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Milwaukee Brewers 2019-2020 offseason preview

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Miami Marlins v Milwaukee Brewers

Congratulations are due to the Washington Nationals, who last night completed an improbable postseason run that included wins in five potential elimination games on their way to the first World Series victory in franchise history (including back to the Montreal years). Maybe for some, the fact that our Milwaukee Brewers were ousted by the team that eventually hoisted the trophy softens the blow of a late Wild Card game loss. Either way, the time has officially come to turn our attention over to the offseason.

This looks like it will be a pivotal winter for our beloved local nine. Mark Attanasio and his ownership group invested heavily in the team last year with a club-record payroll highlighted by offseason signings of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas. That spending paid off in the form of a second consecutive postseason berth, though another scorching September run was needed in order to secure the National League’s second Wild Card slot. The team largely underperformed for the first five months of the season before that, besieged by injury and attrition from several key players all over the roster.

Now, many of the leading men from that late-season streak are set to depart for the open market. David Stearns’ two most significant trade deadline acquisitions — starter Jordan Lyles and reliever Drew Pomeranz — will hit free agency after arguably the most dominant stretches of their respective careers. There have already been rumors about interest in retaining Lyles. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez and righty Jay Jackson are also scheduled to become free agents after playing large roles during the pennant race. So too is Matt Albers, but loss that is less consequential as he nears the sunset of his career.

Last winter’s splashes were both agreed to one-year pacts with mutual options, and the duo of Moose and Grandal are expected to head back into the open waters of free agency. Slingin’ Stearns also has some thinking to regarding about the futures of Chase Anderson and Eric Thames, who both have club options for 2020. Manny Pina’s team option looks like a near-lock to be exercised. Now that the Fall Classic has ended, the front office has the next five days to exclusively negotiate with their eligible free agents as well as decide what they want to do about the players with contract options. Unrestricted free agency will begin next week.

As the offseason continues, more decisions will have to be made. November 20th brings the deadline for Rule 5 Draft protection, which usually spurs a flurry of waiver-wire action. Milwaukee has a handful of notable prospects that they’ll have to consider adding to the 40-man roster, including Zack Brown, Lucas Erceg, Corey Ray, Braden Webb, and recent trade acquisition JP Feyereisen. After that comes the deadline to decide whether or not to offer contract to arbitration-eligible players or non-tender them on December 2nd, and that typically floods the market with a second round of free agents. The Brewers had sixteen arbitration-eligible players under club control when the regular season concluded, but have already granted veteran utilityman Hernan Perez free agency after he was outrighted to the minors. Non-tender candidates among the remaining 15 arb-eligibles include: Travis Shaw, Jimmy Nelson, Orlando Arcia, Alex Claudio, Cory Spangenberg, Tyler Austin, and Tyler Saladino.

As things stand now, payroll for 2020 initally projects to land somewhere in the vicinity of $105-$110 mil assuming that Stearns and his brain trust decide to bring back all the arbitration-eligible players, exercise the available club options, and retain the players already under guaranteed contracts. Using last year’s record-setting Opening Day payroll of ~$123 mil (per Cot’s Contract) as the ceiling, that doesn’t leave a ton of room for supplementary moves. And while the foundation of the roster includes Christian Yelich, Josh Hader, and Brandon Woodruff, there are more questions than answers about the supporting cast around them.

Should Chase Anderson indeed return, the starting rotation reads like this:

  1. Woodruff
  2. Adrian Houser
  3. Zach Davies
  4. Anderson
  5. ???

Brent Suter, Jake Faria, and Junior Guerra have all seen success as starters during their careers and could be considered rotational depth, but all of them have more recently pitched out of the bullpen. Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes are total mysteries after disastrous seasons in 2019, and their respective futures might be as relievers, as well. Top pitching prospects Brown and Trey Supak both floundered in Triple-A. This is almost certainly a spot on the roster where multiple additions (of varying degrees of impact) will be required.

Things aren’t quite as desperate in the bullpen, which is anchored by two-time reigning Senior Circuit Reliever of the Year Josh Hader. Former closer Corey Knebel figures to return from Tommy John surgery at some point next year. Unsung Hero Junior Guerra can be retained via arbitration, as can lefty-hander Alex Claudio. Deolis Guerra was re-signed to a big league contract and will factor into the relief corps for 2020, and Suter could settle into a middle relief role after dominating as a fireman in September. Fastball Freddy, too, saw a dramatic increase in velocity and showed quite of promise at times as a reliever.

Having a Most Valuable Player award winner — and potentially the back-to-back one, to boot — in the lineup is always a good place to start, and Christian Yelich figures to play the main protagonist on offense again in 2020. Rookie sensation Keston Hiura also looks like he could be a long-term hitting star at the keystone, though he needs to shore things up on defense. Eric Thames might need to be brought back out of necessity to man the cold corner, and he could form a right/left tandem over there with Ryan Braun. The soon-to-be 36 year old is now a part-time player who requires regular rest, and though he is no longer a perennial MVP candidate, he remains a potent bat even as he ages. Speaking of veterans getting long in the tooth, Lorenzo Cain endured his worst season at the plate since 2013 and will be 34 next year. Some stats suggest that he suffered from terrible luck, though, so there is optimism that he can bounce back to some degree. And he still provides elite defense in center field, hoping to capture that elusive first Gold Glove award this winter.

The possible losses of Moustakas in the infield and Grandal behind the dish would leave the offense with some gaping holes, however. Who knows if Travis Shaw will be able to recover from his hideous performance that led to multiple sentences to the minor leagues. In fact, the whole left side of the infield might be up in the air after Stearns and Craig Counsell both admitted that better production is needed from the shortstop position going forward. Since debuting in 2015, Orlando Arcia has been valued as below replacement-level by Fangraphs in three of his four big league seasons and he is the worst hitter in franchise history according to wRC+ (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). Though talented on defense, he’s been prone to lapses in concentration and hasn’t graded out as the premium gloveman that he was advertised to be. Even if he is retained, moving Arcia to a utility role or at least bringing in someone to legitimately compete with him for playing time at the six should be something that the front office strongly considers. At catcher, Manny Pina can provide stellar defense along with a roughly average bat for the position, but that would still be a major drop-off from Grandal, who set a new club record for home runs by a backstop.

If Stearns hopes to truly maximize the Christian Yelich window before the superstar can leave via free agency in three years, he will have to develop a way to strategically reload his club with talent this winter. There is shoring up that needs to be done all over the roster in ways both big and small, and unfortunately, Milwaukee’s top baseball executive is apparently lacking in both financial flexibility and prospect capital with which to make an impactful trade (Milwaukee has only one top-100 prospect, A-ball shortstop Brice Turang). He’ll need to keep in mind, too, that rule changes like the three-batter minimum, 26-man active rosters, and the 28-player limit when rosters expand. The 2019-2020 offseason may prove to be the greatest challenge that President Stearns has faced to this point in his tenure in the Cream City, testing just how creative he can get when it comes to building a winning roster.