By every indication, the Milwaukee Brewers will once again be looking for ways to reduce payroll heading into the 2021 season.
After the season, Baseball Ops President David Stearns told reporters: “I think budgets are tighter everywhere right now, for most businesses. You know, over the last two years we’ve run the two highest payrolls in the history of this organization. And I think it’s uncertain at this point, as we look forward, whether our payroll next year would be at that same level.” The idea that the Brewers ran a record-high payroll in 2020 is rather misleading as the club only dished out about $40 mil in prorated salaries during the shortened season, but the rhetoric around the club has been quick to point out the loss in potential revenue thanks to playing without fans (suggested to be $100+ mil) as well as uncertainty about what the 2021 season will look like.
Recently, Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel speculated that the salaries of Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Avisail Garcia could represent close to 50% of the payroll in 2021. If that assumption comes to fruition, it would mean the Brewers would be paying about $84 mil in total salaries, assuming a 162-game regular season. That’s not far off from the $85 mil limit that was presented in this winter’s BCB Offseason Plan Project. Currently, the payroll projection in advance of the non-tender deadline stands at about $82 mil.
The Brewers need to address several areas of their roster this offseason if they wish to be competitive again in 2021, especially if the expanded playoffs go away. With supposedly limited resources, however, the creativity of Slingin’ Stearns and his newly-minted GM Matt Arnold will likely be tested as they once again look towards the lower tiers of free agency. With “flexibility” being one of the big buzz words around MLB these days, perhaps the team would explore trying to move one of their larger contracts in order to free up resources for other spots on the roster?
Yelich isn’t going anywhere, obviously. And Avisail Garcia’s value is close to nil after posting an 81 wRC+ and .088 ISO in 2020. That leaves Cain, who opted out after the first week of this past summer and is currently projected to the team’s highest paid player in 2021.
With his age, contract situation, and lack of 2020 at-bats, Cain isn’t an obvious trade candidate. But after dealing with nagging injuries throughout the 2019 season, and taking time off to reconnect with his faith and be with his family, perhaps the Brewers can convince potential suitors that Cain will emerge healthy and refreshed heading into 2021.
Cain turns 35 next April and has two years and $35 mil remaining on the free agent deal he signed prior to the 2018 season. He was an All-Star and down-ballot MVP candidate during his first year back in Milwaukee as the team charged into the NLCS, and though his surface numbers took a step back in 2019, many indicators suggest that Lorenzo was far better than the bottom-line production said that season. He didn’t walk as much as he did the year before, but his strikeout rate (17%) was still lower than his career average. Statcast data via Fangraphs shows that Cain actually increased his average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard contact rate from 2018 to 2019. His batted ball rates were all within a few points of his usual totals, and yet Cain finished with the lowest batting average on balls in play (.301) of his parts of 11 MLB seasons.
That low BABIP dragged Cain’s overall line down to .260/.325/.372 for a .302 wOBA and 83 wRC+. Statcast’s expected metrics, however, thought Cain should have hit .292 (in the top 10% of the league) with a .422 slugging percentage based on his quality of contact. His expected wOBA was 38 points higher than his actual at .340; in 2018, Lorenzo finished with a .359 wOBA and .350 xwOBA.
Now, Cain has lost a step since he first signed that deal, with his sprint speed falling by 0.8 seconds from 2018 to 2019 before he finished in the 31st percentile in sprint speed during his brief sample last season. But if those first five games were any indication, Cain was well on his way to a bounce back at the plate — he took more walks (3) than strikeouts (2) in 21 plate appearances while hitting .333/.429/.389. He also saved a run in 44.0 innings in center according to DRS; he won his first Gold Glove in 2019, racked up 40 Defensive Runs Saved from 2018-19 and ranked in the top-4 of the league in Outs Above Average in each season from 2017 through 2019.
The Brewers obviously felt confident about Cain and his aging curve when they inked him to a five-year deal that carries him through his age-36 season, and he’s been a big part of the franchise’s success in recent seasons. But one thing that fans should have learned by now under the David Stearns regime is not to get too attached to any individual player, and the landscape for the franchise and the game as a whole is different now than it was when that contract was signed. Whether or not it’s true, the Brewers are sending out signals that they don’t have money to spend this winter, so that is how fans should expect them to operate if they choose to continue rooting for the team. Trading their highest-paid player would certainly help free up additional resources that could be allocated to filling multiple holes.
In the opinion of Mark Feinsand, the Indians, Tigers, Royals, and Pirates all need to add to their outfield this year, and the Reds, Cardinals, and Rockies should be searching for an impact bat. Lorenzo Cain has a limited no-trade clause that needs to be worked around, and Brewers would probably have to eat some money to get a deal done. The prospect return isn’t likely be much more than a lottery ticket or two at the lower levels of the farm system. But there will be teams on the lookout for help on the grass this winter, and perhaps Stearns and Arnold can get creative enough to find a way to move their most expensive veteran piece.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant