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Don’t buy into the narrative that the Brewers “could not afford” to re-sign Yasmani Grandal

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Milwaukee can’t reasonably cry poor right now.

Wild Card Round - Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Yasmani Grandal signed with the Chicago White Sox yesterday, and good for him. After getting saddled with the Qualifying Offer when he became a free agent following the 2018 season, he spurned a multiyear offer from the Mets that he didn’t believe paid him what he was worth. He settled for a one-year pact with an $18.25 mil guarantee with Milwaukee to set a new precedent for backstops in terms of AAV, then posted his fifth consecutive season of at least 4 fWAR while helping lead the Cream City Nine to the Wild Card Game. That was enough to convince the Chicago’s south side squad to guarantee Grandal $18.25 mil per year for the next four seasons, coming to a grand total of $73 mil.

There are, of course, myriad possibilities as to why Grandal chose to leave town rather than re-up with Milwaukee. But one narrative that is being pushed — and one that you should not buy into — is that the Brewers “couldn’t afford” to re-sign the best backstop in the game to the same contract that he received from Chicago.

After two straight seasons of fielding the lowest payrolls in baseball from 2016-17, Mark Attanasio and his ownership group increased Opening Day player spending by close to 50% in 2018 and again in 2019, and the franchise was rewarded with consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 1981-82. The Brewers set a new record to begin the 2019 season with an Opening Day payroll in excess of $122 mil, per Cot’s Contracts. They continued to add monetary commitments throughout the year and by the end of the season, had pushed total personnel expenditures up over $130 mil according to Competitive Balance Tax calculations.

But now that the season is over and those who were eligible have become free agents, we are looking at an entirely different payroll picture. When one accounts for the players who are under guaranteed contracts for 2020, projected arbitration raises for those still on the roster (with the non-tender deadline still upcoming), and the ones earning near the league minimum salary, the Brewers currently project for an Opening Day payroll below $90 mil.

So if the goal for 2020 is to at least match last season’s spending, that means that David Stearns and company should have about $40 mil to dole out during the current offseason. Signing Grandal to the deal that he received from the White Sox at $18.25 mil per year would not have accounted for even half of that sum. And, after two straight of drawing 2.8+ million fans to the park (and at least 2.5 million in 12 of the last 13 years), consecutive postseason berths and the additional revenue that comes along with that, and a re-branding effort this winter that figures to generate significant additional merchandise sales, one could argue that if the Brewers are truly interested in maximizing the Christian Yelich window (through 2022), Attanasio should set another Opening Day payroll record in 2020.

Additionally, long-term ramifications to the payroll down the road are highly overblown. Ryan Braun’s contract comes off the books after 2020, which, as things stand now, leaves Lorenzo Cain and Yelich as the only two guaranteed contracts for the franchise going forward. Milwaukee has only $35 mil in contract guarantees for 2021, and if the Brewers make the obvious choice to exercise Yelich’s option in 2022, that’d mean $33 mil in guaranteed payroll commitments (otherwise it’s $19.25 mil accounting for Cain’s contract and Yelich’s buyout). Beginning in 2023, the Brewers have zero guaranteed payroll dollars committed to anyone.

But what about arb-eligible players? Again, the projections don’t have Brewers committing a ton of money in arbitration during the four seasons that Grandal would have been on the books. Josh Hader is the most notable name after becoming arb-eligible as a Super Two player this winter, but given how the system works (where it’s generally thought that players earn 40% of their free market value in year one, 60% in year two, and 80% in year three), he won’t start making significant money ($10+ mil) until the 2022 season. Zach Davies projects to make $5 mil this year and he will not earn more than $10 mil in 2021 before reaching free agency. Rotation stalwart Brandon Woodruff doesn’t become arbitration eligible until 2021. Adrian Houser has two more years until he becomes arb-eligible. Rookie star Keston Hiura has three more seasons until his first year of eligibility.

But what if the Brewers want to give Yelich a mega-extension before he’s able to hit free agency after the 2022 season (assuming his option is picked up)? Again, Grandal’s contract would be basically a non-factor. At that point, Yaz would have only one year left on his deal at $18.25 mil. Again, as mentioned above, the Brewers otherwise have zero guaranteed dollars committed to the payroll in 2023 and beyond. Having one more year of Grandal to plan around would not have been much of a hindrance to Milwaukee offering what figures to be a six or seven year deal to Christian Yelich.

The Brewers reportedly made multiple offers to Grandal before he signed with the White Sox. Perhaps the team was unwilling to go past three seasons with a high AAV, or maybe they wanted the fourth year to be an option. It is possible that Grandal simply preferred the idea of living in Chicago, or that he was enticed by the idea of helping bring the White Sox out of their rebuild and into a new era of competitive baseball.

There are any number of reasons as to why Yasmani Grandal won’t be returning to Milwaukee next season, and there is still plenty of time left in the offseason for Slingin’ Stearns to spread around the payroll dollars that are available to him. But given the context of the situation, the idea that the Brewers just couldn’t afford to re-sign Grandal is laughable and one that fans should not accept.