The Brewers’ offseason featured a large number of small-scale additions — a hallmark of the current front office regime — and the richest contract in club history for the face of the franchise.
Trades and Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
The 2019 Brewers reached the postseason for a second straight year, although unlike the division-winning 2018 team, last year’s group limped to the postseason and narrowly secured a wild-card victory. Christian Yelich’s early September knee fracture was a major blow to a club that had already lost bullpen powerhouse Corey Knebel to Tommy John surgery and watched as shoulder and elbow troubles again wiped out the season of one of its most talented pitchers (Jimmy Nelson). Milwaukee still appeared poised to advance to the NLDS before a heartbreaking eighth-inning collapse saw the eventual World Series champion Nationals erase a three-run deficit against the likes of uber-reliever Josh Hader.
That bitter pill became even harder to swallow as Brewers fans watched Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas decline their halves of their respective mutual options and sign elsewhere in free agency — Moustakas with a division rival over in Cincinnati. Those departures combined with several other Milwaukee decisions — the trade of Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays, the buyout of Eric Thames’ option and the decision to non-tender Nelson, Travis Shaw and Hernan Perez — to leave many fans with the impression that Milwaukee was scaling back and cutting payroll.
In some ways, those concerns proved to be true. The Brewers’ payroll projects to drop by more than $18 million from its 2019 levels. Then again, Milwaukee signed more major-league free agents than any other club this winter, diversifying their risk portfolio by making small-scale investments in a slew of veteran assets. That’s been a common approach under president of baseball operations David Stearns — the Lorenzo Cain signing being a notable exception — and it’s one that has worked well to this point.
Oh… and the Brewers also doled out a franchise-record $188.5 million extension for the aforementioned Yelich. The contract will ostensibly keep Yelich in Milwaukee for the remainder of his career, giving the Brewers an MVP-caliber threat in the heart of their order for the foreseeable future. Yelich isn’t likely to remain that productive at the tail end of the deal, considering it runs through his age-36-campaign, but the contract looks to be a considerable win for the Brewers. At a time when players such as Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon are all commanding more than $30 million annually, Yelich’s $26.9 million annual value looks like a relative bargain. Of course, that comment can’t be made without underscoring that Yelich was three years from reaching the open market — two guaranteed campaigns and a third-year club option — and it also seems he had a clear desire to stay in Milwaukee.
So, how did the Brewers do in terms of addressing the many holes on their roster entering the winter? Opinions vary. The Brewers parted with relatively little in terms of long-term value in order to acquire three years of control over Narvaez — one of the game’s better-hitting catchers. The draft pick they surrendered is a lottery ticket that could certainly sting, but Narvaez and the .277/.358/.448 slash he has compiled over the past two seasons will go a long way toward replacing the offense lost with Grandal’s departure. Defensively, Narvaez is a considerable downgrade, but few catchers in the game can match Narvaez’s value with the bat.
The Brewers’ biggest free agent signing didn’t even come at a position of dire “need.” With Cain, Yelich, Ryan Braun and Ben Gamel on the roster, the outfield wasn’t exactly lacking. But Milwaukee moved Trent Grisham (and solid starter Zach Davies) in an effort to find a long-term answer at shortstop, and Avisail Garcia effectively replaces him on the roster. Garcia will likely see the bulk of his at-bats in right field, and the Brewers clearly believe he’s closer to the 2017 and 2019 versions of himself than the 2018 iteration that struggled across the board. Even though he is deceptively fast and makes plenty of hard contact, he’s been an inconsistent all-around performer.
Speaking of that Grisham/Davies trade, the Brewers managed to parlay a big year in the minors from Grisham into the acquisition of a prospect who one year ago was considered to be one of baseball’s premier minor-league infielders. Luis Urias hasn’t hit in the big leagues yet, and the manner in which the Padres continued to acquire veteran options to play ahead of him perhaps suggests that they were never as high on him as prospect rankings seemed to be. Urias is still only 22 and has crushed Triple-A pitching (.305/.403/.511 in 867 plate appearances). Losing Grisham could potentially hurt, but the Brewers felt more confident in their ability to capably replace an outfielder via free agency than to find a much-needed middle infielder. On the pitching side of that trade, the Brewers came away with the more controllable arm — but one that has yet to find the success Davies has enjoyed in the majors.
Elsewhere in the infield — things are a bit of a hodgepodge. Not only did Milwaukee acquire Urias, it signed veterans Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard, Jedd Gyorko, Brock Holt and Ryon Healy. The additions put pressure on incumbent shortstop Orlando Arcia to finally tap into the potential that made him an elite prospect several years ago. That collection of veterans will surround second baseman Keston Hiura and, occasionally, Braun (when he plays first base). Smoak adds some thump and quality glove work at first base. Gyorko, Sogard and Holt can play all over, adding the type of versatility that the Brewers have emphasized in recent seasons. Sogard and Holt, in particular, offer plus defense at multiple positions.
