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Brewers won't mortgage future

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Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, July 16, 2017

OK, Brewers fans, how would you have felt if news came Thursday that the Brewers traded Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz in a package of prospects for Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana?

Or a package that included Corey Ray and Brandon Woodruff?

As evidenced by the price in prospects the Chicago Cubs paid to acquire Quintana, that's what it would have cost the Brewers to pull off such a deal. Would it have been worth it to try to protect the 5-game lead they built in the National League Central over their surprising first half?

These are the kinds of questions the Brewers' decision-makers will wrestle with between now and the July 31 trade deadline. But perhaps they are not wrestling at all with parting with top prospects for pitching. The rebuilding Brewers worked diligently to build their farm system into one of the best in baseball, and the plan does not call for stripping it down at this point.

“We've worked very hard to build our system and organization as a whole where the level of young talent we have is a good place to be,” general manager David Stearns said. “I don't see us, whether it's this year or any year going forward, moving from that strategy.”

Doesn't sound like a man ready to ship away a bunch of top prospects for a starting pitcher, does it?

This does not mean the Brewers will remain quiet over the next two weeks. But principal owner Mark Attanasio and Stearns made it clear in recent interviews that they are not inclined to trade prospects for a “rental” – a player who will be a free agent after the season (think CC Sabathia in 2008).

Just know that this administration does its due diligence on every possible acquirable asset, including starting pitchers who can be controlled beyond 2017. Once Quintana went off the board, Oakland's Sonny Gray stepped from the on-deck trade circle to the plate, and the Brewers do have reasons to be interested in the 27-year-old right-hander.

Gray has a strong connection to Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson, who held that position at Vanderbilt University when Gray became a star there from 2009-'11. The Brewers also have two former Oakland teammates on their roster – catcher Stephen Vogt and infielder Eric Sogard, who can provide first-hand information.

Stearns and Co. have done previous business with the A's, sending slugger Khris Davis to Oakland in February 2016 for two minor-leaguers, catcher Jacob Nottingham and pitcher Bubba Derby. Once you've done business with a club, it's usually easier to do repeat business.

The Brewers' administration has changed since 2011, but the club knows it erred in not drafting Gray in the first round that year. Milwaukee had two first-round picks and was focused on advanced college pitchers to help fill a void in that area in their system.

Picking at Nos. 12 and 15, the Brewers selected University of Texas right-hander Taylor Jungmann and Georgia Tech left-hander Jed Bradley, respectively. Jungmann broke through briefly with the Brewers in 2015 (9-8, 3.77 ERA in 21 starts) but fell back after that and is currently pitching at Class AAA Colorado Springs. Plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Bradley never made it to Milwaukee and is now out of baseball.

Gray, who led Vanderbilt to its first College World Series berth that year, was still on the draft board when the Brewers made both of those picks. Former general manager Doug Melvin said there were concerns from scouts that Gray was undersized (5 foot 11, 200 pounds), so the Brewers passed and he was taken at No. 18 by the A's.

Gray broke through as an all-star for Oakland in 2015, going 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA. He has been hampered by injuries since, including earlier this season, and therefore is something of a gamble but has thrown the ball well of late. Gray cannot be a free agent until after the 2019 season and is making only $3.6 million this season, making him an attractive trade target of many clubs.

Accordingly, Gray will not come cheap. Houston reportedly is very interested, and other clubs including the Yankees and Twins have kicked the tires. The Cubs are believed to be willing to add another top starter as well. Other pitchers with control beyond this year who could be dealt include Miami's Dan Straily, Atlanta's Julio Teheran and Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray could be pursued

Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray could be pursued by many teams before the trade deadline. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

So, what should the Brewers do? As wishy-washy as it might sound, the Brewers would be right if they traded prospects for starting pitching help, and they'd also be right if they opted not to do so.

No one expected the Brewers to be in this position, so if they failed to see it through, the gnashing-teeth factor would be lower. This is not to say that anyone at Miller Park Way is taking this situation lightly, because there's no guarantee in any one season that you'll be in position to win a division crown.

There is a growing confidence within the Brewers' clubhouse that they can pull this thing off with the players currently on board. That doesn't mean they wouldn't welcome some help but there's an us-against-the-world attitude that can take a team a long way.

“I was confident in us being better than people thought we were,” third baseman Travis Shaw said. “But to say a 5-game lead over the Cubs, I think everybody would have taken it. I don't know how many people would have believed it.

“It's mid-July and we've held this position for a while now. There's no reason to think that we can't do it the rest of the year. Quintana's good; I've faced him in the past. That's a big addition for the Cubs.

“There's more pressure on them than there is on us right now. They're the defending champions. We weren't supposed to be here. We're kind of playing with house money right now. At the same time, we kind of expect to keep that cushion and finish like we are now.”

The Cubs and Brewers play in the same division, but they are in completely different worlds otherwise. Chicago won the World Series last year and remains in win-now mode with an established group of players. The Brewers are still building toward that status and don't have the same financial resources, making it essential to develop star players from within.

There's no guarantee that adding an established starting pitcher would put the Brewers over the top, but there are troubling signs with their rotation. Junior Guerra, expected to be the No. 1 starter, has been plagued by injuries and has been only a shadow of the dominant pitcher (9-3, 2.81) we saw in 2016. Chase Anderson, putting together a breakthrough season (6-2, 2.89), is expected to miss at least six weeks with an oblique strain.

Would Gray look good in the Brewers' rotation right now? The answer is yes. But should a rebuilding team looking to contend for years to come mortgage some of its future by trading away prospects to get him?

That answer is not nearly as obvious.



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