Crew has questions to answer in new year

December 31st, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Here are five questions I’m asking myself as the Brewers flip the calendar to 2021:

1. Are the Brewers going to do anything this offseason?


Even though this winter has been the quietest in the history of the franchise, the Brewers will make some moves before you hear the crack of the bat again. They have to.

They need a third baseman, for starters, unless they want to put Luis Urías there. If the idea is to generate more offense in 2021, that does not look like too appealing of an option on paper. There’s also the issue of whether the designated hitter will be in play once again in the National League. Teams have been told to operate as if it will not be in place for 2021, in which case the Brewers would probably come up with some kind of platoon partner for Daniel Vogelbach at first base and hope his glimpses of decent defense at the position in 2020 were a sign of things to come. But if the DH rule returns for NL play in 2021, the Brewers look like they badly need a first baseman.

It feels as if time is running out, but that’s the old schedule. This winter is operating on a unique timeline, and dozens of good free-agent options are out there. The Brewers will add players.

2. Is payroll coming down?

David Stearns certainly has not indicated that payroll is going up. Instead, he has talked about the financial damage done to organizations like the Brewers in 2020 as a result of playing without fans in the stands, and he has stressed the Brewers’ investments in player payroll in 2018 and ’19. That sounds like a good hint to bet the under.

The “Roster Resource” database at FanGraphs puts the Brewers' payroll at just shy of $84 million at the moment. That counts salaries already set, estimates for arbitration-eligibles Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff, plus a ballpark figure for the pre-arbitration players who eventually will sign for salaries at or just above the Major League minimum, plus buyouts already paid for Ryan Braun, Jedd Gyorko, Justin Smoak and others. Teams figure those buyouts into their calculations, but if you want to take those away and only account for players actually active and on the payroll, you’re talking about in the neighborhood of $76 million-$77 million at this particular point in time. Whether the Brewers have a general payroll target in mind is unknown, and it almost certainly hinges in a big way on whether ticket-buying fans get to visit American Family Field in 2021.

3. What’s the biggest reason for pessimism?

Besides payroll constraints, it’s that the pitchers who carried the Brewers to a third consecutive postseason appearance -- yeah, they had a losing record, but in 2020 that was good enough -- won’t be able to replicate their success over a full season. National League Rookie of the Year Devin Williams allowed one run in 27 innings while striking out 53 percent of the batters who dug into the box. Does anyone believe that is repeatable over 162 games? Corbin Burnes flirted with the NL ERA title before going down with an oblique injury. Can he pitch at that level over 33-35 starts?

The Brewers are already beginning to tackle this issue, by the way.

“Those are discussions that we’ve had already,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I think it’s going to be a little case-by-case, pitcher-by-pitcher based on their history and their individual history, but I think all teams are going to have to address it, certainly. For starters, I just think the tops were in the 80s, so we’re going to tack on 100 innings. There are some relievers who will have their innings tripled. It’s different, and definitely it’s something that I’m sure the whole industry’s thinking about.”

4. What’s the biggest reason for optimism?

Two of them. One, Christian Yelich is a better hitter than his 2020 numbers say. Two, Lorenzo Cain. It’s difficult to overestimate the loss to the Brewers when Cain elected not to play the remainder of 2020, citing concerns about COVID-19 and a desire to focus on bettering himself. Cain had a down year in 2019 after finishing in the top 10 of NL MVP Award balloting in 2018, but was still a spark atop the lineup in addition to captaining the defense from center field. His loss was huge.

“The last time I talked to him he was excited about working out,” Counsell said. “He was going to have a very good season last year, and, unfortunately, COVID hit and that changed things for him. Now it's just about putting himself in that same spot again. I think he realizes that. I think he's going to put himself in that same spot and I expect him to kind of show up in that same spot again, because I do think he was really primed to have a really big year.”

5. Is Ryan Braun going to play?

Stearns says he hasn’t talked to Braun about it recently. Ditto Counsell. Braun wants to see what the landscape looks like vis-a-vis COVID-19 and the team. The Brewers plan to give him time, and if there’s a desire to play, they’ll get together and see if they can agree on finances.

If club officials think he’s coming back, they are doing an exceptionally good job of keeping that under wraps. Every time the question is asked, the answer is in the past tense.

“There at the end, it didn't turn out the way I would have liked it to, necessarily, for him,” Counsell said the week before Christmas. “But in another way, it kind of did. I mean, if this is the end, he played on three straight playoff teams in the last three years of his career. You know, when guys sign contracts like that, I think we often say, 'Well, we signed up for the first couple years and we know the last couple years might not be that good.' And he was a part of leading those three teams to the playoffs in his last three years. That's ending your career on a really, really strong note, and something that's really impressive in my eyes.

“So, you know, it'll be different not having him in there, for sure. Players like him are a presence. That's the biggest thing. They're just a huge presence both on the field and off the field, and so they're missed when they're not there, absolutely."

Stay tuned.