The Brewers currently find themselves as not quite championship contenders and not exactly cellar dwellers either. More a gray area in the middle.
To say the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers are in a gray area may be a disservice to gray areas. They are coming off of three straight playoff appearances but were only true threats in 2018. Since then, their win percentage has decreased every year with the Crew finishing below .500 in the pandemic shortened season.
If you followed the Brewers at all last year, you probably noticed that the offense struggled mightily to score runs. The rotation proved to be steady but not flashy, and the bullpen kept the trend going of doing its best to carry the team.
Has the steady decline been a indicator of where the roster is at, or just a very real sign of how brutal baseball can be year in and year out?
The Brewers aren’t likely to spend much in free agency going into 2021 and their farm system doesn’t have much of anything that will make a splash this upcoming season. With that in mind, where do the Brewers go from here to optimize their time with Christian Yelich?
When looking at the teams that are contending for the playoffs, contending for a World Series title, or on the brink of breaking out of their rebuild, there seem to be three categories these teams fall into. These teams tend to either buy their success, build their success, or some even do it so well where they do a little bit of both.
But for our Milwaukee Brewers, where do they fit in?
We saw their likely max payroll in 2019 as it approached the $135MM mark. We have to keep in mind that this was also coming on the heels of a run to the NLCS as we’ve seen ownership willing to spend more when there appears to be a championship window.
After a 2020 season with no fans, and with a team that barely slipped into the playoffs, it’s not likely we’ll see a payroll remotely close to that 2019 number.
How about the farm system? Unfortunately for the Brewers, that may be less of a source of optimism than the payroll. According to MLB Pipeline, the Brewers only have one prospect in their top 100 prospects list. This list isn’t the end all be all but it is a solid indicator of where an organization’s farm system may stack up any given year.
This brings us to the gray area.
The Gray Area
The Brewers have made the playoffs three years in a row. Making the playoffs is great no matter how its done, but small market teams have a much smaller margin for error than those that can afford multiple superstars. The Brewers roster overall isn’t loaded with stars and they aren’t going to spend big to improve and don’t have reinforcements waiting in the minors like the White Sox and Padres did last year.
Stearns has consistently shopped the bargain bin to fill holes with mixed results. Early in his tenure, it seemed to pay dividends. That script has flipped, however, over the last two years. The Brewers seem to be at a spot where they need to make a choice. They have to bank on bounce back years from a lot of players to improve on 2020 and even then their ceiling is limited.
Without multiple proven starters and a lineup void of consistent impact bats outside of Yelich, this team is going to have to once again rely on the bullpen. Is that enough to make an October run? It may be enough to get them there but does anyone truly think this team could challenge the Dodgers? Not likely.
Is bargain shopping with hopes of slipping into the playoffs really the best strategy for the Brewers short and long term? Long-term, the answer is no.
This is a difficult way to build a championship caliber team. If you look at the successful small market teams recently, they had to go through years of hardship before they were rewarded. The Royals needed years of being in the basement resulting in high draft picks to acquire the core that lead them to their 2015 title. The Rays were at or near the basement in the tough AL East between 2014 and 2017 before showing the fruits of their labor in 2018, and then finding their way to the World Series in 2020.
There is a recipe for success for small market teams that has been laid out and has proven to work if it’s stuck to. Stearns has made more good moves than bad since his tenure with the club began in 2015.
Recently we dug into every deal Stearns has made since September of 2015 and brings to light that the majority of them have been a net positive for the Brewers. This article details every single one of those moves and even though overall the Brewers have gotten better, have they been real threats to win it all outside of 2018?
Stearns so far hasn’t done a full scale rebuild. It appeared as though that was the plan following a brutal 2015 season where the Crew finished 26 games under .500. Stearns however had other plans as the Brewers improved immediately finishing 16 games under .500 in 2016 and then 10 games over .500 in 2017.
It seemed very impressive at the time and I think all Brewers fans would agree that we’d sign up for it again. But the early turn to competing is now why the Crew are where they are. They didn’t do enough to build up their farm system and years of poor drafting from the previous regime is showing its ugly head.
To wrap this all together in a neat bow, the Brewers need to decide which direction to go. Shopping the bargain bin every year may occasionally bring excitement to Milwaukee, but it’s just going to keep the team from being able to draft high end players early in the draft. They’ll then continue to use the few assets they have at the trade deadline to make minor improvements and the team won’t ever find consistent success where they are true contenders.
They have a solid core of players in Yelich, Hiura, Woodruff, Burnes, Houser, Williams, Hader and hopefully Urias. That’s a solid core to start with, but isn’t good enough alone to bring this team to serious contention.
Stearns needs to decide if he should sell a piece or two (Hader) to bring in young potential that can take this team to the next level down the road. If that isn’t an option, then owner Mark Attanasio needs to make a decision about spending. He’s invested majorly into Yelich, would he consider adding a second star if it meant a major positive impact on the offense?
Time will tell but something we do know for sure. Bargain bin surfing year in and year out will only keep this franchise in the gray area when it comes to seriously competing.