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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 Payroll Projection: Update 2

Still plenty of holes, and plenty of “flexibility,” but Spring Training is arriving in less than a month...

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Wild Card Round - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game One Photo by Harry How/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.

The Brewers have remained mostly inert since the last update after the non-tender deadline, with the only outside additions coming on the fringes of the roster. But with the arbitration filing deadline occurring a few days ago, the team agreed to 2021 contracts for their final two arb-eligible players, giving further clarity to the payroll situation:

Total: $73,175,000

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, Brandon Woodruff, 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.
  • Remember, 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 like any of the league-minimum players on this list, such as Tyrone Taylor or Eric Lauer, swap them out for another pre-arb player. It won’t affect the payroll projection.

Notably, the Brewers were able to avoid arbitration hearings with both Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader (who lost his arb case in 2020), who were the final two arb-eligible players on the roster yet to agree to contracts. Both players actually got more money than was projected in our previous update; Woodruff bested his by $250K while Hader received an additional $1.175 mil more than was forecasted. When combining those totals in with the contracts signed by the other arb-eligible players on the roster, the Brewers “saved” less than $750K combined on those contracts versus the projections.

Only two players have been signed to big league contracts and added to the projection since our last update: backup catcher Luke Maile (who is likely to begin the year in the minors) and utilityman — or starting third baseman? — Daniel Robertson. Neither of those players received guaranteed contracts or base salaries over $1 mil. Tim Lopes, making the league minimum, was added off waivers from Seattle. There have been a handful of minor league deals, with Jace Peterson returning after his non-tender, Pablo Reyes, Hoby Milner, Dylan Cozens, Dustin Peterson, and prospect Zach Mort all getting added to the fold. But the team is still missing that “big ticket” transaction.

That kind of deal may never come for the Brewers, at least not this winter. The reporting has indicated that payroll will end up settling in around $80-$85 mil for the upcoming season, which would leave little room for the Brewers to address their plurality of needs in any kind of significant way. There still are no obvious everyday options at first base or third base, they lack an experienced fourth outfielder, and the team could still use depth in the rotation and the bullpen. We are less than a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting to American Family Fields of Phoenix down in Maryvale, but given the overall shape of the market and the inactivity of most other MLB teams, there are still plenty of possible additions for Slingin’ Stearns and company to explore and owner-friendly deals to be found before camp opens.

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