Thanks to the expanded postseason format, the Brewers were a playoff team in 2020, despite a 29-31 record and a lack of offensive production. The club now heads into the winter looking to answer a lot of questions throughout the lineup.
- Christian Yelich, OF: $205MM through 2028 (includes $6.5MM buyout of $20MM mutual option for 2029)
- Lorenzo Cain, OF: $35MM through 2022
- Freddy Peralta, RP: $13.75MM through 2024 (includes $1.5MM buyout of $8MM club option for 2025; deal also contains $8MM club option for 2026)
- Avisail Garcia, OF: $12.5MM through 2021 (includes $2MM buyout of $12MM club/mutual option for 2022, though buyout value could vary)
- Josh Lindblom, SP: $5.5MM through 2022
- Brent Suter, RP: $1.5MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Orlando Arcia – $2.8MM
- Alex Claudio – $2.0MM
- Ben Gamel – $1.7MM
- Josh Hader – $5.1MM
- Corey Knebel – $5.125MM
- Omar Narvaez – $2.9MM
- Jace Peterson – $700K
- Manny Pina – $2.0MM
- Dan Vogelbach – $1.4MM
- Brandon Woodruff – $2.3MM
- Non-tender candidates: Arcia, Claudio, Gamel, Knebel, Narvaez, Peterson, Vogelbach
- Ryan Braun, OF: $15MM mutual option was declined by Brewers, Braun received $4MM buyout
- Jedd Gyorko, IF: $4.5MM club option was declined, Gyorko received $1MM buyout
- Eric Sogard, IF: $4.5MM club option was declined, Sogard received $500K buyout
- Ben Gamel, OF: $2.55MM club option was declined
Looking to build on postseason appearances in both 2018 and 2019, the Brewers made a number of short-term, relatively inexpensive signings last winter to reinforce the roster after Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas departed in free agency. It was a sound plan on paper and, overall, it worked considering that the Brew Crew again reached the playoffs.
The issue with such a strategy, however, is that the Brewers are now facing another reload on the open market. Obviously the Brewers couldn’t have foreseen last winter that their already fairly tight payroll situation would impacted by a season of major revenue losses, but their budget figures to be even tighter in 2021. It doesn’t seem likely that the team will match its (pre-adjusted schedule) 2020 payroll of roughly $97.5MM.
Between their roughly $47.5MM of guaranteed contracts, the above arbitration projections and a handful of pre-arbitration salaries to round out the roster, Milwaukee is looking at nearly $81MM in projected payroll. It remains to be seen how much money president of baseball operations David Stearns will have at his disposal for new additions. On the plus side, Stearns has shown himself to be adept at finding low-cost gems in trades or free agency, so this will be nothing new for him. More funds could be freed up in the form of non-tenders, as the Brewers could reasonably part ways with more than half of their 10-player arbitration class.
Cutting ties with Omar Narvaez would leave the Brew Crew without their starting catcher, yet Narvaez had such a tough offensive season that the team may decide he isn’t worth the investment. Jace Peterson, Alex Claudio, and (especially) Daniel Vogelbach were all pretty productive in limited action with Milwaukee last season, but since lots of similar players are expected to be available in a flooded non-tender market, the Brewers could look for cheaper options elsewhere. Corey Knebel struggled over 13 1/3 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, and with a projected $5.125MM arbitration salary, Knebel might be deemed too expensive to retain given the risk that he doesn’t get back to his old All-Star form.
Speaking of All-Star relievers, Josh Hader is obviously in no danger of being non-tendered, yet could Hader have already thrown his last pitch in a Milwaukee uniform? The club is reportedly open to hearing trade offers, but as Stearns said in September, being willing to listen to another team’s proposal is much different than actively exploring deals. “We’ve never really looked to move [Hader], and I don’t really anticipate that changing,” Stearns said at the time.
Some might argue that Devin Williams’ emergence as a shutdown reliever makes Hader at least somewhat expendable, though Williams also serves as an argument for keeping Hader; having two outstanding relievers more fully reinforces a pitching staff that traditionally doesn’t extend starters deep into games in the name of efficient run prevention.
Past Milwaukee staffs have kept a pretty loose definition of “starter” and “reliever” rather than sticking to strict roles, though going into 2021, the Brew Crew has four starters in place. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes posted front-of-the-rotation results last season, while advanced metrics indicated that Josh Lindblom pitched better than his 5.16 ERA would indicate. Adrian Houser struggled down the stretch after some good early outings, but the right-hander looks to have the inside track on a rotation spot.
