As the 2021-2022 offseason kicks off, the Milwaukee Brewers might be facing a payroll crunch.
The Brewers should definitely be looking to make some additions this offseason. They are a big impact hitter and shutdown bullpen arm away from having a chance next season. The major thing that will hold them back will be a huge crop of arbitration increases and some of their current high-paying existing contracts.
There will be 14 players eligible for arbitration before the start of the 2021 season. A lot of those players are part of the core roster. That includes Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff, Omar Narvaez, Corbin Burnes, Willy Adames, Luis Urias, Eric Lauer, Rowdy Tellez, Brent Suter and several others. Hader could make as much as $10MM next year, which won’t help the small market team. And especially for a ballclub that has a team salary usually under $100MM.
There is also a possibility of a strike next year. MLB and the CBA are not close right now, so that might also prevent teams from spending too much on free agents if for some reason there isn’t a full season.
What also doesn’t help the Milwaukee Brewers are some of their current contracts. Here are three contracts that are currently holding the team back from signing anyone they’d like.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
When JBJ was signed during training camp in 2021, it was seen as a sneaky and smart signing. He is a former World Series MVP and one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. The Brewers signed him to a two-year, $24MM deal with a mutual option in 2023. It seemed a bit high at the time, but with an injury-prone outfield, depth was welcomed after a pretty quiet offseason from the Brewers.
Bradley Jr. was never known as a huge offensive presence and a below .250 hitter when arriving to Milwaukee. But no one could have predicted his 2021 performance. He ended with a .163 batting average, six home runs, 29 RBIs and a .497 OPS. Basically career-lows for almost all statistics. The only time he had fewer RBIs or home runs was during the shortened 2020 season and his first two years as a Boston Red Sox in 2013 and 2014.
The 31-year-old has a player option for 2022, and it would be silly for him not to take it. If they don’t end up signing an outfielder and Avisail Garcia selects free agency, the team will be expecting a lot from him and Tyrone Taylor next year.
He’s due $9.5MM next year and, if the Brewers don’t select his option in 2023, he gets an $8MM buyout. That’s a guaranteed $17.5MM the Brewers will have to pay him over the next two seasons. Milwaukee will have to hope for a bounce-back season and for his production to improve.
Lorenzo Cain is set to make $18MM next season, but the payroll/adjusted salary is really $17MM. It is the last year of his five-year $80MM deal he signed back in 2018. Milwaukee signed Cain to his big contract the same day they traded for Christian Yelich, and forever changed the franchise.
Cain also has some deferred money coming his way from the Crew. He will make $1MM every year the next five years after 2022. That deferment has made his salary the past few years a little easier to swallow, but they’ll still be sending him checks for the next few years.
Cain will turn 36 when the 2021 season starts. Unfortunately, the injury bug is starting to hit him too much. After opting out most of the 2020 season, Cain only played in 78 games this year. He was on the injured list from April 14th until May 3rd. He then landed on the list again on June 1st, and didn’t return until July 27th.
He ended with a .257 batting average, eight home runs and 36 RBIs. He ended with a .729 OPS, the second lowest of his career. Cain had some great stretches after returning in late July, but hasn’t been the same since his 2018 season. That’s at least three, potentially four seasons of underperformance while earning a hefty salary, although his defense has remained superb.
Hopefully, Lorenzo can stay healthy his final year and help the Brewers in center field and at the plate again.
Obviously, the Brewers’ biggest contract was going to be on the list and the biggest obstacle for the team. It has nothing to do with his past couple of seasons or play, either. For a small market team, his new contract really kicks in next year and will be an obstacle for signing bigger free agents.
Yelich signed a seven-year, $188.5MM contract back in March of 2020. Starting next season, he will make $26MM a year until 2028. He makes $20MM in 2029 and will turn 37 that year. After that, Milwaukee will pay him $2.33M from 2031 until 2042. So basically, the Brewers will be making sure Christian Yelich is a millionaire until he turns 50. Not a bad contract for him at all.
Obviously, most expect he will bounce back and earn most of his new salary. He may never play at the level he did in 2018 and 2019, but will still be the star and face of the franchise for the next decade. He earned every cent of that contract and brought a winning team back to Milwaukee. But, his salary may prevent some bigger names from joining the Brewers down the line.
With Yelich, Cain and JBJ on the payroll next year, that means $55MM of their payroll will go to three outfielders. And none of them are playing at their highest level right now. Those are the three contracts that might prevent a bigger name signing this offseason.
The team could also say who cares and still make a big splash. They were once again in the Top 10 for attendance at American Family Field and should be able to stretch some money with another winning team on the field.
They also won the NL Central and were early favorites to win the World Series. There are obstacles, but nothing that they can’t overcome. They have done more with less in past seasons.