In what most expected to be another transitional season, the Brewers spent much of the year in contention for the NL Central title and finished just shy of an NL Wild Card berth. With an 86-76 record under their belts and a promising core of controllable players, the Brewers will no longer enter the offseason with a “rebuilding” label and will instead likely add pieces with an eye toward winning in 2018 and beyond.
- Ryan Braun, OF: $57MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 option)
- Eric Thames, 1B/OF: $12MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (Service time in parenthesis; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jared Hughes (5.162) – $2.2MM projected salary
- Carlos Torres (5.114) – $3.3MM
- Jeremy Jeffress (4.104) – $2.6MM
- Stephen Vogt (4.084) – $3.9MM
- Chase Anderson (3.146) – $5.4MM
- Jonathan Villar (3.113) – $3.0MM
- Jimmy Nelson (3.107) – $4.7MM
- Hernan Perez (3.079) – $2.2MM
- Corey Knebel (2.151) – $4.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Torres, Jeffress, Vogt
General manager David Stearns and his staff caught some flak from Brewers fans this summer for not acting more aggressively to add pieces to a surprising contender. While flipping prospects Ryan Cordell and Eric Hanhold to add a pair of solid veteran rentals (Swarzak and Walker) definitely strengthened the roster, the division-rival Cubs went for broke and shelled out multiple top prospects for Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila. It’s possible that had the Brewers splurged in similar fashion, adding Quintana or Sonny Gray, that they could’ve emerged as the NL Central champs, but Stearns & Co. steadfastly refused to part with top-echelon prospects — most notably center field prospect Lewis Brinson. Now, they’ll spend the offseason looking for long-term help while holding onto the luxury of plugging Brinson and other top prospects into the lineup in the near future.
Starting on the position-player side of the equation, the Brewers made several then-unheralded moves in the 2016-17 offseason that now look to have helped form a solid nucleus. Manny Pina enjoyed a breakout behind the plate and should at the very least be in an even timeshare with Stephen Vogt (or another veteran backstop should Vogt be non-tendered). Eric Thames cooled after a Cinderella start to his comeback season in MLB, but his overall numbers were strong. Jesus Aguilar, a waiver claim out of the Indians organization last winter, gives Thames an affordable platoon partner. Travis Shaw, meanwhile, was deemed expendable by the Red Sox with Rafael Devers on the horizon and instead broke out as one of the NL’s best third basemen after the Brewers acquired him in a December trade.
Top prospect Orlando Arcia showed quite well at shortstop as the season wore on, and the Brewers will return Braun and Domingo Santana as corner outfield options with plenty of pop. (Thames, too, can play some corner outfield.) Keon Broxton saw the bulk of the time in center field in 2017 and could be reinstalled there to open the 2018 season if the Brewers want to play some service time games with Brinson. But center field should go to Brinson by midseason, assuming good health, so it’s possible that the Brewers will look to shop Broxton this summer. His 37 percent strikeout clip is an eyesore, but Broxton has plenty of speed and power, and he handles center field well enough. Brett Phillips gives the Brew Crew another option in center, should they ultimately move Broxton, or he could simply spell Braun, Broxton and Santana in a semi-regular role.
The biggest question mark for the Brewers, then, is at second base. Jonathan Villar had a breakout 2016 season, but the Brewers likely feel as though they dodged a bullet when Villar reportedly rejected a contract extension last offseason. The 26-year-old’s strikeout woes returned stronger than ever in 2017, and he hit just .241/.293/.372 in 436 PAs. Veteran Eric Sogard saw plenty of action at second base as Villar lost playing time, and Walker stepped in and hit well there following his acquisition. With both Walker and Sogard set to hit the open market, the Brewers will need to decide whether they can once again trust Villar or if external reinforcements are needed.
Re-signing Sogard to an affordable one-year deal could provide some insurance, but the Brewers must now also think more like a contender. If there’s an obvious hole to fill, they’ll likely covet more certainty. Milwaukee had interest in Ian Kinsler before the non-waiver deadline, and he’s all but certain to be traded by the Tigers this winter. Re-signing Walker would be more expensive than retaining Sogard, though he’d bring more reliable production. Other free-agent options are fairly thin, though Howie Kendrick and Eduardo Nunez could stabilize the spot. The trade front is more interesting, where Philadelphia’s Cesar Hernandez and Miami’s Dee Gordon will both be available. Gordon is owed $38MM over the next three seasons, but the Brewers can afford to take on some significant financial commitments this winter.
