Brewers were inconsistent in all areas of the game. When the dust settled, they were okay at hitting, okay at pitching, okay defensively, and exceptional at nothing. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that the sum of those parts produced a decent but unspectacular record.

Okay was not the expectation, and it was not enough to get the Brewers into the postseason. How did they wind up playing okay baseball with no clear winning formula to guide them?

The front office must analyze the season from start to finish to answer that question and make the necessary changes to avoid a similar fate in 2023.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Foundation

To identify how they wound up without an identity, one must revisit the intended formula for this year’s team.

The Brewers excelled last season as a team built on run prevention. Their 83 ERA- and 26.3 RA9-WAR (Wins Above Replacement derived from runs allowed per nine innings) trailed only the Dodgers and Giants. They had a below-average offense but an elite pitching staff. The hitters knew they only had to scratch across a few runs and let the pitching do the rest.

This year’s unit was to follow the same formula. The front office made that clear by making minimal effort to improve the offense with external additions. Turning Jackie Bradley Jr. into Hunter Renfroe was a nice move, but it effectively maintained the status quo in right field after Avisail Garcia departed as a free agent. It was expected that the Brewers would find a replacement.

The Brewers’ self-touted major acquisition was the signing of Andrew McCutchen after the new collective bargaining agreement introduced the designated hitter in the National League.

In a season that featured multiple controversial transactions, the front office and coaching staff exhibited perhaps their worst decision-making process of the year with the signing and deployment of McCutchen.

While no longer the star-caliber player he was for much of the 2010s with the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates, McCutchen still had a reputation for doing damage against left-handed pitching. He owned a career 158 wRC+ against southpaws, including a fantastic 169 mark in 2021.

On the flip side, McCutchen was no longer a capable hitter against right-handed pitching. He had limped to a 78 wRC+ against right-handers over his last two seasons combined.

The Brewers struggled against left-handers in 2021, and McCutchen was a great choice to help them out in a limited role as a platoon bat. Instead, they counted on him to be one of their best hitters against right-handers, batting him cleanup against same-handed pitching for most of the season.

When asked about his platoon splits in spring training, the Brewers justified their decision by claiming that McCutchen’s 2021 batted ball data against right-handers included encouraging signs and pointed toward some poor luck. His Statcast numbers refuted that claim.

There was no reason to believe that McCutchen would suddenly turn back the clock against right-handers at age 35, yet the Brewers counted on him to do precisely that. Unsurprisingly, he did not meet those unrealistic expectations. McCutchen actually improved dramatically against right-handers, but his 95 wRC+ against them in 2022 was still subpar. Relying on him to produce in the cleanup spot until September was a foolish plan from day one.

Making matters worse, because they saw him as a run producer, the Brewers encouraged McCutchen’s new approach of being more aggressive on pitches in the zone. This change lowered his walk rate from 14.1% to 9.8% and his on-base percentage from .334 to .314. By getting on base less, McCutchen could not maximize the skill he still possessed: his excellent speed.

The utilization of McCutchen never made sense, and the underwhelming results should surprise no one.

Nonetheless, the blueprint for the roster as a whole was reasonable. Nearly the entire pitching core—including each of Milwaukee’s top five starting pitchers—was returning. The returning cast and their success throughout the previous regular season made it an easy choice to run it back with another team specializing in run prevention.

The run-prevention unit did not need to match its 2021 dominance perfectly. The expectation was that a Christian Yelich bounceback and full seasons of Willy Adames and Rowdy Tellez would help the Brewers improve upon their 92 wRC+ as a team from the previous season and push them closer to a league-average output. There was room for slight regression on the pitching side.

The First Half

Through the first 50 games of the season, the plan continued to work just as well as it did the previous year. The Brewers ranked fourth in baseball with an 81 ERA- and 8.1 RA9-WAR.

It was around this time that the injury bug hit. On May 22, Freddy Peralta left his start against the Nationals with a lat strain. The injury would keep him out until August.

