The Brewers were bumped from the postseason earlier this week, losing their division series against the Braves. Milwaukee president of baseball operations David Stearns met with the media (including Will Sammon of the Athletic and Adam McCalvy of MLB.com) Friday afternoon to review the 2021 campaign and discuss Milwaukee's upcoming offseason.
Keston Hiura will undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow, Stearns said, although there’s no indication the issue could affect his readiness for spring training. Milwaukee’s Opening Day first baseman, Hiura struggled all season. He got off to a horrible start, striking out in 32 of his first 89 plate appearances en route to a .152/.247/.266 line through early May. The Brewers optioned Hiura to Triple-A Nashville at that point. Hiura hit well in the minors, but he still couldn’t find much success against big-league pitching. In 108 MLB plate appearances from the time of his first demotion on, he continued to slump to a .181/.264/.330 mark.
At this point, the Brew Crew can’t enter 2022 counting on Hiura to assume an everyday role. Still, he’s a former top-10 pick who’s not all that far removed from a huge .303/.368/.570 showing as a rookie in 2019. Milwaukee surely doesn’t want to give up on Hiura entirely, and Stearns floated the idea of getting him some work in the outfield next season. Hiura has played only first and second base as a pro (aside from one 3 1/3-inning stint in left field this year), but it’d be a bit easier for manager Craig Counsell to work him into the lineup if the 25-year-old proves capable of covering the grass on a regular basis.
Christian Yelich won’t have any issue getting everyday reps, but he’ll also be looking to recapture his 2019 level of performance. The former MVP’s numbers have hovered right around league average (.234/.360/.392) over the past couple seasons. It’s an alarming drop-off, surely not what Stearns and the front office had in mind when they inked Yelich to an extension over the 2019-20 offseason that paid him $188.5 million in new money.
Between Yelich’s previous accolades and the organization’s enormous financial commitment to him, it’s no surprise that Stearns says getting the 29-year-old back on track is a key focus this winter. Yelich’s strikeout, walk and hard contact rates are still all solid or better, but his power output has disappeared as his ground-ball percentage has spiked from 43.2% in 2019 to 54.8% this past season. Stearns candidly admitted the organization hasn’t yet diagnosed a root cause of Yelich’s downturn in performance, but he expressed optimism in the potential for a turnaround and noted that the 2018 NL MVP wasn’t being hampered by any health problems.
Stearns’ own status with the franchise has been something of a talking point in recent weeks. The Mets are reportedly interested in speaking with the Manhattan native as part of their search for a new president of baseball operations. Stearns landing in Flushing has never seemed especially likely, however, primarily because he’s under contract with the Brewers through the end of next season. Thus, Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio would need to grant the Mets permission to interview Stearns. Attanasio hasn’t definitely said whether he’d do so, although he rather coyly responded to the rumors last month (via Sports Illustrated) when he opined that Stearns is “a great executive. … He’s also under contract with us.”
For his part, Stearns mostly deflected attention away from his future, although he didn’t sound like someone eager to leave Milwaukee. “I think I’ll shy away from any media or external speculation other than to say I’m happy here; my family is happy here. And we’ve got work to do here,” Stearns told reporters Friday when asked about the chances he makes the jump to the Big Apple.