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2021 Spring Training Home Stretch: Brewers Roster Analysis

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Seattle Mariners v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

3/8/21: Signed OF Jackie Bradley, Jr. to a 2-year, $24 million contract. Placed UT Tim Lopes on the 60-day IL (right oblique strain). 40-man roster still full.

Bradley, who will turn 31 in April, was originally drafted out of the University of South Carolina in the supplemental first round of the 2011 draft by the Red Sox with a pick that the club obtained because it lost Adrian Beltre to the Rangers in free agency. He remained in the organization until now, and made his major league debut on opening day of the 2013 season. He’s had a wildly inconsistent career with at the plate, and the only real constant is that he provides superb defense in center field, and has some experience in right. He’s been benched, platooned, hit at least 20 homers in a season, and has a habit of looking both stellar and almost clueless at the plate within the same season. According to DRC+, his last above-average offensive season was in 2016, which was also his best season, but his defense allows him to approach 2-win seasons. Last season, he rode a BABIP spike to a .364 OBP, his highest ever in the majors, albeit over a small sample of 217 plate appearances. It’s unclear how Craig Counsell, who still maintains that Lorenzo Cain is the starter, is going to manage the outfield, but it looks like Cain, Bradley and Avisail Garcia are all going to play a lot.

While Bradley’s deal was initially reported as just a 2-year, $24 million deal, his contract looks to be much more complicated. It looks like Bradley will only earn a $6.5 million salary in 2021, $3.5 million of which is deferred. Bradley actually has a $9.5 million player option for 2022, of which $3 million is deferred. If Bradley declines the option, he will get a $6.5 million buyout, of which $3.5 million is deferred. There is also apparently a mutual option for 2023 at $12 million, with an $8 million buyout, $7 million of which is deferred. Thus, the potential contract lengths and total compensation, most of which Bradley has control over, look like this:

1 year for 2021: $13 million ($6.5 million salary + $6.5 million buyout of 2022 player option)

2 years for 2021 and 2022: $24 million ($6.5 million 2021 salary + $9.5 million 2022 salary + $8 million buyout of 2023 mutual option)

3 years for 2021 through 2023: $28 million ($6.5 million 2021 salary + $9.5 million 2022 salary + $12 million 2023 salary).

The reason it’s been described as a 2-year, $24 million deal is that he can guarantee that he gets at least that much over 2021 and 2022.

Lopes hurt himself swinging the bat in a March 3rd spring game and would have had a tough time making the club anyway.

3/12/21: Optioned RHP Alec Bettinger, RHP Dylan File, C Mario Feliciano and OF Corey Ray to AAA Nashville. Re-assigned RHPs Jake Cousins, Thomas Jankins and Miguel Sanchez, LHPs Clayton Andrews, Ethan Small and Quintin Torres-Costa, IF Brice Turang and OFs Tristen Lutz and Garrett Mitchell to minor league camp. 48 players left in camp.

File is actually injured, as he had surgery on February 4th to repair a stress fracture in his right elbow. Because he did not have any major league service last season, it was permissible to option him, even if he is injured, as long as it was done before the 15th day prior to opening day. Bettinger, added to the 40-man roster along with File this past November, was slowed by a sore elbow and didn’t pitch in any spring games.

3/16/21: Purchased the contract of IF Travis Shaw from AAA Nashville. Placed IF Mark Mathias on the 60-day IL (torn right labrum). 40-man roster still full. Optioned RHP Phil Bickford to AAA Nashville. Re-assigned RHP Zack Brown, LHP Aaron Ashby, C Payton Henry, IFs Zach Green and Pablo Reyes and OF Dylan Cozens to minor league camp. 40 players left in camp (35 40-man roster players + 5 NRIs).

Shaw’s minor league deal allowed him to opt out by March 15th if he was not added to the 40-man roster, and after speaking with Shaw and his agent that day, the Brewers made it official the next. He’ll be at least the long-side of a platoon at 3rd base, and will earn a $1.5 million salary, with the ability to double it with undisclosed incentive payments.

Mathias hurt his shoulder making a diving play in a March 9th spring game. The club has said that surgery is indicated, but Mathias wants a second opinion because he had surgery to repair a labral tear in a different part of the same shoulder back in 2014. He’s done for 3 or 4 months at least. While he played 2nd base almost exclusively in the minors, the club used him as a Tommy Edman-style infielder/outfielder for part of last season, and he was figured to contribute. This is bad news for Mathias, but it makes the Brewers’ roster decisions a tad easier.

3/19/21: Optioned LHPs Eric Lauer and Angel Perdomo and C Luke Maile to AAA Nashville. Signed RHP Zack Godley to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training. 38 players left in camp (32 40-man roster players + 6 NRIs).

The club has had high hopes for Lauer since acquiring him in the trade for Zach Davies before the 2020 season. It hasn’t worked out so far, as he was slowed by a COVID diagnosis in 2020 summer camp and a shoulder problem last year. This spring so far, he has allowed 8 ER and 3 HR in just 5 IP, with 7 walks to only 3 strikeouts.

There’s conflicting information about this set of transactions. The MLB.com beat reporter for the Brewers reported about this group being optioned here. The club’s Twitter page doesn’t mention anything, while the transaction page on the website just mentions Lauer and Perdomo. I’m going with the beat reporter, Adam McCalvey.

3/26/21: Released RHP Brad Boxberger and RHP Jordan Zimmerman from their minor league deals. 36 players left in camp (32 40-man roster players + 4 NRIs).

Boxberger had a 9-year career as a reliever, was a former closer, and had a decent season with the Marlins last year after it looked like he might be done. He had a decent chance to win a job as a veteran presence out of the pen, but he had some poor outings early that drag down his overall numbers. The club also likes the squad of young relievers they have, most of whom have minor league options remaining. Zimmerman, a 12-year veteran, was actually signed to initially compete for a rotation job, but it became apparent fairly early that he was not going to best the other candidates. These pitchers were released because if they weren’t released, they would have been due a $100,000 retention payment if they had not been told by Saturday, March 27th, that they were making the opening day roster. The club wants to try to re-sign both to different minor league deals.

40-MAN ROSTER

PITCHERS (20)

Brett Anderson (L, N/A), Alec Bettinger (R, 3), Phil Bickford (R, 2), Ray Black (R), Corbin Burnes (R, 2), J.P. Feyereisen (R, 2), Dylan File (R, 3), Josh Hader (L, 2), Adrian Houser (R), Eric Lauer (L, 2), Josh Lindblom (R), Freddy Peralta (R, 2), Angel Perdomo (L, 2), Drew Rasmussen (R, 3), Brent Suter (L, 2), Justin Topa (R, 3), Bobby Wahl (R, 1), Devin Williams (R, 3), Brandon Woodruff (R, 1), Eric Yardley (R, 3)

CATCHERS (5)

Mario Feliciano (3), Omar Narvaez (3), Jacob Nottingham, Manny Pina, Luke Maile (1)

INFIELDERS (7)

Orlando Arcia (1), Keston Hiura (2), Daniel Robertson, Travis Shaw (N/A), Luis Urias (2), Daniel Vogelbach, Kolten Wong (N/A)

OUTFIELDERS (8)

Jackie Bradley, Jr. (N/A), Lorenzo Cain (N/A), Derek Fisher, Avisail Garcia (N/A), Billy McKinney, Corey Ray (2), Tyrone Taylor (1), Christian Yelich (N/A)

60-DAY IL (2)

Tim Lopes (3), Mark Mathias (2)

NON-ROSTER INVITEES (4)

PITCHERS (3)

Zack Godley, Blaine Hardy (L), Hoby Milner (L)

INFIELDERS (1)

Jace Peterson

OPENING DAY OUTLOOK AND JOBS

*Rotation: The rotation is now set with Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser and Brett Anderson in the first four spots. While Josh Lindblom was a regular starter last season, in a surprising twist, Freddy Peralta won the 5th starter job. It’s a combination of Peralta’s spring, where he has allowed just 1 run in 8.1 IP on a solo homer, together with 15 strikeouts to only 3 walks, with Lindblom’s poor performance last season. Peralta started 14 games in 2018, but since then has pitched more frequently and more effectively out of the bullpen, with a stellar season in 2020. With the Brewers, the line between starter and reliever has not been a strict one in recent years. The maximum amount of innings that Peralta has thrown in one season in his career is 96.2 in 2019. Lindblom, on the other hand, pitched almost 200 innings in Korea in 2019, and almost 170 innings in 2018. He’ll be in the bullpen for now, but will probably get starts before the season is over.

*Bullpen: The Brewers theoretically have a lot of flexibility here because Ray Black and Josh Lindblom are the only bullpen candidates on the 40-man roster who are out of options. Secured in jobs, in addition to Lindblom, are Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and lefty Brent Suter. The Brewers have always seemed to take the maximum amount of pitching, so that could leave an additional five jobs.

The issue the club is facing, however, is injuries. Ray Black was shut down from throwing with a sore elbow after showing a large velocity drop in an outing on March 5th. He missed the entire 2020 season with a right shoulder injury. Bobby Wahl had to leave a March 15th outing with a right oblique strain. Both pitchers will likely start the season on the injured list, although Black has an outside chance to be ready. Alec Bettinger and Dylan File have already been optioned due to injuries, and Phil Bickford, Eric Lauer and Angel Perdomo have also been optioned. That leaves J.P. Feyereisen, Drew Rasmussen, Justin Topa and Eric Yardley that are on the 40-man, and if the club stopped there, and Black isn’t ready, that would put the club at an 8-man pen, together with Hader, Williams, Suter and Lindblom, for a total of 13 pitchers. Now that Boxberger and Zimmerman have been released, the club would have to recall someone it has already optioned if they wanted a 9th pitcher.

