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What went wrong for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2020

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LoCain’s opt out, poor offseason decisions, Houser’s regression, and terrible offense led to a less than stellar season

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season was a year of ups and downs for the Milwaukee Brewers. They made the playoffs for the third consecutive season for the first time in the franchise’s existence. The team saw the emergence of two young pitchers, Corbin Burnes and Devin Williams, which is cause for genuine excitement. Yet so much went wrong for the Brew Crew in 2020.

LoCain opts out

The Milwaukee Brewers are just a better team when Lorenzo Cain is in the lineup. Coming to Milwaukee as a free agent prior to the 2018 season, Cain played Gold Glove level defense and provided a consistent on-base presence at the top of the line-up (.395 OBP). An injury plagued 2019 led to a down year for the Brewers’ center fielder at the plate. Yet he still played high caliber defense that culminated in his first Gold Glove award.

Playing five games in 2020, LoCain looked to be healthy and in line to have a strong season. In fact, he was getting on base at a very high clip (.429 OBP). Then the first scheduled series with St. Louis occurred with Cardinals’ players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19. Cain followed the news by choosing to opt out for the rest of the season with an added motive of improving his relationship with God.

Milwaukee missed him in a huge way. The Brewers as a team produced a paltry .313 OBP for 2020. Cain’s presence on the base paths has the added benefit of creating pressure on opposing defenses that no other Brewers’ player can really replicate.

Where he was possibly missed most of all is on defense. With Cain’s absence, Avisail Garcia and Ben Gamel manned centerfield. The lack of range lost was evident. Watching others play the position that were not named Lorenzo Cain demonstrated his importance in a significant way. Defensive metrics fail to truly capture Cain’s ability in the outfield. When seen day in and day, Cain is the type of player whose importance becomes even more apparent.

There is also the leadership factor that seemed to be missing from this team. LoCain plays as smart and instinctive as any player in the game. He plays winning baseball, and he is probably one of the main leaders in the clubhouse that make that winning culture prevalent.

Stearns’ offseason moves were an epic fail

Coming into 2020, the Brewers’ front office was not going to keep all of their free agents. Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Jordan Lyles, and Drew Pomeranz played themselves into big contracts, and they got them. The Brewers’ front office was obviously looking to find cost savings wherever they could. The trade of Chase Anderson to Toronto is a case and point. Trading Zach Davies to San Diego was part of that thinking as well.

Just think about who was not on the 2020 roster that was in 2019. Cain after five games, Grandal, Moustakas, Pomeranz, Lyles, Anderson, Davies, Junior Guerra, Jeremy Jeffress, Gio Gonzalez, Jesus Aguilar, Eric Thames, Hernan Perez, Travis Shaw, and Trent Grisham.

Not everyone of the above-mentioned players played well in 2020. Thames was a 67 wRC+, and Chase Anderson pitched to a 7.22 ERA as examples. Nonetheless, many of these players did play well, and would have been difference makers for the Brew Crew in 2020.

There was very little possibility of Mike Moustakas remaining in Milwaukee, but he provided leadership and a solid bat for Cincinnati. Yasmani Grandal led a young group of future All-Stars in Chicago while getting on base and framing pitches at a high level. Just signing one of these two would have filled the vast void left at the catcher and third base positions.

The trade to get Luis Urias and Eric Lauer from San Diego for Zach Davies and Trent Grisham was a short-term loss for the 2020 season. The hope is that this trade does not come back to bite David Stearns and Company. Davies pitched well for San Diego logging a 2.73 ERA and 3.88 FIP. Trent Grisham was the lead off hitter for a playoff team, and he produced in the role with a 121 wRC+. Davies would have offered a consistent back-of-the-rotation arm that gave the Brewers a chance to win night in and night out. Grisham would have competently patrolled center field once Cain left the team. He also would have put up some really nice offensive numbers in Miller Park. The players returned to Milwaukee in the trade still have plenty of time to produce, but they made a minimal contribution in 2020.

It is unfair to place a lot of blame on Stearns for not signing high priced players. However, the replacements played at below replacement level, the exception being Jedd Gyorko. To start, Avisail Garcia played an inadequate center. He also was not much of a threat at the plate for this season, slashing .238/.333/.326. Yet he may have been the best player on the list of players I am about to identify.

Omar Narvarez could arguably be the worst. Evidently Narvarez had very good framing numbers. Offensively he struggled mightily, producing a 59 wRC+.

The combination of Justin Smoak/Ryon Healy/Logan Morrison proved disastrous. The trio seemed to be past their ability to contribute at the plate. The gamble that at least one of them would contribute was one of bigger miscalculations made by the Milwaukee front office.

Eric Sogard always plays steadily on defense all over the diamond, but he failed to replicate anything close to his numbers at the plate in 2019. Josh Lindblom did not transition effectively to solidify the back-of-the-rotation. With so much banked success in the acquisition and trade department, David Stearns has a long rope. Nonetheless, 2020 was not a good year for the Brewers’ front office.

Adrian Houser regressed

Prior to 2020, there was some excitement about Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser pitching at the top of the Brewers’ rotation. Woodruff was good. Houser was not. Houser showed promise producing a solid 3.72 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 2019. The 2020 season was a struggle as he produced a 5.30 ERA and 4.82 FIP. Houser still has the makings of a nice middle-of-the-rotation arm, but he was not a good pitcher in 2020.

Offensive offense

Milwaukee could not hit in 2020, and it all begins with the Christian Yelich. While the former MVP looked at times like he would break out, it never really materialized. The result was an un-Yelich-like .205/.356/.430 slash. Yelich will be highly motivated going into 2021, but he probably would like to put the memory of 2020 behind him.

Keston Hiura is supposed to be a hitting savant. He was anything but in 2020 producing a slash line of .212/.297/.410. For someone that scouting reports had a hitting grade of 60-70, he strikes out a lot. In fact, he strikes out a lot period. Whiffing almost 35% of the time in 2020, there has to be cause for long term concern in Milwaukee for Hiura at second base.

As mentioned, the only offseason acquisition that hit for Milwaukee was Jedd Gyorko. Only Gyorko, Yelich, mid-season pick up Daniel Vogelbach, Jace Peterson, and Manny Pina produced an above league-average wRC+. Ryan Braun and Orlando Arcia were close to league average, but look at the following wRC+ metrics for other Brewers’ hitters.

The hitting results for the Brewers were not good as a result. The team slash line was .223/.313/.389 and a 89 wRC+. A few big run producing games inflate these numbers a bit as well. In the end, Milwaukee ranked #24 in all of baseball in on-base percentage. That type of team offensive production does not really get it done. David Stearns and Company almost certainly will be trying to correct this going into 2021.