MILWAUKEE -- A busy December helped fill in some of the blanks, but the Brewers turned the calendar to 2020 with payroll flexibility and at least one position to fill.
Here's another very early look at the state of the Brewers' roster:
Locks: Omar Narváez, Manny Piña
Possibilities: Jacob Nottingham, David Freitas
Narváez, acquired in a trade with the Mariners, has big shoes to fill as he pairs with Piña to replace Yasmani Grandal, who produced a .380 on-base percentage while setting a Brewers record for home runs as a catcher (28) and trailing only the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto in WAR among MLB backstops. Grandal turned that production into a four-year deal with the White Sox, so Milwaukee pivoted to Narváez, a good hitter who has work do to defensively. Still in the wings is Nottingham, who was limited to a .668 OPS at Triple-A San Antonio last season despite big offensive numbers across the Pacific Coast League. He is entering a critical season in his career.
Locks: Justin Smoak, Ryan Braun
Possibilities: Narváez, Nottingham
Braun was a possibility in theory for first base after the Brewers decided to decline Eric Thames' $7.5 million club option, leaving the position wide open. But it wasn’t a lock until Milwaukee invested $20 million in outfielder Avisaíl García, who expects to man left field. President of baseball operations David Stearns found Braun’s platoon partner in former Blue Jays first baseman Smoak, who hit 38 home runs in 2017 but declined in each of the two subsequent seasons. He’ll get a chance to bounce back at Miller Park, as good a ballpark as any for left-handed sluggers.
Lock: Keston Hiura
Possibilities: Luis Urías, Eric Sogard, Ronny Rodríguez
The Brewers delayed promoting Hiura last season, then they sent him down in June to give Travis Shaw one last chance to get going. But now Hiura is here to stay, and while there are questions about his defense, there is no doubting that Hiura will hit. His 19 home runs were third all-time for a Milwaukee rookie, trailing only Braun's 34 in 2007 and Prince Fielder's 28 in '06. The Crew has no plans at the moment to move Hiura off second base. Newcomer Urías played at lot of second base for the Padres, but it looks like he will have to get his at-bats at shortstop or third base in Milwaukee.
Possibilities: Orlando Arcia, Urías, Sogard, Rodríguez
When Arcia was promoted to the Majors in August 2016, he was the team’s most anticipated prospect since Braun. But after three full seasons, he still hasn’t established himself. Arcia's best asset is his glove, though the metrics and the eye test both say he took a step back on defense in 2019 while slashing .223/.283/.350 and ranking as MLB’s worst qualified hitter by wOBA (.269) and wRC+ (61). With the arrival of Urías, not far removed from being one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball, it’s hard to characterize Arcia as a “lock.” Perhaps some competition will get Arcia going.
Possibilities: Sogard, Jedd Gyorko, Urías, Ryon Healy
As the decade turned over, third base was the Brewers’ biggest question mark. Healy is coming off hip surgery and has Minor League options, so he may be headed to Triple-A to get his legs back under him. Sogard is coming off a career year split between Toronto and Tampa Bay, but he is probably best suited to a utility role similar to the one he filled for Milwaukee in his first tenure with the team from 2017-18. Urías doesn’t look the part of a third baseman, but he hit well in winter ball, and this may be the best spot to get him at-bats in the big leagues in '20. Gyorko, signed to a one-year deal with a club option for '21 on Jan. 10, will have a chance to compete for the position at Spring Training as well.
And there isn’t a clear candidate in the Minor Leagues to take over at third base; Lucas Erceg hit .218/.305/.398 in a great offensive environment at San Antonio in '19. Put that all together, and there’s a lot of uncertainty at this position.
Possibilities: Gyorko, Urías, Rodríguez, Mark Mathias
The likeliest scenario is that Sogard would start regularly, but bounce around positions. Rodríguez was plucked off waivers from the Tigers during the Winter Meetings. Mathias came from Cleveland in a minor trade.
Locks: Braun, García, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Ben Gamel
Possibilities: Tyrone Taylor, Corey Ray
García was told he’ll play regularly in left field and occasionally spell Cain in center. That means Braun will split time in left field and at first base, and Yelich will remain in right, with Gamel serving as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. It’s a strong group, provided Cain bounces back from a disappointing 2019.
Locks: Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson, Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer
Possibilities: Brent Suter, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta
Woodruff was a stud when healthy in 2019, and Houser showed flashes of the same ability. Both will return to the rotation, said Stearns, who shed payroll by trading steady veterans Chase Anderson and Zach Davies and replacing those innings with a trade for '19 Padres Opening Day starter Lauer and veteran free agents Anderson and Lindblom. Anderson is a known commodity when healthy, but Lindblom is more of a wild card, having pitched the past three seasons in Korea. He won that league’s version of the Cy Young Award each of the past two seasons, and he was league MVP in '19. Can he translate the lessons learned overseas back to MLB? Whatever the answer, the Brewers anticipate using 8-10 starting pitchers in '20.
Locks: Josh Hader, Alex Claudio
Possibilities: Corey Knebel, Bobby Wahl, Suter, Burnes, Peralta, Ray Black, Devin Williams, Jake Faria, Deolis Guerra, Taylor Williams, Eric Yardley, Angel Perdomo, J.P. Feyereisen
The bullpen makeup depends on offseason additions and subtractions as well as decisions about the starting rotation. For example: Suter will surely be a big part of the team, but will he start, relieve or some combination of both? When will Knebel and Wahl be ready to return from injuries? What do the Brewers have planned for Burnes? How significant a role will Black play after some encouraging late-season outings? Given all the moving pieces in Milwaukee’s recent bullpens, it’s safe to say that most or all of the names on the “possibilities” list will contribute in 2020.
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.