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An early look at the Milwaukee Brewers projected payroll for 2021

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Let’s take a peek at the payroll situation as we head into the winter.

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

After two straight postseason appearances in 2018 and 2019, the Milwaukee Brewers slashed payroll last winter, with owner Mark Attanasio saying that the team had operated “in the red” after the end-of-season payroll had risen past $120 million in 2019. David Stearns and company executed a major roster retooling while cutting salaries down under $100 mil as Spring Training began last February, then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

We ended up getting a shortened, 60-game campaign in 2020 with no fans in attendance (during the regular season, at least) and players receiving prorated salaries for their work amid the public health crisis. That meant that the Brewers’ actual Opening Day payroll ended up at just over $39 mil this year (per Cot’s Contracts). The Cream City Nine struggled to a 29-31 record, and while that did allow them to sneak into the expanded playoffs as the #8 and final seed on the Senior Circuit, they were quickly dispatched in the opening round by the eventual champion Dodgers.

Milwaukee’s ownership and front office have talked in the past about how much impact their attendance has on spending capability, and shortly after this season concluded, Stearns was suggesting that further cuts could be on the horizon. (Indeed, the Brewers already trimmed back their scouting department as well as things on the business side of the organization, including in the ticket office and the social media team). With revenues down across the game and this org constantly talking about their small market status, it is reasonable to expect that player spending will fall even further heading into the 2021 season. Here is an early picture of where things stand:

Total: $81,795,000

There are a few caveats to this chart, of course:

  • Lorenzo Cain has deferred money in his contract which will be paid out at a later date.
  • Cain, Christian Yelich, Josh Lindblom, and Freddy Peralta have incentives built into their deals.
  • The Brewers paid $5.5 mil in option buyouts to Ryan Braun, Jedd Gyorko, and Eric Sogard. Matt Garza has one final deferred money payout of $2 mil in 2021 before his contract is officially off the books. Braun’s deferred money payouts begin in 2022, and Cain’s begin in 2023. Yelich will also have deferred money payouts, but those are well down the road.
  • Arbitration-eligible players Ben Gamel, Orlando Arcia, Omar Narvaez, Manny Pina, Dan Vogelbach, Jace Peterson, Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and Alex Claudio do not yet have their salaries officially set for 2020. The figures provided are an average of the three different projections that MLB Trade Rumors has put out this year. Not all of these players are guaranteed to have their contracts tendered, either; Ryon Healy was arb-eligible before he was outrighted and became a free agent.
  • The MLB minimum salary in 2020 was $563,500 (prorated) but there will be a cost-of-living increase coming in 2021, though the exact amount has not yet been announced. For this exercise, the minimum has been set at $600,000 to account for the impending raise as well as those who may make a small amount above the league minimum.
  • Pre-arb roster spots aren’t set in stone, but they don’t really affect the main topic of this post. So if you don’t any of the league-minimum players on this list like Billy McKinney or Eric Lauer, swap them out for another pre-arb player. It won’t affect the payroll projection.

The Brewers set a franchise record by making their third-straight postseason this past summer, but if they want to compete for a fourth consecutive playoff berth next year, they’ll probably have to get creative when it comes to assembling the roster. After declining all of their contract options, the team is projected for a payroll just shy of $82 mil in 2021 (assuming a full 162-game schedule is played) as things stand right now. But that number is likely to fall even further as the non-tender deadline approaches; tough decisions will have to be made regarding the status of underperformers like Omar Narvaez and Corey Knebel as well as borderline depth players like Gamel, Pina, Peterson, and Claudio.

Making things even more difficult is the fact that we don’t yet know how teams will be able to build their rosters for 2021. There has been a lot of back-and-forth lately about whether or not the universal DH will return, with the latest reports making it seem like it could be a “safe bet” that the designated hitter will be back in the National League. Could that be enough reason to keep Daniel Vogelbach around after he impressed as a midseason waiver claim? Or does that open the door a little further for Ryan Braun’s return?

One thing that is for certain is that Slingin’ Stearns will need to find some offensive help for his club this winter. First base and third base are open questions at this point. Bounce backs are needed from Hiura, Yelich, Garcia, and Narvaez (if he is retained). What can be expected of Lorenzo Cain after a year off as he heads into his age-35 season? Will Luis Urias step up; will Orlando Arcia and his projected arb salary be moved to make to make room for him at short?

The Brewers could go any number of directions with their roster this offseason and be justified in doing so. The free agent market is expected to be flooded, especially after the non-tender deadline, so there could be a lot of owner-friendly deals to be found. This is sure to be an offseason unlike any we have ever seen before.

Contract information courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts
Arbitration projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors