While it always seemed poised for the Cubs and Cardinals to joust each other at the top of the NL Central for years, or maybe the Pirates interjecting themselves, the division may get its first, prolonged, Battle Of I-94. There was 2007 and 2008, but then both teams faded. The Brewers rose up 2011, but the Cubs were at the very foot of their rebuild. Started at the bottom and now they’re here… together.
And what might propel the Brewers contention for longer than they’ve ever been able to stick around before, is that their GM might have a horseshoe jammed up his ass.
Let’s clear some of this out of the way. David Stearns didn’t put this whole team together. Doug Melvin is the one who stripped the Astros of Domingo Santana and Josh Hader for two good months of Carlos Gomez and whatever they got out of Mike Fiers (i.e. nothing). Melvin drafted Jimmy Nelson. He traded for Zach Davies. That’s at least half the core of this team.
That doesn’t mean Stearns just inherited a team ready to surprise. Stearns was able to pry Chase Anderson out of Arizona for Jean Segura, who ended up in Seattle anyway. Perhaps his masterstroke of the offseason was acquiring Travis Shaw for Tyler Thorburg, who has yet to throw a pitch for the BoSox. Let it be known you can always dupe an old school GM like Dan Duquette with a shiny reliever, even though you can find them just about anywhere.
Shaw is a study and a half. He came up in 2015 in Boston and played just less than half a season. And he was really good. 65 games, 13 homers, wRC+ of 118, almost 2.0-WAR. And then in his first full season last year, he just kind of flattened out. He was worth 1.6 WAR again over a full season. But it’s hard to find a reason why. His power went away, as his slugging went from .487 to .421. And yet it’s hard to find a reason why that would be. His strikeouts didn’t balloon in any way. His line-drive rate was exactly the same. His hard-contact rate actually went up a little bit in 2016. His fly-ball rate increased ever so slightly. What did bottom-out was his HR/FB rate. But could it just have been he was making the same contact but they were just getting caught? He has certainly benefitted from the Top Flites that baseballs are now, as his HR/FB rate just doubled this year. But check out the spray charts from ’15 to ’16:
Kinda look the same, eh? Worth a gamble.
Stearns’s first move of note was acquiring Cory Knebel for Yovani Gallardo. He probably couldn’t have predicted the success he would have. He struck out a ton of hitters in the minors but also gave a ton free passes. And he probably won’t have a 93% left-on-base percentage next year either, but hey it worked out.
Knebel wasn’t the only one. While Eric Thames flattened out in a hurry, the wins he helped provide in April still count. Same goes for Manny Pina. And Eric Sogard. And the boost they got for trading for Neil Walker. All of these things came up trumps for at least a period of time.
Stearns also has the pipeline ready to fill in next year. Lewis Brinson was acquired for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress (amazing how people will give up anything for just a reliever, no?). Last year’s first-rounder Corey Ray may make it up sometime in 2018. Luis Ortiz came in the same deal as Brinson. Along with Brandon Woodruff who is already with the team those two could bolster an already plus rotation, which would be really annoying.
Stearns won’t get everything to as right next year as he did this year. There isn’t another bumper year for the likes of Sogard again. Santana could have growing pains. But while the Cubs might have a financial advantage, they don’t have a brainpower one. And seeing as how the Brewers don’t really have to pay any of these guys much for years, they’re almost certainly not going anywhere.