It’s also worth mentioning that Braun’s name figures to once again surface in trade rumors at least occasionally this offseason. However, he’s coming off his worst season since 2014 and has full veto power over any trades (to say nothing of the $57MM he’s still owed through 2020). A deal doesn’t seem particularly likely.
On the pitching front, things are far less clear for the Brewers. Emergent ace Jimmy Nelson will miss a yet-unreported amount of time in 2018 following shoulder surgery. That leaves Chase Anderson and Zach Davies as the two locks for rotation spots. Brent Suter performed well in 14 starts, but he’s averaged just 124 1/3 innings across the past three seasons. Relying on him for 170+ frames would be difficult, but he’ll certainly be in next year’s rotation mix. Righty Brandon Woodruff showed flashes of potential but didn’t cement himself, while Junior Guerra posted terrible numbers in his followup to his out-of-the-blue rookie success at age 31. Touted prospect Josh Hader shined in the bullpen, but the lefty will likely get a look as a starter next year.
The Brewers look as though they’ll need to add at least one established starter, and making a second, smaller-scale addition wouldn’t be unwise. One glance at the “guaranteed contracts” section above is evidence that they could afford to spend as aggressively as they wish this offseason, though the team’s lower payroll ceiling creates less margin for error when shelling out cash to a Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. Second-tier names like Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn seem much more plausible, though their last foray into that price range (Garza) didn’t pan out.
Alternatively, the Brewers have an exceptionally deep farm — deep enough that they can acquire both one-year rentals and more controllable options. Given the Brewers’ questionable on-paper rotation, relatively blank payroll slate and wealth of prospects, there are literally dozens of scenarios on which to potentially speculate. Suffice it to say — they’ll be connected to a plethora of arms this winter.
The Milwaukee bullpen brings a bit more clarity. Corey Knebel broke out as one of the game’s most dominant relievers, posting baseball’s fourth-highest strikeout percentage and second-highest K/9 rate in 2017. His walk rate is still troublesome, but Knebel functioned as a genuinely elite bullpen weapon in his record-setting 2017 season (most consecutive relief appearances with at least one strikeout). If Hader isn’t in the rotation, he’ll be back in the bullpen, pairing with Knebel to create a formidable duo. Jacob Barnes and Jared Hughes should return as additional right-handed options. Jeffress is a fan favorite in Milwaukee and showed improvement after returning in a July 31 trade, but his overall output makes less certain to be brought back. I’d still expect him to be tendered, though perhaps at a lower rate than the projected $2.6MM sum, as our algorithm doesn’t factor in context such as Jeffress’ off-the-field issues.
Swarzak was terrific after being acquired from the White Sox, so a potential reunion with him is something the Brewers will surely explore. Milwaukee also needs to add at least one left-handed reliever — if not two, depending on what happens with Hader. The Brewers were without a southpaw reliever for much of the year and certainly would prefer to have greater matchup flexibility in 2018 and beyond. Tyler Webb is one intriguing internal option, and the free-agent market bears names such as Jake McGee, Brian Duensing and Tony Watson. As ever, the trade market will be rife with options in this department, though Brad Hand stands out as the likeliest name to be bandied about on the rumor mill this winter.
An oft-overlooked component of the offseason among fans is the possibility of extending core pieces. While many focus on what pieces can be added to a contending core (or shipped off of a rebuilding roster), the Brewers are in a strong position to obtain some cost certainty and perhaps some additional club control over long-term cornerstones. After trying to do with Villar last winter, they’ll likely try once again with other targets as Spring Training nears in 2018. Arcia, Shaw and Davies all make sense as candidates for a long-term pact. Anderson does as well, to a lesser extent. He’s already controlled through his age-32 season, but the club could try to buy out his arbitration years in one fell swoop and possibly tack on a club option over his age-33 season in exchange for the up-front payday. As a late bloomer, he could be more amenable to that type deal than some younger arms would be.
The Brewers enter the 2017-18 offseason with a sizable portion of a contending club already in place, though they’ll still need to make some adjustments — most notably at second base and on the pitching staff. Their unexpected status as contenders in 2017 has undoubtedly accelerated their timeline to contention, though, and their deep stash of prospects and pristine long-term payroll ledger should give Stearns and his charges plenty of opportunities to creatively supplement a roster that roster that looks infinitely better than it did one year ago at this time.