The Milwaukee Brewers finished 2015 fourth in the NL Central, which was easily the best division in baseball this season. With the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs sporting the three best records in the major leagues, the Brewers served as punching bag alongside the Cincinnati Reds, who finished fifth.
Milwaukee's 68-94 record was its worst since 2004 and marked a low point in a once-promising team trajectory. Just five seasons ago the team won the NL Central and was ousted in the NLCS by eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. Heck, just last year, the Brewers were one of the best teams in baseball until a spectacular collapse felled them to third place in the Central despite spending 133 game days in first place.
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So what happened?
After 2014's disappointing end and 2015's disappointing start, it became apparent that the Brewers wouldn't be able to compete with their current roster. Especially in such a stacked division. So they fired manager Ron Roenicke, replaced him with Craig Counsell, then traded away 20% of their active roster at the trade deadline.
And those were all good things. Brewers fans were happy. The beer was flowing and the cheese was ... what does cheese do? Age? Whatever.
When the dust settled, the Brewers had traded Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez (twice), Mike Fiers, Gerardo Parra, and Jonathan Broxton and they got a huge haul of prospects in return - with the most promising being Astros top prospect, outfielder Brett Phillips.
And they still have franchise cornerstones in Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Bernie Brewer, some very good major leaguers in Khris Davis , Jean Segura, Adam Lind, and a solid bullpen.
That said, there's plenty to be done this offseason for the Brew Crew. Here are a few things:
1. Shore up the Rotation. The Brewers must address the rotation. In January they traded Yovani Gallardo, in July they traded Mike Fiers, which left the team with Jimmy Nelson, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann, and Wily Peralta. A handful of starts from Tyler Cravy, Zach Davies, and Ariel Pena was sprinkled in.
Nobody who started more than six games had an ERA lower than 3.77. Lohse, who started 22 games finished with a 5.85 ERA, good for worst in baseball among starters with more than 20 starts.
The good news is only Garza has a terrible contract and the Brewers don't have much money committed to players at all next year. There's room in the payroll to go out and get a decent free agent or there's the opportunity in the rotation to not spend at all and see what you have in youngsters like Davies who came over in the Parra trade. The Brewers have flexibility and some young arms that could pan out.
Whichever way the Brewers decide to go, the rotation needs to get better.
2. Find a center fielder. Now that Gomez is gone, the Brewers need to find his long-term replacement. The good news is that three of the organizations top four prospects are outfielders including Phillips, who profiles as a top of the order center fielder. At 21, in his third year in the minors, he was named the Astros Minor League Player of the Year before coming to the Brewers in the Gomez deal. He may not be ready yet, and if that's the case, Domingo Santana, who also came over in that deal, could be the top candidate.
Santana, 23, saw some late-season action at center and at right and turned in a .231/.345/.421 line with six homers in 145 plate appearances. One of these two guys could be the Brewers best bet.
3. Set the plan in motion. It's apparent the wheels are already in motion, with front-office turnover, manager turnover, and a fairly clean payroll for the near future. New management headed by general manager David Stearns, who replaced longtime general manager Doug Melvin, needs to put his plan in place. He made his first significant addition to the front office by hiring Matt Arnold as vice president and assistant general manager, and there's surely much more to come. Stearns most recently served as assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. With the success of that organization's recent rebuild, a similar one could be in line for Milwaukee, and the time to set it in motion is yesterday.