With the NL Central wide open, the Brewers made a pair of late free agent strikes to solidify their roster for another run at the playoffs.
Major League Signings
- Jackie Bradley Jr., OF: Two years, $24MM (Bradley can opt out after the 2021 season)
- Kolten Wong, 2B: Two years, $18MM (includes $2MM buyout of $10MM club option for 2023)
- Brett Anderson, SP: One year, $2.5MM
- Daniel Robertson, IF: One year, $900K
- Luke Maile, C: One year, $825K
- Total spend: $46.225MM
Trades & Claims
- Acquired SP Leo Crawford from the Dodgers for RP Corey Knebel
- Acquired OF Derek Fisher from the Blue Jays for cash considerations or a player to be named later
- Claimed OF Tim Lopes off waivers from the Mariners
Notable Minor League Signings
- Travis Shaw (contract selected, Shaw will earn $1.5MM in guaranteed money), Brad Boxberger, Jordan Zimmermann, Blaine Hardy, Luis Perdomo, Jace Peterson, Zack Godley, Pablo Reyes, Hoby Milner, Dylan Cozens, Dustin Peterson
- Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, Eric Sogard, David Freitas, Shelby Miller, Jedd Gyorko (unsigned), Ryan Braun (retirement?)
Defense wasn’t a strength for the Brewers in 2020, as they posted lackluster finishes in such league-wide categories as Outs Above Average (ranking 16th of 30 teams), Defensive Runs Saved (22nd), and UZR/150 (24th). These numbers were going to improve anyway with former Gold Glover Lorenzo Cain back in action, but glovework may now become a real plus now that Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. are on the roster.
After eight seasons in St. Louis, Wong became a free agent after the Cardinals declined their $12.5MM club option on the second baseman for 2021. Several teams had interest in Wong over the course of the winter, and he was able to parlay that interest into a two-year contract and at least $18MM in guaranteed money, moving from the Cards to a division rival that is very familiar with what Wong brings to the table.
If Wong comes close to his career .261/.333/.384 slash line (94 OPS+, 96 wRC+), the Brewers won’t mind such slightly below-average production as long as Wong keeps providing elite-level defense. The signing may also have the secondary impact of helping Keston Hiura’s game, as the defensively-challenged former second baseman now moves from the keystone to first base. Such a position switch will lessen Hiura’s defensive responsibility and possibly allow him to focus more on his hitting, as Hiura went through a sophomore slump after his big 2019 rookie season.
The Brew Crew had three established outfield starters in Cain, former NL MVP Christian Yelich, and Avisail Garcia, yet signing Bradley made a lot of sense. It has been over two years since Cain has been a productive regular, as he struggled through an injury-riddled 2019 and then opted out of much of the 2020 season. Garcia (signed to a two-year, $20MM deal last offseason) at least provided passable center field defense filling in for Cain but suffered through a rough year at the plate. Even Yelich had a down year by his standards, never quite looking on track over 247 plate appearances while posting a .205/.356/.430 slash line with 12 homers.
Into this mix comes Bradley, who joined Wong as another defensive standout hitting the open market after eight seasons with his original team. It seemed like there was at least some chance Bradley could end up back with the Red Sox considering how long he remained a free agent, though Boston made other moves to replace Bradley in the Fenway Park outfield. As the winter wore on, many of the other teams linked to Bradley also addressed their outfield needs with other players, perhaps just because clubs preferred these other options, or maybe because Bradley’s rather hefty contract demands might have immediately lost the interest of some suitors.
Bradley will earn $13MM of his $24MM guarantee in 2021, and the outfielder then has an $11MM player option to either rejoin the Brew Crew in 2022 or re-enter free agency. The contract seems pretty palatable for both sides — Bradley gets an extra year of security, and even if he does struggle in 2021 and end up exercising his option out of necessity, $24MM isn’t so big a sum that it would significantly hamper even a smaller-market team like Milwaukee.
That said, the Brewers didn’t necessarily act like most other smaller-market franchises operated in the wake of 2020’s revenue losses. The team was originally slated for a payroll of roughly $102.5MM in 2020 prior to the pandemic and the league shutdown, and as we approach Opening Day 2021, the Brewers have (according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts) approximately $96.9MM committed to this season’s payroll. There are some sizeable deferrals within the 2021 salaries for both Bradley and Wong, but in terms of money on the books, the Brew Crew could certainly match or surpass their projected 2020 payroll figure depending on any in-season additions.
