MILWAUKEE -- It became clear to the Brewers mere hours into free agency, president of baseball operations David Stearns said, that the market for catcher Yasmani Grandal would prove too “robust” for the club’s comfort. Soon thereafter, Stearns reached the same realization about third baseman Mike Moustakas.
The resulting pivot took the Brewers down a path to Friday, when the club finalized one-year contracts for first baseman Justin Smoak and versatile infielder Eric Sogard. Those deals completed a two-week spree that saw the team sign seven Major League free agents and fill a 40-man roster that had only 31 players at the start of the Winter Meetings.
“The goal of the offseason, especially as it became clear that we were going to be unable to bring back Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, was to incrementally upgrade around our roster to complement what we believe is a very strong Major League core,” Stearns said. “We think that the moves we’ve made over the last 10 days or so -- and it has been a flurry -- are making progress toward accomplishing that goal.”
In addition to Smoak and Sogard, the Brewers picked up reliever Alex Claudio (a re-sign), starters Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom, outfielder Avisaíl García and infielder Ryon Healy -- all since Dec. 9.
While the club didn’t announce terms of its most recent signings, Smoak’s contract reportedly guarantees $5 million and Sogard’s pays $4.5 million. Both deals include club options for 2021. Of the recent signees, only Lindblom was guaranteed more than two years.
“We always try to maintain future flexibility, and while these are all relatively short-term deals, I’ll also point out that only Brett Anderson would be a straight one-year deal,” Stearns said. “Everyone else, we have the ability to keep for multiple years. So it’s certainly possible that many of these players that we’re bringing in will be part of the Brewers for not only this season, but going forward.”
Smoak, a switch-hitter, becomes the leading candidate to man first base, though outfielder Ryan Braun is expected to see some at-bats at that position as part of an effort to spread playing time among an outfield of Braun, García, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Sogard was told he’ll play some third base, a position that remains unsettled for the Brewers, but will also bounce around the infield, like he did during his first stint in Milwaukee in 2017-18.
“It's a little surprising to be back, but I was extremely excited to hear the Brewers were showing interest,” Sogard said.
Sogard said he was looking forward to seeing former Blue Jays teammate Smoak swing the bat at Miller Park. Smoak has been among the obvious targets of the Brewers all winter, or at least since the team opted not to exercise Eric Thames’ $7.5 million club option for 2020. The 33-year-old is a switch-hitter who has more power from the left side, and the Brewers love acquiring left-handed power. He has hit 191 home runs in parts of 10 Major League seasons with the Rangers, Mariners and Blue Jays, including 85 home runs over the past three seasons in Toronto while reaching base at a .350 clip.
Smoak’s finest season was in 2017, when he batted .270 with an .883 OPS, 38 home runs and 133 weighted runs created plus, and was an American League All-Star. His production fell off in 2018 (.808 OPS, 25 home runs, 121 wRC+) and again in '19 (.748 OPS, 22 home runs, 101 wRC+), when Smoak was dealing with a quadriceps issue that limited him to 121 games.
“At times I get hard-headed and I feel like I can play through anything,” Smoak said. “I probably should have taken a little more time than I did. But that’s what it is. Now it’s just trying to take care of your body to where you can go out there and play, day in and day out. That’s everybody’s goal. I think I had four years in a row where I never went on the DL and I feel like I played a lot. Last year, I got the left quad and it was there for a while. But I’m in a place now to change that, and hopefully I can continue that and stay healthy for a full season.”
Defensively, Smoak draws mixed reviews. Many regard him as a solid defender, and “the eye test,” wrote The Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath in October, “suggests he’s saved quite a few of his teammates from throwing errors while manning first.” But defensive metrics typically rate Smoak below average; he was rated at minus-3 defensive runs saved each of the past two years.
“I’m pretty tough on myself over there,” Smoak said. “From an early age, my dad always told me, ‘You’ve got to play defense like you want to hit.’ So I’d hit in the cage for two hours and then go take ground balls for two hours. It was something he was hard on me about, and honestly, I feel like it’s something that has helped me stay in this game long enough to have some success offensively.”
With Smoak in the fold, the Brewers’ biggest remaining hole is at third base. Healy has experience at both infield corners, but he is coming back from hip surgery and has Minor League options, so he may begin next year at Triple-A San Antonio.
Sogard was a fan favorite in Milwaukee during his first stint with the team in 2017-18 and could help at third base -- which remains unsettled as of the final full week before the holidays -- or serve in a utility role. While Sogard has played all around the infield and even some outfield, he played primarily second base in '19. In his first stint in Milwaukee, he played second and shortstop.
The utility infielder had a solid first year with the Brewers, hitting .273 with a .393 on-base percentage in 299 plate appearances in 2017, but he struggled in '18 and was released that September. Sogard then bounced back with a career year in '19. In 110 games split between the Blue Jays, who signed him last December, and the Rays, who acquired him from Toronto just before the Trade Deadline, the 33-year-old hit .290/.353/.457 with a career-high 13 home runs and 40 RBIs.
“Two of these last three years, he had really, really good years -- the 2017 season that Eric spent with us was a really good year and last year with Toronto and Tampa was a really good year,” Stearns said. “Then he had a little bit of an anomalous 2018. We are betting on 2017 and 2019 are closer to what we’re going to get going forward, and I think that’s a very reasonable assumption.”
Without going into detail, Sogard offered an explanation for what happened in 2018, when he posted a .406 OPS in 55 games with the Brewers.
“I'm not afraid to admit that I had some issues going on off the field that kind of took my mind away from the field in a way,” Sogard said. “Being able to clear all of that up over the offseason, get everything handled, and get my family the help we needed in those situations allowed me to really focus on getting back to the game, which got me to a point where mentally and physically stronger than any point in my life.”
He added, “It was a learning experience, so it won't ever happen again.”
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.