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After devastating defeat, Milwaukee Brewers must turn the page to uncertain offseason

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There is potential for plenty of turnover this winter.

Wild Card Round - Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Trent Grisham appears to have a bright future ahead of him as a big league ballplayer. The 22 year old former first-round pick was named by the Milwaukee Brewers as their minor league player of the year after he hit .300/.407/.603 with 26 home runs in 97 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He was called up to the majors for the first time at the beginning of August and certainly held his own during his first run at the game’s highest level, posting a 92 wRC+ with six more dingers in 183 plate appearances. He acquitted himself rather nicely on the outfield grass, too, accruing +5 Defensive Runs Saved while capably splitting time between all three outfield spots.

But on Tuesday night, playing on the biggest stage of his career in the National League Wild Card game, Trent Grisham wound up as the goat. His glaring mishap in right field in the bottom eighth inning allowed three runs to score to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead, and after the game Grisham told reporters “I essentially gifted the Nationals a divisional berth.”

The rookie’s defensive catastrophe was the game’s most blatant blunder, but Grisham is far from the only one who should be shouldering the blame for Milwaukee’s abrupt exit from the postseason. Josh Hader, who was charged with the blown save and loss, was quick to take ownership of his own failure: “I just didn’t have the location of my pitches. I wasn’t getting ahead early. Late in these games, you have to get ahead. You have to get the first strike. It comes down to execution.” Hader couldn’t get his slider over for a strike and was unable to effectively locate his fastball, and he paid for his wildness.

It’s not like Hader got much help from the umpire, though. A controversial hit-by-pitch call against Michael A. Taylor looked like it may have first glanced off the knob of the bat and could’ve been overturned on replay, but the officials in the booth in New York were apparently unconvinced by the video evidence. Ryan Zimmerman’s schtoinker with two outs was the result of some pretty poor BABIP luck, too.

The offense also deserves their fair share of scrutiny. The Brewers outhit the Nats seven to five and put more runners on base overall in this game, but after getting ahead 3-0 within the first two innings, they failed to cash in on multiple scoring opportunities later in the game. They got a runner on second with one out in the fourth inning, but stranded him on third. There were men on first and second with one out in the fifth, but again no score. Milwaukee went zero-for-six with runners in scoring position during the course of the contest, continuing their yearlong RISP struggles — they finished 12th in the NL in wRC+ with men in scoring position during the 2019 season.

“Today was a reminder why it’s so important to win the division,” Ryan Braun stated in the clubhouse after the defeat. The Brewers had that opportunity during the final weekend of the season, and they blew it. The Cubs were riding a nine-game losing streak and had already been eliminated from playoff contention when they arrived in St. Louis for their concluding series, but they managed to bury the Cardinals in the first two games. That opened the door for Milwaukee to take advantage against the lowly Rockies and draw even at the top of the NL Central, but the Brewers couldn’t handle Colorado at Coors Field and were forced to hit the road for the Wild Card game. All of this hand-wringing over the single-elimination, win-or-go-home showdown could have been avoided if the Brew Crew hadn’t flopped in their final three regular season games.

For seven and a half innings last night, it looked like Craig Counsell’s club was bound for the NLDS. And now just like that, baseball season in the Cream City is over. Less than 24 hours later, that fact is still sinking in for many. But the time has come to turn the page and begin looking forward to the 2020 season, starting with the uncertain offseason that lies ahead.

Pitchers and catchers report to American Family Fields of Phoenix in 133 days, and the group of players that will arrive in Maryvale next February could be very different from the one that was on the field in the nation’s capital last night. Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal are both expected to decline their mutual options and reach free agency. Also scheduled to hit the open market are significant second-half contributors Jordan Lyles, Drew Pomeranz, and Gio Gonzalez. The team will have decisions to make on options for Eric Thames and Chase Anderson. In arbitration, David Stearns and company will have to take a hard look at the futures of Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia, and Jimmy Nelson. Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain aren’t getting any younger; both were hampered by injuries down the stretch and have had issues staying on the field throughout their otherwise impressive careers. In-prime MVP Christian Yelich is only under his bargain contract for three more seasons, so there has to be a sense of urgency building within the front office.

Even accounting for those losses, the Brewers possess an enviable base of talent heading into 2020, beginning with Yelich, arguably the best player on the Senior Circuit. Keston Hiura looked like a star during his rookie season (though he needs to shore things up at the keystone). Adrian Houser, Brandon Woodruff, and Grisham (his boner notwithstanding) emerged as potential long-term pieces. Corey Knebel should be returning from his Tommy John surgery, and Brent Suter will be available for the whole season. Despite his flaws, Josh Hader is still one of the top relievers in the NL. Bullpen workhorses Junior Guerra and Alex Claudio can be retained, as can pop-up setup man Jay Jackson and innings leader Zach Davies. Then there are wild cards in Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes.

Make no mistake about it though — the Milwaukee Brewers will require a reload this winter. Our beloved local nine needs to add impact, whether that means retaining some players who spent 2019 in the Menomonee Valley or bringing in other top talent from the outside. The farm system is lacking for top level depth so free agency may be the more fruitful avenue for Slingin’ Stearns to pursue. The Brewers only have $51.9 mil in contract guarantees on the books for 2020 before contract options and arbitration-eligible players. The club opened the year with a franchise-record payroll in excess of $120 mil in 2019 and there should be room to spend to get back to that level. Perhaps drawing more than 2.9 million fans (the third year in a row of pushing at least 2.6 million people through the turnstiles) and earning a second consecutive postseason berth will help convince owner Mark Attanasio and his top executive to further push the envelope in terms of the budget.

It took a miraculous run in September for the Milwaukee Brewers to earn their Wild Card berth, and then in an instant, the high of that 20-7 streak was snuffed out on an mortifying miscue by a rookie in the middle of the All-Star closer’s meltdown. Now, the focus turns to the pivotal offseason that this franchise faces within the ever-dwindling Yelich era.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs