2019 salary: $687,600
2020 projection: $4,600,000
Let’s just be clear about this off the bat — of course the Brewers should, and will, tender a contract to Josh Hader before Monday’s deadline.
This is more about what Hader’s surprise qualification as a Super Two player means going forward, and the effect it may have had on the Brewers’ offseason plans.
While we would hope the Brewers’ front office knew it was a possibility, Hader being arbitration-eligible after two years of service time was a surprise for most of us who had figured he was well clear of the service time cutoff. But with so many teams manipulating service time for their prospects in hopes of guaranteeing those three years of minimum salaries (or, more accurately, avoiding paying that fourth year of arbitration), the cutoff for Super Two status ended up falling on Hader’s exact amount of service time.
That means the biggest bullpen weapon in baseball is about to get more expensive more quickly, with a projected raise of nearly $4 million this winter. While likely not the only reason, Hader’s impending raise is probably at least *a* reason the Brewers have been trying to find opportunities to save money elsewhere in the payroll — including the possible non-tender of Junior Guerra, who coincidentally was projected to earn roughly the amount of Hader’s expected raise.
The Brewers have been able to lean on their bullpen so much over the past two seasons in large part because Hader and other key members of the bullpen were so cheap, allowing David Stearns to spend and build depth elsewhere on the roster, like bringing back Mike Moustakas after Travis Shaw’s strong 2018 season (a move that ended up being crucial with Shaw’s lost 2019) and luring Yasmani Grandal to Milwaukee on a lucrative one-year deal.
Having to actually start paying Hader closer to his worth (although still getting a bargain on his total value to the team) will make it harder to jump on those free agent opportunities late in the winter. As a result, most of Stearns’ moves early this offseason have been about shuffling pieces to try to find savings wherever he can — whether it’s trading the arbitration-eligible Chase Anderson and Zach Davies for pre-arb players, declining Eric Thames’ option, or deciding Guerra’s solid year in middle relief could be done by someone making the minimum.
That concern is only going to grow over the next few years as Hader’s salary continues to rise. The Brewers won’t have much of a problem paying Hader $4.6 million this year, but if he continues to pitch as he has over the past couple years that number could be $8 million or more next winter, and into 8 figures the year after that.
In a lot of ways, Hader’s 2019 was actually better than his historic 2018 season. He won the NL’s Reliever of the Year award after putting up a 2.62 ERA in 75.2 innings over 61 appearances, increasing his strikeout rate from 46.7% of the batters he faced in 2018 to 47.8% in 2019. He also did great work to limit his walks, cutting that rate from 9.8% of the batters he faced in 2018 to just 6.9% this past year. Of course, working in the zone that much more — and relying a little too much on his fastball the first half of the season — contributed to his home run spike.
The Brewers could pursue a multi-year deal to try to lock down some of those salaries going forward and add some cost certainty, but multi-year deals for any reliever — even Josh Hader — are a risky proposition and tend not to be the best course of action for organizations who are told they can’t spend freely. Simply put, if the Brewers are going to be limited to a payroll below $120 million, it’s hard to build a playoff contending roster with a relief pitcher, no matter how much of a game-changer he is, making $15 million of that total.
Luckily, right now that’s a problem for Future David Stearns. There’s little doubt that Hader will be a member of the 2020 Brewers, and while the future escalating salaries may have some tempted to look at trade opportunities to sell at the highest possible value, as of now Hader may be the only proven reliable reliever in next year’s bullpen.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs