David Stearns has been one of the busiest general managers in baseball during each of the last two offseasons while at the helm for the Milwaukee Brewers. It figures that this upcoming winter will be another one teeming with activity, but this offseason will have a much different tone from Stearns’ previous ones as the organization has flipped the switch from rebuilding to competing.
The Milwaukee Nine entered last season with an inexperienced roster and limited expectations, but quality coaching (beginning with Sporting News NL Manager of the Year Craig Counsell), player development, and some tempered “win-now” moves helped the club take the so-called “next step” as a franchise and put together an 86-win campaign in 2017. The Brewers lead the division for longer than two months at one point during the summer before finishing 2nd to the Cubs, and they weren’t eliminated from Wild Card contention until the second-to-last day of the season.
When the organizational reset began under Doug Melvin back in 2015, we as fans collectively prepared ourselves for a half-decade of substandard big league baseball in the name of “consistently competing.” After all, that’s how the Cubs and Astros got to where they are! Now here we are, two years later, looking at a talented, controllable big league roster and one of the top-rated farm systems in all of baseball.
Most of the team can be brought back next year, as Milwaukee only has a few departing free agents. Eric Sogard was supposed to be one of those players, but he already re-upped on a one-year deal for 2018. Now that Matt Garza’s complicated contract language has been sorted out, we know that he’ll hit the open market after a rather disappointing four-year run in the Cream City. He won’t be back next season, and has mentioned that he’s even mulling retirement. Milwaukee’s two rentals - 2B Neil Walker and reliever Anthony Swarzak - are both slated to become free agents after the World Series, but there could be interest in bringing both of those players back, so long as the price is right and the commitments are more short-term.
Beyond that small group of players, the Brewers are able to bring back their entire roster if they so choose. Milwaukee once again had the league’s smallest payroll last season, opening the year with around $63 mil on the books (though that was added to during the course of the year). Only Ryan Braun ($19 mil), Eric Thames ($5 mil), Chase Anderson ($4.25 mil under his recently signed extension), and Eric Sogard ($2.4 mil) are on guaranteed contracts for next season. Several players are eligible for raises through arbitration, but a good chunk of the roster is still playing on pre-arb contracts making roughly the league minimum.
Around the fringes of the roster, there figure to be several players that figure to lose their 40 man spots this winter. It’s not likely pinch running specialist Quintin Berry is retained. Neither Jett Bandy nor Andrew Susac were very impressive this year and one or both of those catchers could be culled. Oliver Drake, Taylor Jungmann, Wei-Chung Wang and Tyler Webb could also find their roster spots as relief filler in jeopardy. Carlos Torres, Stephen Vogt, and perhaps even Jonathan Villar profile as possible non-tender candidates in arbitration.
The Brewers do seem to have a pretty solid core group of players forming at the big league level. Around the diamond, Manny Pina figures to come back as part of the catching mix, while Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar seem likely to reprise their platoon at first base. Orlando Arcia had a solid first full season with Milwaukee, and Travis Shaw was named the team’s MVP after his excellent debut season with the Brewers. Ryan Braun isn’t going anywhere in left field, and Domingo Santana was arguably the team’s best and most consistent offensive weapon in right field. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies are two dependable options in the starting rotation, while Corey Knebel and Josh Hader look like stalwarts in the bullpen.
The Brewers do have some room to shore up the rest of the roster this winter, though, and they’ll have the payroll space and prospect cache to do it. Owner Mark Attanasio has already intimated that the team could be quite active in pursuing upgrades this winter, and that expectations have been raised for 2018 and beyond. The Brewers have topped $100 mil in payroll a few times previously, so if that’s the ceiling then it gives Stearns some $40 mil to play with when considering trade or free agent targets.
One position the club will surely want to shore up is second base. Villar’s second season in Milwaukee was a major disappointment, and though Eric Sogard is a nice utility player, he doesn’t profile as an everyday bat and struggled pretty mightily in the second half of the season himself. Hernan Perez could also see some time there, but Counsell prefers to keep him in a roving super utility role and like Sogard, his bat isn’t strong enough to play everyday. Mauricio Dubon is an up-and-coming prospect but has yet to debut in the big leagues, so he’s not someone that should be relied upon at this stage. Further on down the ladder are Keston Hiura and Isan Diaz, both of whom could be above-average regulars in the future. For the time being, though, if Milwaukee is serious about competing they’ll need to strongly consider a short-term upgrade at the keystone. A re-signing of Neil Walker could fit the bill depending on the contract he’s looking for, otherwise Eduardo Nunez or Howie Kendrick stand out as free agent options. On the trade market, Dee Gordon of the Marlins, Jason Kipnis of the Indians, and Cesar Hernandez of the Phillies may be able to be had in the right deal this winter.
