Why you shouldn't be concerned about the Brewers' surprising offseason
Despite a rude awakening to the offseason, which saw the Brewers lose two All-Stars, a key reliever, a bevy of starters and a pair of fan favorites, Milwaukee has once again managed to rebound and retool in recent weeks.
Out are catcher Yasmani Grandal, third baseman Mike Moustakas, reliever Drew Pomeranz, first baseman Eric Thames and starters Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Jordan Lyles, who along with other departed pieces (Junior Guerra, Travis Shaw, Gio Gonzalez, etc.) totaled 14.1 wins above replacement last season, according to Fangraphs (fWAR).
In their stead, the Brewers have brought in catcher Omar Narváez; starters Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer and Brett Anderson; middle infielders Luis Urías and Eric Sogard; corner infielders Justin Smoak and Ryon Healy; and outfielder Avisaíl García. Fangraphs only projects those nine to tally 9.9 fWAR in 2020, but there is enough reason for optimism between them that at least a few should turn into legitimate multi-win starters.
Milwaukee scooped up Narváez in a deal with Seattle to replace Grandal. At the plate, the left-handed hitting Narváez and Grandal both posted a 120 OPS+ mark since the start of 2018, so the Brewers' offensive output should remain relatively stable. Of course, Grandal is vastly superior to Narváez with the glove; of the 36 catchers who sat behind the dish for over 1,000 over the past two seasons, Grandal finished second in defensive rating. Narváez ranked dead last. Defensive ratings always come with a grain of salt, but where there is that much smoke, there is probably fire.
Still, Narváez just completed his age-27 season, and he has only been a full-time catcher for one season. If his bat holds steady, the Brewers – who are more analytically inclined than Narváez's previous MLB stops with the White Sox and Mariners – could push his defense closer to average. If he can hit like a top-five catcher and simply avoid being a catastrophe on defense, Milwaukee will have done well to replace Grandal on the fly. Plus, the Brewers now have Narváez for his age 28-30 seasons for a fraction of the $73 million Grandal will earn with Chicago from 31-34 years old.
On the mound, Milwaukee has made wholesale changes as it looks to upgrade its starting group that finished ninth in the National League with a 4.40 ERA last year. Gone are Steady Eddie retreads Anderson and Davies; in are higher-ceiling options Lindblom and Anderson. Lindblom, who inked a three-year, $9.125 million deal with Milwaukee, took home Korea's version of the Cy Young award in each of the past two seasons, as well as the 2019 MVP award. He battled through a few middling stints in the majors from 2011-17, but returns stateside after improving his offspeed pitches in the KBO. This would not be the first time an American has returned to the majors after finding success overseas; Miles Mikolas for St. Louis, Ryan Brasier for Boston and, of course, Thames for Milwaukee have all been immensely valuable for their MLB clubs after stints in Japan or South Korea.
Anderson, meanwhile, is an oft-injured lefty, but when healthy, he is a legitimate number three starter. In the four seasons in which Anderson has tossed at least 100 innings, he has been good for a 3.69 ERA. Unfortunately, those years have been few and far between; he has not put up back-to-back 100 inning campaigns since 2009-10. Fittingly, Anderson threw 176 innings for Oakland in 2019. If the Brewers can catch lightning in a bottle, they will have upgraded on the Chase Anderson/Zach Davies/Gio Gonzalez contingent of their rotation. If he falls short, then they can wash their hands of his one-year, $5 million contract with relative ease.
As currently constituted, the Brewers opening day rotation would likely include Brandon Woodruff, Lindblom, Anderson, Lauer and Adrian Houser.
Among the new position players, García is a strange fit for this Brewers roster. He can feasibly play all three outfield positions, though not particularly well. With Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich entrenched in center and right, respectively, García is presumably headed to left field. What does this mean for incumbent Ryan Braun? García has never played first, and you don't pay someone $10 million annually to ride the pine, so presumably Braun will be spending some time in the infield.
Mini-Miggy, a reference to García's resemblance to former teammate Miguel Cabrera, has generally been a roughly league average hitter (100 OPS+), posting an OPS+ between 89 and 105 in six of his eight seasons. He did finish with a 111 OPS+ mark in 2019, but in the year of the juiced baseball, it's hard to know how that number will translate in 2020. The Brewers clearly feel that García in left and Braun/Smoak at first is a better recipe then Braun in left plus Thames and a right-handed platoon partner at first. We shall see.
The Brewers currently have a logjam in the infield with Keston Hiura, Sogard, Urías and Orlando Arcia battling for time at shortstop and second base, likely leaving Arcia as the odd man out. Urías scuffled in his first MLB action with San Diego last year, but his lofty prospect status and his career .308/.397/.433 slash line in the minors mean he will get plenty of opportunities to shine in Milwaukee. After Arcia largely flamed out with three negative fWAR seasons in four years, Craig Counsell may utilize a Urías-Hiura middle infield, with Sogard mixing in at both positions, as well as third base with Healy.
Milwaukee has done well to replace large parts of last year's postseason roster – and is almost certainly not done yet. By eschewing the shockingly large price tags for Grandal, Moustakas and Pomeranz, the Brewers are roughly $36 million below their 2019 Opening Day payroll mark. Most of the big-ticket stars and second-tier vets have been signed already, but there are still some impactful players left on the board who might make sense for Milwaukee, including starter Dallas Keuchel and relievers Will Smith and Daniel Hudson. A trade for an arm, such as Arizona's Robbie Ray, is another savvy, high-upside play that could pay big dividends.
Grabbing at least one more rotation-worthy starter, as well as a bridge to Josh Hader in the pen, would be a big boon for the Brewers. General manager David Stearns has built an interesting roster surround Yelich, but there are a few too many question marks to feel completely comfortable heading into the holidays. Still, with Stearns' track record of finding gems and Counsell's ability to polish them, Milwaukee's team-building unit has earned the benefit of the doubt. Expect the Brewers to remain active throughout the winter and come away with a fully-fledged roster capable of contending in the fiery NL Central by February.
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