The pitching staff lost a glut of arms — Davies, Chase Anderson, Drew Pomeranz, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles and Junior Guerra — from a team that graded in the middle of the pack across the board. Milwaukee starters and relievers both ranked between 13th and 18th in terms of ERA and FIP. Clearly, some help was needed, but while many fans pined for a major splash, the Stearns regime has never demonstrated a willingness to sign a pitcher to a lucrative, long-term deal. The two-year, $15 million contract inked by Jhoulys Chacin two winters ago is the most expensive contract given to a pitcher by this iteration of the front office, and the three-year, $9.125 million deal given to wildcard Josh Lindblom this winter is the longest contract to which Stearns has ever signed a free agent starting pitcher.
The Lindblom deal was the first and most interesting of several smaller-scale additions to the Milwaukee staff. Lindblom, 32, was a second-round pick of the Dodgers back in 2005 but never solidified himself in the big leagues. Stints with Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Texas, Oakland and Pittsburgh didn’t pan out, and Lindblom went to South Korea on multiple occasions to pitch in the KBO.
As I detailed at greater length early in the offseason, Lindblom dove headfirst into a more analytical approach to pitching in his most recent KBO tenure and overhauled his pitch repertoire, adopting a splitter that proved to be a knockout. He won consecutive Choi Dong-won Awards — South Korea’s Cy Young equivalent — in 2018-19 and was named the KBO MVP this past season. Lindblom isn’t overpowering in terms of velocity and will turn 33 this June, but he’s posted highly appealing strikeout rates, control, spin rates and exit velocities in Korea.
Veteran ground-ball savant Brett Anderson represents the only other rotation addition for the Brewers, who’ll rely on a combination of Brandon Woodruff, Anderson, Adrian Houser, Lindblom, Eric Lauer, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes to start games early on. As explored early in camp, it’s a group that’s light on name recognition — Anderson excluded — but one with a good bit of upside. The Brewers will also surely leverage some openers and generally unorthodox deployments of their pitchers. Few teams play matchups and shuffle the deck with their pitching staff as much as Milwaukee. It’s a strategy that regularly draws criticism from onlookers — but it's one that has produced generally favorable results in recent years.
In the ’pen, the Brewers brought back Alex Claudio on a low-cost one-year deal and inked righty David Phelps to an even more affordable pact that comes with a 2020 option. Claudio, 28, has been clobbered by right-handed hitters in his career, making his return a bit curious considering the impending three-batter minimum. He’ll surely still be deployed against lefties as often as possible, but an increase in disadvantageous matchups against righties feels almost inevitable. Phelps, meanwhile, will hope to bounce back to his pre-Tommy John form, when he looked to be emerging as a high-end setup piece between Seattle and Miami (142 1/3 innings, 2.72 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 4.0 BB/9).
However, Knebel’s return could be the biggest upgrade for the Brewers’ bullpen. The 28-year-old was on par with Hader in terms of bullpen dominance in 2017, when he posted a 1.76 ERA in 76 2/3 innings with just under 15 strikeouts per nine innings. Tommy John surgery wiped out Knebel's 2019 season, but pairing a healthy him with Hader would create a dominant one-two punch at the back of games. Some combination of Phelps, Claudio, Brent Suter, whichever of Peralta or Burnes isn’t starting games and perhaps the flamethrowing Ray Black could create a quality all-around unit.
Speaking of Peralta, his own extension is certainly worth highlighting. The young righty’s five-year, $15.5 million deal carries minimal downside for the club and comes with enormous potential for surplus value, particularly when considering a pair of club options that would total an eminently reasonable $14 million. It’s the sort of deal that makes agents cringe — Peralta himself even acknowledged that his own representatives advised against the deal — but it’s also hard to see how a 23-year-old who is still more potential than production would find it impossible to say no to that type of life-changing payday. Whether he’s in the ’pen or rotation, Peralta should be able to easily justify the investment with even moderate productivity. For a typically low- to medium-payroll club that just went beyond its traditional comfort zone to extend the face of the franchise, the potential cost efficiency such a contract creates is vital.
2020 Season Outlook
Questions about the Brewers’ pitching staff abound, but that’s nothing new for Stearns, manager Craig Counsell and the rest of the organization’s top decision-makers. Woodruff has demonstrated top-of-the-rotation potential, and Anderson has generally been a quality rotation stabilizer when healthy (which, admittedly, has been sporadic). There’s reason to dream on any of Houser, Lindblom, Peralta, Burnes or Lauer as a quality mid-rotation piece.
It’s similarly difficult to forecast how things will play out on offense. Milwaukee was a middle-of-the-road club in terms of total runs scored and wRC+ in 2019, and it is losing both Grandal and Moustakas. At the same time, the Brewers will subtract an unthinkably poor chunk of at-bats from Shaw, whose abrupt downturn at the plate caught everyone by surprise. Narvaez provides a pretty nice bat, and Garcia adds some production and upside to the mix. Smoak has plenty of power and a steady glove. It’s easy to see the infield as a strong group if things break right, but there’s readily apparent risk in relying on a group of options that has demonstrated such high levels of volatility in recent seasons.
The Brewers arguably have a wider range of plausible outcomes for their 2020 season than any club in the National League. That’s to be expected for a team whose offseason consisted on short-term, relatively low average annual value bets on what amounts to nearly half its roster. It’s a bulk approach to offseason acquisition the likes of which we haven’t seen in recent years, but perhaps it's one that was necessary for a team with minimal upper-level depth in the minors after depleting the farm via trades in recent years.