The other spot on the roster that needs some attention is with the pitching staff. With Jimmy Nelson’s labrum injury, the rotation is now in a state of flux behind Anderson and Davies. While the official word is that Nelson will miss “a chunk” of 2018, the org has said he’s still months away from establishing a timeline for return and it’s probably safest just to assume next season will be a total wash. The club has asked Junior Guerra to work as a starter down in winter ball, but he’ll be looking to bounce back from an awful and injury-plagued 2017. Brandon Woodruff showed some encouraging flashes in his first eight starts but is still unproven at the big league level. Brent Suter and Aaron Wilkerson are good arms to have as swingmen depth, and for the time being Taylor Jungmann is still hanging around as well. As prospects go, there’s also a chance that Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, Jon Perrin, and perhaps even Luis Ortiz could factor into the picture in 2018 once we are comfortably past the projected Super Two cutoff date.
With only two tested, dependable starters in the picture, though, the Brewers will be in search of some additional rotation help this winter. Adding at least one impact arm to help make up for the loss of Nelson would be advisable - the upper tier of free agency will include Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, and right behind them are names like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, who should command respectable contracts in their own right. There may be a plethora of starters up for grabs on the trade market, too; depending on which way their respective clubs want to go, some names to keep in mind include Marcus Stroman (Toronto), Chris Archer (Tampa Bay), Danny Duffy (Kansas City), and Jeff Samardzija (San Francisco).
Beyond adding an impact starter, bringing in another veteran depth arm to aid in rounding out the back end of the rotation would be a smart move by the club as well. Some names that spring to mind from the open market are Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, Jaime Garcia, and Jason Vargas, among others. Sign one or two of those guys to a short-term deal and then let them compete with Woodruff, Suter, Wilkerson, Guerra to fill the final two slots in the starting rotation, and your outlook is a bit more improved.
In the bullpen, Corey Knebel figures to be back as closer and Josh Hader looks poised to reprise his fireman role (at least to start the year; it’s important to keep in mind that he only threw 99.2 innings between AAA and MLB last season, and has a career-high of 126.0 in any minor league season. If the club does decide to put him in the rotation at some point, he’ll be under an innings limit for at least a couple seasons). Jacob Barnes, Jared Hughes, and Jeremy Jeffress also look like good bets to return, though the future is less clear for Carlos Torres and Oliver Drake. The Brewers do have some intriguing internal options like Jorge Lopez, Taylor Williams, Wang, Webb, and perhaps Houser that could get an opportunity to fill out the final few bullpen spots, though the team also could turn to the market in search of upgrades. A reunion with Anthony Swarzak could make sense at the right price, and arms like Tony Watson, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, and Wade Davis will also be available as free agents.
Should the Brewers decide to turn to the trade market, they’ll have no shortage of prospect depth from which to deal. The crown jewel of the system is Lewis Brinson, who struggled during his brief MLB debut in 2017. The potential five-tool center fielder has a history of injury issues, but was in high demand during July’s trade deadline. Brett Phillips opened some eyes with a strong September, and Milwaukee has several other interesting center fielders coming up through the system (Harrison, Ray, Clark). Might that be enough to convince David Stearns, who was loathe to part with his top prospect this past summer, to dangle Brinson in a package for an impact starter while entrusting center field to a platoon of Phillips and Keon Broxton in 2018? The Brewers have six other prospects currently ranked in MLB Pipeline’s top-100, as well, along with a host of other well-graded minor leaguers. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see Milwaukee dangle some its young MLB talent - someone like Domingo Santana or Orlando Arcia - out there if the right deal presents itself, either. If there is a player on the trade market that is of particular interest to Stearns, he’ll have the ammunition to go out and get him.
We are entering uncharted territory for Milwaukee’s current front office regime. At this time last year we were still talking about which players might be shipped out for prospects. Now, on the heels of a surprising breakthrough season, the expectations for 2018 have skyrocketed in the eyes of the fanbase and the owner. The Milwaukee Brewers have both the cash available and minor league depth to do basically whatever they please this winter. Nothing is off the table. This could very well be one of the most pivotal winters in franchise history, and now we are all waiting to see how aggressive Slingin’ David Stearns is willing to get.
Contract information courtesy of Cot’s Contracts