Later that same week, Brandon Woodruff departed with a sprained ankle. While recovering, he was diagnosed with Raynaud’s syndrome, and the search for treatment extended his time on the injured list.

With two of their best starters out of action, the Brewers turned to prospect Ethan Small. Craig Counsell stated in spring training that the organization expected Small to make starts for them throughout the year.

Small had yet to correct his control issues in the minor leagues, and they reared their head in his debut. He issued four walks in just 2 23 innings. The Brewers optioned him back to Triple-A, where his season quickly fell apart. He limped to a 5.98 ERA over his final 64 23 minor-league innings.

Small made just one more big-league appearance in a July 26 spot start. The organization ultimately moved him to a relief role to finish the season.

With Small having pitched his way out of the team’s plans, the Brewers had to look farther down their depth chart for rotation help.

Minor-league journeyman Jason Alexander made his big-league debut on June 1. While he successfully danced around a concerning K/BB ratio and WHIP through his first handful of starts, the thin ice quickly gave out. In 18 games (11 starts), Alexander posted a 5.40 ERA and 5.35 FIP.

The injuries worsened in both the rotation and the bullpen. Trevor Gott, Jandel Gustave, Luis Perdomo, and Miguel Sanchez joined Jake Cousins, who suffered a UCL injury at the start of May, on the injured list.

In response, the Brewers claimed Chi Chi Gonzalez off waivers from the Minnesota Twins to provide some innings out of the bullpen. A few days later, Aaron Ashby hit the injured list while Woodruff was still on his rehab assignment, forcing the Brewers to turn to Gonzalez for two spot starts.

Woodruff returned after a month-long absence and pitched to a stellar 2.38 ERA and 2.79 FIP over his final 18 starts. However, Milwaukee suffered another blow a few days later when Adrian Houser hit the injured list with a flexor strain and missed nearly two months.

Ashby returned from the injured list the day after Houser’s diagnosis, but that still left the club with four starters for five rotation spots. Alexander continued to receive starts but was optioned on July 18 after his second seven-run performance in three outings.

Unsurprisingly, the injuries and subsequent depth shortage coincided with declining performance. The Brewers lost eight straight games in early June and finished the month 12-15. They rebounded slightly in July but still went an underwhelming 13-11.

At this point, the trade deadline was approaching.

The Trade Deadline

Before recapping the deadline, one must outline the state of the club on July 31, the day before the Brewers made their first deadline move.

The rotation was thin, but Freddy Peralta recently began a rehab assignment. In the bullpen, injuries and inexperience made for a shaky situation in middle relief. Things were not stable on the back end, either, as Josh Hader coughed up 13 runs in 8 13 innings in July.

Offensively, the Brewers ranked ninth among all teams in wRC+ (107), fifth in runs scored (472), and fourth in home runs (139). While they lacked a high-end bat, they had at least one hitter at every position who was at least average offensively by wRC+.

Unlike past seasons, the Brewers lacked a true black hole at any position. Their weakest link was in center field, where Tyrone Taylor took over starting duties after Lorenzo Cain was designated for assignment.

That’s not to say the offense was perfect. How the team scored many of its runs raised concerns that their overall numbers masked some flaws. Milwaukee did a good portion of its damage against the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, who possessed two of baseball’s worst pitching staffs.

The Brewers also stood out from other contending teams for the wrong reasons. They struggled to score against teams with records of .500 or better, and their offense was among the worst in the game against left-handed pitching.

Those concerns were valid, but there was a compelling argument that the Brewers needed pitching more than they needed offense.

Furthermore, the expanded postseason created a seller’s market that was not ideal for a small-market team looking for bats. The list of notable right-handed hitters who were flipped is underwhelming.

There were some bigger fish like Josh Bell and Trey Mancini, but the Brewers would have needed to outbid the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros.

Brandon Drury would have been a nice fit, but the Reds may not have been open to trades within the division. Furthermore, there was reason to be skeptical about the sustainability of a career year at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.

