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The Brewers lost MVP candidate Christian Yelich to a knee fracture in early September but nevertheless rode a torrid hot streak to an NL Wild Card berth. The Milwaukee Magic ran out earlier this season than last, however, as the Brewers couldn’t overcome the Nationals in that one-game showdown. It’ll be back to the drawing board again for president of baseball ops David Stearns and his staff, who’ll enter the offseason with question marks behind the plate, in the infield and on the pitching staff.
- Lorenzo Cain, OF: $51MM through 2022
- Christian Yelich, OF: $27.75MM through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option)
- Ryan Braun, OF: $20MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 mutual option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jimmy Nelson – $3.7MM
- Corey Knebel – $5.125MM
- Alex Claudio – $2.2MM
- Travis Shaw – $4.7MM
- Zach Davies – $5.0MM
- Junior Guerra – $3.5MM
- Tyler Saladino – $1.0MM
- Orlando Arcia – $2.7MM
- Ben Gamel – $1.6MM
- Brent Suter – $900K
- Josh Hader – $4.6MM
- Non-tender candidates: Perez, Shaw, Guerra, Spangenberg, Saladino, Austin
- Yasmani Grandal, C: Grandal declined $16MM mutual option, becoming a free agent (received $2.5MM buyout)
- Mike Moustakas, 3B/2B: Moustakas declined $11MM mutual option, becoming a free agent (received $3MM buyout)
- Eric Thames, 1B/OF: Brewers declined $7.5MM club option (Thames received $1MM buyout)
- Manny Pina, C: Brewers exercised $1.85MM option
- Grandal, Moustakas, Thames, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Albers, Tyler Austin (outrighted, elected free agency), Cory Spangenberg (outrighted, elected free agency), Hernan Perez (outrighted, elected free agency)
For a team that just enjoyed its second postseason berth in two years, the Brewers have a surprising number of holes to fill. The rotation will be an obvious point of focus, but the lineup offers its share of uncertainty as well.
Both Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas declined mutual options, as expected, removing two of the team’s better bats from the equation. First base will also be a possible point of focus after Milwaukee paid a $1MM buyout rather than exercising a $7.5MM option on slugger Eric Thames. Meanwhile, Travis Shaw struggled through the worst season of his career and isn’t a sure bet to be tendered a contract — let alone to be a major contributor in 2020. At shortstop, Orlando Arcia posted an anemic .223/.283/.350 batting line in 586 plate appearances.
In summary: the Brewers will be in the market for a catcher, at least one corner infielder and perhaps a shortstop. First base could be an area of need as well. That’s a lot of work to tackle even before looking at the pitching staff, so let’s begin with the lineup.
Grandal shocked onlookers, MLBTR included, when he spurned a reported four-year offer from the Mets last winter to sign a one-year pact with Milwaukee. After the agreement, Grandal spoke about the obligation he felt to prioritize a higher annual salary as a means of advancing the market for future catchers.
Perhaps that was a bit of PR spin or perhaps it was genuine; whatever it was, Grandal proved with a .246/.380/.468 batting line and his characteristic brand of strong defense that he should be Milwaukee’s priority this winter. There’s no doubt that retaining him would be expensive — particularly if Grandal’s preference is once again for a premium annual rate at the expense of length. But the Brewers would be within their means and within reason if they offered Grandal an annual salary in the $20MM range over a three-year term. If he’s willing to sign a four-year pact at a slightly lesser rate, that’d be well worth considering, too. As for the backup role, paying a net $1.7MM for Pina’s quality glove is perfectly sensible.
There’s also a strong argument in favor of re-signing Moustakas. It’s tough to pay Shaw a projected $4.7MM as a rebound candidate, but reallocating that money to a new pact for Moustakas would create needed stability in an infield mix where only breakout rookie Keston Hiura appears locked into a spot (second base). Despite a quality run that now includes four above-average seasons in five years, Moustakas simply hasn’t been valued all that highly in two trips to the open market. Retaining him on a two-year deal comparable to this season’s value would be a worthwhile avenue to explore.
Of course, offseason demand will dictate the price points for Grandal and Moustakas, and at a certain juncture the Brewers will be willing to move on. Should that happen, they’ll have a bevy of catching alternatives from which to choose, including a perhaps on-the-rise Travis d’Arnaud, a steady defender in Jason Castro and a quality veteran bat in Robinson Chirinos (among others). There are fewer reasonably priced free agents at the hot corner — Anthony Rendon is too lofty a target — but perhaps if Grandal spurns a robust three-year offer, the Brewers could look to the older-but-still-excellent Josh Donaldson in a similar price range.
