There are no games being played right now in Major League Baseball and no end yet in sight to the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. But whether it’s a shortened season in front of no fans that begins at some point in 2020 or if things take longer than that to start down the path towards normal, it is worth musing on what the landscape of the league will look like and how a cancelled season could affect a team’s decision-making process going forward.
The Milwaukee Brewers are one interesting team to consider. After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019, David Stearns spent the winter jettisoning many of his veteran players while replacing them with slightly cheaper and arguably slightly worse options. In hindsight, it looks like an obvious effort to reduce payroll but build enough viable depth to remain competitive and maybe luck into a playoff spot, if a number of things work out in their favor. Then, just before the league stoppage, a nine-year extension for Christian Yelich was announced that will keep the former MVP in the Cream City through 2028.
But beyond Yelich and second baseman Keston Hiura, the Brewers do not currently have any other long-term anchors in their lineup. If the 2020 season is abandoned, then Ryan Braun may have already played his last game for the Menomonee Valley Nine (though reuniting on a cheaper, one-year “farewell tour” type contract seems plausible). Lorenzo Cain would be 35 and with two years left on his contract. Avisail Garcia would be younger at 29, but have only one year and an option left on his deal. Omar Narvaez would have two years of arbitration eligibility remaining. Luis Urias would remain under long-term control, but he has yet to establish himself as an everyday player. The club would have to make option decisions on Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak, Jedd Gyorko, and Brock Holt without seeing them suit up for a single contest.
Things aren’t quite the same on the pitching side of things. The ingredients are there, but the fans and front office still don’t know exactly how roles or attrition will play out with their young group of arms. Brandon Woodruff is pretty well locked in and should be able to be counted on in the rotation moving forward; he has four years of control remaining after 2020, but will be arbitration-eligible as a Super Two. Eric Lauer has established a pretty safe floor as a back-end starter and will likewise have four years of control. Adrian Houser took a step forward last season but only has about a half-year worth of starts under his belt. Freddy Peralta signed a long-term deal but whether he’ll ultimately land in the rotation is bullpen is still a question. Corbin Burnes Has Great Stuff, but he too faces the starter/reliever question, and that is assuming he can bounce back from his hellish 2019 to being an MLB-caliber pitcher again. Josh Hader and Brent Suter will have three arb years remaining. Josh Lindblom would have two years left on his contract after coming over from South Korea. Corey Knebel and Alex Claudio will both be one year away from free agency, David Phelps would have a club option, but Brett Anderson becomes a free agent.
With their superstar now locked in as the face of the franchise for almost another decade — and for a comparatively low price when it comes to mega-contracts — the argument could be made that there is less urgency for the organization to try and “win now.” Before he agreed to the deal, there was pressure to “maximize the Yelich window” while he was under cheap control before hitting the open market after 2022. Now that the front office can be confident in penciling him into an outfield spot for the long-haul, might a scrapped 2020 season create the opportune conditions for Slingin’ Stearns to begin a ... gulp ...
The projection systems viewed Milwaukee as a middling team before the stuff hit the fan regarding coronavirus, with ZiPS forecasting 82 wins and PECOTA coming in at 79. (For what it’s worth, the major OOTP simulations that are taking place right now — Baseball-Reference (13-14 updated daily), Fangraphs (13-12 at posting), Baseball Prospectus (10-14 at last publish), and here at Brew Crew Ball (7-18, ) more or less agree with that assessment.) The Brewers have just two players in the lineup who are penciled in as long-term “core” hitters. They have a group of young arms that need repetitions at the big league level and the opportunity to either sink or swim while each attempts to seize a role going forward. And they’ve got a farm system universally ranked at the bottom of the league, with only one borderline top-100 prospect in Brice Turang who is still in A-ball and no one in the upper levels who projects to become an impact player in the near future.
Taking a step back and beginning to assemble a new base of cheap and controllable around Yelich before his salary begins to escalate could make sense for Milwaukee. Should that become the case, then expect the Josh Hader rumors to only pick up once again, but for them to increase in frequency and fervor. Hader has won back-to-back NL Reliever of the Year awards but qualified for arbitration as a Super Two player this past winter, getting a $4.1 mil salary that will only continue to rise during his three remaining arb-eligible seasons. The Score is already trying to send Hader to a new home, recently creating this proposal in an article about AL Central trade possibilities:
TWINS RECEIVE: P Josh Hader, P Phil Bickford
BREWERS RECIEVE: SS Royce Lewis, P Jordan Balazovic, IF Yunior Severino, 1B Gabe Snyder
20 year old Royce Lewis is the Twins’ top prospect. He was the #1 overall pick in 2017 MLB Draft and is currently ranked as the #9 prospect in the league by MLB Pipeline. He hit only a combined .236/.290/.371 between High-A and Double-A last year, but was several years young for both levels and redeemed himself with a .353/.411/.565 slash line in the Arizona Fall League, winning that circuit’s MVP award. Balazovic is listed as Pipeline’s #86 prospect after posting a 2.69 ERA and 2.13 FIP as a 20 year old between low-A and high-A in 2019, striking out 129 batters while walking only 25 across 93.2 innings pitched. He features a fastball in the 95-97 MPH range along with a breaking ball that projects as above-average and a changeup that has improved significantly since he was drafted.
20 year old Yunior Severino is ranked as Minnesota’s #19 prospect by Fangraphs, with Eric Longenhagen writing that the bulky switch-hitter projects “as a three-true-outcomes middle infielder à la Rickie Weeks.” Gabe Snyder was a 21st-round senior sign by Minnesota in 2018 who finished second in the Midwest League with 19 home runs last season, power that was accompanied by a .259/.338/.462 slash line (131 wRC+).
As talented as Hader is, his annual ceiling as a reliever is maybe 90 frames at most and he will rapidly become more expensive if he continues to pile up saves. Getting this type of package in return for Hader from the Twins — or someone else, and there was no shortage of rumored suitors this past offseason — would give Milwaukee’s weak system a jump start if Stearns and company do decide that a rebuild is the way to go. Of course, the executive could always try to circumvent a rebuild by spending money on impact players in free agency.
No one knows what the future holds for Major League Baseball. But when the league does resume “business as usual,” the Milwaukee Brewers will be facing some tough decisions about the franchise’s direction moving ahead.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference
Do the Milwaukee Brewers need to consider a rebuild heading into 2021?
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