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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 Opening Day roster and payroll

There is slightly higher than anticipated level of spending for the team this year.

Seattle Mariners v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Abbie Parr/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 last 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 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 was reasonable to expect that player spending will fall even further heading into the 2021 season.

Things started off pretty slowly for the Brewers during the offseason, but as has become tradition, the Slingin’ Stearns turned up the heat on the stove as Spring Training approached. Brett Anderson was inked as rotation depth, Travis Shaw was signed to a minor league deal then made the club to play third base, and two major additions were made late — Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley, Jr., tying the bow on what looks to be a solid offseason for the Brew Crew. Early suggestions from local reporters said that payroll would fall somewhere in the vicinity of $85 mil, but the club ended up overdelivering a little bit on that underpromise:

Base Payroll: $91,650,000
Signing Bonuses: $1,000,000
Buyouts and Payments: $9,250,000
Deferrals: ($9,000,000)

Opening Day Payroll: $92,900,000

There are a few caveats to this chart, of course:

  • Lorenzo Cain ($1 mil), Jackie Bradley, Jr. ($3 mil), and Kolten Wong ($5 mil) have deferred money in their contracts contract which will be paid out at a later date.
  • Wong received a $1 mil signing bonus.
  • JBJ has something of a complicated contract structure, with a $6.5 mil base pay for 2021 and the ability to opt out after the year. If he opts out, he’ll receive a $6.5 mil buyout (of which $3.5 mil is deferred), giving him a potential $13 mil guarantee for one year. He also could be around for two or three years, depending on options.
  • Cain, Wong, Christian Yelich, Josh Lindblom, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Daniel Robertson have incentives built into their deals.
  • The Brewers paid $7.25 mil in option buyouts after the end of last season. Matt Garza has one final deferred money payout of $2 mil in 2021 before his contract is officially off the books. Ryan Braun’s deferred money payouts begin in 2022, and Cain’s begin in 2023. Kolten Wong will have deferred payouts in 2023 and 2024, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. will get some deferred money at some point in the future depending on how long he’s with the team, too. Yelich will have deferred money payouts, but his are well down the road.
  • The MLB minimum salary in 2020 was $563,500 (prorated) and has been increased to $570,500 for 2021. For this exercise, the minimum has been set at $600,000 to account for those who may make a small amount above the league minimum.
  • Players highlighted in red are ones who begin the regular season on the Injured List.

The last time we took a look at the payroll projection was after all the arbitration contracts were settled back in January, at which point the Brewers had added only two players on Major League contracts. At that time, I wrote “[t]here 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.” In the three months or so since that time, though, the front office set out to address those needs, albeit in some ways that weren’t exactly expected.

Kolten Wong’s addition gave the Brewers the contact-oriented, high-OBP bat that their lineup desperately needed, which allowed them to shift Keston Hiura over to become the everyday first baseman. Old friend Travis Shaw won an Opening Day roster spot to fill the void at third base, and figures to split time with Orlando Arcia and Daniel Robertson at the position. An experienced outfielder was added in Jackie Bradley, Jr., giving the team a second legitimate Gold Glove defender to cover center field and an competent bat to rotate in with Yelich, Cain, and Avisail Garcia. Brett Anderson was re-signed to shore up the starting rotation depth, and though no one was added on an MLB contract to the bullpen, further experience was added to the pitching staff with minor league deals for Brad Boxberger, Jordan Zimmermann, and Zack Godley.

All-in-all, the Brewers are headed towards an Opening Day payroll in excess of $90 mil, which still isn’t very much in today’s game but is at least more than fans were led to believe would be the case during the winter. The front office has suggested that their should still be room to add to the expenditures at midseason, should the need arise. After sitting on their hands for several months, the late-winter moves to make it feel like the team is in fact trying to win the division, and they appear to have what should be a highly competitive roster in this year’s National League Central.

Contract information courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts