It’s very rare when a team that wins the offseason also goes on to have success during the regular season. Every year there is a team that makes a big splash in the offseason, and then gets labeled as a contender. Teams like San Diego, Miami, Toronto, and Seattle have all filled that spot in recent years, and despite the additions, none of those teams went on to do much after their big additions.
The Milwaukee Brewers look like the exception. They made some big moves this past offseason, and were praised for that, while being hailed as a possible contender. They’ve done just that, advancing to the NLCS to face the Dodgers, with just four wins needed to be added to their current winning streak to reach the World Series.
The Brewers got on the radar by adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain this offseason. Cain was a free agent signing for five years and $80 M. Yelich was acquired in a trade, and had about four years and just under $45 M guaranteed remaining on his deal. The Brewers spent some money, but more importantly, they spent it wisely, adding good young players. The reason they are in the NLCS right now is because those two players combined for a 13.3 fWAR. They were both also within the top 11 position players in fWAR this year, with Yelich tied at fourth, and Cain tied at 11th.
Despite this success, the Brewers aren’t an example that big offseason additions alone lead to success. To pinpoint their success this year, you have to look beyond just their offseason additions.
I’ve pointed out many times this year that the Brewers really weren’t spending that much more than the Pirates, despite the Pirates cutting payroll and the Brewers adding payroll. That’s because the Pirates finished at $109 M in 2017, and were starting at a projected $101 M for 2018 before trading guys away and cutting down to the $85 M range. The Brewers did the opposite. They finished 2017 at $78 M, and had plenty of room to add to get to the $90 M range at the start of this year, even after the additions of Cain and Yelich.
Then the trade deadline came around, and the Brewers continued to add. But the Pirates also added in a big way, including beating the Brewers out for Chris Archer.
So how was it that the Brewers spent in the same range as the Pirates, with both teams adding at the deadline, and had so much more success?
The answer is that the Brewers aren’t the new model of success. The Brewers just followed the new model of success.
The teams that have had the most success the last few years are the teams who go all-in when they’re ready to compete, and go for a full rebuild with no focus on winning in the short-term when their window has closed. That approach led to the Royals winning in 2015, the Cubs winning in 2016, and the Astros winning last year. And now we’ve got four teams left in the playoffs, with the Astros and Brewers following that model, and the Red Sox and Dodgers having enough money that they don’t have to worry about windows.
There has been more than enough rehashing of the 2016 and 2017 seasons for the Pirates, and I don’t need to go into detail about it. The key points were that they spent more than they ever had before in franchise history, but they were caught between a strategy of waiting for the future and winning now. That led to an over-reliance on prospects to carry the team, and lower upside additions to bridge the gap until those prospects arrived. The Pirates were spending more money, but they weren’t making smart moves in the process.
Things have changed in the last year, and the Pirates now find themselves in a position to emulate what the Brewers did last year. They enter the offseason with a projected $75 M payroll. They have a good foundation, winning 82 games this past year, with much of the roster returning, including all of the biggest players. And most importantly, they seem to have a singular focus at this point.
The Pirates did trade away veterans heading into the season, while adding and trying to compete at the same time. They dealt Andrew McCutchen, and then replaced him with Corey Dickerson. The combination of Dickerson and Kyle Crick (plus Bryan Reynolds in the minors, and the money to sign Ji-Hwan Bae) was better than just having McCutchen.
Their trade of Gerrit Cole didn’t work out nearly as well, although the silver lining to this bad move might have been the undeniable realization that their pitching approach was out of date. It’s probably no coincidence that guys like Jameson Taillon started changing their approach to match the approach that the Astros use shortly after Cole’s success (and immediately when Joe Musgrove returned from the DL).
Then, things changed for the Pirates at the deadline. They made moves like they’ve never made before, sending out Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, Taylor Hearn, and Sherten Apostel to get Chris Archer and Keone Kela. Those players were added for the rest of 2018, along with 2019 and 2020 (plus 2021 for Archer).
The Pirates enter the offseason with a talent pitching group, and a strategy for that group which matches what other successful teams are doing. They enter with an offense that needs a piece or two from the outside, and the available money to add. This is a team that looks to be in the same situation that the Brewers were in last year.
What is encouraging is that their moves at the deadline suggest that there’s a bit more urgency to compete over the next few years. I don’t think anyone can honestly say what will happen next, because we haven’t seen the Pirates in this type of position, acting with the urgency they displayed at the deadline.
What we do know is that this team has money to spend this offseason. They’re not far from a contending team, and with the right moves — regardless of whether those are free agent signings or trades — this team could get a boost for the 2019 season. If that happens, we may still be talking about the Pirates on the field at this time next year, rather than watching other teams in the playoffs.