The rest of the pool consisted mainly of hitters who were not a lock to be better than Milwaukee’s in-house options.

In past seasons, the Brewers swung deals for veteran bats like Mike Moustakas and Eduardo Escobar. These hitters added length to the lineup, and the Brewers acquired them in exchange for Brett Phillips, Jorge Lopez, and Cooper Hummel, all of whom were upper minors players who did not have a future in Milwaukee.

This year, there was no Moustakas or Escobar who could be had for a Four-A player.

Under David Stearns, the Brewers have never been interested in parting with their better prospects for rental bats who do not move the needle significantly. This year would be no exception.

With all these factors in mind, the brain trust pivoted to fortifying the bullpen.

They initiated this bullpen rebuild in a stunning fashion by trading Hader to the Padres for a four-player return of Taylor Rogers, Dinelson Lamet, Esteury Ruiz, and Robert Gasser.

Hader had long been the subject of trade rumors, but seeing the Brewers pull the trigger in the middle of a playoff race was jarring.

Contrary to how many perceived the deal, it was not motivated by a desire to save money. If avoiding paying Hader was a top priority for the Brewers, they would have moved him before his salary increased to $11 million in arbitration ahead of the season. They also would not have taken on Lamet’s remaining salary to make it a wash for both teams’ 2022 payrolls.

It was not an indicator that the Brewers were giving up on a contending season, either. In addition to Rogers, they also swung deals for Matt Bush and Trevor Rosenthal to fill the Hader-sized hole in the bullpen.

As Stearns explained, the Hader trade was part of the organization’s attempt to win now and in the future.

The Brewers have no interest in rebuilding. They also know that postseason baseball features an element of randomness. Many times, it’s the hottest team that wins the World Series, not the best team in the playoff pool. The Braves were not the favorites to win in 2021, nor were the Nationals in 2019.

In other words, anything can happen once you’re in the bracket.

The Brewers have determined that the best way to bring a championship to Milwaukee is not to pour all of their resources into a relatively short window and risk coming away with nothing before having to begin a rebuild.

Instead, they are more likely to win it all by repeatedly making it into the postseason with the expectation that they will eventually be the team that gets hot and benefits from the right breaks.

Stearns used the analogy of taking as many bites of an apple as possible to describe the strategy. While the phrase quickly gained notoriety as the 2022 Brewers spiraled toward their eventual demise, the process is sound.

The goal at the deadline was to improve both the current and future teams with the trade options the Brewers had available to them. There was reason to believe that the deals they made would accomplish both objectives.

There was evidence that Hader had peaked, and it was time to get something back in return. His arm slot rose, which reduced the deception in his delivery. This change, combined with Hader’s annual midseason command struggles, produced his rough July and a nightmare start to his Padres career.

Despite those struggles, Hader’s departure still left a hole in the bullpen. The Brewers knew that and addressed it with their remaining acquisitions.

No one would match Hader’s dominance at the height of his powers, but there was ample evidence that Rogers, Bush, and Rosenthal could fill in admirably.

Rogers’ 4.35 ERA with the Padres was underwhelming, but his 2.34 FIP was far more encouraging. Bush had arguably the best raw stuff of any reliever on the market. Rosenthal was a riskier acquisition due to his injury history. Still, he was closing in on a return, and the pitch tracking metrics on his fastball in bullpen sessions aligned closely with the numbers he averaged during his excellent 2020 season. Furthermore, his late start to the season meant he would be fresher than most relievers in October, allowing him to shoulder a heavier workload.

The shakeup was a bit risky, but if the trio of acquisitions performed as reasonably expected, the Milwaukee bullpen would be in better shape than it was before the deadline. While none of the three would be as individually dominant as Hader, they would give Craig Counsell more depth and flexibility in the late innings. Three reliable high-leverage arms are arguably better than one elite closer.

