The Brewers’ fourth consecutive postseason appearance ended in more October heartbreak, as the Braves eliminated Milwaukee in four games in the NLDS. As the Brewers look to contend again next season, some tough financial decisions may have to be made depending on how far ownership is willing to stretch the payroll.
- Christian Yelich, OF: $188.5MM through 2028 (includes $6.5MM buyout of $20MM mutual option for 2029)
- Lorenzo Cain, OF: $18MM through 2022
- Jackie Bradley Jr., OF: $17.5MM in 2022 (includes $8MM buyout of $12MM mutual option for 2023 — Bradley can opt out of $9.5MM salary for 2022, and receives $6.5MM buyout in the event of an opt-out)
- Freddy Peralta, SP: $12.75MM through 2024 (includes $1.5MM buyout of $8MM club option for 2025; Brewers also hold $8MM club option for 2026 with no buyout)
- Kolten Wong, 2B: $10MM in 2022 (includes $2MM buyout of $10MM club option for 2023)
- Josh Lindblom, RP: $2.75MM in 2022 (Brewers outrighted Lindblom off 40-man roster in May)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jace Peterson – $1.3MM
- Omar Narvaez – $4.1MM
- Brent Suter – $2.3MM
- Luke Maile – $1.0MM
- Josh Hader – $10.0MM
- Brandon Woodruff – $7.1MM
- Daniel Vogelbach – $2.0MM
- Willy Adames – $4.0MM
- Corbin Burnes – $4.0MM
- Eric Lauer – $2.7MM
- Jandel Gustave – $800K
- Adrian Houser – $2.3MM
- Rowdy Tellez – $1.9MM
- Luis Urias – $2.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: Maile, Gustave, Vogelbach, Peterson
- Avisail Garcia, OF: $12MM mutual option for 2022 ($2MM buyout)
- Eduardo Escobar, Brett Anderson, Brad Boxberger, Manny Pina, Hunter Strickland, Daniel Norris, Colin Rea, John Axford
Much of the Brewers’ buzz early in the offseason has focused on their executives being targeted by the Mets, though New York’s inquiries ended up being much ado about nothing. The Brewers again denied the Mets permission to speak with president of baseball operations David Stearns, and assistant GM Matt Arnold also removed his name from consideration and ended up with a contract extension to remain in Milwaukee. This situation is worth monitoring for the future, considering that Stearns’ contract may or may not be up after the 2022 season, depending on a possible vesting option that could extend the Brewers’ control over the PBO through 2023. With the Mets’ interest looming, there is sure to be plenty of attention paid to Stearns’ status with the Brew Crew, though one would expect owner Mark Attanasio to again look into extending his top baseball exec.
For now, Stearns’ focus is on figuring out how to get Milwaukee to take the next step and reach a World Series. Offense was a problem for the Brewers even as they had a fairly comfortable run to the NL Central title, and the issue came to a head when the Brewers scored only six runs in their four games with Atlanta. A change has already been made at hitting coach, but some lineup reinforcements are also a must.
Looking at the more settled positions, Willy Adames, Kolten Wong, and breakout player Luis Urias all hit well in 2021 and have three of the infield spots covered. All-Star catcher Omar Narvaez slumped badly in the second half but still finished with roughly league-average offense (99 OPS+ and wRC+) for the season, which represents a bounce-back from a brutal 2020 campaign.
Manny Pina hit well enough to make up for some of Narvaez’s late struggles, though Pina is now set for free agency after six years as a part-time starter and backup in Milwaukee. There is enough need for catching around the league that another team could offer Pina a more regular job, though the 34-year-old could reunite with the Brewers on a new contract if Pina is comfortable in his current role. If Pina doesn’t re-sign, the Crew will be on the hunt for a new backup catcher, preferably a right-handed hitter considering Narvaez’s lack of production against southpaws. Prospect Mario Feliciano is also on hand, and Luke Maile could return if tendered a contract.
Eduardo Escobar is another free agent, and is less likely to return considering that Wong and Urias are slated for everyday work at second and third base. This is another area where the Brewers will be looking for backup options, likely a utility type given the front office’s penchant for versatile players. Retaining Jace Peterson could help in that regard, and the Brewers could pair Peterson with a right-handed hitter to provide additional coverage on the bench.
Rowdy Tellez was streaky and spent some time on the injured list, but the slugger hit well after being acquired from the Blue Jays in July, and Tellez seems to be penciled in for at least a share of the first base job. This leaves Daniel Vogelbach as a possible non-tender candidate, as even if the National League has a DH position available in 2022, having both Tellez and Vogelbach as left-handed hitting first base-only players seems like a redundancy. Tellez is over two years younger than Vogelbach, has an extra year of team control and had better numbers in 2020-21, though Vogelbach did miss a good chunk of last season due to injury. All things considered, it would seem like the Brewers would favor Tellez over Vogelbach, though with only a $2MM projected salary for Vogelbach, it wouldn’t break the bank to keep him around.
A right-handed complement seems like a necessary add for the first base/DH mix, though Milwaukee is probably still hopeful that Keston Hiura can fill that role from within. Hiura is only 25 years old and has just 791 MLB plate appearances to his name, and while the Brewers aren’t likely to give up on the former top prospect, adding a more proven veteran seems logical given how badly Hiura has struggled over the last two seasons. Ideally, the Brewers could find a versatile player who can hit from the right side and fill in at several infield spots (i.e. Josh Harrison, Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt Duffy). If the team looked to just first base-only types, Milwaukee could be a hypothetical landing spot for Albert Pujols, as odd as it would be to see Pujols on an NL Central team besides the Cardinals.
The outfield is far less set than the infield, even if three outfield starters are technically already in place. Jackie Bradley Jr. is coming off a rough year at the plate and is sure to exercise his $9.5MM player option for 2022 rather than test free agency. Lorenzo Cain will return for the final year of his contract, and Christian Yelich’s contract extension will now officially begin, as 2022 is the first season of the seven years and $188.5MM in new money guaranteed under the terms of his deal.
Yelich is the biggest question, as in the two seasons since inking that extension, he’s gone from perennial MVP candidate to only slightly more than a league-average bat — his .234/.360/.392 slash line over 722 PA in 2020-21 translates to a 103 OPS+ and 105 wRC+. Yelich is still making plenty of hard contact but his power numbers have dwindled, his strikeout rate has risen sharply, and opposing teams have been using the shift much more frequently against him, which has sapped his offensive production.
Cain is another player whose bat has gone south, hitting only .260/.328/.381 in 930 PA since the start of the 2019 season. Cain opted out for much of the 2020 campaign and sandwiched that lost year between two injury-plagued seasons, so the Brewers simply can’t be sure of what to expect from Cain as he enters his age-36 season. The same goes for Bradley, who was healthy last year but his offense absolutely cratered in his first year in Milwaukee.
Considering Yelich, Cain, and Bradley are the three highest-paid players on Milwaukee’s payroll, this certainly isn’t a welcome situation for a team with a fairly limited mid-market budget. The Brew Crew has no recourse but to count on a rebound from Yelich given their long-term commitment, and since Cain and Bradley are still providing superb defense, the Brewers could just go with a Cain/Bradley platoon in center field and give the promising Tyrone Taylor a clear shot at everyday at-bats in right field.
Avisail Garcia was far and away the best hitter in Milwaukee’s 2021 outfield, but he amassed just enough plate appearances to trigger a vesting option in his contract, turning the Brewers’ $12MM club option for 2022 into a mutual option. It can be reasonably assumed that the team would still want to retain Garcia at that price, though since mutual options are rarely agreed upon by both sides, it seems likely that Garcia will decline his end of the deal and test the free agent market in search of a longer-term commitment.
This leaves a big hole in the Brewers’ lineup, though some scenarios exist where Garcia is back in Milwaukee next year. Assuming he opts for free agency, the Brewers could then issue a qualifying offer — Garcia might be more open to a one-year deal for an $18.4MM payday than for $12MM. If Garcia declined the QO, the Brewers could at least recoup a compensatory draft pick if he signed elsewhere. If Garcia accepted the QO, that puts another hefty salary on the Brewers’ books, but the team could pivot by trying to see what they could get for Cain or Bradley on the trade market.
Cain or Bradley alone would be tough sells as trade chips, unless the Brewers were to take on another team’s unpalatable contract…or if the Brewers paired one of those outfielders with a more sought-after trade asset. You guessed it, it’s time for another offseason of Josh Hader trade speculation, and packaging the All-Star closer as part of a larger deal would be a bold way for the Crew to both clear some salary space and bring some young talent into the pipeline.
Hader delivered another excellent season, and his salary is now set to jump from $6.675MM to a projected $10MM in his third of four arbitration-eligible years. That is still quite a reasonable sum for arguably the best reliever in baseball, yet it does represent a big portion of Milwaukee’s payroll, so the time may finally be right for the Brewers to pull the trigger on a Hader deal.
It doesn’t seem likely that the Crew would spend much to replace Hader, as Devin Williams is already the heir apparent at closer and Brent Suter had a nice year as a setup man. The Brewers have consistently been able to score with inexpensive bullpen additions, so while Brad Boxberger and Hunter Strickland are set for free agency, the club will probably look to fill those gaps and the potential loss of Hader with other lower-level additions.
The bullpen is also supported by one of the sport’s best rotations. Corbin Burnes will receive Cy Young Award consideration, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta weren’t too far behind, and Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser, and Brett Anderson all provided quality work at the back end. Anderson is a free agent, so Milwaukee could give youngster Aaron Ashby a longer look as a starter, or bring in another low-cost veteran hurler if Anderson himself isn’t brought back.
Hader is the priciest member of a large Milwaukee arbitration class that projects to top the $40MM threshold, even after subtracting a few non-tender candidates. Between the arb-eligibles, the players on guaranteed contracts, and the pre-arbitration players, Roster Resource calculates around $112.4MM on the Brewers’ books for 2022. This already represents the larger Brewers payroll since Attanasio bought the team in 2005, though in 2019 (the last pre-pandemic season), the Brew Crew’s payroll surged to over $132MM by the end of the year.
With 2022 promising to be a more normal year revenue-wise, could ownership green-light another spending bump? Returning to even 2019’s spending levels would give Stearns some flexibility in making offseason moves, and perhaps allow a decision on Hader’s future to be held off until next winter. In fact, all those rising arbitration costs for key pitchers could lead to more tough decisions as early as the 2022-23 offseason, so an argument can be made that this roster should be given one last chance to win a championship before the Brewers have to start thinking about parting ways with other core pieces.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see another blockbuster move like the Cain signing or Yelich’s extension. The Brewers have enough talent in place that just a return to form from Yelich in 2022 might be all the club needs to make more noise in the playoffs. With no guarantee of that scenario, however, expect the team to add at least one big bat to guard against another October power outage.