MILWAUKEE — As the baseball world settles into the Swan & Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World, the Milwaukee Brewers are officially open for business.
General manager David Stearns and his staff arrived at baseball’s annual hot stove event with an emphasis on two positions — the starting rotation and second base — and for the first time in recent years have a multitude of ways to make a move.
After a handful of signings and extensions over the past few weeks, the Brewers are committed to $37 million in salary obligations for next season. That number will go up slightly with more deals with other team-control-type players, but Stearns should have a fairly decent budget to spend on free agents.
Still, don’t expect Milwaukee to break the bank on the likes of Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish — the top two pitchers on the open market. Signing older pitchers to big money contracts is always a risky proposition, especially in a limited market like Milwaukee where similar deals haven’t worked out well in the past.
That makes a trade for a younger pitcher with team control more likely. The Brewers’ farm system has flourished under Stearns and his staff over the past few seasons and is flush with young talent, especially in the outfield where Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips are ready for big league roles and Corey Ray continues to work his way up the organizational ladder.
The high prospect cost was part of the reason Stearns didn’t pull the trigger on deals for Sonny Gray or Jose Quintana at the deadline last summer. Now, with the Brewers a little closer to their goal, and their needs a little more defined, a move is more possible.
“Deciding to trade young talent is very hard,” Stearns said. “We work very hard to acquire and develop that young talent so there’s certainly an inclination to want to see that young talent progress and succeed in your organization.
“But we also understand that baseball is about winning games at the major league level, winning games at Miller Park and to the extent we think that is best served by trading some of these players for others who are more ready to play at the major league level, we’re at the point where we’re at least willing to consider it.”
Stearns has already fielded interest in right fielder Domingo Santana, who batted .278 with 30 home runs and 85 RBIs last season, but moving the 24-year-old would come at a significant cost.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Domingo has garnered attention, Stearns said. “Good players garner attention this time of year, especially at the winter meetings as teams search for offense, but it’s also natural that if we’re even going to consider trading someone who’s such an important part of our team, we’re going to expect a sizable return. Domingo would certainly qualify as that.”
But just because Milwaukee has the means doesn’t mean Stearns is willing to break the bank or deplete his farm system. While the Brewers did speed up their rebuilding timeline with a down-to-the-wire playoff push last season, the goal is to create a consistent winner and not a one-and-done squad.
So any move, whether on the free agent market or a trade, will be made with careful consideration.
“Our goal is and will continue to be to field a consistently-competitive team in this division that can compete for division championships year in and year out,” Stearns said. “That’s the underlying strategic purpose of every decision we make and it informs the thought process of every decision we make. As we evaluate any move, whether its in-season or now at the winter meetings, we’re going to ask ourselves if this helps be a competitive team in this division year in and year out.”
No Nelson timetable
Right-hander Jimmy Nelson continues rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but the Brewers still don’t have a timetable for his return to action next season.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where we can project a return date right now,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I think he’s 10 weeks post-surgery. I talked to him last week, he’s doing great and he’s very encouraged by how he’s recovering, but I think to put any kind of time frame on it right now is not appropriate.
“I think as we get to spring training, as we come into spring training, I think that then certainly we’ll have to be able to take a little closer look at it.”
Nelson was enjoying a breakout season (12-6, 3.49 ERA, 199 strikeouts) when he sustained the injury diving back into first base against the Cubs on Sept. 8.
“It’s a gut punch, it hurts,” Counsell said. “When it happened, I said this is going to hurt more in 2018 than it does (his) last five starts. We could cover five starts in September with expanded rosters.
“But in 2018 when you go back to a 25-man roster and you lose a guy that’s pitching into the seventh inning three times a month, through the seventh inning, that’s when it hurts.”
After Nelson underwent surgery, Stearns said he expected the pitcher to miss a “chunk” of time in 2018, adding an additional sense of urgency to bolster Milwaukee’s rotation for next season.