Meanwhile, Gasser and Ruiz both worked their way up to Triple-A by the season’s end. The former could be a fixture in the big-league rotation for years to come, and the latter could make an impact in the outfield and on the basepaths. Bush is controlled through the 2024 season, positioning him to help the team beyond 2022.

There was a strategy behind the Brewers’ trade deadline. Unfortunately, the short-term results did not pan out.

The Aftermath

The inescapable fact is that despite the plan, the deadline additions did not improve the Brewers in 2022. Instead, they hurt the big-league team.

After joining the Brewers, Rogers increased his slider usage, and his strikeout rate jumped to an excellent 36%. His Called Strike Plus Whiff rate (CSW%) in Milwaukee was a phenomenal 37.1%.

Unfortunately, those improvements were counteracted because Rogers inexplicably couldn’t keep the ball in the park.

At the time of the trade, Rogers boasted a career 0.8 HR/9 and allowed just one home run in 41 13 innings as a Padre. With the Brewers, he allowed six home runs in 23 innings for a 2.35 HR/9.

Rogers’ previously strong control evaporated in a September 20 outing against the New York Mets when he issued three straight walks before allowing a go-ahead grand slam to Francisco Lindor. He was limited to a low-leverage role over the season’s final two weeks.

Bush showcased his electric raw stuff after the trade, posting a 31.2% strikeout rate. However, his control took a turn for the worse. His walk rate increased from 6.6% to 8.6%, and he allowed six home runs of his own by making too many mistakes in the strike zone.

Rosenthal was on the verge of his 2022 debut when he suffered a season-ending lat injury similar to Peralta’s.

Rogers and Bush combined for a 4.89 ERA with the Brewers, and Rosenthal never threw a pitch.

The Brewers led the league with 16 blown saves after the deadline. Their bullpen had the fourth-worst negative Win Probability Added in that span. Those blown leads were a major driving force behind Milwaukee’s ceding of the division to the red-hot Cardinals and their eventual elimination.

Meanwhile, injuries continued to ravage the starting rotation. Peralta, Houser, Ashby, and Eric Lauer all spent additional stints on the injured list, and the bullpen was not in a position to handle the added stress.

Hader rebounded out west to allow one earned run in his final 11 13 regular-season innings, striking out 14 and picking up seven saves. At the end of the day, Bush and Rogers hurt the Brewers more than Hader hurt the Padres.

Beyond the statistical impact, the Hader trade sent shockwaves throughout the clubhouse. That wasn’t especially surprising. It was an unconventional move.

That unconventional nature made it imperative that Brewers leadership communicate with the clubhouse to explain the trade and clarify that they still wanted to win in 2022 and had faith in the current group.

As more comments surfaced from the locker room, it became clear that management failed miserably on the communication front.

The rawest statements came from Lauer, who accused the front office of shrugging off the clubhouse impact of the trade and failing to communicate with players.

If true, such neglect is inexcusable. There was a reasonable explanation for trading Hader and acquiring Rogers, Bush, and Rosenthal. The same does not hold true for the lack of concern shown for the clubhouse impact of the bullpen overhaul.

That’s the long-winded summary of why the front office made the moves they did this season and how everything went south. Where do the Brewers go from here?

The Response

Blowing up the front office and coaching staff in response to the 2022 season would be foolish for two reasons.

The first reason is their history. Stearns, Matt Arnold, Counsell, and the host of analysts and coaches who report to them have ushered in the most successful era of Brewers baseball in franchise history. After a two-year rebuild, the team returned to competitiveness in 2017, and this season snapped a streak of three postseason appearances in three full seasons.

That’s no small feat. These executives and coaches have a solid track record. Their success has earned them enough trust that their jobs should not be in jeopardy after their first disappointing season.

The second reason is that Mark Attanasio already committed to the “bites of the apple” approach, which is inherently long-term because it aims to build an open-ended competitive window. Bailing on such a plan because it did not work once relatively early in the process would be an overreaction demonstrating a misunderstanding of the plan itself.