Uncertainty at the infield corners notwithstanding, the biggest problem area in the infield is shortstop, where the aforementioned Arcia has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded him as a minor leaguer. Once ranked inside the game’s Top 10 overall prospects by both Baseball America and MLB.com, Arcia has mustered a miserable .243/.292/.260 batting line in nearly 1700 MLB plate appearances. The Brewers have entrusted primary shortstop duties to him for three straight seasons and come away with virtually nothing to show for it. If you’re looking for a clean fit for Didi Gregorius, Milwaukee is a good place to start.
Shifting focus to the pitching staff, it’s somewhat amazing that Milwaukee made it as far as it did with the staff in place. The Brewers, by Stearns’ own admission, “tend to blur the lines” between starters and relievers more than most clubs. You want see many Milwaukee starters even pitch six innings, but their success while relying on Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Adrian Houser and IL returnees Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter and Jimmy Nelson was remarkable. Both Nelson and Woodruff have high ceilings and have realized that potential for significant stretches of time, but both have battled recent injuries. Nelson missed most of 2019 while recovering from shoulder surgery, while a severe oblique strain sidelined Woodruff for two months.
That duo, if healthy, gives the Brewers a foundation for the starting staff in 2020. But Milwaukee has already moved on from Anderson, whom they didn’t trust for more than five innings at a time in 2019. With his $8.5MM option deemed more expensive than the organization was willing to spend, Anderson was flipped to the pitching-needy Blue Jays on the first day of the offseason. That move saved some money but also further thinned out the Brewers’ depth.
The Brewers may yet be hopeful that right-handers Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta can function as starters — or at least a multi-inning role of some sort — but the organization could still stand to bring in a source of stable innings. Similar arguments have been made in each of the past two offseasons, and the Brewers responded rather tepidly by adding Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez on low-risk deals. That history makes it hard to predict that the Brewers will step up in pursuit of any high-end starter, but they at least make sense for some reasonably priced upside plays. Jordan Lyles (again), Drew Smyly and Michael Wacha could fit the bill. Or, the Brewers could operate as they have most recently and wait to see who’s left without a seat at the end of this offseason’s game of musical chairs.
In the bullpen, the Brewers will likely be intrigued by any pitcher they believe capable of throwing more than an inning at a time. Drew Pomeranz morphed into a late-inning monster in Milwaukee and recorded four or more outs in nearly a third of his appearances down the stretch. Pomeranz’s unexpected dominance could make him a buzz reliever who generates multi-year interest, but if the Brewers plan to continue sticking to low-cost rotation options, spending more to retain a pitcher who looked like a potential high-end relief weapon would make sense.
Alternatively, Milwaukee wants to pursue some higher-end targets to pair with Josh Hader and a returning Corey Knebel next season, they could look into a Will Smith reunion or pursue Will Harris. This year’s market is generally lacking in top-flight setup options, though veterans like Joe Smith, Steve Cishek and Craig Stammen have generally solid track records. And, as always, the trade market will present limitless opportunities for Stearns & Co. to explore as they look to piece together what should once again be one of the game’s more unique assemblies of pitchers.
Depending on the moves the Brewers make on the position-player side of the coin, they’ll need that penchant for creative pitching staff construction to its fullest extent. Assuming some additional non-tenders (Shaw, Junior Guerra, and Tyler Saladino), the Brewers currently project to have about $73.5MM in 2020 commitments. That’s roughly $49MM shy of this year’s Opening Day mark, but the aforementioned needs at catcher, third base and shortstop could all be costly to fill — particularly if retaining Grandal is deemed a Lorenzo Cain-esque priority (that is to say — a relatively unique free agent worth deviating from the more value-based mindset with which the organization typically approaches the open market).
There’ll be a lot written about the Brewers’ need to add legitimate starting pitching help this winter, but that hasn’t been how this front office has operated. Milwaukee has persistently bucked conventional wisdom when putting together rosters that feature exceptional flexibility in the lineup, on the pitching staff and on the fringes of the 25-man roster itself. The addition of a 26th roster spot next season might allow other clubs to follow in those footsteps a bit, but Milwaukee’s knack for cultivating depth and leveraging versatility is among the best in the game.
The Brewers will need to employ that same creativity in the months to come as they look to reshape the infield and deepen their pitching staff in an effort to keep up with the division-champion Cardinals, the typically aggressive Cubs (last winter being a notable exception) and a Reds team that is more motivated to win than at any point in recent history.