It has been nearly three months since our way-too-early 2021 Opening Day roster projection, and little has changed.
The pitching staff looks essentially the same as it did at the close of last season. Third base was a question mark then, just as it is now. Only on the right side of the infield is there a significantly new look, with second baseman Kolten Wong in the fold and Keston Hiura shifting over to first base.
Here is our best effort at predicting which 26 players will break camp with the Brewers. We will update this projection from time to time over the course of the spring.
Some ground rules: We’re going with 26 players, per the rules set forth by MLB. And until we’re told otherwise, there is no designated hitter in the National League. That rule was instituted for 2020 alone and was not included in 2021 health and safety protocols.
Catcher (2): Omar Narváez, Manny Piña
Narváez was a non-tender candidate after a terrible debut season with the Brewers in which he had a .176/.294/.269 slash line with a wRC+ of 59, one of the worst marks on the team. But the Brewers brought him back, banking on his reputation as a hitter who can make a difference and pleased with his progress on defense. Piña is a solid backup, and the Brewers added free agent Luke Maile to join Jacob Nottingham behind that first wave.
First base (2): Keston Hiura, Daniel Vogelbach
The Brewers flirted with the idea of playing Hiura at first base after parting with Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak last year, but that never materialized. Now, it’s a go. Hiura was among the many hitters who disappointed in 2020, with an 87 wRC+ and an NL-worst 34.6% strikeout rate. But look at his Minor League numbers and his impact after a big league callup in ’19 and you see a much better hitter. The Brewers are bringing back Vogelbach as a left-handed complement. He delivered an offensive jolt against right-handed pitching (164 wRC+ in 67 plate appearances during the regular season), and he even got some reps at first base and held his own. Vogelbach would fit a lot better as a DH, but that’s not looking like an option.
Second base (1): Kolten Wong
The Brewers didn’t expect the longtime Cardinal to hit free agency, but when St. Louis declined Wong’s club option at the start of the offseason, president of baseball operations David Stearns pounced. The Brewers believe Wong gives them one of the game’s best up-the-middle defensive corps, with shortstop Orlando Arcia and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. They also think Wong will get an offensive boost as a left-handed hitter playing half of his games at American Family Field.
Third base (1): Travis Shaw
Shaw is a nonroster invitee but has as good a chance as anyone to win this job, especially if he can demonstrate in Spring Training the pop that produced 30-plus home runs for the Brewers in 2017 and ’18. His in-house competition is Luis Urías and newcomer Daniel Robertson, a former Top 100 prospect who came to Milwaukee via free agency. Of all the Brewers’ positions, this was the most up for grabs as Spring Training began.
Shortstop (1): Orlando Arcia
Arcia’s job security was seriously threatened when the Brewers traded for Urías, but when the newcomer couldn’t get on the field because of injury and then illness, Arcia made the most of the opportunity and turned in a solid season at the plate and in the field. Arcia is expected to play a fair amount of third base in Spring Training because the Brewers want a long look at Urías at shortstop. Former first-round Draft pick Brice Turang, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the organization's No. 2 prospect, is inching closer to the Majors, as well.
Outfield (4): Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Avisaíl García, Tyrone Taylor
With so much uncertainty on the field, the Brewers are more solid in the outfield. Yelich’s 2020 troubles were well-documented, but he was on his way to more normal production when he simply ran out of season. The importance of Cain’s return after he elected not to play last season cannot be overstated. Corey Ray, a 2016 first-round Draft pick, is a possibility to crack the Majors this year, and another former top prospect to watch is Derek Fisher, acquired from the Blue Jays just before the start of Spring Training. Notably, Fisher is out of Minor League options. For now, we are leaving him off to leave two utility spots.
Utility (2): Luis Urías, Mark Mathias
After a miserable offseason in which he was traded by the Padres, suffered a broken hand in winter ball in Mexico and then missed the start of his debut season with the Brewers because he contracted COVID-19, Urías got off to an extremely productive start for Milwaukee. Then he faded to a .602 OPS and no home runs in 120 plate appearances. Still, the Brewers see a bright future. They also like Mathias, who made a positive impression last spring when he learned to play the outfield and had some nice moments during the regular season. Stearns and manager Craig Counsell love versatile defenders, and both Urías and Mathias fit the bill. So does Jace Peterson.
Starting pitchers (6): Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Brett Anderson, Josh Lindblom, Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer
We don’t know whether the Brewers will begin the season with a six-man rotation as they navigate the jump from 60-games last season to 162 games this season. But we know for sure that it will take a lot more than five starting pitchers to get through this, so we’ll start with this list of six and figure that someone (Lauer?) bounces between the rotation and bullpen. Homegrown right-handers Woodruff and Burnes were excellent in 2020 and will look to again lead the rotation. Anderson was effective when not bothered by his blister issue. The other three are all coming off disappointing seasons, with Houser (1-6, 5.30 ERA) arguably best positioned to bounce back. Lauer may have been the most disappointing pitcher on the entire team in ’20, considering what he cost the Brewers in a trade with the Padres. He’ll get a shot to make the cut as a left-handed starter. Freddy Peralta could make some starts again, too, and Jordan Zimmermann is a notable non-roster invitee.
Relievers (7): Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta, Eric Yardley, Brent Suter, Drew Rasmussen, Justin Topa
Again, don’t get too hung up on the initial list. It will take a lot more than seven or eight relievers to get through a 162-game season, given last year’s limited workloads. The Brewers’ bullpen was a strength in 2020, and they think it will be again, especially with big arms like Rasmussen and Topa having a bit of experience. Others likely to be called upon during the season include Ray Black (who is out of options), J.P. Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, Bobby Wahl and Phil Bickford. A non-roster invitee to watch is Brad Boxberger, the former Rays and D-backs closer who has a good shot to win one of these jobs to start the season. Since Rasmussen and Topa have options, the Brewers may choose to hold onto Boxberger in the name of depth. However it breaks down at the start of the season, the Brewers have done a good job of finding relievers in recent years, and they like their depth here.