The Brewers eked out a postseason berth in 2020 by virtue of this year’s expanded format, laying claim to the No. 8 seed in the National League despite finishing with a sub-.500 record (29-31). They’re headed back into the offseason with plenty of holes to fill thanks to last year’s slate of one-year pickups, but the infield in particular is rife with uncertainty.
In Keston Hiura, Luis Urias and Orlando Arcia, the Brew Crew has some options up the middle, but the infield corners are far less certain. That reality is all the more clear after president of baseball operations David Stearns acknowledged the deficiency in an interview with The Athletic’s Will Sammon this week when discussing the work that lies ahead between now and Spring Training.
“I think what is clear is our production at first base and third base has to improve,” Stearns tells Sammon. “That, we know. Whether that can come from internal sources or external sources are some of the questions we’re continuing to talk through, evaluate and then determine the best course of action.”
While Stearns’ comment about a need for improvement is of course accurate, it also in many ways largely undersells how dire the situation is. Milwaukee third basemen combined for an abysmal .200/.279/.295 in 2020, which translated to an MLB-worst 56 wRC+ at the position.
Things were better across the diamond, where Milwaukee first basemen batted .229/.303/.467 — good for a 101 wRC+ that ranked 17th in the Majors. However, the bulk of that production came from Jedd Gyorko, whose option was bought out at season’s end. Daniel Vogelbach was red-hot in his short time with the Brewers to end the season, but he only logged eight plate appearances as a first baseman. He could be in line for more of a look at first in 2021, but it’s not guaranteed that he’ll be tendered a contract. Vogelbach is arbitraiton-eligible and struggled enormously from the All-Star break in 2019 up until his acquisition by the Brewers. He’s more of a designated hitter than a first baseman, and the lack of clarity regarding the universal DH could lead to a non-tender.
There are plenty of external options to explore at the infield corners, although Sammon reports that the Brewers’ payroll — like the payroll of most clubs around the league — is expected to decline in 2021. The Brewers’ 2020 payroll was set to open at just shy of $98MM before the season was halted and salaries were pro-rated. They currently have about $47.5MM in guaranteed contracts plus a big slate of arbitration players who could approach roughly $26MM in salary. Several of those names are non-tender candidates, which could give Stearns & Co. some breathing room as they search for upgrades.
Trades for high-profile infielders like Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor can be ruled out due to the salary associated with those players. Free agents Justin Turner and DJ LeMahieu, similarly, are likely to be too expensive. But the market does have some intriguing bounceback options, with Jake Lamb and Carlos Santana among the veterans eyeing rebounds. Trade possibilities are numerous, of course, and the Brewers will see a whole new set of possible candidates join the field next week after Wednesday’s non-tender deadline. They’ll also have a firmer grasp on what they can afford to spend at that point.
One player sure to be immune from that non-tender fate is lefty Josh Hader, whose name has again popped up on the rumor circuit. Despite Stearns’ prior assertion that he doesn’t envision trading Hader, Fansided’s Robert Murray reported recently that Milwaukee is “open” to such a move. That’s a far cry from shopping Hader, of course, and Stearns again sought to downplay the possibility while instead characterizing any listening on Hader more as due diligence. The Brewers, per Stearns are in a “very similar position” with Hader as they were after the trade deadline when he initially made those comments.
“Josh remains a very large contributor to our team and he has since he got here,” Stearns says. “I don’t really anticipate that changing. And when you have really good players, you’re going to get calls on them. And I don’t anticipate that changing, either.”
Stearns, like many of today’s presidents and general managers, seems to prefer not to operate in absolutes, so it’s only natural that he’ll continue listening should teams continue to try to blow the Brewers away with an offer. And this time next year or even at the 2021 trade deadline, the situation may be different.
If Hader keeps piling up strikeouts and saves, the arbitration process will keep ballooning his salary. He’s projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.1MM in 2021, and barring a long-term deal, that number could quickly rise beyond Milwaukee’s comfort level. If the Brewers are well out of the race next summer or carry Hader into the offseason, it might become more realistic to see a low-payroll club more aggressively solicit offers. That’s not to say that a trade this winter is wholly off the table, but at least for the time being, he appears affordable enough that Milwaukee can enjoy the benefit of a Hader/Devin Williams combo late in games to help slam the door in close contests.