The Milwaukee Brewers treated their fans to perhaps the most memorable season in a generation in 2018. After narrowly missing out on a playoff berth in 2017, GM David Stearns and company made some aggressive additions during the offseason, adding star-caliber players Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to the mix as well as making wise bets on Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley to supplement the talented core of players that were already in place. The result was a team-record five players named to the All-Star game, tying the franchise-best mark for victories in season with 96 (albeit in 163 tries), a sudden-death triumph against the Cubs at Wrigley Field to claim the second club’s second-ever NL Central title and the top record in the National League, a sweep of the Rockies in the NLDS and a thrilling seven-game NLCS with the Dodgers that ultimately ended in heartbreak.
The door may have been rudely slammed shut on 2018, but the competitive window for Milwaukee is now undoubtedly wide open. The challenge now for Slingin’ David Stearns and his front office staff will be to shore up their squad’s weaknesses for another deep run in 2019, but without the same resources to expend as were available last winter.
David Stearns from the GM Meetings on what Brewers’ winter expenditures might look like: “I think it’s unlikely we have a similar offseason to what we did last year.” Noted that the club invested north of $150M in Cain/Yelich/Chacin, and called it “unrealistic to replicate that.”— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) November 6, 2018
As we explored earlier this week, the Brewers are already approaching record payroll levels for 2019 even before making any additions during the offseason. Should Milwaukee elect to bring back all 13 of their arbitration-eligible players and keep around all the personnel on guaranteed contracts, they will be looking at something close to $110 mil in Opening Day payroll for next season. Owner Mark Attanasio has allowed payroll to rise to close to these levels in years past while competing, and given Milwaukee’s improved attendance, increased revenue from a deep postseason run, and an adjustment for inflation, it stands to reason that he may be willing to push a little bit more cash to his GM for use on players. Without a firm commitment to that from Mark or the front office, though, it’s probably safer to assume that the Brewers will look to move some salary around in order to increase their flexibility.
In that vein, there are a few players on the roster who stand out as logical candidates to be moved - or moved on from. The club will have a difficult decision to make regarding Jonathan Schoop, who is due a projected $10.1 mil in his final run through arbitration. The Brewers gave up a good bit a capital to bring Schoop in from Baltimore at the July trade deadline (Jonathan Villar, Luis Ortiz, Jean Carmona), but he was a sub-replacement level player in 46 games for Milwaukee (.577 OPS, -0.3 fWAR) and was mostly planted on Milwaukee’s bench during September and October. Other non-tender candidates could include the likes of Xavier Cedeno, Dan Jennings, and Tyler Saladino, among others. Cutting ties with those four players would save Milwaukee roughly a projected $14 mil.
There are some other well-compensated members of the roster who could find themselves on the trade market, too. No, don’t expect the club to move Ryan Braun and his $18 mil this winter. But given Milwaukee’s plethora of right-handed, middle-rotation depth, Chase Anderson ($6 mil) could be on the block after losing his rotation spot in September and getting left off the playoff roster. Eric Thames ($6 mil) could be shopped around after losing the first base job to Jesus Aguilar and struggling in the second half. And I’m sure the club would love to find a taker for Matt Albers and his $2.5 mil salary. Maybe Stearns can work some more of his magic there.
Freeing up some extra money to use in free agency could turn out to be pretty important in Milwaukee’s search for upgrades, as the farm system is nowhere near the level that it was even a year ago. Stearns dealt away an army of promising prospects last winter and this past summer as he pushed his club towards the playoffs, leaving them with only one minor leaguer ranked among the top-100 according to MLB Pipeline - second baseman Keston Hiura. There is still some intriguing depth behind Hiura left in the system, but it’s not likely that the Brewers can pull off any kind of blockbuster trade this winter without dipping into their well of young talent that is already at the MLB level.
Most of the core of the roster figures to look familiar next year, but there are a few spots where an upgrade would clearly be welcome. First would be another bat for the infield, preferably someone who can handle left-handed pitching. Travis Shaw’s newfound ability to play at second base gives Stearns some leeway in what area he wants to focus on, though with his love for multi-positional players, it’s likely that the GM pursues someone flexible anyway. Given Orlando Arcia’s demonstrated offensive volatility, it might be smart to prioritize finding someone capable of handling shortstop, too. Switch-hitting Marwin Gonzalez, who Stearns knows from his days in Houston, would be an ideal fit in that case. Jed Lowrie doesn’t play shortstop, but if the club is confident in Arcia (and/or Hernan Perez and Mauricio Dubon as backups) he could be a solid addition on a short-term deal.
No team can have enough pitching, and the Brewers attempted to prove that last year by deploying 30 different arms, including 11 hurlers that started ballgames. With that in mind, expect the team to be on the lookout for more pitching this winter. It sounds like Craig Counsell and the front office will continue with the 27-outs run prevention system again next season, which could go a variety of ways when it comes to free agency. Will they be looking more for the next undervalued arm like Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin (Jeremy Hellickson? Drew Pomeranz?)? Or will they look to spend a little more - without breaking the bank - and add some legitimate upside to the staff with a high-octane arm like Charlie Morton, Nathan Eovaldi, or Japanese-import Yusei Kikuchi? Perhaps this is the winter that the finally go out and sign that coveted “ace” like Patrick Corbin or Dallas Keuchel, although that doesn’t feel likely given the sums of cash they are expected to receive.
Multi-inning relievers to slot into the run prevention system could be a priority, too. Joe Kelly stood out with a superlative performance in the postseason, and though he’s been inconsistent throughout his career, there still appears to be some upside there with his “great stuff.” Adam Ottavino would also be a compelling addition, as would Andrew Miller if he can get his health in order. In terms of more under-the-radar names, a reunion with Jordan Lyles would be interesting based on the improvements he made down the stretch.
Erik Kratz and Manny Pina could both return to the Cream City for a total of less than $4 mil next season, but if the Brewers want to prioritize some more offense from that position then perhaps they make a run for Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Ramos. It would be logical for them to check in with Miami on J.T. Realmuto, as well, but it’s not difficult to imagine another team beating any hypothetical package that the Brewers would put together there. One would hardly call outfield an area of need for in the Menomonee Valley, but wouldn’t Yelich, Cain, and AJ Pollock (with Braun pushed to a true bench/rotational role) make for a fun trio out on the grass? If David Stearns has taught us anything during his tenure, it’s that we shouldn’t turn our noses up at any possibility.
Besides the on-field personnel, Stearns and Counsell have numerous crucial determinations to make regarding the coaching staff in the coming weeks and months. Highly-regarded pitching coach Derek Johnson was surprisingly snapped up by division-rival Cincinnati, Darnell Coles walked away to become hitting coach of the Diamondbacks, and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell was not renewed. The analytics-driven Andy Haines has reportedly been brought on as the new hitting coach, although the club has yet to confirm the hire. He’ll be tasked with improving the team’s production against left-handed pitching and coaxing a higher OBP from the group. A strong hire to replace DJ - who received constant praise from his players - will be of the utmost importance. The new pitching coach, in conjunction with the new bullpen coach, will have the tall order of maintaining and building upon the success of the run prevention system ahead of them.
There are any number of ways that the Milwaukee Brewers could go with their offseason. Their recent success, in-house talent, and limited resources could very well lead to a relatively quiet winter, or David Stearns could get the itch to sling players left and right as he tries to get the franchise over the hump into the World Series. As long as he is General Manager of our Milwaukee Nine, we should probably prepare ourselves for just about anything.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs