With free agency nearing its conclusion, it’s safe to say this off-season has been a major letdown for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Believe or not, Spring training is just a few short weeks away. However, the excitement that would typically surround that news is likely muted for many Milwaukee Brewers fans.
With most of the major free agents having now found a team for this season, it’s worth reflecting on how this free agency period ultimately played out for the team. It’s safe to say that this off-season has been quite a disappointment.
Before the off-season began, I wrote about the need for the Brewers to invest heavily in this squad in free agency if they wanted to give themselves a realistic chance to win a World Series next year. After most of the major free agents signed elsewhere, I revisited this point in December, where I made the case that free agency was not playing out in a favorable way for them despite General Manager David Stearns finding some potential bargains to fill several of their positions of need. Now that the rest of the major free agents have signed, it’s clear that this off-season has been a major letdown for them.
How does the payroll look right now?
Milwaukee would enter next season, barring any additional moves, with a payroll south of $100 million. That’s nearly $24 million dollars below what their payroll figure was a season ago, when they set a franchise record for payroll in a season at $124 million. Their apparent decision to cut payroll, in the midst of a window where they have a perennial MVP candidate in Christian Yelich on a very team-friendly deal, defies logic.
Though many unfavorable contracts were given out this winter, particularly to mid-tier/aging players, the Brewers could have afforded to take the risk on SOMEONE on a three or four year deal. Milwaukee has virtually no long-term money committed to anyone beyond the 2022 season, which just so happens to be the same winter that Yelich will become a free agent. Signing someone to a four year contract, even for a high average annual salary, wouldn’t have jeopardized their ability to retain him in any significant way.
Did the Brewers get the market wrong?
Giving that kind of contract out to many of the free agents near the top of the market, though, wouldn’t have been a smart move. Contracts like Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s, Zack Wheeler‘s, or Josh Donaldson‘s, carry a great deal of risk, especially given their injury history or age. Those are contracts that have a pretty good chance of busting, something the Brewers are all too familiar with when it comes to big free agent signings (see Jeff Suppan and Matt Garza). Thus, their signing would have needed to be the RIGHT signing.
The player that stands out as the biggest miss for them on the free agent market was a player who performed at an extremely high level for them last season: Yasmani Grandal. I initially expressed support for the decision to walk away from him over the fourth year he got in his contract shortly after he signed with the Chicago White Sox. Now that we’ve seen how the market has played out, I believe I was wrong about that, and that the Brewers front office made a bad decision by failing to re-sign him.
Grandal’s contract, which is for four years $73 million, looks like the best bargain of any of the major free agents to sign this winter. Grandal has been, by pretty much any metric, one of the best catchers in baseball over the past three seasons.
Even if his age and the potential use of robot umps to call balls and strikes soon, would have seen his value decline over time, the odds are quite high that he would have still played up to, or exceeded, the value of his contract in the first two seasons of it. This would have been similar reasoning to why the team signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal two winters ago.
Retaining Grandal would have given the Brewers the best chance to maximize this window to contend. This team simply lacks the assets to make an impact trade without subtracting from a different part of their Major League roster. They also lack any clear-cut, top-tier talent within their farm system. Re-signing Grandal would have been their only clear option to land (or in this case retain) a high-end player.
Even if they’ve managed to potentially replace the value of the players they lost this off-season with those they’ve brought in, the Brewers are still a weaker team without Grandal. They lost their second best player in fWAR from last season. None of their signings or acquisitions is capable, individually, of matching his 5.2 fWAR, even if things break right. The odds of them collectively matching that production are far from a certainty as well, which makes the floor of this team considerably lower than last season’s team.
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Milwaukee may still find themselves competitive enough to make the playoffs this season. However, their failure to maximize this free agency period by re-signing Grandal, puts a ceiling on what they’re capable of doing, not just this season, but potentially for seasons to come. We’ll see what they can muster in the months ahead.