Before we begin, I want to extend a hearty “Thank You!” to Kyle Lesniewski, the manager of Brew Crew Ball, for answering the questions that we came up with. Give him a follow on Twitter, here, for more Brewers related discourse.
1. What’s up with Eric Thames?
Is there a more compelling player in baseball right now than Eric Thames? He took the league by storm during the first few weeks of the season, slugging 11 home runs through his first 19 games after spending three years mashing dingers in South Korea.
The Brewers did some extensive video scouting of Thames before signing him to a 3-year deal that guarantees him $16 mil (with a club option for a 4th year) and were obviously willing to bet a not-insignificant amount on his swing changes translating back to the big leagues.
There have been unfounded whispers of possible PED use given his performance and hulking stature, but Thames has always looked like a bodybuilder, has passed a handful of drug tests, and appears to have made some real changes in his mechanics and approach. The key has been patience - his 17.5% swing rate at pitches outside the zone is the lowest among qualified MLB hitters this year, with Joey Votto coming in next at 18.3%. Thames has always had power potential, including slugging 21 home runs in 684 PA during his first go-around in the bigs. His newfound selectivity, however, has allowed him to walk at a 15.4% rate and put up a .438 OBP. And when he does swing, he's driving the pitches he offers at to the tune of a 48.1% hard contact rate.
I don't think anyone expects him to keep up this otherworldly pace, but it does appear as though Milwaukee has found themselves an above-average regular at 1st base for a relatively bargain price. His engaging personality and love of all things beer have helped contribute to his quickly growing popularity here locally, as well.
2. Any exciting young prospects (far or near) that Red Sox fans may not have heard of, but should know about?
The Brewers currently boast one of the most well-regarded collections of prospects around the big leagues, thanks mostly to the full-scale rebuild project that began in 2015.
Beyond the oft-mentioned guys like Lewis Brinson, Josh Hader, Corey Ray, and Isan Diaz, one up-and-comer who should have the opportunity to make an impact at the MLB level this season is right-hander Brandon Woodruff. The 2014 11th-rounder broke out in a big way last season, posting a 2.68 ERA across 158.0 innings between high-A and AA ball. He walked only 2.3 batters per nine while leading the minor leagues with 173 strikeouts en route to winning Milwaukee's MiLB pitcher of the year award. The club assigned Woodruff to AAA Colorado Springs to begin 2017 and he's responded to baseball's harshest pitching environment by tossing up a 1.83 ERA and 30:7 K/BB ratio through his first 34.1 innings.
The 24 year old features a mid-90s fastball along with an above-average slider and solid change, and when paired with above-average command, appear to give him mid-rotation upside or better. Milwaukee's starting rotation has been among the worst in baseball (4.40 ERA, 4.15 FIP) so there may be an opportunity for the club's #8 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) to slot in later on this summer once there are no more Super Two concerns.
3. How has it been watching our old friend Travis Shaw?
The Mayor of Ding Dong City is quickly becoming a fan favorite here in the Milwaukee. Third base has been a hole for the Brewers for awhile now, so Shaw's current .263/.303/.544 line and 7 home runs have been quite a welcome addition to the lineup.
He's played pretty solid defense at the hot corner, as well. The Brewers' top 3B prospect Lucas Erceg is still probably a good 2-3 years away, so we're more than happy to have Travis Shaw under cheap team control for the foreseeable future. Tyler Thornburg had a stellar year last year and was a popular player around town, but I don't think you could find one person in Wisconsin that would take that trade back.
4. What stories are big right now in Milwaukee, that may not be in the public spotlight, and in the interest of Sox fans?
A lot of talk about the Brewers in the last few days has dealt with Ryan Braun. The Hebrew Hammer is off to another strong start, hitting .284/.370/.580 with 7 home runs through 100 PA while making hard contact a career-high 49.2% of the time.
He's been mostly shelved for awhile now, though, with just one pinch hit plate appearance dating back to April 30th. What was first described as a trapezius issue evolved into a forearm strain and the Brewers have essentially been playing a man short for all of May instead of placing Braun on the 10-day disabled list. An MRI from a few days ago came back negative and the team has said they hope to have him back in the lineup to begin the Boston series, but we'll have to see if he is in fact ready to go and how immediately effective his bat will be after a layoff of longer than a week.
5. Do you expect you will be sellers at the deadline? If so, which players do you think or hope will be moved? (Inversely, if you believe the team will be buyers, what players do you have your eyes on?)
