In 2021, Stearns & Company assembled a division-winning team with a below-average payroll. In 2022, the Brewers have above-average salary commitments ($105M) and nearly $46 million in arbitration estimates.
Thankfully, the 2022 Brewers find themselves with fewer roster gaps than they had in previous years. However, like this season’s postseason outcomes suggest, they could stand to upgrade or add depth just about everywhere but the starting rotation and middle infield.
With the typically below-average spending Brewers locked into above-average salary commitments and arbitration estimates, which free agents are they likely to return as Brewers in 2022, and who is probably moving on?
As expected, Avisaíl García declined his end of a mutual option yesterday, so he’s headed for free agency. The Brewers could offer García a one-year $18.4 million qualifying offer, but it seems unlikely they’ll do that considering their existing commitments, particularly in the outfield. Avi is most likely headed for free agency and a big payday elsewhere.
Eduardo Escobar was a solid trade deadline pickup for the Brewers in 2021. He came with the versatility and defensive chops to fit in with the Brewer, able to hold down nearly any base or outfield position. He also took his first reps at first base and logged .786 OPS and 107 wRC+ with the Crew.
Even so, Escobar may carry too much redundancy after a Luis Urías’ breakout season, which featured the erstwhile shortstop looking much more comfortable at third base and in the super-utility role. One of the many Brewers scuffling down the stretch and in the postseason, Escobar sat in the later games of the NLDS.
Two solid options at third base is a tremendous improvement from where the Brewers were heading into spring training. In 2020, Brewers’ third basemen were the worst in the league in terms of OPS (.574) and OBP (.279). In 2021, Urías and Escobar combined for .795 OPS and .344 OBP with the Brewers.
It would be a boon for the Brewers to have right-handed Urías and the switch-hitting Escobar in a third base platoon or serving in the super-utility role, but are the Brewers willing to pay Escobar in exchange for that depth? Escobar’s present contract brings him into free agency with a $7 million AAV, and he’s likely to make more than that in free agency. The Brewers are probably more interested in a utility infielder in the $1 million range with their present commitments.
The Brewers need a solid presence behind the plate to backup primary catcher Omar Narváez, and longest-tenured Brewer Manny Piña is a solid choice.
Narváez and Piña were one of the most effective catching tandems in baseball in 2021. In addition to his in-game contributions, Piña was instrumental in Narvaez’s development into a complete catcher. Craig Counsell, who has noted the importance of maintaining a catching tandem, has praised both backstops and their working relationship.
Piña surged offensively in the second half of the 2021 season, posting a .892 OPS and 134 wRC+. The offensive offerings are a bonus from Piña, whose defensive and pitching management skills alone offer him job security as a backup catcher and justify his current $1.65 million AAV. Piña also generates a lot of value in the development he can offer a catcher like Mario Feliciano, who is on the cusp of readiness between the major leagues and farm system.
Piña is a consistent defender with inconsistent power-bat potential. He also offers difficult-to-measure value beyond his slash line, or even his stolen base prevention, blocking, framing, or pitch management. This makes him a sneaky free agent top priority in the offseason. In the era of the perennial catcher, the Brewers should lock in Piña with a pay raise before another team makes a better offer.
Reliable seventh-inning denizen Brad Boxberger came to the Brewers on a $1 million, 1-year contract in 2021 and earned a significant pay bump as a critical bullpen presence.
Box notched 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings while ranking in the top 25% of the league in terms of xwOBA and xERA (77th percentile), xSLG (79th percentile), and fastball spin rate (81st percentile). He was even better in terms of Whiff rate (85th percentile), xBA (89th percentile), and strikeout rate (90th percentile).
To have a high-leverage, late-inning reliever own a consistent high-leverage inning was an effective strategy for the Brewers’ bullpen in 2021, and Boxberger is a vital piece to employ the strategy again in 2022. He’s another top priority for the Brewers to bring back in free agency.
Hunter Strickland reliably closed out innings since the Brewers acquired him in June after he had signed on with the Angels for a $1 million deal. The Brewers may be able to retain Strickland, who has been going through an inconsistent and highly mobile career renaissance since his days with the Giants.
Strickland ended 2021 with a 2.61 ERA after 16 innings with the Rays (1.69 ERA) and just 6.1 innings with the Angels (9.95) before he landed for 36.1 innings with the Brewers (1.73). After finding a landing place in Milwaukee after plenty of recent career upheaval, Strickland might want to stick around with the Brewers. His inconsistency dating back to 2019 means the Brewers may be able to keep him around on a club-friendly deal.
Anderson returned to the Brewers on a $2.5 million one-year deal in 2021. Anderson covered 94 innings in 24 starts, a good showing for the often-injured lefty. Still, he was likely on borrowed time at the end of the season, exiting games with various minor injuries and absent from the NLDS when the Brewers could have used a fairly reliable starting pitcher covering relief innings.
On the most obvious face of things, Anderson was an average starting pitcher in 2021, logging a roughly average ERA (4.22), FIP (4.39), and WHIP (1.334). Advanced metrics were much less keen on Anderson, as evidenced by his purple-hued Statcast profile. Over the same timespan, he ranked <10% in the league in terms of exit velocity (90.9), xwOBA (.359), and xERA (5.73). He ranked <5% in terms of xBA (.294), hard-hit rate (47%), and strikeout rate (14.2%).
Anderson consistently pitches with better results than predictive measures expect, though. With the elite starting rotation the Brewers have entering 2022, they could affordably retain him for depth or maintain a six-player starting rotation and more or less know what they’re going to get. If Anderson returned with a similar one-year contract, it would be a club-friendly and reliable enough way to extend their rotation and add depth.
Tuning into John Axford’s return game in August to hear “New Noise” blaring over the loudspeakers, it was easy to feel nostalgic for his early years in Milwaukee, including the team’s 2011 run when the Ax Man led the league in saves. After watching Axford give up two hits, two runs, hit a batter, and walked a batter before blowing out his elbow, one might have the misimpression that the Crew picked up Axford as a gimmicky innings-eater while COVID-19 ravaged Milwaukee’s bullpen depth. His reemergence from retirement in his late 30s, spurred on by the development of a mid to upper 90s fastball, is a much more interesting story. That said, the structural damage Axford’s elbow sustained in his return game likely signals the end of his reemergence and his major league career.
Daniel Norris has the stuff, but it never really materialized for in 2021. Across 20.1 innings with the Brewers, Norris logged a 6.64 ERA, 6.81 FIP, 1.57 WHIP, and 2.2 home runs per nine innings. Given more time, the Brewers are likely candidates to help Norris develop his slider and pitch mix to be much more effective out of the bullpen. If they’re willing to take the in-game risk, they could invest the opportunity for a very reasonable cost.
Colin Rea signed on to a major league contract with the Brewers to return stateside after a brief tenure in Japanese ball. He valiantly ate six innings in one sound loss against the Dodgers after the Crew had already clinched the division and were resting their bullpen ahead of the NLDS. For most of his career, he’s been a starter and could provide minor league rotation or bullpen depth for the Crew.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Statcast, and Fangraphs