That does not mean that Brewers management can shrug this season off. They must work to make this year the exception rather than the norm. There ought to be an expectation that the front office will assess why things went wrong this time around and identify what they can change to avoid a reoccurrence.

In terms of deviation from the plan, run prevention is where the 2022 Brewers went wrong. Their strength was no longer a strength, stripping them of their identity as a team.

Injuries left Counsell shorthanded for prolonged stretches and forced him to turn to unlikely sources for innings. Alexander logged the fourth-most innings pitched on the staff from June 1 through the end of the season. That was not by design.

There is only so much the Brewers could have done to minimize the harm of these injuries, but in hindsight, it’s fair to wonder if they should have placed more emphasis on veteran depth.

The Brewers have had plenty of success in the past by relying on young pitchers to make an immediate impact in the big leagues. Woodruff and Corbin Burnes cracked the big-league bullpen in 2018 and quickly worked their way into higher-leverage roles.

They likely forecasted a similar trajectory for Ashby and Small, but the former struggled with inconsistency that is more typical of an inexperienced pitcher, and the latter fell apart shortly after a very brief opportunity. The combination of injuries and miscalculated development forced them to turn to Alexander more than they would have liked.

It was a similar story in the bullpen. The Brewers have had plenty of success with reclamation projects. This season, half of their bullpen consisted of these scrap heap pickups.

Given the fickle nature of relievers, it makes sense to roll the dice on some potential breakout arms rather than tie up significant money to more well-known bullpen pieces. However, the Brewers may have taken that approach too far, and their inexperience in the middle innings ultimately haunted them.

Next are the questions concerning the trade deadline additions. Why did Rogers turn into a home run machine? Why did Bush’s control take a turn for the worse? If there’s an answer beyond small sample size randomness, what can the Brewers learn from it?

It’s worth noting that Stearns’ track record is mixed at best when it comes to midseason reliever trades. Bush could still right the ship with a strong 2023, but Rogers joins Daniel Norris, John Curtiss, Ray Black, and Jake Faria on the list of regrettable bullpen acquisitions made within the past few seasons.

Do the Brewers need to reevaluate their criteria for trading for relievers, or is the midseason relief market a risky game worth avoiding altogether? If the latter, the Brewers may benefit from signing a couple of proven arms to build a more stable bullpen that will not require many reinforcements in late July.

While the offense largely met expectations, there remains ample room for improvement on that front. Ideally, the Brewers will add a real impact bat instead of pretending they acquired one in McCutchen. One bigger bat, such as Jose Abreu, would go a long way toward boosting the lineup.

Even if they don’t make such a signing, it would hardly be a shock if the Brewers project their 2023 lineup to be the best of the Stearns era. They’re confident in their young outfield prospects and perhaps expect them to provide the offensive spark that takes some pressure off the pitching.

Finally, what has the front office learned about clubhouse management from the Hader fallout? Stearns quickly acknowledged his failure to anticipate and respond to it.

The aftermath of the trade likely will not deter the front office from making controversial moves in the future, but it should serve as a wake-up call that there is a right way and a wrong way to handle the human element aspect of such transactions.

Perhaps the player response also exposed poor leadership within the clubhouse and will prompt some roster turnover that improves the culture.

Don’t expect the 2022 season to drastically alter the Brewers’ approach toward building a roster and reaching a World Series. That’s okay.

An organizational overhaul is not necessary. A few adjustments here and there can go a long way.

As the Brewers move forward, here are a few reminders.

Pitching development remains their strength as an organization, and they should (and will) continue to embrace that.

They will stick to the “bites of the apple” approach because they believe it gives them the best chance of winning a ring.

Part of that approach includes not thinking in terms of strict competitive windows. Regardless of what the Brewers do over the offseason, understand that they will not do anything out of a desire to build a superteam in 2023 nor an intention to rebuild.

The Brewers want to build sustained success and win a World Series. Maybe this season taught them some lessons to help them achieve that goal.

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