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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 Payroll Projection: Update 1

Some more “flexibility” after the non-tender deadline.

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Kansas City Royals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Quinn Harris/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.

Once all the contract option decisions were made shortly after the end of the season, Milwaukee’s initial payroll outlook was in the range of about $82 mil. But yesterday brought another deadline and lots of roster movement as decisions needed to be made about who would be offered a contract for 2021. When the dust settled, the Brewers had tendered two players, agreed to terms with four others, made a trade and three non-tenders. Those moves all shaved another $10+ mil off the payroll projection heading into the holiday season:

Total: $71,200,000

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 Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader were tendered contracts but 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. The Brewers will have until February to work with the representatives for each player to try and agree to 2021 contracts, and if that fails, then they will go to arbitration hearings. Hader lost an arb hearing to the Brewers before last season.
  • Ben Gamel, Jace Peterson, and Alex Claudio were non-tendered and are now free agents.
  • Corey Knebel was traded to the Dodgers moments before the non-tender deadline, and LA agreed to tender him a contract. He’s projected to earn $5.125 mil this year.
  • Orlando Arcia, Omar Narvaez, Manny Pina, and Dan Vogelbach were all arbitration eligible but agreed to one-year deals with pay cuts to remain with the team heading into Spring Training. These contracts “saved” the Brewers $2.14 mil versus their initial arbitration projections. Remember that arbitration deals are not fully guaranteed until Opening Day.
  • 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.

Recently, Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel suggested that payroll could be the range of about $80-85 mil during the upcoming 2021 season (assuming a full 162-game schedule is played). That means that after yesterday’s moves, the Brewers have roughly $10-$15 mil to play with when targeting additions this winter. First base and third base are obvious needs of course, as well as depth in the outfield and on the pitching staff.

That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the Brewers to sign a “big ticket” player this winter. As was the case last year, it may be another offseason of rumors regarding guys who could be good, if you squint at them just right through rose colored glasses. Of course, a trade or two open up additional payroll space for the Brewers to add their squad or address some of those needs. Josh Hader’s name has already been bandied about a little bit, or perhaps the team would be willing to move someone like first-time arb-eligible hurler Brandon Woodruff if the right package presents itself. Maybe a deal could be swung for Lorenzo Cain, the team’s highest paid player.

At this point, there is no obvious route for the Brewers to move forward down this offseason. What seems most likely to happen is a spate of low-cost, owner-friendly deals with fingers crossed that more of them work out than did this past season. We’ve already seen one of those types of moves in the pact for optionable catcher Luke Maile. The market is flooded after another 59 players joined free agency following non-tenders, but now fans will have to wait and see of the Brewers are going to be aggressive in targeting the available players they want, or if they take a passive approach and bide their time until they know who is still available and could be a bargain just before the start of Spring Training.

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