The Brewers entered the 2022 season with high expectations on the heels of a 95-win campaign, but Milwaukee came up a bit short of a playoff berth. The Brew Crew finished 86-76 and were eliminated two days before the final game of the regular season.
President of baseball operations David Stearns met with reporters yesterday to discuss the team’s finish (link via Curt Hogg and Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). He unsurprisingly expressed disappointment with missing the postseason, for which he took no small share of the blame. Asked about the team’s trade deadline approach — specifically the decision to deal All-Star reliever Josh Hader to the Padres for Taylor Rogers, Dinelson Lamet (who was almost immediately waived) and prospects Esteury Ruiz and Robert Gasser — Stearns acknowledged he didn’t fully appreciate how much of an impact the trade would have in the clubhouse and on the field.
“The Hader trade clearly had an impact on the team,” Stearns said. “It had a more pronounced impact than I thought it would at the time, and the surrounding moves didn’t adequately fortify the team in Josh’s absence.” He stopped short of saying he regretted the move, pointing to the long-term window of club control the team has over Ruiz and Gasser. He nevertheless noted that not making the postseason despite having a lead in the division as late as August 5 leads to “(looking) back and (saying) what more could we have done, what different could we have done.”
Hader himself wasn’t lights-out for San Diego. Through 16 innings as a Padre, the hard-throwing southpaw allowed 14 runs with a 28.2% strikeout rate that is far below his career norm. Yet a key justification for the Milwaukee front office in pulling the trigger on the deal was the assumption Rogers would step in as a productive relief arm himself. Instead, he posted a 5.48 ERA in 23 innings down the stretch, struggling mightily with the home run ball. Home runs were also an issue for Matt Bush, whom the Brewers added in a separate trade with the Rangers and who pitched to a 4.30 mark in 23 frames. Milwaukee’s acquisition of Trevor Rosenthal from the Giants, meanwhile, fell flat when he suffered a lat injury while trying to rehab from a hamstring strain that had him on the injured list at the time of the swap. Overall, the Milwaukee bullpen blew an MLB-worst 16 leads from deadline day forward.
That certainly wasn’t all foreseeable for the front office, but there’s no question the Brewers tried to thread a needle between remaining competitive while adding longer-term talent to the organization. That’s partially because of the franchise’s payroll outlook. Milwaukee has a massive arbitration class this winter, with 18 players eligible for that process. They won’t all be tendered contracts, but stars like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Willy Adames are all projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for salaries north of $9MM during their penultimate years of club control. Hader, who’s headed into his final year of control, is projected for a $13.6MM salary.
Finances are always a consideration for a Milwaukee franchise that annually runs payrolls slightly below the league average. The hefty arbitration class could be a factor in the team’s decision whether to exercise a club option on second baseman Kolten Wong. Milwaukee holds a $10MM option or a $2MM buyout, leaving them with a net $8MM call as to whether to keep him for a third season. That’s a perfectly reasonable price in a vacuum, as Wong is coming off a .251/.339/.430 showing with 15 home runs across 497 plate appearances. By measure of wRC+, that production was 16 points above that of this year’s league average hitter, the best hitting season of Wong’s career.
Nevertheless, the Brewers have to weigh those strong offensive marks against a bizarrely poor defensive season. Wong is a two-time Gold Glove winner and typically a plus defender, but Statcast pegged him as seven runs below average this year. Defensive Runs Saved estimated him as just one run below par, but all public metrics agreed it was the worst defensive season of his career. Wong himself shared that sentiment, telling Hogg (separate Journal-Sentinel post) “defensively, it just wasn’t even my year” and vowing to work over the offseason to better his glovework. While that’s certainly an encouraging attitude, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to recapture his peak defensive form at age 32.
Wong also addressed his contract status. While he told Hogg he’d be happy to see his option picked up, he acknowledged Milwaukee’s hefty arbitration class and the presence of former first-round pick Brice Turang in the upper minors. Turang, 23 in November, spent all of last season at Triple-A Nashville. He hit .286/.360/.412 with 13 homers and 34 stolen bases through 603 plate appearances. Regarded as a quality defensive middle infielder, the lefty-swinging Turang will be added to the 40-man roster this offseason and could be a cheaper second base option if the Brewers decided to part with Wong.
While Wong indicated he’s not yet heard from the team one way or the other, he suggested he’d be content to explore his free agent options if it comes to that. “I’ve been a free agent one time already and it’s not the most enjoyable thing,” he told Hogg. “If I got to go through it again, it is what it is. It will be interesting to see where I’d end up landing. Milwaukee was a choice that I kind of had in mind going into free agency as a high pick for me. This next one, I just kind of want to keep an open mind and see how it goes.”
If Wong were sent back into free agency, he’d be arguably the top player in the second base class. Jean Segura, who’s likely to be bought out by the Phillies, and utilityman Brandon Drury are otherwise the best players who’ll be available.