How does one summarize the experience of watching the 2020 Milwaukee Brewers? Frustrating and disappointing are probably two words you would hear plenty if you asked fans for their thoughts.
The season had bright spots, to be sure. Corbin Burnes completely overhauled his approach on the mound, and a new and improved sinker-cutter combination carried him to a 2.11 ERA, 2.04 FIP, and 2.81 DRA. Devin Williams allowed his first and only earned run of the year in his first outing, using his ridiculous changeup to strike out 53% of opposing hitters en route to a National League Reliever of the Year Award. Dan Vogelbach slashed .328/.418/.569 after being claimed off waivers, quickly capturing the heart of Brewers fans (as well as drawing Bill Schroeder’s adoration with a refined opposite-field stroke). Jedd Gyorko rode a hot streak that lasted much of the season to a 118 wRC+.
That was not enough to overcome the long list of negatives. Christian Yelich’s quality of contact remained elite, but his strikeout rate ballooned to 30.8%. While his 112 wRC+ was still above-average, it was the lowest of his career and far below the production the Brewers were expecting from the former NL MVP. Keston Hiura’s swing and miss troubles — particularly against fastballs — limited him to an 87 wRC+. Omar Narvaez improved his defense, but his offense cratered. He punched out 31% of the time and limped to a .262 wOBA. A questionable approach resulted in a tough season for Adrian Houser. Brock Holt managed just three hits, and Justin Smoak posted a .642 OPS. Both players were eventually released. Ryan Braun struggled to stay healthy in what may have been his final season in Milwaukee.
The Brewers never spent a day of the 60-game season over .500, finishing at 29-31. They still managed to stumble backward into the postseason thanks to Rob Manfred’s brilliant idea to expand the playoff field to include over half of the league, but they were promptly swept by the Dodgers in the NL Wild Card Series. The fact is that the 2020 Brewers were bad. President of Baseball Operations David Stearns acknowledged as much. After an underwhelming season that featured a substantially different roster than the 2018 and 2019 teams, the state of the team is uncertain.
The good news is that the Brewers still have a clear core of controllable talent, particularly on the pitching side. After years of struggling to develop homegrown starters, they now have Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes poised to lead their rotation for the foreseeable future. Houser shouldn’t be slept on even after his tough 2020 campaign. Williams is a fixture in the late innings, and Freddy Peralta has settled nicely into a full-time relief role. Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa showcased electric stuff in their brief debut seasons and are dark-horse candidates to emerge as trustworthy options in the bullpen.
Under the Stearns regime, the Brewers have always been a pitching-first team. The offense has yet to produce an above-average season, but the pitching has been quietly effective. The staff has the same general framework each year. There is the quartet of Woodruff, Burnes, Peralta, and Houser, all of whom have functioned as both starters and relievers depending on where the team needs them most. They are surrounded by a group of veteran starters from whom Craig Counsell is able to draw solid results with his new-school management style; examples include Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, Junior Guerra, Chase Anderson, and Brett Anderson. Shifting also plays a large role in the organization’s run-prevention strategy. National pundits may scoff at it, but the strategy has worked.
With Woodruff, Burnes, Peralta, and Williams settling into meaningful big-league roles, the pitching staff looks more promising now than it has in quite some time. The opposite is true of the position player group. A swing and miss problem stands between Keston Hiura and being one of baseball’s best offensive second basemen. Whether he can manage his strikeouts remains to be seen. There is no immediate answer at third base, especially after Luis Urias sustained a total power outage after undergoing wrist surgery in January. First base is also wide open.
If there is any good news, it is that there should be improvement from within. Many players ought to look more like themselves with a more traditional spring training that is not interrupted by a three-month shutdown. Yelich is a strong bet to return to All-Star form, Avisail Garcia should see an uptick in performance, and Omar Narvaez’s 59 wRC+ was hopefully an anomaly.
If Narvaez returns, that is. The Brewers will presumably open next season with two catchers on their roster, and each of their three options comes with question marks. Narvaez was miserable at the plate. Manny Pina has been a consistently solid part-time backstop in Milwaukee, playing strong defense and posting a 90 wRC+ since the start of 2017. However, he will be entering his age-34 season and is recovering from September surgery for a torn meniscus. After Pina’s injury, Jacob Nottingham stepped in. He showcased strong blocking and pitch framing ability, teased some power (four homers in 54 plate appearances), and has a strong rapport with co-aces Woodruff and Burnes. Unfortunately, Nottingham’s offensive contributions were mostly limited to his home run stroke, and he batted just .188 with a .278 OBP.
Nottingham is out of options, and Narvaez and Pina are both arbitration-eligible. Could Nottingham’s familiarity with the young studs in the rotation make one of the latter a non-tender candidate, or will his pedestrian minor-league stats and lack of a track record make Stearns comfortable with trading him or exposing him to waivers?