Since the Brewers didn’t do much of anything transaction-wise until February, president of baseball operations David Stearns might not have known exactly how much of a budget he had to work with for much of the offseason, or it was perhaps something of a tactical move to wait out the market in search of potential bargains. Even after signing Wong, Milwaukee still made a strong attempt to sign Justin Turner before the longtime Dodger third baseman ended up re-signing with his old team.
Turner wasn’t the only bigger free agent bat under consideration, as the Brewers reportedly looked into Marcell Ozuna, Marcus Semien, and Eddie Rosario during the winter. Whether the team was doing due diligence on available free agents or had a more serious interest in any of these other names isn’t known, but it does represent an interesting alternate picture of Milwaukee’s offseason. The Brewers, after all, didn’t produce much offense last season, but their two biggest additions were defensive stars with middling offensive track records, whereas the likes of Ozuna or Rosario would have been clear bat-first additions.
Had Turner been signed instead of Bradley, it’s fair to assume Milwaukee looks to add a veteran outfielder on a minors contract or a low-cost MLB contract to fill that void in the outfield. However, with Turner back in Los Angeles, that left third base as the position in need of some veteran reinforcement.
Milwaukee brought back an old friend in Travis Shaw, whose minor league deal has already been guaranteed by the team. The Brewers parted ways with Shaw after he struggled through a miserable 2019 season, but he did rebound to some modest extent in hitting .239/.306/.411 over 180 PA with the Blue Jays last year. If Shaw can at least get back to producing against right-handed pitching, the Brewers can deploy a third base timeshare of Shaw and right-handed hitters Daniel Robertson and Orlando Arcia.
That duo could also factor into the shortstop picture if Luis Urias isn’t get ready for regular big league work. Arcia was seen as a possible non-tender candidate heading into the offseason, but the Brewers chose to retain him as insurance in the wake of Urias’ forgettable 2019 season, which was hampered by both a wrist injury and a case of COVID-19. Robertson was signed to a one-year, $900K deal as further utility depth, as the former Tampa Bay Ray first-round pick can play any infield position and has some experience at a corner outfielder.
Tim Lopes and Jace Peterson were also signed as utility candidates, yet the Brewers went another direction in tendering a contract to Dan Vogelbach. This decision was made before Hiura was moved to first base, and before it became apparent that the National League wasn’t going to adopt the DH again for the 2021 season. Vogelbach is out of minor league options and without a real position on the roster, so he stands out as a potential trade candidate in the final days of Spring Training. Conversely, the Brewers could simply cut him before Opening Day and only owe him around $339K of his $1.4MM salary for the 2021 campaign.
The lack of a universal DH might have also closed the book on Ryan Braun’s career, as the longtime Brewers fixture recently said he hasn’t been doing any offseason training and is “strongly leaning” towards hanging up his glove. Since nothing is yet official, Milwaukee fans can still hold out hope for a storybook late-season comeback scenario, but in all likelihood, the Brewers are already in the post-Braun era.
Rich Hill and Trevor Rosenthal were two of the Brewers’ targets for the rotation and bullpen this winter, but with neither hurler signed, Milwaukee’s pitching mix will look pretty similar to its collection of arms from the 2020 season. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Adrian Houser join the re-signed Brett Anderson atop the rotation. While it sounds odd to refer to the oft-injured Anderson as an innings-eater, the grounder specialist has been mostly healthy for the last two seasons and will provide some veteran experience at the back of the rotation.
Freddy Peralta won the fifth starter’s job over Josh Lindblom, but in a season that will require as many pitchers on hand as possible, the Brewers will likely be even more flexible than usual with its pitching plans. A six-man rotation, piggybacked starters, openers — nothing seems off the table in 2021. With this in mind, veteran minor league signings like Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Godley, Brad Boxberger or Blaine Hardy could perhaps stick around (and not exercise any opt-out clauses) even if they don’t crack the Opening Day roster, since there should be plenty of opportunity for big league action throughout the season.
And, it probably bears mentioning that Josh Hader is still a Brewer. Despite some rumors during the winter, it didn’t appear as though the Brewers ever strongly considered moving their relief ace (or maybe co-ace, considering Devin Williams’ emergence). Hader is earning $6.675MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility and he is still under control through the 2023 season, so while a trade might eventually happen down the line, it doesn’t appear the southpaw is going anywhere in the near future.
While much of the offseason chatter in the NL Central focused on the players the Cubs, Reds, and (prior to the Nolan Arenado trade) Cardinals were letting go, the Brew Crew somewhat quietly flew under the radar and didn’t part ways with any major pieces. As flawed as the 2020 team was, it was still able to squeak into the expanded playoff bracket, and now the Brewers will return with Bradley, Wong, Cain, and what they hope are several bounce-back candidates in the lineup.
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