The fifth spot could be filled internally. Eric Lauer, Freddy Peralta, or Brent Suter are all candidates to take the job themselves, or perhaps they’ll share starts (or work as bulk pitchers behind an opener). As much as the Brewers like being flexible with their hurlers, they’ll surely look to add more depth, and re-signing Brett Anderson could be a possibility. Anderson had a good year in 2020, but since he is entering his age-33 season and doesn’t have the big strikeout numbers that many teams covet, he could be available to the Brewers on another one-year deal. If not Anderson, expect Milwaukee to target similar veterans on short-term contracts.
The Brewers’ first round of financial decisions this offseason resulted in four declined club options, most notably the team passing on their side of a mutual option with long-time star Ryan Braun. While not an unexpected move given Braun’s age, price tag, and his average hitting numbers, it is still noteworthy that Braun’s 14-season run with the franchise is done — barring another contract, that is. Braun said in July that he was leaning towards playing in 2021, and if that stance hasn’t changed, it’s possible the two sides could reunite on an inexpensive one-year deal. There might not be action on this front, of course, until the Brewers know if the DH will be available to National League teams next season.
Further complicating Stearns’ winter business is the lack of certainty at almost every position around the diamond. The Brewers are looking for almost a lineup-wide rebound. Each of Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura, Avisail Garcia, Luis Urias and Narvaez struggled to varying extents, while Lorenzo Cain is expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season just five games into the year. Yelich, Cain, and Hiura are the clear everyday building blocks, and Garcia will likely stay due to a lack of trade value. Urias is still part of the Brewers’ future, and his lackluster 2020 numbers were likely impacted by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis that sidelined him for much of Summer Camp.
Where Urias plays next season depends on what the Brewers do with Orlando Arcia. The former top prospect had a solid offensive showing (.260/.317/.416 in 189 PA) that resulted in a career-best 96 wRC+, but this could be too little, too late. Arcia is another player that could plausibly be non-tendered, but since Urias had yet to establish himself at the MLB level, the Brewers could see value in keeping Arcia around to hold the fort at shortstop.
That could leave Urias in line to play some third base, and Milwaukee will look to augment the position with an addition like last winter’s signing of Eric Sogard (ideally with more return on investment, given Sogard’s lack of production). Players like Jake Lamb, Enrique Hernandez, Asdrubal Cabrera, or Brad Miller may be within the Brewers’ price range, and Gyorko hit well enough that one would imagine the team would be interested in bringing him back. Of the slightly more expensive options, Tommy La Stella could also be a target. Even further up the financial ladder, the Brewers would make some sense as a bidder for Ha-Seong Kim once the Korean star is posted. MLBTR projects Kim to land a $40MM contract, but for a 25-year-old with Kim’s skill set, potential, and multi-positional ability, Milwaukee could decide to take the plunge.
Even moreso than Arcia, Narvaez’s chances of being tendered a contract are helped by a lack of other options, as the Brewers would have to either acquire another backstop or roll with the in-house trio of Manny Pina, Jacob Nottingham, and David Freitas. Known for his offense more than his defense heading into 2020, Narvez had a reversal of a year that saw his bat falter but his pitch-framing rise to elite levels. An argument can be made that Milwaukee should hang onto Narvaez just to see what they really have in him, and if his hitting can recover in something of a more normal season.
Vogelbach is the favorite for first base if he is tendered a contract, but given his lack of track record, the Brew Crew could try to take advantage of a depressed free agent market to land a more proven hitter at something of a discount. Carlos Santana stands out as a big bat whose stock is low coming off a down year in 2020. Most of the aforementioned third base options also have first base experience, and Braun might also be a candidate for first base if the Brewers re-signed him.
If this seems like a lot of wait-and-see for a team hoping to contend, at least it helps the Brewers that their chief rivals in the very competitive NL Central all have big questions of their own. Should 2020 prove to be an aberration and Yelich, Cain, Narvaez, and others all hit at something close to their past levels of performance, the Brew Crew will be a better team based on internal improvement alone. Combine this with hitting on a few more short-term acquisitions, and a fourth straight postseason trip could be in the offing.