Despite making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and 2019, David Stearns saw fit to make significant changes to his club last offseason following the Wild Card loss to the Nationals. Self-imposed budgetary reasons may have been in play as the team cut payroll by roughly a quarter as more than half the roster was turned over. Stearns and his brain trust eschewed good players who had established themselves as valuable Brewers, instead making a couple of bets on potential breakout players like Statcast darling Avisail Garcia and KBO star Josh Lindblom, rolling the dice on bounce back candidates like Justin Smoak and Jedd Gyorko, and gambling on guys such as Eric Sogard and Omar Narvaez to continue to outperform their underlying batted ball metrics.
The 2020 season was one like no one could have ever imagined at this time a year ago, with the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the game — and the country — into uncharted territory in the middling of what was supposed to be Spring Training. After months of contentious negotiations, the end result was a 60-game season that started in July. And though it was a small sample, it is nearly impossible for one to conclude that the 2020 campaign was legitimately a success for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Sure, the club was a postseason participant for the third year in a row...but only because the playoffs were expanded to include eight teams from each league. The Cream City Nine finished fourth in the NL Central with a 29-31 record, had a -17 run differential, and had the third-worst offense on the Senior Circuit by OPS (.702) and runs per game (4.12). Milwaukee was swept by the one-seed and eventual champion Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs.
But instead of wholesale changes once again, Stearns and the Brewers remained mostly inert during this past offseason. The club didn’t sign their first MLB free agent until backup catcher Luke Maile on December 8th, then added Tim Lopes off waivers two weeks later. Daniel Robertson was signed in late January, and traded for DFA’d outfielder Derek Fisher days before pitchers and catchers reported. Brett Anderson was reportedly brought back on the eve of Spring Training on a one-year deal. And the biggest splash? A two-year, $18 mil deal for slick-fielding second baseman Kolten Wong.
Some priority minor league free agents are in play for roster spots, such as former star Travis Shaw at third base, but Milwaukee’s offseason acquisitions certainly lack “star power” as the team projects to have a reduced payroll for the second season in a row. The Brewers can certainly make the case to their fans that they intend to be competitive once again, especially in what many consider to be a weak NL Central, but if they are going to succeed in 2021 it is going to because of bounce backs and continued breakouts by players who are already in-house.
No two players are more important to Milwaukee’s needed improvement in scoring runs than Keston Hiura and Christian Yelich, the players who finished one and two in strikeouts in the NL last year. Former batting champ Yelich suffered from arguably the worst BABIP luck of his career (in addition to the self-inflicted strikeout issues) on his way to a paltry .205 batting average and 111 OPS+, production nowhere near the MVP levels of the two seasons that came before he signed his record-setting contract extension. Hiura masked his strikeout problems during his rookie season thanks to plenty of power and a unsustainably high average on balls in play, but they caught up to him during his sophomore slump as he hit .212 with a well below average 88 OPS+. Pedigree and prior track records suggest that both players are capable of much more, and a return to form from both would go a long way towards righting Craig Counsell’s lineup. Hiura will have to deal with a position change, too, and he moves to first base to accommodate the Gold Glover Wong.
Lorenzo Cain coming back after opting out last summer could make a big difference too, so long as he’s able to get back to getting on base like he did in 2018. And Avisail Garcia (79 OPS+) and Omar Narvaez (53 OPS+) contributing like even average players. Again, track records suggest that each player is highly capable — it just didn’t work out that way in 2020.
Kolten Wong’s addition should help raise the offensive floor as he’s demonstrated a knack for getting on base over the years, and his ability with the glove should go a long way towards helping a pitching staff that once again figures to be the club’s strength. Brandon Woodruff has established himself as one of the top pitchers in the National League over the past two years and Corbin Burnes finally put things together and looked like a top of the rotation starter. Josh Hader is considered by many to be the top left-hander in the game and Devin Williams was the reliever and rookie of the year in the NL last season. Brent Suter and Freddy Peralta will be contributors, and Justin Topa and Drew Rasmussen will be hoping to build off promising debuts.
Exactly how the 27 outs are filled for 162 games this season will be particularly notable as there are concerns about workloads after regular starters pitched in only 12-13 games last summer. Anderson should again provide some stability and take advantage of what figures to be an improved defense behind him, but Lindblom, Adrian Houser, and Eric Lauer (as well as non-roster invitee Jordan Zimmermann) will all be looking for to improve upon their forgettable 2020 campaigns. Minor league depth like Alec Bettinger, Dylan File, and Zack Brown could be important pieces as the summer goes along and the innings pile up.
The Brewers need to score more runs in 2021 if they hope to get back to the playoffs with the normal five-team format. Without much in the way of external additions, they’ll need a lot of their lineup to play back up to the numbers on the back of their baseball cards.
Starting today, we’ll see what happens.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference