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NL Central 2020 Offseason Moves and 2021 Outlook: Milwaukee Brewers

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Will they find some offense?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

In Part I of my series on the 2020 offseason moves to date, I covered the division-winning Chicago Cubs. In this piece, I examine the Milwaukee Brewers, who backed into the playoffs with a losing record.

PLAYERS ALREADY SIGNED FOR 2021

*CF Lorenzo Cain—$16 million salary for 2021, which will be the 4th year of a 5-year deal he signed in January of 2018 as a free agent after rejecting a qualifying offer from the Royals. He gets a $1 million dollar raise this year and for every year during the life of the contract. Cain played the first 5 games of last season, then opted out of the season after the Brewers were set to play the Cardinals, who had a COVID-19 outbreak in their clubhouse. With that move, he forfeited the rest of his 2020 salary and service time. Cain may designate 5 clubs to which he may not be traded.

*OF Avisail Garcia—$10.5 million salary for 2021, which will be the final year of a 2-year deal he signed this past offseason as a free agent. He made $7 million last season. There was a $12 million club option, but it was converted to a mutual option because Garcia accumulated 550 prorated plate appearances in 2020.

*RHP Josh Lindblom—$2.75 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 3-year deal he signed this past offseason as a free agent after starring in the KBO. His salary is the same for all 3 years of the deal. He is out of options.

*RHP Freddy Peralta—$1 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 5-year extension he signed in 2020 spring training as a pre-arbitration player. He made only $575,200 in 2020, and the salary increases substantially over the life of the deal. The club also holds options for 2025 and 2026. He has only burned 1 minor league option, and based on his usage, you can think of the contract as buying out all 3 of his arbitration years.

*LHP Brent Suter—$1.55 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 2-year extension he signed just before 2020 spring training to avoid arbitration as a Super Two. His contract called for a base salary of $1.5 million, but that salary was increased by $50,000 because he had more than 80 but less than 100 prorated innings pitched last season. He has 2 minor league options remaining, and you can think of his deal as buying out 2 out of 4 arbitration years.

*OF Christian Yelich—$14 million salary, which will be the 2nd year of a 9-year contract extension he signed this past spring training. Yelich had a contract through 2021 with a club option for 2022 when the Marlins traded him to the Brewers. This extension didn’t affect his 2020 salary ($12.5 million) or his 2021 salary. It instead changed the 2022 option into a guaranteed $26 million, and gave him that $26 million salary through the 2028 season, with a mutual option for 2029. Yelich has full no-trade protection.

OFFSEASON MOVES TO DATE

10/30: LHP Brett Anderson declared an Article XX-B free agent. Declined the $15 million option on OF Ryan Braun ($4 million buyout), the $4.5 million option on IF Jedd Gyorko ($1 million buyout) and the $4.5 million option on IF Eric Sogard ($500,000 buyout), making them free agents. Outrighted UT Ryon Healy to AAA San Antonio. 40-man roster at 35.

Anderson, the oft-injured, pitch-to-contact starter, basically did as advertised for the Brewers. After posting the lowest K/9 rate among qualified starters in 2019, he actually increased that rate a bit, lowered his walk rate, and increased his groundball rate to over 57%. His walk rate and groundball rate were best among the Brewers’ regular starters. His ERA rose along with his BABIP, but his FIP actually went down. A blister sustained in the final regular season game against the Cardinals forced him to leave that start and miss the playoffs.

Although Braun only had one 10-day IL stint with a finger infection, he was slowed with various ailments all season and only got into 39 games, with only 19 starts in RF and 15 starts at DH. 2020 was the first season in Braun’s career that he failed to post a league average wRC+. Baseball Prospectus actually gave him a 106 DRC+, which was 3rd on the club.

Gyorko was signed to a $1 million deal, and initially served as the short-side of a platoon at 3B with Eric Sogard. But as the club’s preferred first basemen failed to hit and were released, Gyorko started at 1B almost every day down the stretch, getting 26 starts there to only 8 at 3B. Gyorko ended up leading the regulars in wRC+, DRC+, SLG, OPS, wOBA and ISO and was 3rd on the club with 8 home runs. Meanwhile, Sogard was paid a much higher base salary of $4 million and got most of the starts at 3B at the beginning of the season. He was basically a bench player by September, slashed only .209/.281/.278 and generated negative fWAR.

Healy signed a split contract with the Brewers after electing free agency in lieu of an outright assignment by the Mariners. He hadn’t opened the season in the minor leagues in years, but found himself spending most of the time at the ATS. He only got into 4 regular season games, with 1 start each at 1B and DH, and was the DH in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. He got most of that time in a 3-day period in early August when the club still had a 30-man roster and Braun was on the IL. He only resurfaced the last 5 days of the season when the Brewers had pitching injuries and wouldn’t need as many pitchers for the playoffs. As a bad corner-infield defender who can’t really hit or get on base, his MLB days were numbered, and the Brewers didn’t even wait to non-tender the arbitration-eligible Healy.

11/1: Activated OF Lorenzo Cain from the Restricted List. 40-man at 36.

11/2: IF Ryon Healy elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment to AAA.

Healy would later sign an $800,000 guaranteed deal to play in the KBO.

11/20: Purchased the contracts of RHP Alec Bettinger, RHP Dylan File and C Mario Feliciano from AAA San Antonio. 40-man at 39.

Bettinger was added to the Brewers’ Club Player Pool in early August, a bit after it got started. He was the club’s 10th round draft choice in 2017. Out of all qualified pitchers in the AA Southern League in 2019, Bettinger was one of the best and most durable starters, with a league-leading 3.13 FIP and 3.03 xFIP. He was also 2nd in the league in strikeouts. He will turn 26 in July.

File, the club’s 21st round draft choice in the same 2017 draft as Bettinger, was invited to the first spring training and was on the initial Summer Camp roster, staying at the ATS all year. He started out the 2019 season at High-A, but was promoted to AA and was slotted in the rotation with Bettinger. File’s overall strikeout numbers weren’t as good, but he posted a better walk rate, home run rate, K/BB ratio and FIP than Bettinger. One year younger, neither he nor Bettinger will make scouts swoon with the velocity, but they throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard.

Feliciano, who turned 22 on the day he was added to the 40-man, has only played 3 games above the Class-A Advanced level, but is one of the top offensive catching prospects in the minors. His career minor league slash line is .255/.315/.391, but he busted out in 2019 as a 20-year old in the Carolina League with a .273/.324/.477 line with 19 homers. He has a hackstatic approach at the plate, but mashes the ball when he makes contact. There are questions about whether he will stick defensively as a catcher long term.

Both File and Feliciano were added to the Summer Camp roster last season, after an initial roster was released, and were at the ATS when it started.

12/2: Non-tendered LHP Alex Claudio, OF Ben Gamel and UT Jace Peterson. Traded RHP Corey Knebel to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a Player to be Named Later or cash. Agreed to 1-year deals with SS Orlando Arcia ($2 million non-guaranteed), C Omar Narvaez ($2.5 million), C Manny Pina ($1.65 million) and 1B Daniel Vogelbach ($1.4 million), avoiding arbitration. 40-man at 35.

The Brewers actually non-tendered the left-handed Claudio last December, but the parties agreed on a $1.75 million deal for 2020, which represented a $500,000 raise over his 2019 salary. Of all the regular relievers the Brewers had in 2020, Claudio’s 18.5% K rate was the worst. To be fair to him, his walk rate was one of the best among the relievers, and he narrowed what had been a pronounced lefty/righty split issue. He has historically had low strikeout rates and high groundball rates. The Brewers must think of him as just a LOOGY, and were not interested in giving him a raise, when they have potential hard-throwing strikeout relievers that are cheaper.

Gamel was pressed into regular duty when Lorenzo Cain opted out of the season after 5 games and Ryan Braun was slowed with various injuries. He ended up starting just over half the club’s games, with 20 starts in RF, 10 starts in CF and 1 start in LF. Gamel didn’t hit well, striking out over 30% of the time without the power to go with it, and losing time towards the end of the season with a quad injury. BP gave him an 82 DRC+, the worst of the outfield regulars by far. If it wasn’t for his 10% BB rate, it would have been much worse. Gamel played 2020 with a $1.4 million contract he signed to avoid arbitration. The Brewers had an option for 2021 for $2.55 million that they declined back in October. Cain is back in CF for 2021, which will push Avisail Garcia back to RF. While Gamel outslugged Garcia in 2020, Garcia has the stronger offensive pedigree. The club just wasn’t interested in giving a raise to a backup outfielder with a career .255/.326/.382 slash line against right-handed pitching, especially one that has been a negative defender most of his career.

Peterson started 2020 on a minor league deal, and wasn’t added to the Brewers’ active roster as a super-utility option until August 22nd, when the club decided to DFA Brock Holt. He ended up starting 15 games across 5 different positions, the most being 6 games in RF. Peterson walked 15 times in 61 trips to the plate, which resulted in an absurd 24.6% BB rate, twice what he had ever produced in his career. That was almost solely responsible for his .393 OBP, because his batting average was only .200. He struck out over 32% of the time with no power. The Brewers didn’t buy it for the 30-year old journeyman who is out of options.

Knebel was only able to pitch 13.1 IP over 15 games after he lost about 20 days of the season to a hamstring strain. One would have to call his 2020 season a disappointment, as all of his peripherals trended in the wrong direction. He still struck out over 10 men per 9 innings, but his overall percentage dropped 15 percentage points from 2019. His walk rate went up by 3%, his home run rate spiked to 2.7 HR/9 without a real jump in his HR/FB rate, and his FIP more than doubled to 6.64 with a BABIP allowed that was in line with prior strong seasons. He was only 21 days shy of the necessary service time to be a free agent, and the Brewers didn’t want to give him a raise over his $5.125 million salary for 2020, believing that they had enough bullpen arms for less money that could approximate what Knebel might do in a bounce-back year.

Despite being platooned for a handful of games, Arcia held down the shortstop job last season with his best offensive season yet. Some of it was BABIP driven, but he did cut down on the strikeouts and increase his OPS by 100 points from the year before. He still agreed to take a $200,000 pay cut over his base salary for 2020, with the deal not even being guaranteed. Before the season started, the club wanted Luis Urias to play short, but Urias came down with COVID-19 and struggled with the bat when he did play, eventually moving to 3B so that Gyorko could play 1B. The only thing I can figure is that the club just threatened Urias with a non-tender, and told him if he didn’t like it to take his chances in the market.

Narvaez and Pina were the lefty/righty 1-2 punch at catcher for the Brewers last season and platooned until Pina tore the meniscus in his knee on August 27th, which put him out for the year. Narvaez busted out in 2019 as one of the better offensive catchers in the game with a 123 wRC+. It was interesting, because his 22 homers were more than he had had in his combined career to that point. The Brewers acquired Narvaez in trade from the Seattle Mariners, hoping that he would be the left-handing swinging answer to Yasmani Grandal. That didn’t happen. Narvaez was miserable at the plate, slashing .176/.294/.269, and striking out over 31% of the time with no power. His BABIP dropped over 50 points from the season before, but that 59 wRC+ was still not good. Formerly awful on defense, however, especially with respect to framing, Baseball Prospectus rated Narvaez as the best defensive catcher in the game in 2020, and most of that was due to improvements in framing. Still, Narvaez agreed to take a $225,000 pay cut over his base salary for last year. Pina, who played against lefties, had an above average batting line for the first time since his rookie year and was a positive defender before he was lost for the year. He also took a $200,000 pay cut instead of risking a lower salary or a non-tender.

The most surprising of all these arbitration avoidance cases is Vogelbach, who is likely to be declared a Super Two player at 2 years and 138 days of service. Acquired on waivers from the Blue Jays on September 3rd, Vogelbach had not hit at all over 64 PA with the Mariners (.094/.250/.226) and 5 PA with Toronto. The Brewers replaced Justin Smoak on the roster with Vogelbach, installed him as the DH against right-handed pitching and he slashed .328/.418/.569 with 4 HR in 67 PA. Vogelbach hit 30 HRs with 92 walks for the 2019 Mariners, but even that line translated into a 111 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR, putting him in about the bottom 5 of qualified first basemen offensively. The DH is not certain to be in play for 2021, and the 6’0”, 270-pound Vogelbach is not exactly known for his defense, only playing 2 games in the field last season and 49 games at 1B the year before. Yet the Brewers are drinking the Kool-Aid, giving the Super Two player almost a $1 million raise and are poised to start him at 1B next year if nothing changes. I suppose they figure that $1.4 million is not much money for an everyday starter, and they can just find another journeyman guy if it doesn’t work out.

12/8: Signed C Luke Maile to a 1-year major league contract ($825,000 split deal with $275,000 in the minors). 40-man at 36.

Maile signed a 1-year deal with the Pirates for 2020 after being non-tendered by the Blue Jays. The expectation was that the strong defender would at least get the backup job and perhaps push Jacob Stallings for some starts. But he broke his right finger when he was hit by a pitch in an intrasquad game about a week before the season started, had surgery to repair it, and missed the whole year. He spent the whole year on the 60-day IL, was outrighted off of the 40-man roster in late October and elected free agency in lieu of the outright assignment. Maile has never hit much, but has always had a strong defensive reputation. He is now the 6th catcher the Brewers have on their 40-man roster, and my sense is the club was looking for a catcher with a minor league option remaining that they could stash in AAA, but add to the active roster if Manny Pina proves to still be slowed in recovering from his torn meniscus. You can expect the club to do something else with David Freitas and Jacob Nottingham now that Maile has been added.

12/11/20: Los Angeles Dodgers sent AA LHP Leo Crawford to the Brewers as the PTBNL in the Corey Knebel trade.

Crawford was not taken in the Rule 5 draft, and wasn’t on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, so the Brewers did not have to add him. The club will have to add him to the 40-man after this season to avoid losing him to automatic Rule 55 minor league free agency. Crawford is a starter, will turn 24 in February and had a very strong 5.30 K/BB in High-A in 2019. He has only pitched 7 games above that level.

THE MONTH AHEAD

The Brewers had 11 potential arbitration cases, but now the club has to worry about only 2 cases: RHP Brandon Woodruff and LHP Josh Hader. The Hader case will be especially interesting. The club felt forced to renew Hader in 2019 for $687,600. Hader then took the club all the way to a hearing last season. The parties were $2.3 million apart, with Hader asking for $6.4 million, and the club offering $4.1 million. Hader lost.

Hader had an interesting year in 2021. When the final month of the season started in September, Hader had allowed no hits, but had walked 10 batters. He ended up allowing 8 hits and 3 HR in 19 IP. All of his peripherals went in the wrong direction. The only numbers that improved for Hader were his home run rate, an astonishingly low BABIP (.161, about 70 points lower than normal) his HR/FB rate (down about 6% from the previous year) and a 4% increase in GB%. He still struck out 39.7% of the batters he faced, but this was down from his usual rate of about 47%. His walk rate almost doubled. It’s a good thing for Hader that 2020 statistics will not be allowed in evidence at the arbitration. Hader hit the post-2019 Super Two cutoff of 2 years and 115 days of service right on the dot, which was the lowest cutoff in 10 years. This means we will be treated for two more years worth of showdowns after this one unless Hader and the Brewers can come to terms on an extension.

Woodruff played last season on a $633,100 deal, and although the Super Two cutoff has not yet been established, I know of no year where 2 years and 161 days of service has not been enough. Thus, he should be eligible for arbitration for the first time. He was the club’s workhorse last season, leading the club in starts and innings pitched. He didn’t have as good a season as Corbin Burnes’s breakout year, but both his strikeout and walk rates were super strong. Woodruff will be in line for a very nice raise.

STATE OF THE 2021 ROSTER

*Starting rotation. Burnes, who had a phenomenal season, and Woodruff are the 1-2 punch. Josh Lindblom and Adrian Houser are back as two more presumptive starters. They could stand to acquire a strong starter from the outside to replace Anderson, but the club has several other in-house candidates who could start, including Freddy Peralta, Eric Lauer, Brent Suter and others.

*Bullpen. Last year there was pretty much a varsity bullpen squad, where Devin Williams, David Phelps, Josh Hader, Freddy Peralta, and Brent Suter came in when the club had a lead and the game was reasonably close. The junior varsity was everyone else. The club decided to trade Phelps for some reason, but all the other guys are back. Williams was the Rookie of the Year and one of the best relievers in the game. The club has a bunch of hard-throwing youngsters on the 40-man, many of whom got experience last year, but many of them have control issues. I would be surprised to see them get a major bullpen acquisition from the outside, as they are not going to be too many jobs available, and they have several 40-man players for the jobs that will be up for grabs.

*Catcher. They now have 6 on the 40-man roster, and you can expect 2 to be unloaded at some point before the season starts. Unless something major happens, Narvaez and Pina will be the 1-2 guys, with Luke Maile in reserve at AAA just in case. Nottingham and Freitas are not long for the club.

*Infield. There are only 5 infielders on the 40-man roster, and if things stay that way, you’re looking at a 2021 infield of 1B Vogelbach, 2B Hiura, SS Arcia, 3B Urias. This is the area that I’d expect for the club to look for someone else to challenge one of these guys for a job. The only backup infielder on the 40-man is Mark Mathias, but Craig Counsell screwed around with putting him in the outfield last year. With the exception of Vogelbach’s small sample size, this group didn’t hit at all last year, and along with the other journeyman who are now gone, were a major drag on the offense.

*Outfield. Yelich had a down year offensively, but no one believes that’s a big deal. Cain will be back in center, which will push Garcia back to right. Garcia didn’t hit and wasn’t the best defender either, but the sources differ on how good he was. Backups on the 40-man include Billy McKinney, who is out of options, Corey Ray and Tyrone Taylor. They’ve got enough outfielders on hand that it wouldn’t surprise me if they just rolled with what they had. As a whole, though, the club would be justified in trying anyone who shows they can hit.

The Brewers signed 9 new free agents before the 2020 season started. The only 2 left are Josh Lindblom and Avisail Garcia. Whatever club the Brewers field for 2021 will be vastly different from the one that started in 2020.