One thing to keep an eye on is that Williams got a late start, rehabbing from what turned out to be a strained right rotator cuff that cost him the opportunity to pitch in last season’s playoffs. He didn’t face hitters in batting practice until March 13th, and didn’t pitch in a spring game until March 20th. If he’s not right, it will be a long season for the Brewers.

*Backup catcher: The Brewers have a cavalcade of catchers on the 40-man roster, down to five, after releasing David Freitas before camp. The club will stick with the same Omar Narvaez/Manny Pina platoon they used last year. There’s no room for a third catcher. With Mario Feliciano and Luke Maile having options remaining, and Jacob Nottingham out of options, Nottingham looked like a DFA candidate from the get-go, even if he hadn’t been recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He’s had a handful of trips to the plate, but hasn’t been cleared to catch, and it looks like he’ll be saved from a DFA temporarily by opening the season on the injured list.

*Infield: This group was revamped when the club signed Kolten Wong to play second base. That pushed former second baseman Keston Hiura to first base, even though he has never played the position. Hiura’s problems on defense were more related to his throwing, and the club figured that he could handle the switch without it affecting his offense. It’s been a little slow going defensively for Hirua in camp, but the club believes he will come around. Ever since acquiring Luis Urias in a trade with the Padres, the club has wanted to see if Urias can push Orlando Arcia off of shortstop. It didn’t work out last year, because Urias broke his hamate bone in winter ball and then came down with COVID-19, and didn’t play at all until August 10th. Meanwhile, Arcia improved at the plate, and Urias struggled. Undeterred, the club has been alternating Urias and Arcia at short in camp, with Arcia getting time at third base, even if the plan was stalled by Urias missing about a week with a hamstring strain.

Meanwile, the club brought Travis Shaw back to compete for the 3rd base job, and recently added him to the 40-man roster. He might also play some first base. Arcia and Urias will make the club, and it is also expected that super-sub Daniel Robertson, who has basically slapped singles with a good batting eye, will make the roster. He’s played second, third, short and left in camp. That likely leaves no room for hefty slugger Daniel Vogelbach, who played a little first base last year, but whose best position is DH. He’s out of options and likely looking at a DFA.

*Outfield: The only sure thing is Christian Yelich in left field. Cain, who will turn 35 on April 13th, opted out last season, and had limited opportunities to train in his home state of Oklahoma due to COVID restrictions. He didn’t compete in spring games right away because he had some wisdom teeth removed before camp, and was then slowed by a quad injury almost immediately. Cain finally made his spring debut on March 20th. The club has still described him as the starter, but the Jackie Bradley, Jr. signing can at least partly be explained by the fact that it was known that Cain would be slow to get ramped up for the season. The problem with Bradley is that he himself is currently dealing with an inflamed right wrist, and has only had 18 trips to the plate. He might not be healthy for opening day. Avisail Garcia, normally a 6’4”, 250 pound outfielder who is sneaky fast, lost 36 pounds in preparation for camp. He played most of the center field last year when Cain opted out, but figures to move to right. The club has said it has four starting outfielders, and that there are plenty of plate appearances to go around.

Derek Fisher, who is out of options, was playing a lot of of the center field in Cain’s absence and before the club signed Bradley. But he injured his left hamstring in a March 13th game, and hasn’t been back on the field. An injured list stint might save him from a DFA. Billy McKinney, also out of options, is leading the club with 4 homers in part-time duty, but there won’t be room for him unless the club takes 13 or fewer pitchers. If they do take 13 or fewer pitchers, McKinney probably has a spot for now. If Bradley is forced to start the season on the injured list, you might see Tyrone Taylor as the next man up.

Now that Boxberger and Zimmerman have been released, no remaining NRI is going to make the roster. The club has 3 off-days in the first 15 days of the season, and that could induce the club to take only 13 pitchers. In that case, I would expect the bench to consist of Pina, Urias, Robertson, McKinney, and whoever is not starting in the outfield on a given day between Cain, Bradley and Garcia. If they take 14 pitchers, McKinney is looking at a DFA. There have been rumblings that the club might be thinking about taking only 12 pitchers to start the season because there are 3 off-days in the first 15 days of the season. If that actually happens, you might see Vogelbach make the roster, but that’s really delaying the inevitable. The 12-man staff won’t last forever, and Vogelbach would surely be the one that was cut to get to 13 pitchers. Another possibility that could save him for the time being is if Jackie Bradley, Jr. starts the season on the injured list.