Speaking of arbitration, the Brewers have some notable names due for raises this winter. In addition to two of their backstops, Woodruff, Vogelbach, Josh Hader, Orlando Arcia, Ben Gamel, Corey Knebel, Alex Claudio, and Jace Peterson are also up for arbitration. Knebel lost a few ticks of velocity after returning from Tommy John surgery, resulting in career-worst strikeout and swinging strike rates. He and Claudio could both find themselves cut loose. Gamel and Vogelbach are not locks to return, either. The current plan is for the National League to lose the DH next season, which leaves Vogelbach without a role. Gamel, meanwhile, has posted a 88 wRC+ in two seasons in Milwaukee. Peterson may be non-tendered, but he could be retained as depth because he isn’t projected for a notable raise.
Stearns also had to make decisions on contract options. Sogard and Gyorko both had club options for 2021, and both were declined. Ryan Braun’s $15 million mutual option has been declined, as was expected. He has yet to decide if he will retire or attempt to suit up again next year. The former face of the franchise can still hit, but his health has deteriorated to the point that he likely needs to be a full-time DH to continue his career.
The other player guaranteed to hit free agency is Brett Anderson. For the second consecutive season, the soft-tossing southpaw was able to beat his uninspiring peripherals by keeping the ball on the ground. A case can be made that he is an easily replaceable pitcher, so whether he returns or not is a tossup.
Corner infield bats must be atop Stearns’ offseason wish list. The Brewers got a combined .293 wOBA from their first and third basemen, which ranked 28th in the league. It would also be wise to bring in a new oft-used fourth outfielder to supplant Gamel. Lorenzo Cain will be entering his age-35 season, and how regularly he can play is uncertain. Gamel was thrust into a more regular role when Cain opted out of the 2020 season, and his bat was not up to the task.
Fortunately, there are available players that would fit Milwaukee’s needs. DJ LeMahieu may not be a realistic option for infield help, but Tommy La Stella would be a great fit. C.J. Cron or Carlos Santana could slot in at first base on a cheap one-year deal. Justin Turner figures to be available on a short-term contract, albeit at a higher annual value. Signing Michael Brantley would give the Brewers a solid bat who can split time with Cain in the outfield.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: will Mark Attanasio be willing to spend? It has been anticipated that baseball’s financial losses due to the shortened season and no revenue from ticket sales have set the stage for payroll slashes across the sport, and some surprising decisions on club options over the past few days have confirmed that suspicion. Last Monday, it was reported that MLB lost $3.1 billion in revenue, and owners have already begun laying off hundreds of front office employees. The Milwaukee Business Journal estimates that the Brewers lost $178.3 million in game-day revenue.
Stearns has already hinted that the payroll might be reduced in 2021.
Stearns says after having the two highest payrolls in club history the past two seasons, it's uncertain the Brewers will be able to do that again in 2021 considering the drop in revenue without ticket sales.— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) October 5, 2020
In addition to that comment, the Brewers’ offseason got off to an ominous start from a financial standpoint, as Jedd Gyorko’s $4.5 million club option was apparently deemed too expensive.
It’s worth noting that while every team likely lost revenue this year, player payrolls were reduced by one-third in accordance with the schedule being shortened to 60 games. The Brewers citing 2020 as one of the highest payrolls in franchise history is misleading. They actually ran a payroll of just under $40 million (it would have been just over $100 million had the season played out like normal). Owner Mark Attanasio claimed that the organization was “in the red” after the 2019 season to justify cost-cutting, and the stage is set for him to cry poor once again. The validity of such claims is always in question when the exact financial figures are only available to those inside the organization. The owner is under no obligation to open the books to the public, but that also opens the door for understandable skepticism from fans. If pressed on any financial claims made over the next few months, expect Attanasio to get as much mileage out of the “three consecutive postseason appearances” line as he can, claiming that he exceeded the typical budget restrictions during that span and that fans should be grateful for it.
Payroll discussions are not fun, but it is going to be the defining theme of the offseason. David Stearns still has a core to build around, but he cannot do so without clearance to spend money. The franchise could go in two drastically different directions at this point. Attanasio could shell out some cash, Stearns could take advantage of what figures to be a depressed free-agent market, and the Brewers will have enough offense to support their pitching staff and make another playoff run. The other reality—one that looks far more likely, unfortunately—features further reducing the payroll, an offseason that consists mostly of scrap-heap pickups, and another underwhelming season that puts the Brewers closer to a rebuild than a championship. A critical winter lies ahead in Milwaukee.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus
Payroll figures courtesy of Spotrac