The Brewers have often been competitive without being big spenders. They fell off that fine line in 2022, trading away their closer and stumbling out of the postseason picture down the stretch. Unless there’s a payroll boost coming, some more tough financial decisions might be over the horizon.
- Christian Yelich, OF: $162.5M through 2028 (including $6.5M buyout of 2029 mutual option)
- Aaron Ashby, LHP: $18.5M through 2027 (including $1M buyout of 2028 club option)
- Freddy Peralta, RHP: $10.5M through 2024 (including $1.5M buyout of 2025 club option)
Total 2023 commitments: $30.5M
Total future commitments: $191.5M
Arbitration-eligible players (projected 2023 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
For much of 2022, it seemed that the Brewers were cruising to a fifth straight postseason appearance. As July was winding down and the trade deadline was drawing near, they were sitting atop the NL Central, four games clear of the Cardinals. A team in that position would normally lean into the “buyer” category, but the Brewers tried to have it both ways. They traded their star closer Josh Hader, and his increasingly expensive salary, to the Padres. They added some young players to their farm system and surely hoped that the bullpen would be fine without him, with the plan being that Devin Williams would step into the closer’s role, supported by deadline acquisitions Taylor Rogers, Matt Bush and Trevor Rosenthal.
Unfortunately, rumors quickly began swirling that the move had a deleterious effect on the morale in the clubhouse. While that can’t be definitively quantified, what is certainly true is that the move didn’t pan out on the field. Rogers and Bush both struggled after the move, while an injury kept Rosenthal from ever joining the club. The Brewers went 29-31 from the start of August until the end of the schedule, yielding the Central to the Cardinals and finishing one game behind the Phillies for the final NL wild-card spot.
President of baseball operations David Stearns is under contract for 2023, but there was reportedly some type of opt-out in his contract that could have allowed him to pursue other opportunities. It was unclear if the Brewers had to reach the NLCS or the World Series to put him in position to trigger that opt-out, but it’s now a moot point since the club missed the playoffs entirely. Stearns is a New York native and has been frequently mentioned in rumors connecting him to the Mets, but the Brewers have denied him the opportunity to explore jobs with other organizations. It seems that he will be staying in Milwaukee for at least one more season.
It doesn’t seem like it will be an easy offseason for him to navigate, as the Hader trade didn’t solve the payroll situation for the Brewers. Never huge spenders, the club ran out an Opening Day payroll of $132M this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That represented a franchise record but was still in the bottom half of the league, coming in 19th out of the 30 MLB teams. For 2023, Roster Resource estimates they’re already pretty close to that number, currently pegged at $118M. They have a huge 18-player arbitration class and could improve their financial situation with a few non-tenders, but that would also create more holes on a roster that already proved insufficient. Next year, the more balanced schedule means they will have fewer games within their weak division, which will only increase the challenge of competing in 2023. Unless another bump is coming for the budget, it’s possible Stearns will have to continue walking fine lines.
The starting rotation is currently in a strong position, as the club has six starters with varying levels of strength. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are clearly at the front end, with both showing ace potential at times. Freddy Peralta has some durability concerns but has shown himself capable of being almost as good as Burnes and Woodruff when healthy. That’s an extremely good front three, and it’s bolstered by Eric Lauer, Aaron Ashby and Adrian Houser as serviceable back-end guys. However, all six of them are in line for raises in 2023. Peralta’s extension will lead to his salary going from $2.25M up to $3.5M next year, while Ashby’s will go from $700K to $1M as part of his own extension. The other four starters will all be eligible for raises via arbitration. Back in September, Burnes discussed his status with Adam McCalvy of MLB.com, very much aware of the fact he’s a candidate to follow the same path as Hader. It might be difficult for the Brewers to consider trading another star hurler after the Hader deal went so poorly, but taking that off the table will likely lead to difficult decisions elsewhere.
The bullpen is probably the least-impressive it’s been in some time, now that Hader is no longer atop the chart. However, Devin Williams still gives them an excellent starting point. He’s now thrown 155 1/3 innings in the big leagues with a 2.03 ERA, 48.8% ground-ball rate and 39.5% strikeout rate. His 11.5% walk rate is certainly on the high side, but he’s still been very effective. He racked up 26 holds and 15 saves in 2022 and seems ticketed for permanent closer duties going forward. He’ll qualify for arbitration for the first time this winter but should still be well worth the salary bump.
The rest of the bullpen is a bit more murky. Rosenthal and Rogers are free agents. Matt Bush struggled after the trade but still finished the season with a 3.47 ERA on the season as a whole. He’ll be due a raise via arbitration but not a huge one. Brad Boxberger had another strong season for Milwaukee and can be retained via a $3M club option. That might seem to be a fairly easy trigger at first glance, but his strikeout rate took a downturn this year and he’s turning 35 in May. Is the payroll tight enough for the Brewers to simply walk away and dedicate those resources elsewhere? Peter Strzelecki had a nice debut and hasn’t yet reached arbitration. However, pitchers like Trevor Gott, Luis Perdomo, Jandel Gustave and Brent Suter are all part of that huge arbitration class and none of them were outstanding in 2022. A few non-tenders would save the club a few bucks but would also weaken the overall depth. Either way, they will probably look to find some low-cost additions, either through free agency or waiver claims.
Behind the plate, the Brewers are facing the departure of Omar Narváez. His bat took a step back in 2022 but he still provided value with his glove. Without him, the primary catcher is Victor Caratini, who was having a strong season but finished quite poorly. Through the end of July, he was hitting .231/.355/.413 for a wRC+ of 121, but then slashed just .163/.234/.264 the rest of the way for a wRC+ of 39. Adding another backstop would make some sense, but they could also start the year with Alex Jackson and Mario Feliciano battling Caratini for playing time if the budget is tight.
Rowdy Tellez should have first base spoken for after a solid season at the plate. He hit 35 home runs and produced a batting line of .219/.306/.461 for a wRC+ of 110. However, it’s possible the club will consider trading Tellez and giving first base to Keston Hiura, a possibility recently explored by MLBTR’s Maury Ahram. Hiura struck out in 41.7% of his plate appearances but still hit 14 home runs in 80 games and produced a 115 wRC+. He can play other positions at times but doesn’t get great marks for his work at second base or in left field. A trade could clear up some money but it also wouldn’t break the bank to keep Tellez and Hiura in some sort of platoon rotation.
Up the middle, Willy Adames has shortstop locked down but second base is a little less clear. The club has a $10M club option over Kolten Wong’s services for 2023, which comes with a $2M buyout. That net $8M decision would normally be a very clear decision, with exercising it the obvious choice. However, given the potential payroll constraints and Wong’s unusually weak defensive year, it’s possible that the Brewers look to move on. Wong himself seemed to acknowledge all of this recently, realizing that it’s possible that he is replaced by prospect Brice Turang, who had a nice year in Triple-A. There’s also a couple of utility guys present, with Luis Urías and Mike Brosseau on the roster. They’re both coming off solid seasons, but at least one of them will likely need to cover third base due to the free agency of Jace Peterson. Although Peterson has never been an above-average hitter by measure of wRC+, except in the shortened 2020 campaign, he got excellent marks for his work at the hot corner this year while also occasionally moving to first base, second base and the outfield corners.
In the outfield, Christian Yelich will continue manning one spot. He’s not quite living up to his salary, as he’s getting paid to be the MVP-level player he was in 2018 and 2019. He’s fallen short of that in each of the past three seasons but has still been a solid above-average regular. Hunter Renfroe could be in another corner, but he also could be a non-tender candidate based on his one-dimensional output. He hit 29 home runs in 2022 but was below-average at drawing walks and isn’t especially strong on defense. He’s certainly still a valuable player, but with a projected salary of $11.2M, the Brewers could look to trade him and find a comparable player for less money on the free agent market.
In center field, 2023 will be the first full season of the post-Lorenzo Cain era. Jackson Chourio is considered by many to be one of the best prospects in the sport and the center fielder of the future in Milwaukee. However, he’s not yet reached his 19th birthday and will surely need some more time. Rookie Garrett Mitchell got some big league playing time down the stretch and fared well, but it was over a small sample of just 28 games. Sal Frelick and Joey Wiemer each finished strong in Triple-A and could be ready for a jump to the majors quite soon. Esteury Ruiz, acquired from the Padres in the Hader deal, has already gotten a taste of the majors. However, the Brewers played him in left field more than center after trading for him.
The Brewers have some interesting decisions ahead of them this winter, as they look to bounce back from a disappointing 2022 campaign. They have some question marks in the outfield, especially if they let Renfroe go. They have some holes on the infield, especially if they don’t retain Wong. The bullpen certainly has room for some upgrades, as does their catching corps. To address those areas, there might not be a ton of money to work with, meaning it could be one more year on the tightrope.