Things are kind of up in the air right now as far as the trade deadline goes. I think most people expected the Brewers to be sellers in some form coming into the season, but given the team's improved start and a weak looking National League, it might not be quite so cut-and-dry anymore.
GM David Stearns has indicated a willingness to hold or perhaps even buy at the deadline if the team's record warrants it. I don't expect any earth-shattering, 'all-in' sort of deals this summer, but it wouldn't surprise me to see the Brewers go after a reasonably priced relief or bench upgrade if they are within shouting distance of a playoff spot come July.
On the other hand, if the team winds up cratering and decides to sell, I still don't see much in the way of moves to be made. The Brewers have traded an entire 25-man roster's worth of players in the last two years or so, and the fact is they just don't have many obvious pieces left to sell.
Most of the national talk revolves around Milwaukee possibly dealing Ryan Braun, but he's about to get his full 10-5 no-trade rights and has indicated that he's really only willing to accept a deal to one of the Los Angeles teams. It's pretty clear the organization has placed a relatively high price tag on him, as well. Milwaukee's entire starting lineup is able to be controlled through at least 2020, and I just don't see them parting with young, cheap talent right now unless they are blown away by an offer.
Veteran arms like Matt Garza, Neftali Feliz, and Jared Hughes could make sense as trade candidates if they are pitching well enough at the deadline and the team is out of it, but I don't think we'll see anywhere close to the amount of player movement like we have been subjected to over the last couple of years.
6. Can Matt Collins have Mauricio Dubon back?
We are quite pleased to have Mr. Dubon in the fold, thank you very much. He's currently ranked as Milwaukee's #9 prospect by MLB Pipeline, and though he's not exactly off to a torrid start (.265/.331/.327, 96 wRC+ in 128 PA), Biloxi is a tough place for hitters and he is ranked among Southern League leaders with 15 stolen bases.
Jonathan Villar had a breakout season for the Brewers last year and the club was counting on him to be their regular 2B going forward, but his brutally slow start to the year (.197/.254/.318, 31.5% K rate through 143 PA) may have some in the front office thanking their lucky stars that he spurned the Brewers' reported $20 mil extension offer over the winter.
If Villar can't figure things out, Dubon provides hope that the Brewers may still have a slick-fielding starter at the keystone in close proximity to the big leagues.
7. What have you learned during the rebuilding process? And what mix of players do you anticipate rooting for on the next contending Brewers team?
I think we have learned that David Stearns will only deal his players if and when he believes he has achieved requisite value. That's why he waited so long to deal someone like Jonathan Lucroy despite a year and a half of rumors, and that's why players like Ryan Braun and Junior Guerra, who have reportedly drawn heavy interest at various points in the last year, are still with the Brewers.
He also targets the best collection of players he can get in a deal instead of filling so-called 'organizational needs', leading to an embarrassment of riches in the outfield throughout the system that can eventually be used to address other roster shortcomings.
Ultimately when this thing comes to fruition I think we'll see a strong group of offensive players that graduate through the farm system (whether acquired through the draft, international free agency, or via trade as a prospect) supplemented by some solid internal pitching along with a few free agent arms that the Brewers go out and buy to push them over the top.
8. How do Brewers fans feel about the team’s chances, in both 2017, and over the next three or four years?
There are some, myself included, who have started to raise their expectations for the 2017 season. The Brewers have a positive run differential, one of the best offenses in the NL, and several top prospects - lead by Brinson, Hader, and Woodruff - on the cusp of the big leagues that stand at the ready to provide reinforcement when needed.
After slogging through seasons of 68 and 73 wins in the last two years, however, not everyone is ready to buy into the solid start just yet. All in all, though, you'd be hard pressed to find someone that doesn't think that things are heading in the right direction for the Milwaukee Nine.
I'd like to think Milwaukee could push for a .500 record or better as soon as this season and could be a dark-horse candidate for the NL Wild Card, but most people seem to agree that the team should have a shot to be a legitimate contender come 2018 or 2019 and hopefully can use their well-stocked pipeline to stay competitive for many years after that.
I’d like to extend one final “Thank You!” to Kyle, for taking part in this exercise. I enjoy this new Q&A thing we’ve decided to start working with, and hope that it has been as educational for you, as it has been for me.
If you haven’t been watching the Brewers (totally understandable, being they are in the National League Central, a division we rarely interact with), they are presently at 16-16, and are 7-10 at home, where the series will be played.
Probables for the series are Drew Pomeranz vs. Wily Peralta, Kyle Kendrick vs. Chase Anderson, and Eduardo Rodriguez vs. Jimmy Nelson. Let’s hope for a fun series!